How to be an oreo
First, try to scrub your skin of the darkness, the tar, that seems to have soaked itself into your pores. You’re young, but have realized that all the kids at school treat you differently. They’ve called you dirty, black. There must be something wrong with you, because your teachers have never told them to stop. Scrub until it hurts, then continue until tears start to stream down your face. Your cries will call your mother’s attention to the bathroom as she tries to calm you.
“There’s nothing wrong with you, honey,” she’ll say.
Don’t believe her. You don’t belong. Remember that no one in the neighborhood ever wants to play with you and your brother is too young to realize why. Every time you try their parents will call them inside. When you turn seven a new kid, Johnny, will move into the neighborhood. You’ll invite him to your birthday party and he’ll promise to come. Spend the rest of the day playing in your yard with him. You play until the sun begins to set, the orange hues edge closer to red. Your mother will call you in for dinner. She’ll be happy you finally made a friend. The following day the neighborhood kids will make fun of him.
They’ll say, “Johnny, don’t play with the African booty scratcher! You might get tar on you!”
“Don’t mess with him,” Johnny’ll say, “He’s my n----r!”
This will be the first time you’ve heard the word “n----r.” Everyone has a first time hearing it, do not think for a second that it will be your last. You won’t know what it means, but for some reason it’ll hurt.
Push Johnny away in your confusion and watch as he slowly joins the group, feeling betrayed. Don’t let lumps begin to form in your throat as they begin to sing in a circle around you. Their fingers will point at you as they sing “African booty scratcher” repeatedly. Your vision will begin to blur as tears build themselves in your eyes. They’ll start laughing at you as you sprint to your front door and lock it behind you. Pay no mind to your brother as he stands staring out the window with a puzzled look on his face. At dinner he’ll ask your parents what a n----r is. Say nothing when your parents look baffled. Later that night you’ll hear them fighting about whether to move.
“This place is toxic!” Your mother will say over and over.
In middle school, your father will lose his job and you’ll be forced to move into southside Chicago and go to a public school. It’ll be different than what you’re used to. The pavement will be cracked and uneven. The paint on the houses chipped. Your yard will be overgrown with grass and you’ll see more wire fences than ever before. Everyone will look like you, but they’ll speak so differently. Their broken English and loud nature will scare you. In school, you’ll overhear some of the girls gossip about some of the boys.
“Oh my god, Treyvon is so irra,” you’ll hear one of them say.
“Fam, don’t talk about my n---a like that,” one of the boys in your class will retort.
Try to not panic when you hear the word “n---a.” Your heart will start to race and sweat will build in your palms. Don’t flashback to that night in the suburbs. Don’t let the tears well up in your eyes. Take deep breaths as a commotion erupts around you. If the tears well up, excuse yourself to the bathroom. No one needs to see you cry.
A fight will break out and everyone in the next class will ask you how it started and who won. Tell them you don’t know. Speak proper English and don’t hang out with the kids in your neighborhood and your school. You’re better than that.
Everywhere you go, wear headphones. You don’t want to hear their music even though the heavy bass makes you want to move your head and dance along. Immerse yourself in rock, classical and country. This is good music. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, don’t believe them. They don’t have taste. Don’t listen to the radio. The music there was never meant to be good, only catchy. Attempt to convince your brother your taste in music is good. He won’t listen. Instead, he’ll play you some of his favorite songs in order to prove that he has good taste. Don’t tell him you like it. Instead try to close out the sounds that whisper to your soul.
If your brother starts to make friends in the neighborhood, speak to him less. You’ll start to feel alone; this is normal. Remember, he isn’t worth your time, nor your words. Instead immerse yourself in your music further. Drown your thoughts in the room you share with your brother as the world shuts down around you. Most importantly, remember that the culture he’s embracing is nothing you want to be affiliated with.
Your parents will start to worry that you have no friends in the neighborhood, but for months they won’t say anything. Maybe you need time to adjust, after all, your brother seems to be getting along well with everyone. As the months pass, you will begin to feel more and more alone. Force yourself to make friends. Start talking to the Latino kids, then the white kids in your school. Ignore the fact that they speak like everyone else. Their skin is not cursed with blackness, tainted with tar. That’s a good a reason as any to talk to them.
One day ask them, “Why are you friends with me and not the other black kids?”
One of them will respond, “Isn’t it obvious to you? Cause you’re an oreo! You’re not really black.”
Take comfort in the fact that they talk to you because you’re not like the other black kids. You’re not black on the inside and that’s what matters. Don’t listen when your parents try to tell you to play with the neighborhood kids. Lock yourself in your room. Almost a year and you will still have no friends in your neighborhood. They’ll never understand you don’t belong here. You deserve better than this.
Slip up your sophomore year in high school. You’ll forget your earphones in your locker. On your walk home, your neighbors will be listening to “Complexion” by Kendrick Lamar on their porch. If you forgot your spare headphones, try to walk past as quickly as possible and ignore the music. You’ll fail and get hypnotized by the words. Listen to Rapsody’s verse as she speaks about how much she loves her blackness. Think about the beauty she sees within her own skin. Then think about why you do not love your own. When you get home look in the mirror and tell yourself that you are beautiful. You won’t believe it. Not yet.
Realize that for years you’ve led yourself to believe that this genre of struggle, pain, and love has been cultureless. Concede to your brother that he has finally won you over. Sit with him and revel in the music as it feeds your soul. Lean back and take in the sounds as Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid” starts to play. Allow the rhythms and lyrics to shake you to your very core as they tell the tales of streets similar to the one you live on. Try to talk to the neighborhood kids. Their ebonics sounds beautiful to you now. The words strung together show the oppression and miseducation they’ve had to live with for generations. Begin to understand that this neighborhood is full of culture that you’ve tried to ignore for years. Try to immerse yourself in it, allow it to swallow you.
Talk to them in their language. They say you talk weird. Your ebonics is more broken than their English. You try calling anyone and everyone your n---a, try to emulate the way their English words curve into a language of its own.
“What’s up, my n----r?” you’ll say. Note that the word forming from your lips feels slick as it makes its way up your throat and booms from your mouth with confidence.
If they respond with, “You sound weird as fuck.” Try not to take it to heart, after all you just started trying to learn their language.
However, if they respond with, “You sound like an oreo,” try not to break down right then and there. Your languages are so similar but so different. They don’t accept you as one of their own. Try to scrub your vocal chords clean of the whiteness. Scrub until it hurts, then continue until tears begin to stream down your face. Your cries will call your mother to your bedroom as she tries to comfort you.
“There’s nothing wrong with you, honey,” she says.
Don’t believe her. You don’t belong.