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Princess Oreo Speaks Out
Dwan Carter
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“You’re just weird.”

“If I wasn’t looking at chu, I’d have thought you was white.”

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“Say that again, you said that mad white.”

I often get comments like that from classmates, friends, and even my family. Sometimes I laugh, but the comments also hurt my feelings. I know they don’t mean anything by it, but I don’t like that they think I’m so strange.

I’m a dark-skinned female, a descendent of Africans. I grew up in a black family in a largely black neighborhood, and I’m conscious of the disadvantages that have plagued African-Americans for generations. So what’s the deal?

It seems that, for a lot of people around me, being black is an attitude. According to my peers, if you’re black, you listen to hip-hop, r&b, and reggae. The ability to dance is a given, of course. You eat Caribbean foods and Southern-style cooking, and if you’re female, you know about head wraps and weaves.

Anything beyond that and it’s like you’re from another planet, or at least that’s how I feel. I do a lot of things that people around me don’t associate with being black. My friends laugh at me because I’d rather listen to Limp Bizkit than Jay-Z. They love to tease me about watching white teen dramas like 90210. It doesn’t seem to matter that I watch black sitcoms, too. Because of my tastes and the way I talk (I use big vocabulary words), people jokingly call me “Oreo”: black on the outside, white on the inside.

But to me, being African-American means my skin color shows a history of enslavement and discrimination. Knowing my history and understanding where I come from is very important to me. It’s what keeps me grounded and focused on taking advantage of the opportunities that African-Americans fought for. My dad instilled that knowledge and pride in me. As African-Americans, he says, we should remember our debt to those who risked their lives to give us the opportunities we have, particularly education. His understanding of being black has a lot to do with our history and our future.

For my peers, being black has more to do with fitting into the culture right here and now. They make me feel like I’m not black enough. And they tease me even more when I try to show them that I can be (their version of) black. When I try to be down with the slang and fit in, half the time I end up sounding like a fool.

“A-ight peace yo.”

“You’s a Doga man.”

image by Carolina Moya

“Peace out boo-boo.”

It just doesn’t come out right. The words get all jumbled and tumble out wrong, and my friends look at me as if I’ve spoken to them in another language. All my efforts end in giggles (I’m laughing at myself right now) or in gut-busting laughter with tears streaming down my friends’ faces. My friends tease me even worse when I try to show them that I can dance to reggae, calypso, and hip-hop. It just doesn’t work well. I’d never get invited to Soul Train, more like Soul-less Train.

It’s not just friends who paint me “white.” One time, my sister and I were reciting some lyrics from “You’re All I Need,” by Method Man featuring Mary J. Blige. My sister was reciting the rap lyrics and I was singing the hook. I was trying to be just like Mary—the bounce in her movements, the way she moved her neck, her hand motions, everything.

I was so into the song, I forgot my sister was in the room with me. I thought I was doing well until my sister’s hard laughter broke my concentration. She was doubled over with tears streaming out of her eyes. She was laughing so hard she couldn’t talk, and her hand was motioning for me to stop. Then through bits of dying laughter she said, “Stop… stop trying to act ghetto, girl, you making my sides hurt.” She said I looked like a duck having seizures. Maybe I didn’t move right? Since I’m African-American, I should have some rhythm, huh? And I should be able to mimic Mary? I didn’t let it show, but it hurt that even my own sister didn’t see me as black enough.


What bothers me about being called white—besides the fact that I’m not—is that it seems I must be lacking something and I’m not sure what it is. My friend told me once, “Maybe one day you’ll wake up and become Dwanesha.” At the time, I was a geeky freshman in high school, insecure about who I was. I wondered if I could transform myself into someone my peers would recognize as a true black girl.

I’d have loved to put on those big hoop earrings I saw my friends wearing. I imagined myself wearing snake-patterned denim outfits, popping my gum, and showing off a nameplate that said “Dwanesha.” My hair would be dyed, fried, and laid to the side. And I’d rank on somebody with those fluid motions of the neck and hand that make the “African-American girl” infamous. Sigh. I would’ve loved it. I just wanted to fit in.

Then reality knocked some sense into me. I didn’t have enough attitude to pull that off. And it just wasn’t me. Besides, trying to be Dwanesha would’ve been like acting out a stereotyped role that isn’t very flattering.

Now, as I reach my final semester of my senior year, I’m more aware of myself, who I am, and who I want to be: me. Even saying “Dwanesha” makes me feel weird. That’s not who I am. Dwan is my name and I’m comfortable with that. Being different makes me unique. I even gave myself a nickname, “Princess Oreo” (though my dad hates it).

I’m getting used to people staring at me when they hear me blasting rock music. I think it makes them feel uncomfortable because they’re not used to an African-American girl bobbing her head along to rock and roll music. “Hey,” I want to tell them, “music is music.” Besides, rock music was developed by black artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry well before acts like the Beatles came along. And there’s a thin line between musical categories nowadays, and a lot of overlap in musical audiences. Plenty of white kids listen to hip-hop. And I know I’m not the only person of color who listens to pop music.

My reading tastes are diverse, too. I like to read books by white authors, such as Isaac Asimov and Tami Hoag, as well as by black authors, like Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, and Malcolm X. Maybe it’s because I read a lot that I talk the way I do. It’s not that I’m purposely acting white—it’s not even a thought that crosses my mind. I just like what I like, and I don’t know why other people can’t be more open-minded.

Even though my dad emphasizes the heritage aspect of being African-American, he’s not above making the same cultural assumptions as my friends. One evening, as my family and I were sitting around the dinner table, I turned on the radio and started dancing to the song “Pinch Me,” by the Canadian rock band The Barenaked Ladies. Everyone stopped eating and gawked at me (I thought they’d be used to me by now), trying to hold back laughter.

But even when the laughter came, I kept on dancing. My dad said, “It’s too late for you, girl.” I knew he meant I was hopelessly white. I smiled and started to do my lame air guitar. I didn’t care what they thought about me. I was happy. And that was my song.

(NYC-2004-01-11)