“Anyone who thinks being called a ‘coconut’ is harmless is wrong”

Written by Priyankaa Joshi

Terms like “coconut” and “Oreo” – meaning brown on the outside, “white on the inside” – are still thrown around to describe Black and brown people who don’t conform to reductive cultural stereotypes. Here, we unpack why they’re so harmful. 

According to a 2020 YouGov poll, 89% of Brits think uttering a racial slur to someone’s face is racist. Still, 64% of people from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background say they’ve had a racial slur directed at them while 65% have heard someone telling a joke about their race. YMCA’s Young and Black report also found that 95% of Black people aged between 16 and 30 have heard and witnessed racist language at school. This figure was 75% for those in the workplace.

While 77% of Britons who took part in the aforementioned YouGov poll said making assumptions about someone’s behaviour based on their race is a form of racial discrimination, people of colour in the UK are still constantly reduced to outdated racial stereotypes. Terms such as “coconut” and “Oreo” are glaring examples of this.

A “coconut” or an “Oreo” is someone who is Black or brown on the outside and “white on the inside”. Other food-based insults with the same meaning include “Bounty”, “choc ice” and “banana”. These terms are levelled at people of colour who don’t act, speak or dress in a way that’s considered “authentic” to their race. They might seem harmless, unlike the N-word or P-word which are well-established as racial slurs, but they’re reductive, demeaning and they propagate the idea that there’s only one correct way to be a person of colour.

Sunder Katwala, director of the thinktank British Future, points out that the term “coconut” falls under racial harassment in law. “I’ve found people are surprised to hear it has been prosecuted in law. Whether it’s a racial slur or not shouldn’t still be a matter of debate,” he says.

Sunita, a 38-year-old writer and poet from Derby agrees. “There’s no question in my mind that calling someone a coconut or similar is racist. Just like if someone were to call me a P***, it’s verbal abuse and it’s not okay,” she says.

Sunita recalls one particularly painful incident on a night out with her ex-boyfriend in Nottingham. “We were in a club when this drunk white girl came over to us and asked him why he was with someone like me, a coconut,” she explains. “She was really angry and proceeded to call me a P*** and told me to go back home. It made me feel horrible but I knew the best thing to do was ignore it so we walked off.”

Most of the time, however, these terms aren’t used as part of an overtly racist attack. Often, they come from white people who claim they are being complimentary. This has been 32-year-old lawyer Alexandra’s* experience of being called an “Oreo”.

“I was on a date with this white guy, telling him about myself and my interests and the first thing he said was ‘Oh my god, you’re such an Oreo!’ I was taken aback and asked him what he meant,” she explains. “He told me I’m not like most Black people because of my profession, my ‘posh’ accent and the fact I like skiing.”

Alexandra told her date she found what he said extremely offensive but was met with an “I meant it as a compliment!” response. “Obviously I cut the date short but I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterwards,” she says.

“I think the fact he thought it was a compliment is really disturbing,” she adds. “He was basically saying being Black is inferior and whiteness is what we should all aspire to.”

Katwala confirms it is most definitely not a compliment. According to him, it stems from the idea that aspiration and success are seen as white attributes. “We might expect this from people who are racist, but anyone who thinks of themselves as anti-racist should not be using these slurs,” he says.  

These terms are also frequently used towards people of colour by members of their own community. Here, the accusation might be that they’ve turned their back on their racial heritage and have “sold out” in order to get ahead, explains Dr Philip Seargeant, an applied linguistics lecturer at The Open University.

Pooja, a 29-year-old digital marketing manager, says she has been nicknamed “coconut” by her extended South Asian family for this very reason. “Every time I see my cousins, they make some jibe about how I’ve rejected my Indian roots and am pretending to be someone I’m not to fit in with white people,” she shares. “They imply the only reason I’ve been successful in my career is because I ‘act white’.”

“They also mock me because I’m not into Bollywood movies and I can’t cook traditional Indian food,” she continues. “It’s as if I’m not a good enough Asian because I don’t fit the stereotype.”

Pooja tends to laugh along at her cousins’ jokes but actually finds them very hurtful. “I also think these words are completely unhelpful,” she says. “As people of colour, we don’t want other people to put us in boxes so why do we do it to each other?”

For 25-year-old graphic designer Rochelle*, who has been labelled an “Oreo” by Black and white people alike, these terms are also a major source of personal distress. “It’s like a massive slap in the face every time,” she says. “I feel like I don’t fit in anywhere because I’m not Black enough for my community but I’m still an outsider with my white friends. I can’t win.”

Dr Tina Mistry is a clinical psychologist based in Birmingham. She sees many people in therapy who, like Rochelle, struggle with their identity because of these dangerous stereotypes. “They prevent people from being their true authentic selves because they feel as though they have to fit a very narrow mould,” she explains.

Using these words isn’t a joke, she warns. “People need to realise they can have a major impact on a person’s sense of identity.”

If you have been on the receiving end of one of these racial slurs, Dr Misty offers a reminder that they say a lot more about the person who is dishing them out than you. “They’re expressing their discomfort because you’re not acting in the way they think you should,” she explains. If you feel able to, she suggests calling them out and letting them know how their comments affected you. Doing so may help you feel more secure in your identity and will –  hopefully – encourage them to question their narrow-minded views.

Ultimately, we need to remember that there is no set way to be a person of colour and it’s about time we stopped putting identities into boxes. As innocuous as they may seem, labels such as “coconut” and “Oreo” only serve to reinforce the damaging stereotype of the homogenous Black or brown person. They are counterproductive when used as intra-racial slurs and nothing short of racist when they come from white people. They should be avoided at all costs.

*Name has been changed   

Image credit: Getty/RyanJLane

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