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Social Studies

Black Like Who?

By Vincent Williams | Posted 7/19/2006

Sunday morning. Waffles and turkey bacon. Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace. My niece, nephew, and brother-in-law came to visit and we had breakfast the way God intended, leisurely and late in the morning. And, over the good food, good music, and good coffee, we sat around and told Oreo stories. As wizened veterans of the Post-Integration Identity Wars, it seems like either my brother-in-law, wife, or I would have sparked the conversation, but, surprisingly enough, it was the niece and nephew who started things out.

"Oreo" is, of course, one of the insults black people hurl toward one another to say that someone isn't "acting black." See, an Oreo is black on the outside and white on the inside. It's sort of the younger, less politically charged cousin of "Uncle Tom." If you talk to any black person under 40, particularly, I've found that those who went to integrated schools have intimate knowledge of the insult, and many have felt the sting of having the label attached to them.

Although I don't have any stories nearly as heartbreaking and Lord of the Flies-esque as those of some of my friends, I've run into the Oreo issue a couple of times in my life. With all the comic books, sci-fi paperbacks, and Godzilla movies, I think I was called a "nerd" more than "Oreo" most of the time by some of my black classmates. And, even then, because I knew my way around a playground and, particularly, a baseball diamond, on rainy days I always had enough, uh, "black cred" to talk friends into playing a little Dungeons and Dragons. Speaking of, well, speech, I've been accused of "talking white" pretty much from day one. Still, and this is one of the many, many reasons I adore The Cosby Show, the introduction of Theo into the racial lexicon helped to alleviate a lot of that stuff.

The fascinating thing is that as I got older I discovered that black folks weren't the only group of people who indulged in this sort of nonsense. For instance, one friend had a Vietnamese roommate who regaled and horrified us with stories about Asians who "acted white" or got called "bananas," because, yep, a banana is yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Other folks I've met use the term "Twinkie" interchangeably. And while it gets away from the "fill-in-the-blank on the outside, white on the inside" imagery, I've heard a couple of Indian cats talk about "A.B.C.D.s," short for "American-Born Confused Desi." So, y'know, it's not just black folks who have been psychically traumatized by racism, slavery, and colonialism.

Still, the one niggling detail I do notice when I talk to people from other cultures and races about this is that black folks are the only ones who equate "acting white" with, frankly, "being civilized." You talk to someone Indian about an A.B.C.D., and it usually has to do with something like listening to Duran Duran; with black folks, being tagged an Oreo often has to do with getting A's in school or showing up to work on time. Honestly, if you discuss it with someone who had to deal with this, a lot of times the Oreo stuff only came up if you got good grades or you were in honors classes, etc.

The irony, of course, is that equating blackness with ignorance is based on racist stereotypes. That's why I've always felt a little skeevy about black humor that springs from this equation. The "white people do this/black people do that" jokes invariably cast black people as crass, ignorant, and stupid. And don't even get me started on culturally charged phrases like "down to earth" or "keeping it real."

Oh, yeah, I've been obsessing over this stuff pretty much since I was 8 years old. And you don't need to be Sigmund Freud to draw a straight line between young Vincent being questioned on his blackness and my quixotic obsession with the windmill that is "The Black Experience."

Now, in general, at 12 and 13, my niece and nephew are way more mature, well-adjusted, and confidently self-aware than I was at their age--and by "at their age" I mean "well into my 20s," so they take the Oreo stuff in stride. And while the mainstream depiction of hip-hop has raised the ante on the level of ignorance that is equated with blackness, it helps that, as the second generation of post-integration kids, they have parents that have their own experiences to help talk them through it. Still, in 2006, when we should just be thinking about another piece of turkey bacon or Aretha's rendition of "How I Got Over," it's a shame that we even have to address something so small-minded on such a gloriously beautiful Sunday morning.

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