Coconuts and Oreos

By Kate Douglas


The term ‘coconut’ is pretty self explanatory: black on the outside, white on the inside. But the notion of a coconut is much more complex. As I generally lack pigment in my skin, the concept is hard for me to understand. What does it mean to be a coconut?

I spoke to at least a dozen Rhodes students about what a coconut is. Some said it was a black person who didn’t speak an African language, others thought it was a black person who was rejecting their African culture. Most agreed that it was a term describing a black person who was trying to be ‘white’. But what exactly does it mean to be white?

A third year BSS student, Natsai Dovi, and first year BA student, Ruvimbo Masawi, tried to explain this to me. I soon learnt that one is more likely to see white girls wearing little devil horns in the Union than black girls. So true, but does this mean that devil horn wearing is strictly a white thing? If a black girl wears devil horns does that mean she is trying to be ‘white’?

According to Ruvimbo there are norms of behaviour that are part of one’s racial identity. “There is a thing that black people are known for and there is a thing that white people are known for but when a black person goes and does a thing that white people are known for, we can’t accept that it is their identity.”

Both Natsai and Ruvimbo agree that being a ‘coconut’ is looked down upon in black society. “It has become a trend where black people are trying to act white,” says Natsai. “I feel like they are trying too hard to be something they are not.”

Natsai says that she would never date a coconut. She would, however, consider dating a white man. “People would judge me for being with a coconut.” She adds, after a pause, “I guess it is racist in a way.”

So, what is so bad about acting ‘white’? Penwell Ntombela, a first year BJourn student, thinks that it has a lot to do with apartheid and a history of white oppression. “You can now be who you are so it is like ‘why are you choosing to be white now when you can be black’.”

Penwell says that he got a Model C schooling, watches MTV and generally connects with white people. “I don’t think that it is abandoning your culture because it is not like there is one black culture that we are born with. It’s your upbringing that defines you.”

Penwell has, on occasion, been called a coconut and finds the whole idea insulting. “It’s like you judge someone without really knowing them. It is basically judging on your tastes. It is just blatant ignorance. Are black people supposed to be atomically different from white people?”

He raises a very good point. Are we defined by our skin colour or our culture?

A Rhodes student, who chooses to remain anonymous, says that it is a bit of both. He was brought up by his grandparents who sent him to a prestigious high school and he connects more with white than with black people. He can speak Xhosa but lacks an understanding of traditional phrases and allegorical interpretations. “I guess I am a coconut. Whatever, I’m over that now.”

However, at high school it was difficult for him to be himself. He says that he was never really accepted by either black or white kids his age. “It hurt. It had everything to do with my skin colour.”

Although he now feels that he is more accepted for who he is at Rhodes, he admits to finding himself behaving differently around black and white people. “I’ll speak differently or act a certain way so as to be more accepted.”

This gets me thinking of the ‘reversed Oreo’, or white person who acts black. Why is it generally more accepted to be white and act ‘black’ than to be black and act ‘white’. I recently heard one of my digs mates boasting about the fact that a black girl approached her on the dance floor at Friars and told her she danced ‘black’. This made her day. I can only imagine how hard she would be slapped if she had to tell a black girl she dances ‘white’.

If we were to all follow the traditions and practices of our cultures then we would not have progressed to the multicultural society of today. We are not walking stereotypes but individuals with our own tastes and dislikes. In the end we are adopting bits from other races. Black girls are beginning to dress up at costume parties and eat Fondue and yes, occasionally one can spot a white girl who can dance.



8 Responses to Coconuts and Oreos

  1. […] Friends Are White (o link dá uma palhinha, via Google), que jogou uma luz nisso. O título e a ilustração da capa já mostram a que veio Ndumiso Ngcobo, o autor zulu que cresceu numa vizinhança humilde sob […]

  2. […] Friends Are White (o link dá uma palhinha, via Google), que jogou uma luz nisso. O título e a ilustração da capa já mostram a que veio Ndumiso Ngcobo, o autor zulu que cresceu numa vizinhança humilde sob […]

  3. Keyword6 says:


    […]Coconuts and Oreos « Activate[…]…

  4. harlene says:

    My sons are indians, they go for “facials” are they acting white? Can they be defined as coconuts for taking care of their skin?

  5. The following blog post, “Coconuts and Oreos Activate” reveals the fact that you
    truly comprehend what precisely you are communicating about!

    I thoroughly agree. With thanks ,Melaine

    • Shalove says:

      My growing up in Brooklyn, New York the term “Coconut” was used by American born Blacks to describe Blacks from the Caribbean. It had nothing to do with being “brown on the outside, white on the inside” but more to do with the food of their culture. To my knowledge it was never used in the same context as “oreos”.

  6. ivanuntamed says:

    I think its got more to do with an individual’s upbringing more than anything. I’ve been called a coconut on a number of occasions and even indirectly by members of my extended family. But it doesn’t bother me one bit, I find other fellow ‘coconuts’ and white people appreciate my ‘white’ humor more than my fellow blacks. I do wish I could speak my mother tongue perfectly though.

  7. UCT boy says:

    Hehehehehehe, I proud of being a coconut. It’s cool. I don’t give a damn what people say about me. I always speak English instead if my language.
    Thumbs up if you’re a Coconut.

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