There are so many words out there for people of colour who are perceived as acting “white.” Some examples I’ve come across have been coconut (blacks), apple (indigenous North Americans), and banana (East Asians). Why fruits are chosen to ridicule people who aren’t “acting their colour,” I have no idea. All I know is that it is destructive thinking.
I spent most of my early life in a predominantly Caucasian environment. My friends and I liked the same things; the same music, the same celebrities, the same books, and so on. Nothing that I liked or did was ever considered strange.
It was only when I moved to Africa that I realized there might be an “issue” with my preferences. For the first time in my life I was called a “coconut.” The reason I was called this was because I was discussing Nirvana songs with a classmate. It was my first time hearing that expression and I had to ask what it meant. My friend said, “You’re black on the outside, white on the inside.” I was at that age when acceptance was everything, and I felt mortified. I began questioning myself. Am I really acting white? What does that mean? How do I act black? I was so confused. I’d never ever equated my likes, dislikes or actions to colour before; this was new terrain for me.
In his memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove addresses this “acting white” business: “Trying to be white? What the hell does that mean? I’ve never understood that. How could anyone be white when they aren’t white?…Of course, what people mean when they say that is there’s some kind of authentic black experience that the accused isn’t properly expressing. But what is the authentic experience?”
Beats me. I’ve obviously been black all my life, lived in Africa during my teen years, speak an African language, know my history and I learn as much as I can about the culture. Yet, I am still called a coconut.
Since that day in high school I have been called several derivatives of the phrase “coconut”, always in a joking manner. Nowadays, I am older and wiser and don’t feel the need to try to fit in anymore, nor am I worried about what people think of me. Even so, I do take offense at people’s snide remarks about what I should and shouldn’t like. I am quite tired of people’s expectations of me. I am of the opinion that if people only do what they believe their skin colour or culture dictates them do, well that will lead to a whole lot of wasted potential.
A list of things that have caused people to call me variations of a coconut include listening to certain genres of music, watching plays, my interest in linguistics, and travelling for cultural reasons (“You went to Zanzibar to visit a world heritage site? You’re such a coconut!”). According to such people, I should only listen to hip-hop, dress more “urban,” and goodness knows what else. When I look at the above list of things that I am interested in, I see activities that have enriched my life since I was a child. I know those activities aren’t for everyone but I find it very problematic that they are they solely attributed to white skin. I wonder if we’re not helping to perpetuate these stereotypes ourselves by being close-minded about how a person should be.
Stereotypes are harmful. Putting someone in a box can be oppressive and it’s quite arrogant and lazy of us to attempt to do so. Instead of talking to someone and finding out more about them, why would we just assume we know everything about them based on their appearance? As Anais Nin said, “We categorize and catalogue and file, not so much out of a sense of organization but out of fear” (The Novel of the Future). If a person falls for a racial stereotype about their own ethnic group, I believe that their creativity and expression will be severely limited. Who are we to deny someone’s right to live a certain way just because their skin colour doesn’t “match up” to the activity in question? More people need to realize that our interests are influenced by so many factors, so we shouldn’t expect all members of an ethnic group to be homogeneous in their likes and dislikes.
Fortunately, all is not lost. More and more these days I see more people of colour stepping outside of the constraints that society has created for them. I see African-American gymnast Gabby Douglas winning gold medals at the Olympics and African-Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman performing in operas and I feel happy that they are helping to break the stereotypes and perhaps give black girls courage and motivation to try something that they are told isn’t for them.
It’s time for us to recognize that there are exceptions to all stereotypes.
Rowena and I became friends via Twitter, where she has been generous enough to share her experience and words of wisdom with the world. On her behalf, I’d ask that if you enjoyed this post, you follow her on Twitter @RowenaMonde and check out her website, http://lesreveriesderowena.wordpress.com/.