This is a teen-written article from our friends at YC Teen Mag, a magazine showcasing true stories written for and by young people in New York City.
By Nesshell Rainford
For most of my life, I’ve lived in a black community—a small and close-knit neighborhood mostly filled with West Indian folk. As a child, I wondered what it would be like to have white and Asian friends. But other than that, I never thought much about race.
In the 7th grade I started attending a new school across the street from where my family had just moved. Like my elementary school, my new school was almost entirely black. But whereas I had fit in fine in elementary school, as the weeks went by, I noticed it wasn’t so easy fitting in with the different groups in junior high.
I would often talk about celebrity crushes with the kids I hung out with. A few times they mentioned a rap or r&b artist that I had never heard about. I would mention guys from Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC, my favorite bands at the time. They would laugh at my weird tastes, but for a while they didn’t seem to have a real problem with my lack of black culture.
I don’t remember what happened exactly to change that, but it felt like all of a sudden fellow classmates were teasing me about my voice, which I guess was a little bit too squeaky. They started pretending not to hear me when I knew that they did.
Acting Like an Oreo?
They said I “acted too white.” I thought this was the most ridiculous thing. I wasn’t trying to be white; actually, I was being myself. I felt that it was crazy to make fun of someone just because they don’t act like you, and especially to try to tie it to race. You can’t say an entire race acts the same; that’s just ignorant and unfair.
The popular kids began calling me “Oreo” in the hallway. They would ask me questions like, “Do you watch Disney Channel a lot?” or, “Do you watch MTV?” and laugh. Most of the time I would lie and say no, because I didn’t want them to tease me even more. I was weak and couldn’t stand up for myself. All I could do was let my anger out through my tears.
Around that time I took up African drumming after school, and the instructor used to make fun of me because I had no rhythm. The other participants laughed and told him it was because I was a “white girl.” I was so embarrassed that I quit the African drumming lessons and went to sewing instead.
When my popularity started going down the drain, the kids I’d been calling my friends gave me the boot. I was petrified. Not having any friends during junior high is like forgetting your writing tools during a test: There’s no way you can proceed, and it’s very embarrassing.
Teased for Talking
One day at lunch, a few months after the teasing started, I decided to sit next to a group of kids that looked safe enough. They were talking about sex and related matters. They saw me pull out my book and decided to change the subject.
“Hey, whatchu readin’?” asked one girl, Joan (not her real name).
“Harry Potter,” I answered, quietly. I knew she could see the title from where she was sitting; she probably just wanted to mock me.
She smirked and glanced back at her friends, then asked, “So what’s it about?”
I gave them a whole plot summary, even though I knew they probably didn’t care. They sure didn’t look like they did.
“You sound so white,” said Joan’s friend, cutting me off.
“Um…how?” I asked, though I wasn't sure if I really wanted to know.
She answered the question by talking the way Alicia Silverstone did in the movie Clueless. I knew that was an exaggeration.
Then a boy came over to the table, and the girls started telling him about my speech and bugging me to talk again. I was beginning to regret ever sitting at this table, and decided to go back to my reading. The boy said that I was being rude because he was talking to me. Joan told him that all I ever did was read, so he shouldn’t be surprised, and that I needed a life.
In the Wrong Skin
It was true that I read all the time. If I’d had friends to socialize with, I probably wouldn’t have had to spend most of my time in the company of books. But the fact was I didn’t have friends who made me feel the way books did: secure.
I started to think that, if it was true that I acted white, maybe it would be better if my skin tone matched my behavior. This was the first time I’d thought about the advantages or disadvantages of being one race or another. As a kid I was so innocent that I’d wondered why I had dark skin, and it had taken me a while to figure out that I was brown because both my parents were. Now, for one second, I wished that my parents were not.
When I told my mother this, she told me, “Be satisfied with the body God gave you.” But how could I be satisfied when I felt that God had made a mistake with my skin color?
I figured that since it was impossible for me to change my skin color, I would just change my style. The next year I started watching BET and listening to more r&b music to fit in. I even attempted talking like my classmates. I didn’t like the fact that I wasn’t acting myself, but this was the only way I could have a social life in that school.
It was an emergency survival tactic, and it worked pretty well. Kids treated me better and I was satisfied that I wasn’t the school’s biggest loser anymore. But I was still relieved to graduate. I was determined to go to a high school outside of Brooklyn, a more ethnically diverse school where I could have friends of different races. I wanted to learn about their cultures, and I promised myself that I would act like no one but myself.
Finally Fitting In
I applied for Fashion Industries High School and was accepted. Fashion Industries is a diverse school and I loved it. There were so many different types of students and they accepted you no matter who you were or where you came from—the only thing that mattered was your personality. I made friends instantly with students of all different races, which was the way I wanted it.
But even though I wanted to be finished with race and just be myself, it kept finding me. During my sophomore year I ran into hurtful stereotypes again, and this time they were coming from the other direction.
One day I went looking for teen websites where I hoped to make some new friends outside of the state, or even the country. I found a social networking website for teens, made a profile, and added pictures. Then I decided to go into the chat room, since that’s a faster way to meet people.
I greeted the chat room and people started to reply to me. I told them my real name, and they told me theirs. It felt like I was starting to fit in with a bunch of people from different parts of the world. There were people from California, other western states, Canada, the UK, and Australia.
A few days later, I signed in to talk to these new friends. But this time it was different. I said something that a guy didn’t agree with and he told me, “Shut up.” I replied, “No, you shut up.” And he said, “No, take your black a** and GTFO.” (This guy was white, but I’m not sure where he was from.)
What he said really offended me. I decided to ignore him, figuring he was just being a jerk. But a white girl decided to play his little game as well: “OMG her name is Nesshell, what a ghetto name.” I told them my name wasn’t “ghetto,” and they didn’t even know what “ghetto” was. They replied that I was probably an “expert.”
“That’s not true. I hate ghetto people,” I answered. The boy replied, “But it’s your culture.”
Then he started asking me questions like, “Does your real father live with you?” and, “Do you eat fried chicken every day?” Whenever I said something back, he would call me the N-word.
This was the most messed up thing I ever saw. How could people rely only on stereotypes like this? These teens were attacking me based on their false ideas about race. I hated people saying that I was “just like everyone else,” especially people who didn’t know me. They made my heart fall out of my head, and I wanted to scream.
I desperately wanted to make these people see things differently, to get them to judge people individually and not by race. Then an idea hit me. I decided to make a new screen name without filling out a profile, so they wouldn’t know what race I was.
I went back into that chat room anonymously, and I told everyone my name was “Nee.” I wanted these kids to be surprised that not all black people act the same, and I also thought it was a great way to still talk and avoid racist jerks. With my new screen name I chatted about all kinds of normal things like music, movies, and school.
But as more black people came onto the site, I noticed that the racist guy insulted them regardless of their name, what language they used, or what they wrote. They were all ghetto as far as he was concerned. He also said things like “Obama sucks,” “Black people belong on plantations,” and “Black people are stupid.”
From what I could tell, the chat room had about 85% white people in it. I know not all white people are racists, so I expected other white kids to put him in his place. But the other kids weren’t disagreeing with the guy, and some were actually telling their own little racist jokes.
It surprised and upset me that no one had the heart to contradict him. Racial conflicts have caused so much suffering in the past, and if teenagers don’t stand up to this kind of thing, we have no hope for change.
Eventually, I decided I was done with the chat room. But before I left, I told everyone my real identity, even the jerk (who had been talking to me normally for the past month because he wasn’t aware of who I was).
Everyone was shocked (except for a couple of nice people I’d already told about my identity). They were like, “Wow, Nee, that’s pretty weird.” The jerk just said, “Wow.” But the words that stuck out to me the most were, “I never thought you were black”—typed by an anonymous user.
I hope that I changed some people’s minds about stereotypes, but I wish I hadn’t had to go through the whole thing. Whether I’m being called “Oreo” or “ghetto,” it’s hard to believe that people still don’t see the truth behind race: that it’s just a made-up concept useful to people who can’t appreciate individuality. This makes me so angry and sad.
What People See
Kids will be kids, and maybe now as teenagers, those classmates who picked on me in junior high school don’t criticize others just for acting different. But being singled out for “acting white” turned me against hanging around only with people who are of the same race and ethnicity as me. It doesn’t mean I don’t like my race, but I want a chance to like people of other races as well. I want to go to an ethnically diverse college and I hope to continue making friends from many different backgrounds.
I know now, though, that there are closed-minded people everywhere. I think what I experienced in the chat room will haunt me forever. Once I didn’t believe that racial problems still existed. Now, every day when I walk around New York, I think to myself, “What do people see when they look at me? What do they assume? Do they see me as only a ‘black girl,’ or are they capable of seeing me as Nesshell Rainford, an artist, a daughter, a fashionista, and a writer?”
True to Myself
I feel that I have to be more open toward people so they can know my true nature, and I try to smile as much as I can to prove that I’m not one of the ghetto chicks they might think I am. I’m never sure if it has worked. No matter how much I try to show who I am, I continue to worry that people will say something offensive or judgmental, and this makes me feel vulnerable.
When I look back on the time I told my mother that I wanted to be white, I know that wasn’t the answer. I’ve learned to accept what I am and how I am. The world can be harsh and cruel in its judgments, but I am optimistic and I like to treat others the same way I would like to be treated, no matter what. My experiences have shown me that I probably can’t ever escape race entirely. All I ask is that when people meet me, they judge me on my personality, not my skin color. And the only assumption I make when I meet others is that they’re nice, until they prove otherwise.
It can be tough and scary to approach people this way, when I know that some people will turn out to be not nice at all. But I’ve seen how shameful race-based judgments are, and I would be ashamed to let those experiences change who I am.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright by Youth Communication/New York Center, Inc. See www.youthcomm.org for information regarding reprints of Youth Communication's copyrighted stories.