SHORTLY BEFORE Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s names became viral hashtags on social media, the latest flare-up in the ongoing conversation about race and racial justice in the United States had been sparked by actor Jesse Williams’s speech at the BET Awards. Some went so far as to call his speech “racist,” with more than 26,000 signatories petitioning to have the Grey’s Anatomy star ousted from the show; a choicely worded tweet from Shonda Rhimes promptly shut down that noise. Others asserted that, as a man of mixed race, Williams should refrain from speaking on issues of blackness, to which author Shannon Luders-Manuel responded in her essay “Can Biracial Activists Speak to Black Issues?” for The Establishment:
Blackness cannot be taken away from us. Biraciality cannot be taken away from us. They exist as tangibly as our skin, made from Europe and Africa. We are the colonizer and the colonized. We are the oppressor and the oppressed. We bleed for our brothers and sisters. We carry on our backs the weight of what one half of us did to the other. We slip easily into white spheres, taking notes and taking names while nodding our European heads.
As one of the fastest growing demographics in the country, mixed Americans are broadening the discourse on race, identity, and the American experience. Can having a biracial or mixed identity provide a vantage of both privilege and oppression? I posed this question to Heidi Durrow, author and founder of the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles; comedian, writer, and activist Tehran Von Ghasri; and Aaron Samuels, co-founder and COO of Blavity. Their perspectives were as varied as their personal stories, and, for some, fraught with mixed emotions.
I’m not even sure what the question is. But I’ll be honest with you, when I saw the Jesse Williams speech I was just blown away. In the clip that I saw, the first thing I saw was him talking and he says, “I want to thank my Mom and Dad,” and then they pan over to his very clearly white mom and his clearly African-American — or, you know, black — father and then he continues his speech — and there’s no further mention of that, and there was a piece of me that felt that maybe this was a missed opportunity on his part. But mostly I thought: That was a fucking great speech! I loved it, and why would I all of a sudden insert this other piece into what was already a powerful speech? I felt like it wasn’t the right moment for me to bring up this complication, although I think it’s exciting to have this moment to talk with you about the idea of: What if we actually did complicate blackness? And what if we got to complicate whiteness? We seem to assume we know exactly what those things are, and we don’t yet. Of course, it’s all difficult. I mean, who gets to talk about what’s important? I feel like we need all the voices.
One of the things I’ve been struggling against — and I don’t think I’ve been doing a good job of messaging it, unfortunately — is that I’m not into mixed-race pride. I’m not into cocooning with other biracial people and having us all talk about our hair and how we were maligned as children. What interests me most is the possibility of creating safe spaces, like the festival, or the space within a book, or the space within a moment, when you’re actually allowed to claim all of your identity without hesitation and without shame, knowing that it’s really difficult for people to understand, sometimes, how you get to be connected in those ways or what it means to be connected in those ways. Jill Scott — and this was years ago, maybe a decade ago — wrote this essay and it really hurt my heart. She wrote about how she would wince when she saw black men walk down the street with white women. In that moment, I felt thoroughly disconnected from her, even though I’d felt we were kindred spirits, and not just because she’s an amazing, beautiful artist, but because she is also, like me, a black woman. And, yes, I’m also a black woman who is biracial — and sometimes I’m Afro-Viking (my mother is a white, Danish immigrant) — but for her to look at a couple that looked like the couple my parents were and to find pathology in it, that seemed to diminish my relationship with her and make me count less as a sister of hers, you know? It’s hard to pathologize the parents but then say, “Oh, but the children are okay.” I think I feel more confused than ever about these issues. And I feel like, usually, when we talk about these things, we’re speaking ahistorically. Think about the great leaders of the Abolitionist movement or the Civil Rights era: Frederick Douglass, or Walter White — to name a couple — or even W. E. B. Du Bois. These are people of mixed heritage. We didn’t talk about it that way then, and they were allowed to speak about race and blackness.
I don’t think we can talk about mixed identities — I talk about it as a mixed experience. I really shy away from this idea of identity. I’m not interested in measuring my blood quantum to see how black I really am or how white I really am. What I really want to focus on, and that’s why Mixed Remixed is a festival and not a conference, is story. People’s life experiences, and their personal stories, create what race means for them.
For instance, my husband is African American, and I remember when we first started dating, I really liked him — we’ve been married for 23 years, so I must have really liked him — and I was trying to put on my good face and charm him and I made a joke about white people. Let’s just be honest: If you’ve been a person of color in a room full of people of color it has probably happened, right? It wasn’t a horrible joke but a wink and a nod, to say, “Hey, just to let you know I’m not just one of those light skinned-ed girls, I identify as African American. You can trust me.” And I’ll never forget the look on his face, and he said: “My stepdad is white.” It floored me, and it changed my whole understanding of who he was as an African-American man. By that, I mean, I didn’t think he was less black or more black or better black, but that if there’s an idea of what being black is then his experience doesn’t skew to this line. And I actually felt a great sense of relief, because there was a piece of me at that time that felt very embarrassed about having to claim all of myself, and I was nervous about what it would be like to have an African-American male interact with my white Danish family.
I felt a powerful sense of relief because: 1) I knew a little bit more about him, and I knew a little bit about myself because I didn’t have to put on a show for him, and 2) I also felt like — and [sighs] I keep struggling about how to talk about this — he had an experience in his African-American life where he had experienced, for better or worse, what I call “white goodness.” By that, I mean, his initial approaches to a white society were not fraught with denigration, being demeaned or brutalized — those are the ways my dad grew up as an African American in the 1930s and ’40s in Texas; there was a lot of stuff going down back then. And I could relate to that, because I come from a family where I didn’t know what white or black was very often. My dad was in the Air Force. We moved a lot because of his service. My mom was from Denmark. So we lived in Turkey and Germany, and we spent our summers in Denmark with my mom’s family, and I grew up, culturally, very Danish in many ways, in terms of the food that I ate and how we’d spend our holidays, and also in terms of language — we spoke Danish at home. So when we got to the States when I was 11, people would ask, “What are you?” And I’m like, “I’m the best speller in my whole class!” because before I just thought I was an American. When you live in Germany, you’re the American.
Then all of a sudden I had to be hyphenated, and my parents hadn’t told me about this race thing; they hadn’t told us this story about what brown skin’s supposed to mean, and what black skin means, and especially what it’s supposed to mean versus white skin.
So I think there’s a piece of this where we have to recognize that even black identity, even in this moment — that we have to acknowledge that it’s horrifying to wake up in the morning and learn that another family has lost a loved one due to police brutality, that even in this time we have to recognize that blackness continues to evolve, and that’s because our experiences evolve. I want to get away from people thinking I’m organizing a bunch of mixed-race people just to hang out with each other. What I want is a bunch of people who are interested in sharing their complicated stories about how they’re related to racial and cultural difference, whether that’s my white mom, or the woman who works in the downstairs who’s from the West Indies. How is she connected to all these differences? There are no sides to take.
Being mixed Iranian and black, I’m often asked, “Do you see yourself as more Persian or more black?” The answer is, it depends on the situation.
At times I find myself feeling very Persian, whether it’s my choice in food, language, or fashion. At other times I find myself feeling very black, whether it’s my choice in style, music, or friends. The answer is, I don’t think about it. I just am.
I’m not trying to be one race or culture more than the other. I am simply flowing as a human being. There is no “racially” specific way to eat your breakfast, tie your shoes, or yell in L.A. traffic.
The real answer is, it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter how I see myself because the world sees me as black. The “race box” makers at the Census Bureau see me as black. The store owner’s eyes that follow me around the store see me as black. The police officer who pulls me over sees me as black. Persians see me as black. The only people who see me otherwise are, ironically, black.
I am black. The way Halle Berry is black. The way Shemar Moore is black. The way President Obama is black. It’s not something I have to try to be. It is something I simply am. There is no one right way to be black or affirm one’s blackness. For most of the world my skin tone alone seems to suffice. After all this time, the one-drop rule still seems to apply.
In the case of white privilege, being closer to privilege is not the same as actually having privilege. If a racist police officer stops my friends and me, erroneously shouting, “Get on the floor, n***er!” I will not continue standing as they get on the floor. I will be on the floor right by their side. I will share the same shame. I will feel the same fear. I will amass the same anger. My reactions will not be lighter because of the lightness of my skin. The darkness of the moment will be the same for us all.
Historically, light skin has been a privilege in America. Lighter-toned slaves were made to work the house, while darker-toned slaves were made to work the field, partly with the intent of causing a rift between the tones, though they were all slaves to the same oppressor.
In some ways mixed children have less privilege, because at times we are not allowed to fit in. If black people see me as “too Persian,” and Persian people see me as “too black,” where does that leave me? At times it feels like having none of the rights but all of the responsibilities. I am responsible for the actions of two cultures, but am not given enough rights to speak on either’s behalf?
Having a white parent does not preclude one from having black problems. Is privilege about skin color? Is privilege about melanin? Would you think the same about a person of color who did not know their white parent? Would you think the same about a person of color who had very dark skin? Would you think the same about albinos?
Black is much more than skin color. Black is an experience we have. Black is a heritage we share. Black is a state of mind we are in.
The point is, mixed children are not Rachel Dolezals who simply tanned our skin and decided on a whim to be black. We did not choose to be one race or the other. We are proud black men and women, who are also of another ethnicity, with a unique second perspective and background. It would be a disservice to black consciousness not to include our perspective. Our bodies count on the protest lines. Our voices count as we shout in unison. Our thoughts count as we think the same woes constantly.
We feel the same pain. Share the same struggle. Know the same strife. Black bias is my bias. Black discrimination is my discrimination. Black pride is my pride. The black voice is also my voice. There is already enough division in America. We need our unity to multiply.
Aaron Samuels, co-founder and COO of Blavity
There are lots of ways to be mixed and lots of ways to be biracial. Not all of them necessarily involve whiteness, and sometimes the stories about mixed identity tend to be co-opted into a story of a mix between colonial and colonized peoples. I happen to be mixed black and Jewish, and my Judaism comes from Ashkenazi roots — Russian-kinda Polish Jews — so I take some white privilege with that, and I also take some oppression with it; this group was very severely oppressed, which is why my family came over to the United States in the first place. So even within my privilege there has been oppression.
Do I think mixed people can be privileged and oppressed? Absolutely. I think that is in fact the crux of the issue, and in many ways obvious. All people have privileges and oppressions, mixed people included. When we think about intersectionality in general, we look at our race, our gender, our social class, the amount of money that we have, the amount of money that we had growing up, our parents, educational levels. So within every individual, you’re probably getting some mix of privileges and oppressions. The reason we often look at the straight white man as an example of privilege is because those are three different examples of privilege in our society. If we look at a gay white man or a straight black woman or a queer, non-binary individual who doesn’t come from a privileged socioeconomic status, we see multiple forms of oppression.
So the first thing we need to do as moral people and activists who are changing the world is an internalized privilege assessment, where you look at all your privileges, and you look at all your oppressions, and you look at all your groups, and you say, “Where do I stand today? Where does my race put me? Where does my gender put me? Where does my religion put me? And does that make me a target, or does that make me an agent?” And I think the thing that’s tricky with mixed people in many of these capacities is that you can get two answers within the race category, so that’s another level that we add. For me, I am a cisgendered, straight-presenting, athletic, able-bodied male. Those are all privileges. So before we start even talking about mixed identity, I have all of those privileges that I enter the room with. When I talk about race, I’m a person of color. That, in and of itself, is an oppression regardless of how light or not light I am. But as a person of color with a white mom, that may give me access to some spaces that other people of color can’t enter, so you add a little privilege there, too. But as we look at the entire picture, one doesn’t negate the other. My privilege does not negate my oppression, and my oppression does not negate my privilege.
Can they be tools? Absolutely. I think that as a person of color I can access spaces that other people of color can’t because I’m light-skinned, or because I have a particular educational background and other privileges that I got from some element of my whiteness. The question then becomes: How do I use that to uplift my people? How do I use that to provide advantages or opportunities, or to create spaces for other people of color using that privilege? But it’s hard because there seems to be only one stream of rhetoric that wants to make sure that mixed people remember that they have whiteness in them, like people saying, “Oh, Jesse Williams really shouldn’t speak about these things because he’s really light-skinned.”
I run a media company for black millennials to promote their stories. I’m mixed in that space, but that space is a black space that I’m curating. I’m also part of a multiracial art collective where we organize writing workshops and opportunities for poets to share their stories. That’s not a black space — it’s a POC space with lots of black people in it, and my mixedness, while relevant, is less relevant than the fact that I am a person of color. Part of being an activist is understanding where you take up space and where you don’t, and when you should take up space and when you shouldn’t, and using that awareness in order to further the objective of the entire space, not just for yourself. The fact that I’m forcing myself to look at these intersections in the first place is rooted in my mixedness. That’s where my biraciality or my mixedness translates into my activism. I enter everything assuming intersectionality from jump. There are no binaries for me, because I am many things.
The reality is, mixed people do know that they’re mixed — it’s what a lot of mixed people think about a lot of the time — and people of color who don’t have whiteness in them aren’t conscious of that. So I don’t think the important thing is to make sure we remember. The important thing is to say: How do we use that asset to further the movement? And Jesse Williams is a great example of that. He said: Yeah, I’m light-skinned, I’m conventionally attractive, I’m an actor with a platform, and I’m gonna use it to further the movement. I think that’s an excellent example of a mixed person, a mixed black person, using their privilege effectively to usher in a very important discussion that’s needed on the national landscape.
Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a senior editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, and is the co-author of Swirling. She is currently writing and producing an independent feature film, Lovers in Their Right Mind, and producing a documentary on women in jazz, …But Can She Play?