For the Oreos
Sydni Brooks | Tuesday, September 29, 2020
As I continue to grow into adulthood, I’ve reflected constantly on the journey of my identity. I was born and raised by incredible Black parents and loved by a proud, Black family, yet I attended a predominately white school (PWI) for 14 years before college. Though I love and appreciate every aspect of my childhood, the stark contrast of cultures I lived in made me conscious of the identity I was forming. Many of the people around me made me hyperaware of the choice I had to make between which culture I would represent.
Beginning in elementary school, several Black peers expressed I embodied different qualities than the majority of the Black community. Family members told me I “acted white and preppy” because I spoke differently than them, and Black classmates addressed the absurdity in the vast amount of studying I did for class. It “wasn’t in their nature” to study for long hours like I did, and they were sure to negatively point out how hard I focused in school. My friends called me the “Oreo” of the group, because though I appeared Black in skin tone, I exuded the attitudes and persona of a white person. Several Black peers questioned why I wasn’t familiar with certain rap artists, encouraging me to lie about my music interests when asked and keep my preferences private.
As my Black friends made subtle comments about the discrepancies in my passions compared to theirs, I wasn’t completely included in white spaces either. White students made comments about my collard greens and stews my mom would pack me for lunch, and some days I wouldn’t eat my lunch out of fear of embarrassment. It was awkward correcting teachers daily for continuing to call me by the names of other Black students who look nothing like me, and I felt extremely uncomfortable reading novels in an African-American vernacular English accent to “stay true to the text.” I was asked on multiple occasions if I was from Africa, and after the 2016 election, I was asked if I was ready to be sent back to Africa. I thought I had made it quite clear I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the only place I would be returning to after school was my house 20 minutes from campus.
As I prepared to start my college career at Notre Dame, I thought my experiences would be recognized and supported, but I was met with some difficulty in the beginning of my journey. Some family members sneered when I expressed I was attending yet another Catholic, private PWI, indicating how my preppy and white demeanor hadn’t changed since middle school. I was unwelcome to associate with certain friend groups because I socialized with friends of a different race. Academically, I continued to attend classes with professors who seemed uncomfortable discussing the sociology of the Black experience, unable to control their quick, awkward glances at me who was usually the only Black student in the room.
While the persistent comments, sneers and microaggressions were annoying, exhausting and unnecessary, these remarks and actions weren’t the most taxing concept in these situations. The distinction each race’s self-proclaimed archetype made between me and them eradicated the space for me to belong to any community. I was too white for the Black kids to integrate with and too Black for the white kids to resonate with. I didn’t belong to a friend group, and I didn’t have a concrete identity to cling to, yet my efforts to force myself into an unwelcome space were helpless because no one likes a try hard.
So I stopped trying.
I graduated high school with a 4.0 GPA and a multitude of extracurricular activities in athletics, service, music and paid work. I am attending one of the country’s top 30 colleges, and I am studying for a career in the medical field. I have tried incredibly hard in several other facets of my life; I am not about to try in the one category that I don’t have to — being myself.
Unapologetically, I am a Black woman, and no musical interests, vernacular or increase in IQ points is going to change that. It should go without saying intelligence is not a color, and if working hard academically makes me an outcast, at least I’ll be an outcast with a degree. I am allowed to be Black and enjoy any genre of music. I am allowed to be Black and have friends of all shades and cultural backgrounds. I don’t need to choose between who I resonate with more to appease a specific group of people; I’m the only person that I need to appease.
I write this not to seek pity from a situation I’ve already learned to grow from. I write this for Black students who have felt or continue to feel they must choose between two identities to be accepted or appreciated. I write this for students who can’t find a place to belong because they don’t believe they are enough for either category, and their interests don’t quite fit any mold. Every Black experience is different, which includes yours. You can’t choose between multiple parts of your identity because you will always lose part of yourself in the pieces you don’t choose. You don’t have Black pieces or white pieces; you have pieces of your Black story from different categories, and each piece is more than valid. You don’t need to erase part of yourself to make space for someone else’s comfortability with you. You only need to make space for you and every unique piece that comes with you.
Sydni Brooks is junior at Notre Dame majoring in English with a supplemental major in Pre-health and a minor in Africana Studies. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, she has made Flaherty Hall her campus home. She aspires to be a gynecologist to serve women from all backgrounds in the medical field. Sydni can be reached at [email protected] or @sydnimaree22 on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.