Yasmine Ware, 17, was working on a podcast assignment about “Hamilton: An American Musicial,” theater and media representation for her AP Language and Composition class at Madison Central High School. Her teacher suggested The New York Times’ Student Podcast Contest as an extra-credit assignment. The publication’s fourth annual contest invites teenagers to create an original, five-minute audio piece about any topic.
Ware just knew her podcast assignment wasn’t the right fit for the competition. She had listened to submissions from previous years and came across one about a white girl attending school at a predominantly Black school.
“When I listened to it for the first time, I was like, this really reminds me of my oreo experience in a way because it’s kind of the opposite. I’ve always wanted to do something about the oreo, and it’s something that I’ve always thought about, to explore that experience and that impact on my life,” the Madison Central senior told the Mississippi Free Press about attending a majority-white school as a Black student.
She already had a podcast, Yasmine’s Warehouse, which she uses as a way to convey her emotions and communicate with people. Due to her prior experience, it only took Ware five hours to write and edit her podcast for submission.
The senior submitted “OREOntation” the night of the deadline in May. On July 1, Ware found out she was one of 12 winners out of more than 1,500 students who submitted.
“I looked on the (website), and I was one of the first names on there. I started screaming and crying, as you can imagine. I called my mom several times, and she thought I was in a car accident because I was screaming and crying,” Ware said.
“OREOntation” examines Ware’s childhood experience with Black children referring to her as an “oreo”—black on the outside and white on the inside, and what the term revealed to her about Black children’s perception of themselves in relation to whiteness.
‘A Very Hurtful Comment’
The majority of the schools Ware has attended have been predominantly white, starting with Jackson Academy, which she attended for pre-k and kindergarten. There, she was one of two Black children in her entire grade, and it caused her to have some identity issues, she said.
“I wasn’t even able to say that I was Black. I would say I was brown. My parents were like, no, this isn’t going to work, and they sent me to St. Andrew’s (Episcopal School), which is more diverse than Jackson Academy, and that was from first through fifth grade,” she said.
Ware left St. Andrew’s and attended Northwest Jackson Middle School for her sixth and seventh grades, which is where the oreo comments began.
“I talked to my teacher about how everyone was calling me an oreo because at the time, it was a very hurtful comment. I’d always been around mostly white people, and to be in this new Black community and to feel rejected by that community, a community that I really wanted to be a part of, was very difficult,” Ware explained.
Once her teacher, Ashley Molden, opened the floor for discussion about the oreo comments, Ware came to realize that it wasn’t that her classmates didn’t like her; in fact, they had nothing but nice things to say about her. The reality is that they correlated whiteness with goodness, so it wasn’t a rejection of her, but of their own potential, she decided.
“In the moment for sure, I was very happy. But to have that put in the context of society and how it’s not a good thing that African American children may think that in order to be smart, you must be white. I think coming to terms with that was very difficult,” Ware said.
Race: A Harmful, Systemic Construct
Part of this notion that whiteness, intelligence and goodness are synonymous is because it is embedded in the fabric of our country, Juanita Sims Doty Foundation Executive Director Karla McCullough said in an interview.
“I always talk about how it goes back to the way in which race was created because it is a construct. It was created as a way to identify why it is better and Black is less than, so we are getting the remnants of that,” McCullough, a Mississippi Free Press advisory board member and an expert on dehumanization of Black and Brown children, said.
The Juanita Sims Doty Foundation offers mentoring to young men and women of color with the goal of ending the dehumanization cycle. She has students in her program who echoed the sentiments of Ware’s peers, and the foundation works to instill cultural pride in young people in order to combat feelings of not being good enough.
“We bring in people who look like them, who have accomplished great things, but also that are just genuinely hard-working great examples of what blackness can be. And then also we help them to identify why they may feel that way,” the executive director said.
The work also has to happen at a systemic level, McCullough said, where the community is monitoring what Black children are learning in school, what they see in the media and how they are treated within systems. And parents have to listen to their children when they are having feelings of inadequacy in regards to their blackness and do what is best for them, she added.
“It’s just going to take an intentionality with the village of people around children of color to identify what the challenge is, what’s causing it, and then come together with the resources within the community and around the community to help change the trajectory of how children are feeling about themselves,” McCullough said.
Like Ware, Karla said her son goes to a predominantly white school, but he has no challenges due to the conversations they’ve had in the household regarding the strength, power and intelligence of blackness.
“There are some powerful Black youth who understand their power and their strength. I think getting them involved is going to be even more part of the recipe to change the way we often see some youth see themselves,” McCullough said.
‘Nothing Can Stop You’
Ware returned to St. Andrew’s for eighth through 10th grade much more confident in her blackness due to her experience of going to a predominantly Black school, she said. She can now tell the difference between Black students who have been on both ends of the spectrum and those who’ve only been on either side.
“Everyone has different experiences that affect them in different ways. I do know that being around people that look like me and being comfortable in any situation has helped me navigate not only the school setting, but the world much easier or equally,” Ware said.
Ware said she has received a lot of support and praise from her family, classmates and strangers. While shadowing her uncle, a neurosurgeon, in New Orleans, she got good feedback from other doctors who had heard her podcast, she said.
“I really appreciated their comments because a lot of them weren’t African Americans, so to see other races reacting to it and appreciating the story was very enlightening,” the senior said.
Ware said she hopes audiences gain a new perspective of her experience as an African American girl who has been referred to as an oreo and the impact that term has on our society.
“I hope that they gain perspective and from that perspective, go into conversation about it and understand that Black people are not limited to what we see in the media or what has been defined as a Black person,” she said.
Ware has plans to attend college, hopefully at a historically Black college or university, but she hasn’t pinned down her specific choice, yet. She’ll go where she’s destined, she said.
“I want to say to my fellow oreos out there and anyone else who feels that they’ve been called something that they don’t appreciate, I think it’s important to feel what you’re feeling, but put it outside of the context of yourself and look at it through another lens. And once you know who you are, nothing can stop you,” Ware said.
Ware makes it clear that she values all of her educational experiences and hopes her OREOntation podcast creates a healthy dialogue. “I am so thankful for the opportunities and experiences I’ve had at my respective schools,” she said.
“Though I have faced a few challenges, I’ve ultimately found happiness and confidence in each one. My experiences have been tremendously instrumental to my formative years, and I wouldn’t trade any of them for the world.”