What passed for racial harmony in my diverse suburban middle school: Swallowing the bitter taste of the ‘Oreo’ slur

In the fall of 2001, I was introduced to an array of new things: a new school, new demographic pockets of my diverse Chicago suburb, and Oreos.

Yes … Oreos! 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 my middle school in Oak Park 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 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 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 my predominately white 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.  Still, throughout the hallways of my 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.


Photo of Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley by the Shriver Center

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Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley

Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley

Michelle is a lifetime resident of the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and recently became a township trustee. 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 jazz and volunteering in her hometown, supporting public schools and her local theatre. She recently was named in Crain's Chicago Business' 2017 list of "20 in Their 20s."

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