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No One Way to Be Black
Gabrielle Pascal
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“Gaby, why are you such an Oreo?” one of the girls in my 8th grade class asked out of the blue. I was reading the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia series and sitting alone at my desk during a free period. Everyone else was either talking to their friends or doing schoolwork. I was the only girl who read the Narnia series and it was a borderline obsession. The other black girls in my class didn’t sit quietly and read by themselves and I guess they didn’t know other black girls who did.

I mumbled quietly, “I don’t know.”

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“Really? You don’t know why?” Now, the conversation grabbed the attention of a few other classmates, who looked at me, waiting to hear what I would say. I felt embarrassed. I wanted to say, “Why would you even ask me something like that?” But I was too intimidated by her question.

An Oreo is a term that is used to describe black people who act in ways that are not stereotypically associated with black culture. They are labeled as being white on the inside, black on the outside.

I was a goody two-shoes and one of the highest-achieving kids in the class, so other kids called me Oreo too. I enjoyed reading fantasy novels and Edgar Allan Poe. I loved classical music and the Icelandic indie-rock band Of Monsters and Men. I usually kept to myself. All of these things combined made those girls think that I acted “too white.” Too white to be black.

When the TV show Empire, which is about a hip-hop mogul and his family, came out, all of my friends were talking about it. I didn’t want to be left out, so I marathoned the first few episodes.

During lunch, I told one of my classmates that I’d started watching Empire. “You did? That’s surprising,” she replied. When I asked her why, she said, “Well, it’s just that I didn’t think it would be the type of show you’d be into. You usually watch shows white people watch.” Whenever these kinds of comments were made I wanted to stick up for myself. But the words never made their way out.

I’ve watched every single episode of the anime Your Lie in April twice, which isn’t popular among black kids, but have yet to finish a full season of The Boondocks, a show that most of my black friends have watched.

I began to feel like an outsider in my own race. Whether it was the books I read, the TV shows I watched, the way I talked, or the type of music I listened to, it was as if everything I did was the antithesis of what it meant to be a black girl.

Rather than confront my peers’ expectations, I escaped to my books where none of the characters could jump off the page and judge me. Through reading, I could transport myself to a different place where I didn’t have to worry what people thought of me. Fictional characters can’t call you an Oreo.

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Rulebook for Being Black?

After I switched schools to one that was more diverse, I was never referred to as Oreo again. But the stigma stayed with me and I began to question what it meant to be black. Was there a rulebook that I hadn’t read? Is the type of person I am not what black people are supposed to be like?

I think those girls called me an Oreo because they didn’t know that the stereotypes of what black girls are like are far from the truth. There is no one set way to be black; there is only one way to be yourself. And in 8th grade, I had not realized that yet.

If I could go back in time, I’d tell those girls that I’m not less black just because I read fantasy novels and I’m not as loud as other black girls they know.

I don’t blame them for believing those stereotypes. It’s what society has taught them to think. One reason black girls believe they have to be loud and “ghetto” is because that is how we are portrayed in the media.

One example is reality television. While a lot of that content is scripted and meant for entertainment, it has led many to believe that black girls are loud and cannot get along with each other. This portrayal is harmful because it makes young black girls who watch these shows believe that this is how they should act.

This stereotype is not only a distorted picture of young black women, it’s degrading. We can’t eradicate these stereotypes if we believe them and demean others like me who act outside them.

Fortunately there are some shows, like Blackish and How to Get Away with Murder, that portray us as intelligent, beautiful, complex, and opinionated.

Two black women I look up to are Toni Morrison and Michelle Obama. I admire how Morrison presents racial dilemmas and subtleties in a way that isn’t sugarcoated. Her masterful storytelling inspires me to be bold and truthful in my own writing.

Michelle Obama motivates me to push myself in school and not to be afraid to be ambitious. The former first lady helps me realize that I can be anything that I want to be if I put in the work.

Both of these amazing black women are role models, not only for me, but for lots of other girls like me who don’t buy into the negative stereotypes about what a black woman can be.

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(NYC-2017-09-14)