Friday, April 28, 2006

O-R-E-O

In the fifth grade my mother, society dame that she is, decided that I should be a junior debutante in her sorority's cotillion. From January to June, I spent two weekends a month learning a dreadfully boring dance routine of the step together clap variety, set to John Lennon's "Imagine." Along with approximately fifteen other elementary school age girls from various schools around the Albany area, I prepared to twirl and prance for the delight of the community's finest. Practice would last for two hours or as long as our young attention spans could handle, then we would be released to play amongst ourselves as the debutantes practiced their dying swan courtsies under the critical eye of the drill sargeant choreographer. Play time was always when the drama started. Putting fifteen girls in one room and telling them to play nicely is like putting a guppy in a shark tank and telling them to sing "Under The Sea." It ain't gonna happen. Games of hide and seek, innocent at first, always devolved into shouting matches and insults hurled faster than a major league pitch. And what would always begin as an evenly matched fight, always evolved into a fourteen on one gang up. And without fail, the one would always be me. Because despite all of their differences, the other girls could always agree on one thing, I wasn't like them. My speech was a bit too proper and peppered with a few too many "awesomes" and "likes" and "totallys." My school had a name, not just a number. I listened to Bon Jovi instead of Slick Rick and couldn't quite do the Roger Rabbitt. So one afternoon, after a particularly heated confrontation the oldest girl in the bunch looked me in the eyes, pointed a finger in my face and said, "You ain't nothing but an Oreo." It wasn't an accusation, it was a verdict. My skin may be the color of mocha, but I was as white as the cookie's cream filled middle. In a desperate attempt to defend my blackness, I rattled off random facts about Garrett A. Morgan, Marcus Garvey, Josephine Baker, and any other significant figure in black history. Needless to say, I was less than convincing.

Even though my mom was born in Harlem, raised in the Bronx, and spent the majority of her career teaching in inner city schools, when it came to raising her own children, it was suburbs all the way baby! I grew up with green grass, trees, and quiet streets. The night sky was so clear the stars looked close enough to touch. Deer sometimes trekked through the woods behind my family's four bedroom, two and a half bathroom, two car garage home. I grew up in the bosom of suburbia surrounded by Beckys and Suzies and Mollys, not a Shaniqua, LaTonya, or Dawnisha in sight. Becky and Suzie played jump rope, not double dutch. Becky and Suzie had posters of Dylan McKay on their walls, not K-Ci and JoJo. Becky and Suzie watched Dance Party USA, not Soul Train. I was a quintessential product of my environment. My parents did their best to expose me to as much black culture as possible. They set up play dates with other black children, forced me and my brothers to enter the annual Black History Month Essay Contest (I won three times in a row), sent me to African dance class at a ghetto community center, and even joined Jack and Jill to widen our network of black friends. I grudgingly participated. I never felt comfortable around other black children, often being ostracized for the music I listened to and the ability to properly conjugate my verbs. The junior debutantes were a lot nicer about it than the girl who pushed me on the sidewalk and mashed my face into the dirt. I may not have looked like Becky and Suzie, but I was most at ease in their presence. With them, I didn't have to try to talk differently or be someone I wasn't. It wasn't that I didn't realize that I was black. From an early age, I knew that my hair didn't blow in the wind and my skin didn't turn red and peel on a blistering July day. Plus, there was always some obnoxious kid in my class to call me Cocoa Puff or Tar Baby, in case I forgot that I was many shades darker than everyone else. But, my personality and interests always fit better in the lily white suburbs than they did in any urban setting.

As I got older, things slowly changed. In junior high school, all of the black students peppered throughout the district converged in one building. Instead of being the only, I was now one of thirty, which was an exponential increase. I built tentative friendships and added some color to the mix. I was introduced to the beauty of Yo MTV raps and Cross Colors clothing. I may not have been able to use "wack" in a sentence, but I knew all the words to "Ain't Nothing But G Thang." Scarred from prior experience, I was still hesitant when meeting other black teenagers, but for the first time I felt like one of them.

By the time I reached high school, my friends were an even mix. I spent just as much time with the AquaNet Addict (white girl) as I did with Stumpy (black girl). The objects of my affection were equally diverse ranging from a Kurt Cobain (I really loved him) look alike to a Larenz Tate knock off. Gradually, the scales began to tip and by 12th grade I was gravitating towards all things black. The ease with which I once related to white people shifted, and I found myself more at ease roaming city streets than I was walking through the halls of my school. I craved contact with people who looked like me. Bit by bit, the creamy white filling in the Oreo was vanishing. And I did whatever it took to downplay the little that remained. On three way phone call hook ups, Jailbait would tell disbelieving guys, "Liz is definitely black. She only sounds white." I did my best to back up her claims.

When it was time to go to college, I made the choice to continue my foray into blackness and applied to the Ujamaa Residential College, basically the black dorm. I thought the transition was complete, until I called my soon to be roommate and had to inform her that I was indeed black. Under the watchful tutelage of Chesty LaRue and our suitemates, I learned how to wrap my hair, bought my first bubble coat, got acclimated to the South Bronx, and perfected a believeable black-cent. I was a far cry from my suburban beginnings and loving it. I consciously carved out a distinctly black existence for myself. I pledged a black sorority and moved within black social circles. After growing up in a predominantly white enviroment, I no longer felt as though I could relate to Becky and Suzie in any way, shape, or form.

One of my biggest issues with moving to Grand Rapids was the lack of diversity (i.e. black folks). I assumed that without a sizeable black population, I couldn't find friends, a hairdresser, and a decent place to hang out. Somewhere along the way, I forgot where I was from. I'm the girl who watched Kids Inc. every Saturday and thought Madonna hung the moon. Zack Slater was the love of my life at one point, until Luke Perry took his place. I pinch rolled my jeans and thought Beverly Hills 90210 was totally awesome. It's like there are two sides of me and until now, I never thought they could meet. It was either/or, never both. But now I'm starting to wonder why. Contrary to what I've told myself, I still have a lot in common with Becky and Suzie. Just as much as I do with Shaniquah and Dawnisha. For the first time in years there are white people in my life who are more than classmates and coworkers. They are friends and confidantes. I'm once again cool with being the only black chick in the crowd and blasting The Dixie Chicks from my car's speakers. Because of where I grew up, I can navigate through two worlds that rarely ever meet. I've finally learned that I can still be a black woman through and through, even with all of my white girl tendencies.

22 comments:

chesty larue aka rebelioness said...

I always wondered what is was like to be on the "other side". I'd always viewed "Uncle Toms" with disdain because I couldn't understand why anyone would willingly abandon or disregard their cultural heritage. I couldn't fathom that their mannerisms might've been authentic.

They say college is a place of firsts and where you will make your most lasting friendships. Coming from a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood where the only whites you saw were your teachers and the police, going to Cornell was a definite culture shock. I see now why they pay so much attention to "diversity" on campus (not that the 10% minority population did much in that respect), but it's definitely integral to personal growth, to realizing your "reality" is so provincial compared to the country and world at large.

I'll admit that upon meeting you, I thought the same of you as those high school girls...because I'd never met anyone like you...because I was ignorant to neighborhoods and societies other than my own...because I was taught that being "Black" had a distinct sound, look, and feel. I apologize for my hand in ostracizing you (though I would appreciate it if you would STOP pretending to be a city girl and rapping to Biggie's Juicy cuz you sound CRAZY). You are exactly how you were meant to be.

Cece said...

Damn, girl you are talented. Not that I didn't believe it before but now... I know. And its crazy meeting someone or better yet knowing someone out there is just like you. I had the same exact experience. I moved to Newburgh,NY from the South Bronx when I was 11 not 13 like I tell everyone. And from then on it was OREO everytime someone wanted to hurt me. I joined the ski club and had white friends. In highschool I abandoned that, trying to prove my "blackness" But unlike you I have yet to fully move past it. I still talk like a white girl if I'm not paying attention, the rest of the time I make sure to throw my New Yawker accent around, I don't hang out with that many white people with the exception of my best friend whom I make exceptions for by telling everyone shes an Italian from Brooklyn and always feel uncomfortable about what people are thinking when they see me with white people..I know I still have work to do... But trust I know its me and how I view myself that needs the work.
BTW Good shit on putting this out there!! I always say I'm honest on my blog (and I am) but I do have my topics that I don't write about... for whatever reason. You show that when you do, its not as crazy as it may seem. Hell others are going through it so maybe I'm not that f*cked up after all. ;-)

Bebe Valentine said...

It's like there are two sides of me and until now, I never thought they could meet. It was either/or, never both. But now I'm starting to wonder why. Contrary to what I've told myself, I still have a lot in common with Becky and Suzie. Just as much as I do with Shaniquah and Dawnisha. Because of where I grew up, I can navigate through two worlds that rarely ever meet.

I was the poorest girl in most of my classes at school, and the richest girl in my (poor) neighborhood. I come from a "red-neck" county, yet I am a "prep." I can relate to your post, although my situation is not the same. You're writing touches on so many different things-the need to embrace who we are, the need to embrace our culture,the struggle of determining who we are and how to relate to others without compromising that, but still be able to grow as a person and accept new things. There is no need to fit into any one label, but to take things from each of our experiences and combine those to creat our own unique selves. Your post is very well written- I look forward to reasding more of your blog.

Thomas said...

Hello from Seattle (and temporarily Houston.)

Thanks for stopping by my blog.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

What cece said in her first sentence, Liz. Such a precise post, learning just the right amount of information, particularly the part about Dixie Chicks. I realize it matches your life in NO WAY WHATSOEVER, but you have me thinking about a future post where I compare my Roman Catholic Polish relatives in Chicago's suburbs with my father's hillbilly kinfolk in Shelby and Oldham Counties, Kentucky.

Liz. I can see now that I will be looking for a post from you every day, whether there is one or not.

Sober In the City said...

This piece is totally awesome.

This is why I love writing. You just made clear, a formerly confusing subject for me. And you did it, as usual, so well. Please keep educating me.

Brave post!

Jailbait said...

Liz, you are the bomb. You have always been so unique, and that is one thing that I admire about you. You have matured a lot and gotten more comfortable with yourself, yet you are still LIZ. I remember when you became a Delta. All I could think was "If she changes into a biotch I WILL be telling her about herself"...but no worries, you are still LIZ.

That was funny though, calling people on 3-way and convincing them you were black. Those were the days!

citygirl said...

Amen, girl! What is it about speaking correctly that will automatically get a "she think she White!" comment from other Black people? I often got taunted for being "proper" in school and never understood what the problem was.

And don't get me started on entertainment. Am I really less Black because I can't stand watching Martin! or The Parkers? Am I less Black because I like Gretchen Wilson and AC/DC? Why should music or tv preferences give us the traitor label?

It's all so silly so often. However, the fact that we can't accept variety in our own community is maddening. Grrrrr!

Serena said...

Beautiful. We're all a little bit of a lot of things, and that's what really makes us us.

Leah said...

Fantastic. As usual. Someone should pay you for this stuff...

kat said...

Thanks for this post. It got me thinking about all the "roles" I've played throughout the years too.

Jailbait said...

Leah, don't give her any ideas!!

Liz, where are you woman? I've emailed you and posted comments in your blog....don't make me stalk you (you know I have 'slight stalker tendencies')

Cece said...

1. I had to post again to show off my new Diana Ross - like picture
2. Where in the hell are you?? You left me a comment and then vanished again...
3. I don't know who jailbait is, not yet anyway but we really are about to get together and form a stalker *ahem* i mean finder group for you. I already looked on ebay for a trench coat. JB can bring the flashlights
4. I'm considering hijacking all of your readers and bringing them to my blog. If you don't come back soon, I am starting my~steal the commenters~campaign. You have 24 hours to comply with our demands for some new posts or deal with the consequences

Rev. Smokin Steve said...

Hey... I'm a white guy who grew up in the suburbs, and I always liked watching Soul Train. But that's just me.

The Chronic Curmudgeon said...

Really, really insightful post. This is the best part of blogging - discovering people who are brave enough to really put themselves out there, and talented enough to write their stories so compellingly.

You've won a new fan and I'll be back. Great post, and I'll look forward to seeing future posts from you.

Jill said...

I can relate to this as well, though my situation is not the same. I come from a working class Brooklyn-Italian neighborhood but ended up due to my geekdom in very competitive schools. I have a love for all the things that are stereotypes about us Brooklyn-Italians (like dance music, speaking half-in-Italian, eating a lot of cannoli, etc. EXCEPT the non-pronoun, "you's", which I deplore, as an English teacher). Anyway, I always got a lot of headaches for my ethnicity, and never thought that my "educated" and "alternative" and whatever else circles could ever coincide with my upbringing. But in the past few years, I've learned to accept both sides of myself and rather expect other people to do the same. So what if I like Saturday Night Fever? And so what if I don't like Goodfellas?

tall glass of vino said...

A coworker/friend has a similar experience - growing up in Berkeley, CA. She's half white/half black, and upon moving south to attend UCLA, says she 'got educated' on being black.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in the South Bronx and loved 90210 just as much as the girls in the suburbs did. I had the 90210 poster next to my NKOTB poster (New Kids on the Block for those unfamiliar with early 90's fads). But that didn't mean I lost my Latina-ness. I still listened to merengue, salsa and bachata. DR was still my summer vacation spot. I like having had that balance. But yes Cornell was definitely an eye-opener. Now I can listen to the song "Closing Time" and sing the words (I know Chesty LaRue especially can sing along with me from dining at Okenshield's :-) Rock is rock no matter what race or skin color the lead singer is. In either case, cheers to diversity and by the way, Zach and Slater are two different people (Zach being the hottie blond and A.C. Slater being the muscular hispanic).

missbhavens said...

Great post! Growing up in the 80's half black & half white in NYC was a real non-issue. No role problems, no confusion...there were exactly enough beige kids at my school for us to create an actual racial category and create zero questions or controversy.

It was only recently that I realised how incredibly unusual that was, and only recently that I have had to deal with the snide oreo comments and criticism ("you talk so white") that I never had to field as a kid--disturbingly, it's at work and it's ALL from black women half-a-generation older than myself.

I'm grateful I didn't have to deal with it when I was young.

You, Miss Cheetarah, are one hell of a writer.

tiff said...

Thanks for putting this into words. I was also raised in a predominately white suburb of Detroit, only to be moved into the city and teased incessantly about "talking white" and "acting white." So I tried my hardest to assimilate myself into black culture, but I only knew how to do that by alienating all the White that were my friends.

Over the years, I think I've figured out how to walk the line, and just be who I am. I hope.

(you are quickly becoming my favorite blog... and you're in Mich too!)

Gumbo Girl said...

Hey, this is a well-written piece! You bring my own memories rushing back.
-From one who knows the feeling

LBellatrix said...

Okay, I thought I was clicking on your Fokti album in NP, but I accidentally clicked on your blog link instead, and saw this entry and had to comment. I don't have much to say except: Well done, well written, nicely said.

I had a similar upbringing except that we were part of a black wave that hit the white suburbs so there were other black kids around. Still, I was called Oreo because I "spoke proper" (ALL due to my teacher mom!) and dared to explore the world outside of "Black America".

BTW: I found your Fokti. You and I are almost hair twins...yours is thicker than mine, but just as nappy. :)