Why you shouldn’t call anyone an ‘Oreo’
Posted on June 1, 2016 at 6:24 am

By Dinushi Bopearachchi

A response to Yamu’s article, “Types of annoying Sri Lankan relatives


For this post, I wanted to light-heartedly take a look at all the cultural clashes and quirks that comes from being a Sri Lankan diaspora. Such as, aunties asking if you’ll be marrying a Sri Lankan or a ‘foreigner’ or the dilemma of what to wear as all your favourite summer clothes and bikinis are suddenly ‘inappropriate’ and controversial. But there’s one, much more troubling way in which our home culture and our inherited culture clash, and it’s normally too uncomfortable and deep-seated to bring up jokingly in conversation, as we do with the rest.

If you’re originally Sri Lankan (and therefore look Sri Lankan) but are born and raised in another culture (especially a Western one) you act, speak and dress in a way that’s not expected of you. This can lead to a questioning of your ‘brownness’, and the accusation of being ‘white washed’- this itself is probably the most frustrating and damaging of all the stereotypes that Sri Lankan diaspora face. Perhaps jokingly said to your face or tossed around behind your back, an ‘Oreo’ or ‘Coconut’ suggests you are brown on the outside but white on the inside.

This is a well-known term used throughout the world and not just Sri Lanka- wherever there is a brown person they’ll be another (usually brown) person to call them an Oreo. But this term is heavily outdated and is filled with false assumptions about race, culture and identity. Why? Because it implies to be a part of a race you must act a certain way- basically we must conform ourselves to a stereotype, and this stereotype isn’t more empowering just because it’s self-inflicted.

So what happens if you don’t act that way? Am I a self-hating Asian who just wants to be white? No. Personally, I was born in England and I grew up in England. I had my first home there, I learnt how to talk there, I made my first friends there, I went to university there and I had my first job there (you get the picture). Naturally, I assimilated and absorbed the culture around me as if my own (-is it not my own?).

My life was built in a country full of people who didn’t look like me and this alone is pretty isolating, not only when you’re a child, but even more so when you’re a teenager beginning to question everything around you and your place in the world. Combine this with everyday racism- being singled out for being in a minority, usually by facing racial assumptions because of your skin colour (ie. ‘Are you from India?’, ‘You must love spicy food!’ and the dreaded, ‘But where are you really from?’). All of this weighs you down as you eventually internalise the feeling of being different and an outsider- you feel like you don’t belong in the country you spent your life in.

Flash forward to your next trip to Sri Lanka. Now if you don’t belong in England, because you look Sri Lankan, surely you belong in Sri Lanka? Nope, apparently not. Because right here in Sri Lanka you are also different. You speak differently, you dress differently, you’re not used to the spicy food and heat, you may not even speak the language. This difference you have seems to get two distinct reactions. For instance, some Sri Lankans are impressed, you have an accent they’ve never heard in person, from a place they’ve only seen on TV. They think you have more money and a better education just because you are from England (or America, Canada, Australia ect.). This in itself is troubling – are these some leftover ideals from colonialism or from the damaging idolisation of western culture?

And then there’s the other side of the spectrum, normally the younger, cooler generation, who seem to find your ‘whiteness’ embarrassing. They themselves are too culturally self-assured to try to be white and speak with an accent (they probably don’t realise that cultivating a ‘normal’ accent outside of Sri Lanka would be a tricky, but impressive, feat). Or alternatively, the older generation who are disappointed with your seeming lack of connection with Sri Lanka and your heritage – you should be able to cook parippu, speak Sinhala or Tamil and of course marry a Sri Lankan by the time you’re 25.

So from these two ends -the two cultures that we embrace and that shape our lives and our identity- we the diaspora are told we don’t belong. But in fact, the opposite is true, we are lucky as we belong to both. I am Sri Lankan and I am English, and no, I don’t have a fancy, easy way of labelling this, like English-Sri Lankan or a Sri Lankan-English, but one label I simply will not accept is coconut or Oreo. Those terms tell you nothing about it me – I do not merely look like one and act like another. My cultural identity is a fluid amalgamation of two distinct cultures that I’m proud to be a part of, and both play large parts in who I am.

So you can make fun of my accent, and I’ll probably laugh, or you can ask me where I’m ‘really’ from and I’ll happily describe that little Island my parents called home and that town that just outside of London that no one’s ever heard of. But if you mention anything about being ‘brown on the outside and white on the inside’, expect nothing more than a sigh of exhaustion and a look of contempt. 

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