The Oreo

Token: My Black Girl Narrative in Oak Park, PART II

Opinion

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By Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley

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In the fall of 2001, I was introduced to an array of new things: a new school, new demographic pockets of Oak Park, and Oreos. 

Yes … Oreos! Though in elementary school they were two rich chocolate cookies that hugged sweet white cream, in middle school Oreos became more than a dessert. This type of Oreo was far from sweet yet still gave my sense of self a sugar rush of insecurity.

At Percy Julian Middle School I was reintroduced to myself as an Oreo, black on the outside and white on the inside. The traditional two chocolate cookies integrated by white cream made me blind to my own color, questioning my pure chocolate flesh.

An Oreo is what a black person is called who is regarded as having adopted the attitudes, values, and behaviors thought to be characteristic of middle-class white society, often at the expense of his or her own heritage.

My transracial adoption of the values I had learned at home, that dated back to lessons from my great-grandparents in Malawi, Africa, of doing your best in school and being polite and respectful, were now colonized by mainstream white society in my Oak Park middle school. My attitudes, behavior, and values had abruptly become foreigners in my indigenous body. Everything I had known and grown to love now threatened the authenticity of my racial identity, including the lunch table I picked to sit at, the friends I had known for nearly a decade, and even the sport I had grown to love — soccer.

Prior to middle school I played on the Strikers team, a private traveling soccer team that was overwhelmingly white but provided meaningful friendships that went beyond the 60 minutes we spent running in circles chasing a ball on manicured grass. Now amidst the soul-penetrating, irrational angst of puberty, coupled with the ever-present threat of "not being black enough," affiliating with my predominately white teammates on a private traveling soccer team doubled the cream stuffing of my Oreo.

I vividly recall standing with a group of my black peers in the hallway when my white teammate approached me and said, "See you at soccer practice Michelle." I was terrified. One of my black peers bemusedly asked, "You play soccer?" 

"No," I abruptly replied, "I just walk past the field on my way back home and say hello." As if that wasn't even more awkward.

The tone of my voice coupled with living in the predominately white Horace Mann Elementary School district already made me a prime target for the term "Oreo." I dreaded being associated with a sport that was affiliated with whiteness in my mind. Despite having skin darker than most of my black peers and two parents who were actually born and raised in Malawi, Africa; despite that the sport of soccer is actually dominated by the African diaspora, so much in fact that children in Africa would collect trash bags and rubber bands to make homemade soccer balls and use tall sticks as goal posts; and despite soccer actually being affiliated with blackness around the world, throughout the hallways of Percy Julian Middle School soccer was white and I couldn't risk being any more "white on the inside."

The term "Oreo" altered my adolescent experience in middle school, tailoring my interests and behavior not to what I thought defined blackness but what mainstream society defined blackness to be, a stream that I now know to have a current that is dictated by the inevitable white supremacy of our society. 

It is truly troubling that the only way for me to have explored an array of sports was to be "white on the inside." This notion degrades the flesh bestowed upon me by a higher power and unrightfully creates a pedestal not based on hard work but by the sheer luck of being born into the white race. 

An "Oreo" is a demeaning term that greases the engine of structural racism in our society. I now strive to ensure that my race does not internally dictate the opportunities I explore.

Michelle Mbekeani, 27,  is a lifetime resident of Oak Park. She is an attorney at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. She is the mother of an energetic and loving 2-year-old boy. Michelle enjoys singing and volunteering thoughout the community, supporting Oak Park public schools, and the Oak Park Festival Theatre.

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Mikey Magnificent from Chicago   

Posted: August 28th, 2017 9:12 AM

This is beyond touching and deep. I don't know where to begin. I will keep it short. I just want to say i can absolutely relate to some parts of this issue, and could not have articulated the topic better. Thank you for sharing your opinion and shading light upon a topic that isn't discussed enough "black huddles".As society changes we as a people need to not be afraid to make progress in areas like this.

Alice Wellington  

Posted: August 10th, 2017 7:33 PM

It is interesting that Michelle was called an Oreo by her black peers, yet she still blames the white supremacy and society structural racism for it. How about putting the blame where it belongs - on the attitude some in the black community have toward children who care about education or have an unusual hobby. That's what needs change. Reminds me of the time Gabby Douglas became a first black woman to ever win an all-around gymnastics gold medal at the Olympics, but instead of celebrating her achievement, some black people insulted and called her names over the "wrong" hairdo.

Barbara Joan  

Posted: August 10th, 2017 6:44 PM

"...angst about how a high schooler feels she fits in, which is how just about every high schooler of all races and sexes feels"-Exactly!....i find such whining tiresome. Humility and gratitude are good things.Imagine being disabled or in Special Education--these students and their families are the most vulnerable and invisble people in the community, and get the least support from the schools, other students, other parents, and the general community..

John Abbott  

Posted: August 10th, 2017 2:59 PM

My heartfelt thanks to Ms. Mbekeani-Wiley for this very fine, incisive essay. A pity that most respondents thus far seem incapable of responding to what she actually says, as they rush to turn this discussion space into advocacy for their own stale agendas and (what-me-learn?) conclusions.

Ray Simpson  

Posted: August 10th, 2017 8:01 AM

Perhaps we are seeing the actual "GAP" problem. Not the school or the teachers but rather a peer pressure "Oreo" attitude where being a member of a team or speaking well is a sign of selling out to the "MAN" This young woman's parents gave her the tools and encouragement to succeed. Her school encouraged her and honed those tools. Her team mates saw ability, not just skin color. She felt social pressure, but wanted the prize that is success. Three cheers to her parents, teachers and her own adult decisions. This is the story that should quiet the GAP complainers.

Tom MacMillan from oak park  

Posted: August 10th, 2017 12:46 AM

Christina - there is nothing wrong with the story. You should stop suggesting otherwise. Everyone feels uncomfortable in high school over something at some point, so we all share that.

Christina Sellis Loranz  

Posted: August 9th, 2017 11:57 PM

Tom, are you suggesting that anyone older than high school age is helpless to even attempt to combat racism in our community? Do you not find value in reading a story about a child's experience that was different from your own?

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: August 9th, 2017 6:12 PM

@ Heather - the author is a lawyer now, she seems to be doing fine. The white team mate was nice to her in her story. The rest of the story was a lot of angst about how a high schooler feels she fits in, which is how just about every high schooler of all races and sexes feels. So the middle aged white lady (you) probably does not need to over think this about what we older people can do.

Heather Claxton Douglas from Oak Park  

Posted: August 9th, 2017 10:43 AM

Of course, since I solicited ideas I thought I'd post one. Back at the beginning of the year, I spoke with some of my colleagues (in Evanston) about the achievement gap and ways to address it. One of the things that she talked about was a Afro-centric program in.... D65 (I think was the district)? The program focused on being proud of your African heritage and utilized aspects of the Aftrican culture the same way we utilize aspects of European culture. Ie, the paintings on the walls were traditional African art. The songs were the same as those taught to African children. The story books were of African myths. We don't realize it, but so much of our white, middle-class culture is rooted in European tradition.

Heather Claxton Douglas from Oak Park  

Posted: August 9th, 2017 10:31 AM

What can we do to help students in similar situations? P.S . This question is not directed only at the author, it's directed at others in our community. I don't want anyone to feel that they need to act a certain way or give up on a sport/hobby that they love because it doesn't mesh with their racial stereotype. What can I do to help?

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