More Than "Black-ish": Examining Representations of Biracial People

by Aphrodite Kocieda

Being biracial can be an uncomfortable subject to talk about, especially because it highlights a sensitive history of colorism, racism, and favoritism within the Black community. The unapologetic presence of biracial people in contemporary media culture is beginning to spark questions about what it means to be black, and if biracial people “count” as black. We often speak about biracial people through a black apocalyptic narrative; meaning that the increase of biracial individuals represented in the media seemingly comes at a cost of erasing darker-skinned black people from the screen. This narrative is unproductive and anti-intersectional.

Salon writer Morgan Jerkins recently wrote a critique of the film “Dear White People” demonstrating how it was problematic that their most complex character was Sam, a biracial woman. Yes, folks, we live in a white supremacy; however, I am suspicious of people who want to end colorism with surface-level critiques. They call every representation of a light-skinned person a giant step backwards and offer no solutions for moving forward that honors the complexity and diversity of blackness. Jerkins’ sentiments were as trite and obvious as natural hair nazis who think every black woman with straight hair is a dupe. It’s much more complex than that. Sam’s authenticity as a black woman was questioned and it was assumed that the film may have been more dynamic if a darker-skinned (i.e. “fully” black) woman was cast instead. As a biracial woman myself, I thought the critique was quite dull and lacked any real depth.

A similar cultural anxiety surrounding biracialism was seen with actress Zendaya Coleman who was initially cast to play Aaliyah. Public tide turned against her once people learned that she was half-white. Zendaya responded to critics stating that being half-black is enough to play a black character, and that color shouldn’t matter when it comes to portraying characters.
However, color does matter. We know that the closer you are in your approximation to whiteness, the more privileges you get. Zendaya eventually dropped out of the film and was replaced with actress Alexandra Shipp, who was also biracial. However, she didn’t receive half of the criticism that Coleman did, because she is often perceived as simply a light-skinned black woman, which made her more acceptable (and comfortable) to audiences for the role, compared to Zendaya Coleman.

This new casting signified the difference between being bi-racial (Coleman) and being light-skinned (Shipp), which was pretty telling. In this instance, one drop of white disqualifies you from being black, unless you look like you could pass for the popular idea of what “black” looks like. (Think of Halle Berry, another half-white Black woman, who has traditionally been granted access into popular black films.)

The show “Black-ish” picks up on this uneasiness surrounding biracial identity and ideas of blackness. The lead black character Dre (played by Anthony Anderson) struggles with his own blackness because he is wealthy, however he seems comfortable insisting that his mixed-race wife Rainbow (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) isn’t black. In the pilot episode, she tries to comfort him after a bad day at work and he teases her by stating that since she’s biracial—thus, she’s not really black.

In response, she states, “Okay, well, if I'm not really black, then could somebody please tell my hair and my ass?”

I celebrated this moment. She wasn’t asking for permission to be black. She claimed it, which is powerful when people interrogate our (meaning, biracial women) need to take up space in black narratives.

However, it’s understandable that some darker-skinned black folks might feel ambivalent about lighter-skinned black folks getting representation. If you watched the film, “Dark Girls” you know that there has been a lingering resentment, not only for lighter skin, but also for visibility. That makes sense. I mean, we exist in an era where Zoe Saldana was cast as Nina Simone and had to wear a nose prosthetic and wear darkened makeup on her face. This is real, and it’s unfair; however, oppression is messy. Though it would be theoretically convenient to assume that all biracial people are a monolith who are all living the dream in a white supremacy, it’s not that simple.

In an article written by Dr. Brittney Cooper, she discusses how fixed theory can limit the ways we envision progress. She specifically discusses Olivia Pope and the way some feminists can only ever see her as a Jezebel or Mammy which is limiting. Within this framework, there can be no progress. Olivia’s sexuality keeps being interpreted with theory that wasn’t meant to keep up with contemporary images and social changes.

In the same way some people can only understand Olivia through a Mammy or Jezebel framework, some are only able to see light-skinned women as tragic mulattos or privileged sexy house n*ggas who soak up the light of the spotlight. How can we move beyond this limiting, static framework while acknowledging that colorism exists?

Will there ever be a time that us light-skinned sisters will have the freedom of sharing our stories and faces without fear that the whip of America’s racial history might leave permanent scars on all of our brown backs?

To assume there is “one black” experience (steeped only in dark skin) is to promote a narrow and anti-intersectional view of blackness. We need to account for all the different shades and iterations of blackness. Accounting for these different experiences can only make our activism and our push against white supremacy stronger. Representation is important, so we must be adamant about representing the diversity of what means to be and "look" Black.

At the end of the day, you might think I’m not “black enough”, but law enforcement sure as hell thinks I am. You might think I’m too light, but I’m constantly reminded by the high rates of rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence on brown women’s bodies, that my femininity is not as respected or protected as a white woman’s. You might think I’m not black enough, but the two white parents who accidentally had a biracial baby due to their sperm bank's mistake think their daughter's blackness is worth a lawsuit.

If we want to have these productive conversations together, we have to look at the complexity inherent in this dialogue. The history of colorism is real and alive, but so is the possibility of unity and inclusion.

Photo credit: Deposit Photos

Aphrodite Kocieda is a black intersectional feminist. She is the creator of the web series, “Tales from the Kraka Tower” which satirizes diversity in academia. She is also a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism, and she loves merging digital media with social justice.

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