I like listening to Taylor Swift; I love period dramas; I’m extremely proud of my blackness – and I’ve been called “coconut” more times than I can count. To be called a “coconut” – someone who is “black on the outside and white on the inside” – is to be told that you have defiantly entered a space that was previously inaccessible to you due to racism, unconscious or otherwise. , you are no longer allowed to return to your community. You are now a traitor. It operates on the assumption that ‘blackness’ is a singular little box of identity, not a sprawling vast landscape of experiences and intersections. This is not to say that being a “race traitor” is an entirely redundant concept. There are many ways people of color can harm their own communities — by working for political groups with a track record of racial and class discrimination, for example.
My grandmother grew up penniless in 1930s Jamaica and was one of only two people in her year to pass the exams necessary to train as a nurse. She was bookish and studious and, for her, literature and education were her liberators. She moved to London as part of the Windrush generation in 1952 and bought a house in Clapham in 1973, where she raised and educated a family. I have always been very proud of it. As a child, sitting at my grandmother’s feet, the books I was handed were treated as both treasure and weapons, and the scholarship I got at a private girls’ school was a feat. , a prized opportunity. It wasn’t until I became this person, a proud product of the environment that so many had worked hard to create, that I felt the sting of this word.
Being called “coconut” or “Oreo” by other women of color is painful, but I understand it. I, like any child in the diaspora, or any child who benefited from the social mobility of his parents, had to reckon with the feeling of being a contradiction. I love Shakespeare, for example, but I can understand why many black students feel tired of the “manly, pale, stale” curriculum. I love the language, I studied Latin, I’m articulate and proud of it – but I can also recognize the part played by my privileged and elitist upbringing. I love going to see plays, but I can understand why many don’t, because of the expensive tickets, a sea of white faces and a formality performed that often clashes with the liveliness of the theater . I was recently scolded by the white woman behind me for being too “noisy” on Six the Musical (a show that requests uproar). Next to me, my two friends were participating in an enthusiastic chant – so it was interesting that I, the only brown face in the crowd, was the target of his anger.
A “coconut” is a particularly hurtful thing to call, but those who use the word are rarely wielding structural power. Middle-class white people have often told me that I “don’t look black,” that black girls rarely like the things I like; an unspoken “for a black girl” often hangs at the end of their compliments. And so I’m writing this to reach out to black art kids, black kids who love indie music, black kids who are told they’re “not black enough.” Author Zora Neale Hurston once said that she “feels more colorful when projected against a crisp white background.” This line lodged between my ribs. By challenging white supremacist control, by persisting even when no one like you has persisted before, we are not betraying who we are, but celebrating and redefining our blackness. Every time I’m called a coconut, I feel black to the core and infinitely proud of it.
Ella McLeod is a writer, poet and performer
Rapunzella, or, Don’t Touch My Hair by Ella McLeod is published by Scholastic, £8.99. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order a copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply