Contributing writer, Donna M. Mitchell, tells us about her experience of being labeled an "oreo" because of her Jamaican upbring.
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Somewhere in the Middle

The pages of Ebony magazine slid from the thumb of my right hand into the palm of my left until I stopped at the cover story. It was about the so-called new black middle class, a set of ambitious professionals and promising young people who, as the story suggested, were being disloyal to the same black community that played a part in their success. They moved to quiet suburbs. They joined country clubs. Most alarmingly, they snubbed other blacks, opting to rub elbows with whites in professional and social circles.

 

I recognized the words “oreo”, “coconut” and “Black Anglo Saxon”, all unkind terms to describe people of African descent, whose mannerisms and values are considered white. They called to mind a walk home from school on a crisp April afternoon, when my African-American peers first confronted me about my odd “coconut” quirks.

 

The walk home from school that April afternoon was like countless others before. I balanced my jacket on top of a stack of worn textbooks and watched my feet step carefully along the cracked pavement surrounding the campus. I steered clear of the seventh-grade rabble that had been shooed off of the playground. One of them, however, a girl about three years older than me, broke away and stuck her face under my own.

 

“What’s your name?”

“Donna.”

“So why do you act white, Donna?”

“I don’t know.”

“You think you can beat me if we get into a fight?”

“I don’t know,” I said, rolling my eyes away from that menacing gaze of hers.

 

Maybe this budding delinquent got tired of me, because she couldn’t bait me into a fight. For whatever reason, the conversation ended there and rejoined her group, laughing loudly and coarsely about this girl who was white on the inside.

 

Naturally, I ruminated on that first question the rest of the way home. Who knew I was ‘acting white’ all this time? Sure, I was polite and mild-mannered. My classroom etiquette was above reproach, or so I thought. My homework was always on time and my circle of friends included a young white girl and a Columbian. That couldn’t have been what she meant by acting white.

 

I blamed my upbringing for this cultural misunderstanding. My no-nonsense Jamaican mother expected me to keep my room, and the rest of the house, in immaculate condition. I had a non-negotiable curfew. Friends like that girl were off limits. My mother also encouraged me to be articulate, but not by signing me up for enriching club memberships. No, this young mother, who was also shrewd with money, thought it was much more economical to ignore crude speech, like ‘ain’t’ or ‘where my red skirt at?’ At home, she spoke to me in Patois, and I answered in English, but she frowned on me practicing Patois outside the home, declaring it common and limiting.

 

Thus, I grew up with conservative and vaguely foreign mannerisms. I was neat. I spoke with crisp diction. I was never hotheaded or belligerent. This endeared me to authority figures and probably helped me adjust easily to college and campus life.

 

Too bad some of those Ebony contributors, like activist professor Dr. Nathan Hare, did not understand that. Hare accused middle-class blacks of neglecting their less well-connected ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’, while selfishly pulling themselves up the social and economic ladder. Hare said that members of the black middle class “occupy a parasitic relationship to the black underclass. They barter the ability to keep the race nonviolent and ‘responsible’ in exchange for middle class tokenism,” (Ebony magazine, August 1987). Hare also claims that these ‘bourgeoisie’ blacks turn to white mentors for definitions of reality and the solutions to their problems. He called condom distribution in black high schools a white establishment tactic to curb the black birthrate under the guise of sex education, and accused middle class black of complicity in this.

 

Hare’s comments struck me as wrong-headed and irresponsible. His claim of tokenism might have been true in some cases a long time ago, but I felt he should have known better than to throw that kind of blanket statement around in a national magazine.

 

From my perspective, this was the height of foolishness! Most of the Jamaicans that land in the U.S. are – to be blunt – here to make it. Let’s not forget that in Jamaica, for better or worse, Blacks run Jamaican government, commerce and society. They have the advantage of seeing their own complexions among the teachers, doctors, police officers and government officials, so they do not feel as disenfranchised as American blacks. They also have a more worldly perspective than American blacks, and most Americans, for that matter.

 

Sometimes – but certainly not in every case – this tempers intransigent social and political thinking. Stubbornly, I refused to acknowledge the slightest tendency toward ‘whiteness’ in my bearing. My adolescence was spent reciting inspirational speeches at church, winning community writing contests and working as an intern at a national business magazine. After college, I went to work for daily newspapers and the financial trade press. Most of my new friends were Portuguese, Italian or white American journalists I met on the job, because I spent so many hours at work. Whenever I introduced my white boyfriend, who later became my husband, I ignored my black co-workers’ looks of polite disapproval.

My point is that it is unreasonable to expect black Americans of varying cultural, economic and social backgrounds to operate with the same priorities and characteristics. The black experience in the United States is richer for its long-standing affluent African-American society, up and coming middle class blacks, and the immigrants of African descent who are trying to fulfill their aspirations. Middle class blacks should never be made to question their ethnic credibility. Reacting to these blacks as if they are snobs is to childishly begrudge them of their success. As for me, I’ll never answer for my choice of friends, tax bracket or neighborhood.

About the author

Donna M. Mitchell