Most people consider an Oreo a scapegoat for not having a lean summer-ready body. For me, the word is much more hurtful than a cream filled cookie.
Oreo in slang terms means “Black on the outside, white on the inside.” Growing up in predominantly white Connecticut, this term would quickly become the bane of my existence.
I never had the fortitude to speak up about what I went through until I was invited to a Men of Color meeting on campus. We watched a TED Talk called “Clint Smith: How to raise a black son in America.” After the video ended, the conversation began. I observed others go into depth about the struggles they face as black men and while I resonated with what was said, I remained silent until I was asked how life was growing up in a predominantly-white state. I could’ve said “fine” and ended the inner conflict that I was experiencing at the thought of having to speak, but at that point, I had stayed quiet for six years too long. My response not only lifted a massive weight off of my shoulders but it gave me the inspiration to write this piece.
Due to ignorance and unfavorable media perception (among other reasons), African Americans are collectively perceived as ghetto, uneducated, and uncivilized. Not by everyone, but the contemporary perception of African Americans is the result of our history – and as a culture we have a deeply racist past. What people fail to realize is that overtly vulgar hip-hop videos do not summarize an entire race – there is no single black identity.
Throughout middle and early high school, I was ridiculed for because I didn’t fit society’s idea of “black.” I avoided playing basketball at all costs to conceal my deplorable jump shot. I preferred to settle my issues with words rather than a World Star brawl. My pants remained above my waist at all times unless I was dumb enough to forget to put a belt on.
Speaking in complete sentences, staying out of trouble and having a diverse group of friends suddenly became unacceptable. On the other hand, I’d be called a “poser” for wearing my hat backwards or using slang because I “wasn’t black.” I’ll admit that I attempted to mold myself into my classmates’ view of black to diminish complaint. As a result, I was rightfully called out. However, being verbally stripped of my race—by mostly white people, might I add— was wounding. I couldn’t satisfy anyone by being myself nor could I satisfy anyone by matching their perspective of black. I became miserable questioning and changing my personality based off of stereotypes and idiocy.
The most troubling part of my race being questioned was having it questioned by African-Americans. I was considered a sellout because of my mother’s decision to raise me in a town with a high ranking school system. Because of location alone, I was the enemy rather than a brother.
By my junior year of high school, I learned an important lesson—black is what I am, not what I’m aspiring to be. Once I stopped caring about fictional levels of blackness, I became more content with myself. The taunting soon subsided and I became recognized more for my actions than my race.
I eventually found myself in Vermont for college. While the diversity isn’t much different than Connecticut, the perspective is. Misconceptions of my race don’t dominate the perception of my character. Best of all, my views on racial issues matter as much as the next person.
I don’t regret not growing up in African American communities. Being the only black kid in class no longer intimidates me. Being raised in suburban Connecticut allows me to tell a side of the story that is rarely heard. Everyone recognizes Jay Z and ‘gets’ the blackness of 12 Years a Slave – both those are conveniently available stereotypes that conform to expectations. It’s harder for people to understand me – someone who grew up suburban and yet is black.
Everyone struggles with identity during the college years. I won’t let my struggle boil down to proving I’m black enough – as though there’s some spectrum of blackness we’re all on. Like everyone, I want to grow as a human being. Figure out who I am from multiple perspectives, not just one.
I’ve grown to accept the gifts and curses associated with being a black man in America. My only hope is that personality and race become irrelevant to each other.