A tall, ten year old snot-nosed girl with frizzy relaxed hair yells at a short five year old snot-nosed girl with dreadlocks, “Wena you’re such a coconut!” To which the dreadlocked girl replied with frustrated passive-aggressiveness, “Coconut? That’s a fruit!”
That little social interaction was between an old friend and I in a rural town called Bothaville in the Free State, circa 2001. I was the short one with dreadlocks. The reason my friend accused me of being what I believed at the time was a fruit (which is actually a seed) was because when I spoke Sotho it sounded weird. The problem was that my tongue wanted to say Sotho phrases in English. The intonations were off and I emphasised the wring syllables. You see, up until that point I had been living in Maryland, Virginia where there weren’t a lot of Sotho-speaking children I could play with (I doubt that there are today).
The video I am blogging about this week is one that resonates completely with this topic. It is a slam poetry session by one of the poetry channels I have subscribed to: Button Poetry. The video is entitled “Tucker Bryant – ‘Oreo’ (CUPSI 2014)”. The poem itself speaks to my heart. It is a strong reaction to the slap on the faces of many non-white people who have ever been called either “Oreo, Klondike, York bar and Peppermint Patties”.
Tucker Bryant starts off the poem by reciting an anecdote about his candy-eating habits as a child. This then brings him to eating his first Oreo. He then started “swallowing them whole, while the other kids would twist them apart, licking off the cream while discarding of the brown shells. Stacy said the white part just tastes better”. This is also a metaphor for the way he perceives the mind-set of Stacy (who would later on call him an Oreo); ignorant and prejudiced towards a certain colour. Bryant also addresses the way in which she told him he was an Oreo. She said it as if it were a compliment. As if he would be crazy to be offended at being called an Oreo. That being an Oreo would be the closest he would come to “touching white privilege”.
Bryant expresses heated emotion as he talks about the issues with being called an Oreo. His opinions seem to be that; firstly, it is offensive to call someone an Oreo, Peppermint Patty or any interchangeable term. Secondly, he feels as if Oreos are tamed/watered-down black people that are “easier to swallow” for white people. He used the metaphor of someone loving caffeine but needing to add creamers and sweeteners to their coffee because they can’t stand the bitterness of the “blackness [that] the binds to [their] tongue”. Thirdly, Bryant believes that he shouldn’t have to “leap out of [his] own ancestry”. He believes that acceptance should not involve looking for oneself in others. In other words, personality is not necessarily liked to skin colour. Now. I can relate to this poem on many levels. However, there are other levels to which I cannot.
First and foremost, we need to translate the term “Oreo” into the South African equivalent: Coconut. Typically, coconuts are determined according to hobbies, preferred music genre, their English accent and how many African languages they can speak fluently. For example, I myself prefer listening to Indie and Folk music to House or Kwaito. My love for water is ridiculous, seeing as I have partaken in numerous galas throughout my high and middle school careers and have always begged my mother to get a house with a swimming pool my entire childhood. Not to mention, I have a certified scuba diving license. These are all the signs that you are a coconut, according to the general consensus of the people of South Africa.
Much like Bryant, I am fed up with the fuss over Coconuts. I believe it is simple: people are brought up in different environments and thus have adopted various cultures over time. Being the daughter of a diplomat, I grew up in three different countries. As a child I never had the chance to recognise the difference between black, white, brown, and yellow. I guess I had too many sleepovers with girls of Arab, English, Pakistani and Indian ethnicity to acquire the mind-set that would help me place labels and racial boundaries on the things I found fun, such as music or hobbies. I was immersed in too many cultures and spoke too much English. I did not eat enough Kotas, the taxis I rode in were not Quantums and my Egyptian next-door neighbour did not speak my mother tongue.
Whenever I visited home—South Africa—I was confronted by fellow black people using Coconut to accuse me of abandoning my roots. The age ranged form elders and aunties to my peers. More often than not, these individuals did not hesitate to point fingers and slap labels on my face, not knowing I did understand them whispering in Sesotho, that I did know how to play Dikete and that I did know how to cook pap.
Therefore the prejudice and judgements towards individuals labelled as Coconuts is unjustifiable. From my experience it is usually other black people labelling black people, which differs from Bryant’s experiences. However, the lesson that must be learnt is the same: people need to accept people for who they are. And this is presented in my own project entitled Coconut Culture which directly confronts assumptions made about those labelled as so-called coconuts.
I would therefore like to acknowledge Button Poetry for their video of “Oreo” by Tucker Bryant this week because it helped to make my stance on the Coconut issue clear. Indeed, South Africa; a country that runs on a highly liberal national constitution, and calls itself the Rainbow Nation, still has a lot of learning to do when it comes to social awareness.
Be sure to check out Button Poetry on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/ButtonPoetry. They are a channel based in Minnesota dedicated to the distribution of live performance poetry.
Also, please check out Coconut Culture, I promise you will learn something worthwhile.
As always, stay fresh.