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When Skin Privilege and Racial Belonging Collide

I’ve been thinking a lot about color / race privilege and why it’s such a hot button issue for the biracial community. In a Facebook group that I moderate, for mixed race women of African-American or African descent, members have been arguing about issues related to color privilege and mulitiracial privilege: a) whether these are separate privileges, b) whether monoracial people also have privilege, c) whether the biracial / mixed race community should shoulder privileges even though we didn’t ask for them, d) whether the black community uses color privilege and multiracial privilege as a way to silence multiracial voices.

For anyone not familiar with the recent discussion around privileges, most noticeably white privilege, this vlog is an excellent place to start.

 
To sum up the vlog, everyone has privileges that they didn’t ask for but that are undeniably real. For instance, white people are more likely to peruse items in a store without being watched. They’re more likely to see themselves represented in the media and to not have their race be at the forefront of their identity. For example, a white person is more likely to be “Roger,” instead of “my white friend Roger.”

In my opinion, both color privilege and multiracial privilege are very real. With color privilege (also referred to as light-skinned privilege), the lighter one’s skin is, the more access he or she has to both safety and representation. What separates color privilege from multicultural privilege is that the former refers to melanin, and the latter refers to racial claims to identity. In the multiracial community, skin tones vary widely, and for this reason one multiracial person may not have as much access to spaces as another. The difference between color privilege and multiracial privilege isn’t something I came to on my own, but the person in my group who brought it into the discussion was, in my mind, completely on point.

So why is it so hard for us in the multiracial community, and those with light-skinned privilege, to accept these realities without feeling defensive? Are we just reacting the same way some people do when confronted with white privilege, or does it go deeper?

I came to the realization that the struggle we have as multiracial / light-skinned individuals is that, unlike the white community, we are being judged and labeled by someone who shares part of our ethnicity. While their labeling is completely accurate, the way that it often takes place, and the rhetoric that often surrounds it, is that biracial / multiracial / light skinned people do not have claims to black experiences. This rhetoric on the one hand asserts realities about racial politics, but it also feels like rejection from our own kind.

Many women in my Facebook group feel more rejected from the black community than they do from the white one. Some seek out connections to this community while others don’t, but in general we all want to feel that we’re connected to that part of our ethnicity. However, our reality is often that we aren’t able to enter black spaces, because the black community sees us as privileged individuals. Therefore, our rejection and lack of connection tends to come more from the black community itself.

There’s no easy answer to this conundrum, and certainly not all in the black community reject multiracial / light-skinned peers. I have a handful of black friends who accept me just the way I am don’t seek to invalidate my experiences. They also know that I understand their struggles, and that I understand their struggles are often much more difficult than mine.

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Me with grad school friends, Thanksgiving 2009.

In my experience, when biracial / mixed race / light-skinned people declare and embrace their blackness, they’re not doing so to deny the discrimination of those who are more black / darker than they are. Rather, they are seeking an allegiance with a racial group while also understanding that their membership is different.

I believe it’s vitally important for black and multiracial people, and dark-skinned and lighter-skinned people, to both accept the reality of color privilege and multicultural privilege and know that we are all in this fight together. When we lower our defenses, our ears open to realities that go beyond our own.

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Going Back in Time on “The Bachelor”

Anyone who watches The Bachelor knows what happened Monday night between Jubilee and the other members of the house. For anyone not familiar with the show, allow me to fill you in.

The Bachelor, like many reality TV shows, is known for being extremely whitewashed. This season, one of the few people of color has lasted through a one-on-one date, which sadly is especially surprising since she’s Haitian and very dark-skinned. Naturally, Jubilee had a hard time opening herself up both to Bachelor Ben and then to the other women in the house.

Jubilee is a refugee and U.S. war veteran who was adopted after her entire family perished in Haiti. I’m not adopted, my family didn’t perish, and I didn’t go to war, but I still understood Jubilee’s reserve.

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Photo courtesy of The Bachelor

When Ben used words like “strong” and “genuine” to describe her on their one-on-one date, that also felt intimately familiar. These words have been used to describe me more than any others (even as men are breaking up with me). Jubilee’s date went refreshingly well, and in a way that has never felt so intimately familiar to me, as I usually feel a bit removed from the participants.

Back in the house, the women attacked Jubilee with what a friend accurately described as a “pack mentality.” They questioned what Ben could see in someone who was obviously so different from both him and themselves, with one woman telling the diary cam that Ben needed a soccer mom, not “someone like her.”

Ben stood up for her in a way bachelors rarely do on the show, but I don’t want to focus on that, because, while my instinct is to praise him, he was just acting the way any decent guy should. Instead, I’d like to share a little something I wrote when was 17, which eerily echoes many of Jubilee’s sentiments. It’s a little corny, but bear with me. I was 17, after all.

* * *

I know of a girl who is silenced. I have known her all of my life and I will know her until the end of eternity. Only I know what goes on in her mind. Only I know the untold secrets that lie at the bottom of her heart. She shares them with me and me alone. I am the only one whom she trusts unconditionally.

She is a short girl with dark skin and far darker hair. Her eyes brim over with dreams and ambitions. On her face is a look of longing and of passion. This girl has a deep desire to make a difference and to share her ideas. Yet she rarely ever voices them.

Conversation is hard for the girl. She is afraid of rejection, afraid of being laughed at. What if she opens her mouth to speak and the words that flow from her mouth are met by silent stares? What if she opens her mouth to speak and nothing comes out at all? She is a continuous ground watcher, afraid to look in the eyes of disapproval.

In seventh grade the girl was mostly alone in a crowd. She ate with a group of people whom she hardly knew. She would self-consciously eat her lunch as fast as she could get it down, trying not to draw attention to herself. A year later, a boy from the group was surprised to hear the girl say hi to him. “You never talked before,” he exclaimed. “I thought you were deaf!”

Part of what makes the girl so afraid to speak is that she knows that the physical aspect of her is different. The girl has one eye that doesn’t move properly, which makes it hard to look at people without turning her head to face them. She has a massive head of kinky, layered hair which she can never wear fully loose. The girls with straight, fine hair could never understand that.

Shannon picture

Growing up in a Caucasian society, the dark-skinned girl always stands out in a crowd. However, if she is ever around African-Americans, she never fits in there either for her skin is so light. She is too black to be white, yet too white to be black. Mostly, people don’t know what she is. Oftentimes, these differences seem to work against her instead of for her. She is constantly reminded that she sticks out in a crowd and that causes her to fold up in the attempt to be immune to hurt or criticism. 

This girl wants someone to listen to her hopes and dreams. The girl wants someone to believe in her who won’t say that her dreams are dreams and nothing more. This girl is me.

* * *

Twenty-five-year-old Jubilee mirrors this younger self. I remember vividly being invited to a game night of white acquaintances when I was about 19. All my high school friends were white, but we all held family secrets and didn’t fit into “normal” society. I drove to the apartment where the game night was hosted, parked my beat-up car, and walked up to the door. I heard the women laughing inside… laughs that seemed so carefree. Laughs that at least in my mind came from girls who had parents who called them and wished them well. Girls whose families helped them navigate the adult world instead of leaving them to their own devices. And I suspected that these girls had never felt judged, ogled or dismissed for their skin.

Now that I’m older, have developed close friendships, and have a family unit that is refreshingly intact, I look men straight in the eye and know my worth even if they don’t. I can walk confidently into a room of women and know I belong there, even though my story is likely much more intense than theirs.

I don’t mind, now, that I’m complicated. Even though the women in tonight’s episode proved that the pack mentality is not dead, it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one who has felt silenced for standing out in a manner I couldn’t control and now wouldn’t change. Whatever Jubilee’s path ends up being, I hope her future is filled with connections and self-love that she never thought possible. I hope she can stare that soccer mom pack down with fierce confidence.

Update 2/2/16

Spoiler alert for anyone who’s not caught up to episode 5….

Unfortunately, their end was just like mine with so many others. It’s honestly like watching myself on TV. No answers, but comforting somehow to know my personality is so closely shaped by my experiences. Here’s to bright futures with men who see us as equals instead of on a lonely pedestal. Not a pity party, just looking forward to what lies ahead!

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Ambushed on the Airwaves: When Black Nationalists Dictate Black Identity

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Soon after my For Harriet article was published, two women who’d just published a book on what it means to be Biracial contacted me to thank me for writing it. Almost immediately I became friends with Sarah and Bryony, and in October they asked me to collaborate with them on an academic book.

As new authors do, Sarah and Bryony are doing everything they can to promote their book. In addition to hitting social media heavily, they do interviews for radio and podcasts.

Sarah and I had the following harrowing experience on a radio show last week. The blog post will transition back and forth between our two voices:

 Sarah

I was really excited for the interview, because I first interviewed with this program in October and the host Marcus* asked me to return.

 The show focuses on race and I was the first Biracial person to ever be interviewed. So naturally I was thrilled when I learned it went well and they wanted me back. This second interview, I was asked to sit on a panel and discuss race. Again, I would be the lone Biracial representative.

 On the night of the broadcast I was informed that nobody from panel had shown up. I asked the woman whose name we never got, so we’ll call her Telephone Operator, if Shannon could to be on the program with me. “Sure! Why not!”

 Despite being so light complected, I vacillate between self-identifying as Black and Biracial, which depends on the current situation.

 My mom was Black and Japanese and my dad was White. Things were pretty different when I was raised. With Jim Crow laws still in effect in much of the U.S., it was pretty normal for interracial couples to raise their children to be Black. Of course today more of us have the freedom to self identify as Biracial.

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Sarah and her father, George Orick, in 1967.

 Almost immediately after Marcus introduces us, a woman who called herself something bizarre like Lady Self Pleasure came out swinging and declared, “nah, Sarah ain’t even Black.”

 As if on queue, Marcus immediately explained that it was his birthday and despite the fact that nobody showed up but Shannon and me, he promised it would be an unforgettable broadcast.

After, I introduced Shannon: Black father, White mother; academic writer and I tell them about her article.

Shannon

Both Marcus and the callers seemed insistent on defining me, often disregarding how I define myself. Instead, they used my answers to their questions as evidence of their definitions, which seemed to change every few minutes over the hour and a half interview.

First I was labeled Black, not Biracial, because my father is Black. An unnamed male caller asked if I immerse myself in Black arts and someone else asked whether I’m married to a Black man. I was also asked which race I would choose if I were forced to. Each of these questions felt like an interrogation that was meant to gauge my level of Blackness.

The listeners seemed more satisfied with my answers than Sarah’s, even though Sarah was raised to be Black and self-identifies that way more often than I do. The aforementioned Self Pleasure disregarded Sarah’s story and insisted that the way one is raised doesn’t determine one’s ethnicity.

When the conversation came back to me, “Telephone Operator” began discussing the one-drop rule as the “law of the country,” which in her mind determined my Blackness despite my upbringing. However, having been frustrated by the listeners’ dismissal of Sarah, I confronted her, as I thought she was she who had insisted that Sarah wasn’t Black. “Wait,” I asked, “If the one drop rule is law, how can I be Black but Sarah isn’t?” Marcus jumped in and quickly cut to a commercial break.

Sarah

 “Because,” says Self Pleasure, “Look at her. She’s White! She’s not Black. I’m Black!”

 “So you must not have heard what my racial makeup is or why I I self-identify as Black, did you?” I asked Self Pleasure.

 “I did and because your father is White, that makes you White,” she replied.

 “Huh?” I asked. “Where do you get that nonsense? I guess that made Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington White.”

 Things went downhill from there with Self Pleasure, Telephone Operator and the unnamed man attacking me. Despite how I was raised, because I had never been DWBd, never been racial profiled or turned down for a job because of my race (as if any of them knows my life story), in their limited view of the world, I am not Black.

Hoping Marcus would actually moderate, he instead added his two cents by using mitochondrial DNA as proof for why I’m not Black. Now this went from insulting to downright idiotic.

Shannon

By this point, Marcus and the listeners emphatically listed reasons why Sarah and I were misidentifying ourselves. Everyone, including Marcus, seemed to subscribe to essentialist thinking that left no room for cross cultural understanding or blurred lines. But even with their “evidence,” the reasoning seemed to fall short of true clear-cut definitions.

We were told that race comes biologically through the father, which made Sarah White and me Black. Self Pleasure said she and the others weren’t “feeling” Sarah, and Sarah therefore wasn’t part of the Black tribe. Marcus insisted that he could speak with authority since he had been racially profiled. Various speakers referenced a Black “curriculum” that was necessary for true Blackness but couldn’t define what this curriculum was. We were told that if races were separated on two sides of a room, Marcus would be one side and we would be on the other. Even though they had first decided that I was Black, not Biracial, my allegiance to Sarah had evidently changed their minds.

In my final attempt to stand up for Sarah and me, I questioned how four people could decide who was part of an entire race. I asked how I, as the daughter of a black man who worked for the NAACP, could be considered not Black. Loud guffaws emerged at this statement, as the listeners said no true black person would reference the NAACP.

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My father and me when he worked for the NAACP, in approximately 1987.

At this point, I decided that it would be best for Sarah and me to leave the conversation. I needed to work in order to eat the next day, which took precedence over convincing someone that I was part of his or her “tribe.” As Sarah and I hung up, wishing the moderator a happy birthday and politely excusing ourselves, we felt confirmation in the necessity of our voices. Even though halfway through the radio show I had expressed frustration over the comments on my For Harriet article being largely focused on how I should self-identify, the moderators and listeners fell victim to the same narrow focus.

It occurred to Sarah and me that we were dealing with Black Nationalists.

Sarah’s Take on Black Nationalism

 Although it would seem a logical reaction to the obvious lack of equanimity in the U.S. between the two races to embrace Black Nationalism, in reality it is actually illogical. Separating Blacks from Whites in an effort to create a strong Black economy, thus making Blacks more autonomous and creating more Black wealth, while romantic for those who live in big cities with heavier concentrations, is to forget that the U.S. is actually vast. Large swaths of the country have almost no Black presence—now what?

 And given the fact that Blacks comprise only 13 percent of the country’s population, it’s inevitable that when stuff continues to hit the fan, riots like Baltimore’s will become more commonplace, and Blacks are outnumbered. If Black Nationalists think they alone can elevate the status of Blacks in the U.S. without the help of other racial groups, in particular Whites, who hold the economic power, they’re living in a fantasyland.

 With a couple of days to let the whole thing soak in, it’s becoming clear that I was ambushed. That I brought Shannon along made things sweeter for them. Telephone Operator told Shannon and me that all members of the panel canceled at the last minute. However the next day when I was thinking more clearly, I checked the radio program’s Facebook page and Lady Self Pleasure became a co-host of Marcus’s two weeks after I was interviewed the first time.

 Our guess is that she worked on Marcus for weeks about how he went against the Black Nationalist code by giving me an opportunity to promote inclusiveness and my (our) belief that we can all get along and work toward one race … the human race.

Shannon

There was so much that could have been discussed on the radio show. We could have come together in understanding and discussed real issues that are present in the Black community. Instead, Sarah and I were roasted because of our mixed race identity, disenabling us from being able to discuss real Black matters.

Sarah

 However, with four days to think and do more digging into them, it’s becoming clearer to me why Marcus, Self Pleasure, Telephone Operator and Unnamed Man have no real interest in discussing real issues that could lead to healing and inclusiveness.

 I couldn’t wrap my head around what these three things have in common:

  1. The one-drop rule being the so-called law of the country
  2. One’s race being determined not by upbringing and the race of both parents but only taking into account race passing from father to child
  3. Mitochondrial DNA

 And what I unearthed throws insulting and idiotic out the window. What we’re dealing with is deeply disturbing.

 Stay Tuned.

 

*The name of the radio program has purposely been redacted and names of people have been changed.

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On Taye Diggs and Reckoning with the Changing Realities of Race in America

Published on For Harriet, November 24, 2015

My father was a proud paralegal for the NAACP back in the 80s and 90s. He marched in rallies for race equality and was actively involved in uplifting the Black community. When I was growing up, he often had me watch the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize,” which documented the events of the Civil Rights Movement. Nestled inside my baby book is an autograph from Black Panther leader Huey Newton.

When I was a little girl, my dad said, “People will want to label you as only black, but you’re biracial.” My dad wasn’t ashamed of his blackness. Just like many fathers, he loved that I resembled both of my parents. My dad knew the world would see me as more black than white, but he wanted me to identify in a way that honored both sides of my genealogy. This was true even after my parents split up when I was three-years-old…

Read the rest here.

 

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Taye Diggs Reads from His New Book “Mixed Me” at the Multiculti Mixer

Last Thursday I attended the Multiculti Mixer in Brentwood, California. The free event featured a reading by well-known actor Taye Diggs who read from his new children’s book Mixed Me, dedicated to his son Walker. This book follows on the heels of its predecessor “Chocolate Me,” Diggs’ children’s book about growing up black.

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The Multiculti Mixer was a veritable utopia of mixed race belonging. A pretty even blend of adults and children, about 60 or 70 guests packed into Kidville Brentwood for a panel about raising mixed race children, a fashion show by some of the children themselves, and of course the celebrity reading and book signing. My (white) friend and I handed in our tickets — one general admission and one “blogger/influencer” — but once we stepped inside we realized everyone was on equal footing, and we loved it. Kids of all different hues and all different hairstyles ran in and out of rooms, including the arts and crafts room set up just for them. Parents appeared relaxed at not having to anticipate sideways glances or outright stares. Everyone smiled big, and often.

Taye Diggs walked through the front doors during the panel with absolutely no pretension. My friend and I had just taken a picture in front of the event backdrop, and as Diggs crossed the threshold, a little girl squealed and wrapped her arms around him. Diggs didn’t seem to mind. He stood around with everyone else during the fashion show, with his nearby bodyguard as the only visible indication of his status.

Diggs wasn’t the only celebrity present for the event. Biracial Grace Colbert, famous for the controversial Cheerios commercial (controversial merely for featuring interracial parents) attended with whom I assume to be her mother. “I liked your commercial,” I said to her as we stood in line for something or other. “Thank you,” she replied quietly, either tired of the statement or naturally reserved. Either one, of course, is completely valid in my opinion.

Photo courtesy of performinsider.com
Photo courtesy of performinsider.com

The Multiculti Mixer fashion show, featuring garments from Mixed Up Clothing, was the most positive and inspiring runway show I’ve ever seen. Family members and other onlookers snapped pictures, cheered, and clapped as children did spins and twirls down the tiny center of the room. The children pranced with confidence and jubilance that seemed to go beyond the attention they received. Instead, they seemed intimately aware that they were being praised for their appearance in a manner devoid of ogling or exoticizing. They were, in that moment, free.

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When it came time for Taye Diggs’ reading, the children gathered together on the carpet as if it were just another library story hour. Taye Diggs sat himself down on one of the little chairs and began reading from Mixed Me:

          They call me Mixed-up Mike

          but that name should be fixed

          I’m not mixed up,

         I just happen to be mixed.

As someone of Taye Diggs’ generation, I couldn’t help but be amazed by both his book and the event. Mixed race adults didn’t have children’s books that explained their biracial experiences. We weren’t in commercials or on the cover of cereal boxes. There were no mixed race events, and no one to speak on our behalf like Diggs has for his son. The event left me with no feeling of envy, however. Only a swell in my heart that this gathering is just one of many to emerge in our bourgeoning nation. It’s my hope that these children will grow into adults who don’t realize how lucky they have it because mixed race inclusion will be the norm. It may be a naive hope, but events like these prove we’re moving in the right direction.

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Being Biracial in “The Mysteries of Laura”

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Last week, the NBC primetime show The Mysteries of Laura did something I’ve been waiting for in media. The episode centered around solving the mystery of a biracial character, and this character’s ethnicity had absolutely nothing to do with the plot.

Each week, the lead character Laura Diamond (Debra Messing) catches the killer responsible for a recent murder. The premise of the show is largely nothing new, but it has a simple charm that makes for good Hulu entertainment while sipping morning coffee.

In this episode, titled “The Mystery of the Locked Box,” a billionaire tech genius named Zac Romero is found dead in his upscale apartment. Christopher Reed Brown, the young man who plays Zac, is of course not really part of the episode and has no lines, since he’s, well, dead. But the show does have Debra and her colleagues speak with Zac’s mother and father. The fact that Zac is biracial isn’t even known to the viewers until the entrance of his mother Rosalie, played by Linda Powell. Sure, we’d pretty well gathered that Zac wasn’t lily white, since his last name is Romero and his dead body has a slight olive tone. But Rosalie’s darker skin signals to viewers that this dead body belongs to a mixed race man.

While mixed race characters on TV have existed for quite awhile, what set this situation apart was the fact that Zac’s ethnicity had nothing to do with the plot, and that the film crew still felt it valid to let him exist, and to purposefully cast a black mother and a white father. Such planning is quite rare in the TV industry, especially if there is no takeaway in terms of story arc. Laura Diamond considers Zac and Rosalie completely representational of any other mother and son. She makes no reference to race, and she seems completely unfazed by this interracial family unit.

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Linda Powell

This episode also did interesting things to thwart stereotypical representations of minority characters. Zac gets to incorporate a space that is often not granted to black characters: He gets to be not a basketball player, or a musician, but a tech genius. If The Mysteries of Laura had followed standard representations, Zac would have been played by an Asian or Indian character, if they had used a minority at all. Normally if a black man plays a tech genius, it’s only because he has some ominous dark side, but Zac planned to give away a new invention instead of making an kind of capital on his product. Additionally, it’s Zac’s white father who plays the deadbeat. A selfish, lazy character who has recently reached out to Zac, only in an effort to acquire his wealth through their shared bloodline.

The media has a long way to go in its representation of mixed race characters, but this episode shows me that one of my biggest wishes may come true. While it may seem unfeasible, my dream is to see a novel about a biracial character that has absolutely nothing to do with race. Instead, this character would get to exist just like any other, and he or she would get to tell a story from a place of full agency, where race doesn’t have to be the fabric that holds the plot together. Perhaps I’ll write my own book someday and fulfill my own wish. In the meantime, I’m glad to see these seemingly small but significant strides.