Bananas, Oreos and Coconuts: Would You Identify as White on the Inside?

by Guest Contributor Nadra Kareem

I was recently at a gathering with a Korean-American friend of mine when a young Asian guy approached us.

“You’re not Korean, right?” my friend asked.

He shook his head at her. “No, I’m Japanese.”

“You don’t look all Japanese. Are you half?” my friend asked.

I searched his honey-colored face, looking for telltale signs of whiteness but finding none. I wondered aloud if my friend thought he was half because of his hair. It was textured and brown rather than her hair, which was stick straight and black.

“It’s because of the way I carry myself,” he chipped in before my friend could answer. He went on to invoke some stereotypes about Asians, explaining that he didn’t look fully Asian because he had a very emotive face and liked to gesture a lot. All in all, he was a banana, he said.

I’m assuming that most of you know what this term means. But, for the uninitiated, a “banana” refers to Asians who believe that, while they may be yellow on the outside, they are culturally white on the inside. A synonym for banana used in this context is “Twinkie.” Anyway, when the guy self-labeled as a banana, my friend nodded in agreement, declaring that she, too, was one. Then, a white guy joined us and declared that he was an “egg,” white on the outside and yellow on the inside. Why a group of people in their twenties and thirties was using terminology that should have been left on the schoolyard years ago is beyond me. But, before I knew it, I felt their eyes turn to me.

“Well, I’m black,” I said.

But this response wasn’t acceptable to them. They wanted me to declare myself an “Oreo,” black on the outside and white on the inside. I explained that I thought this term was offensive. It suggested that the person in question was a sellout or an Uncle Tom, and I would never use the term to describe myself.

The day after, I found myself wondering why my friend and the Japanese American guy had no qualms about labeling themselves in these terms. I suppose that, if I based my racial identity solely on my familiarity with my father’s native Nigeria, I, too, would have to declare myself white on the inside. I don’t speak my tribal language and have no intimate knowledge of Yoruba customs. Still, I am intimately aware of what it feels like to grow up black in America and that experience precludes me from ever viewing myself as internally “white.”

I wonder what would have happened had a Chicano friend of mine, who speaks only English and had little familiarity with Mexico until adulthood, joined our group that night. I doubt that he would have openly declared himself a coconut or a pocho.

Now, I’ve heard Asian Americans derisively refer to fellow Asian Americans as being “whitewashed,” so I don’t believe that Asian Americans as a whole would proudly identify as “bananas” or “Twinkies.” But I wonder, because of their status, however problematic, as America’s “model minority,” if it’s simply more acceptable for Asian Americans to openly identify as white than it is for blacks and Latinos to? What do you think?

As for the white guy, or “egg,” in the group—it’s long been acceptable for whites to latch on to other cultures and claim them as their own. The idea being, which I find absurd, that whites have no culture and, thus, have no choice but to be “culture vultures.” Given that, it’s never very remarkable to me when a white person claims to be more yellow, black or brown than white. In one of the oddest moments I’ve ever had with a stranger, a white man approached me to say that he believed he was black in a former life. Go figure.