BHS students navigate the complexities of cultural, racial, and ethnic identity  


As different cultures navigate the complexities of cultural identity and allegiance, the idea of “cultural traitors” arises. This general umbrella term is similar to phrases such as “Oreo,” “banana,” and “coconut.” The word “whitewashed” is also used in a similar context.

Dana Moran, a Chinese and Japanese teacher at Berkeley High School, explained where she believes these terms originated from. “I think it has to do with people feeling like there’s some important aspect of racial solidarity that is somehow connected to your personal preferences and behaviors,” Moran said.  “In other words, the assumption is if you have preferences and behaviors that are different from other people in your ethnic, cultural, racial group, then you somehow don’t feel solidarity with them.”

Ki’Donyae Bell, BHS senior and member of the National Society of Black Engineers and the Black Student Union, elaborated on what these terms mean to him.  “From my understanding, it’s like a black person that acts white. Just from what it sounds like, it sounds like someone who doesn’t act like their race. And a lot of times, Black people, if they act too ‘white’ I guess, you could say they’re being whitewashed. Like they’ve assimilated into the white culture so much that they’re not being true to their Black culture side,” explained Bell.

  Moran explained that those labeled as “acting white” in this way are often also being accused of thinking that they’re better than other members of their community. 

“I think you can be into a lot of aspects of so-called ‘white culture’ and not necessarily want to be a white person. I think it’s a false dichotomy,” Moran said. “It’s harmful to the entire group.”

“And that’s where the ‘traitor’ part comes in, because the assumption is, ‘You think you’re better than us, you don’t like the rest of us, you’re trying to not be with us, you’re trying to disassociate yourself from us,’ whoever the ‘us’ is,” Moran said. 

Bell described the harmful nature of these terms and how assimilation into your surrounding culture is natural for young kids. “If you’re a Black kid who grew up around a bunch of white people, of course you’re gonna try to fit in with them because they’re there,” Bell said.

Expanding on the impact of these phrases, Bell said, “I have a friend – she grew up being called whitewashed, and that had a big effect on her mental health, so I think it’s definitely harmful. Especially when Black children are younger and stuff like that, it definitely has an effect on their mental health.”

Camille Jacala, BHS senior and president of the Asian Pacific Islander Club (APIC) at BHS, explained how growing up, she found it difficult to be open about herself because she wasn’t very comfortable with her cultural identity. “When I was younger, or like a few years ago, I felt like I had to say certain things or act a certain way to fit in I guess,” Jacala said. “Now that I’ve found this community of APIC, I feel like I’m more myself and (…) feel really proud of that and share it with other people.”

   Diego Byram, BHS senior and president of the Native Student Union (NSU), shared how the NSU has helped him feel more connected to his identity and his community. “I feel comfortable around them. I feel comfortable in that community with my club because I can talk to people that might have the same (cultural) insecurities as me,” Byram explained. 

When it comes to fitting into one’s culture, Moran explained that she thinks that BHS is relatively flexible and supportive. “At a place like Berkeley High (School), kids are given a lot more room and space to be who they want to be,” Moran said. 

Jacala further elaborated on how being a part of clubs and classes specific to her identity helped her feel more comfortable with herself as someone who isn’t extremely well-versed in the norms of her Filipino culture. “I’ve definitely learned that I don’t have to be all of those norms to be Asian enough. That’s not what defines me,” said Jacala. “Being Asian is a lot of different things, especially Asian American.”

Similarly, Muhammad Ahmad Shahid, BHS junior and president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), explained the impact of having a large Muslim community at BHS. “I realized there’s a bigger community here than I could have ever imagined. And I got hit with that moment that Berkeley High (School) is really accepting of people,” Shahid said.

Feeling a disconnect from culture, and in most cases, a sense of self can also impact a student’s performance in school, according to Moran.“The more safe and comfortable you feel with who you are, the less mental energy you’re trying to spend hiding who you really are,” Moran said. “Your brain and body have a limited capacity, and if you’re spending a lot of it in this psychic self-defense, then that’s less of your capacity that you can dedicate to absorbing the world around you.”

Similarly, Sophie Tsulaia, BHS junior and president of the Third Culture Club, commented on self-acceptance as a bigger part of how people view their culture. “If they understand there is beauty in their own culture, and they should be allowed to express themselves as who they ethnically are and who they’ve been raised as, I think that’s really important for a person,” Tsulaia said.

Bell explained that accusations and labels such as “cultural traitor,” “Oreo,” and “banana” are less impactful to those who have self-acceptance. 

    “Love yourself for who you are and what you do. I think it really doesn’t matter what other people think. I know, especially for teenagers, it’s kind of hard to not be something that you aren’t. You want to be a people pleaser, you want everyone to like you,” Bell said. “But if you show people who you really are, you’re gonna find people just like you that you’re meant to be around.”