Growing up, Diane Lincifort loved to watch “Hannah Montana.”
Though she was born and raised in Brooklyn, her Haitian family rarely spoke English at home -- she considers Creole her first language. She struggled to learn English at school, and her classmates picked on her for having a stutter.
So she turned to shows like “Hannah Montana,” “Lizzie McGuire” and “Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide” to improve her English and to try to fit in. She’d pick up lines from her favorite characters, like Uncle Jesse from Full House’s catch phrase, “Have mercy.”
In sixth grade she was once answering a question in English class and a classmate said, “You speak so white.”
“I was just like, ‘How?’ I didn’t know white was a language. I’m so confused,” said Lincifort, adding that she didn’t see much representation of black culture in her favorite programs.
Her classmates would also call her an “Oreo.”
So when Lincifort, now an 18-year-old junior at Uniondale High School, read Brandy Colbert’s short story, “Oreo,” from the anthology “Black Enough: Stories of Being Young & Black in America” for a discussion of the story at Uniondale Public Library last month, she said she related to the main character, Joni, “on a spiritual level.” The term “Oreo” is derogatory slang for a black person who is seen as “having adopted the attitudes, values and behavior thought to be characteristic of middle-class white society, often at the expense of his or her own heritage,” according to Dictionary.com.
In the fictional story Joni, a high school senior, weighs her acceptance to Spelman College, a historically black college, while struggling with feelings of not belonging among her white classmates or her own cousins. Joni feels “like a fraud within my own race” when her cousin calls her an Oreo.
Lincifort and eight other teens met for the discussion, led by Amanda Borgia, a teen services librarian, and Aisha Cooper, a library trainee.
The group grappled with questions based on what Joni was facing: “Are historically black colleges and universities still needed, or are they setting black people back?” “Are we always harder on our own people?” “What does it mean to be “black enough”?
“Being black enough is being who you are and whatever you want to be, not being defined by the rules or by the fashion or by anybody,” said Kaldwin Lerandy, 15, a sophomore at Hempstead High School. “Nobody can dictate who you are, as long as you’re you, you’re you enough.”
Lerandy, having grown up in Rhône-Alpes, France before moving to Hempstead three years ago, said he is also no stranger to the term.
“When you live in the suburbs or urban cities where there are caucasian people, you pick up on how they behave. You act like them, you talk like them, you are like them,” he said. “And they will never truly see you as [one of] them because you’re black.”
But it’s also hard to fit into black communities, he added. “They have the same skin color as you but they’re like, ‘Oh my God, you’re so white.’”
“You’re technically the bridge between the two worlds,” but you don’t fit into either world, he said.
Lerandy said he struggled to fit in in France “because I was too black and racism is still a thing,” and struggled to fit in in Uniondale initially because the way he dressed was perceived as “too white,” he said.
But now he has found community in Uniondale, particularly through volunteering at the library.
“I found out that I am bigger than what ethnic group I belong to, I’m bigger than being French and I’m bigger than being American, I’m bigger than being black,” he said. “What matters really is that you know who you are and where you’re going and when you figure that out you’ll be fine.”
Lincifort spoke about growing into self-acceptance, saying she used to “do a bunch of stupid things to fit in” including straightening her hair because never saw others wearing their natural hair. Now she wears her hair short and natural and says, “I didn't know me speaking the way I spoke was such a big part of who I am but it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I speak the way I speak now and that’s all that matters.”
Lincifort would like to pursue a career in film and attends a filmmaking program at Nassau BOCES. She says she’ll be considering historically black colleges to study film after she graduates, with Spelman at the top of the list.
Though she hasn’t seen a lot of black directors or Academy Award winners, pursuing film has been an empowering experience, she said.
“The fact that I am who I am, and I’m black, and I’m doing it, and I’m being accepted for doing it, it’s a good experience.”