ARTICLE / LONG READ
FROM Silas Lynch (George Siegmann), the embodiment of savagery, disunion and ultimate evil in DW Griffith’s 1915 THE BIRTH OF A NATION, to politically radical activist Sam White (Tessa Thompson) of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE (Justin Simien 2014) and the warm-hearted doctor Rainbow Johnson (Tracee Ellis Ross) of BLACK-ISH (ABC 2014–present), it is clear to see that the representation of black-white biracial people in modern media has progressed. But does that mean that what we see today is progressive? In today’s society, colourism is rampant and there are many privileges that come with a lighter complexion. While many of the same struggles regarding racism are faced by mixed race people, there is a lack of community that supports them and is openly accepting. In many cases, media fashioned for black audiences often trivialises or actively participates in the continuation of mixed race stereotypes.
In her 2014 Salon article “The ‘Dear White People’ syndrome: Why movies are obsessed with light-skinned black characters”, Morgan Jerkins critiques dark-skinned representation in DEAR WHITE PEOPLE. She asks: “when will we get to the moment when a dark-skinned black character, especially a woman, is the one who demonstrates complexity as well?”. This is in reference to the character of Colandrea “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Parris) not displaying as much complexity as lighter-skinned Sam. Jerkins also questions “why a light-skinned biracial woman was the lead female protagonist, the champion of civil rights”. This suggests there is something inauthentic and wrong about a biracial woman championing social and political freedom and equality for all citizens. To suggest the film is lacking due to the protagonist’s biracial heritage supports the ideology that biracialism is disconnected and separate from the black community.
While there are various issues regarding the representation of dark-skinned characters, Jerkins herself states “A lighter-skinned black person is more marketable to an overwhelmingly white-dominated space. Not to mention, white appeal equals more marketability”. Biracial representation draws attention to the hegemonic whiteness of the industry and society as a whole. Because of this white dominance it is important to critique Sam with greater depth before classifying her as one who “demonstrates complexity”.
BIRACIAL REPRESENTATION DRAWS ATTENTION TO THE HEGEMONIC WHITENESS OF THE INDUSTRY AND SOCIETY.
Activist Sam unfortunately falls victim to biracial stereotyping. She is an example of the “new millennium mulatta” stereotype that race and ethnic studies scholar Ralina L Joseph defines in her book TRANSCENDING BLACKNESS as “a self-reflexive character who is knowledgeable, angry, or sad about and self-conscious of her tragic destiny”. Through her leadership of a pro-black activist group, race-focused campus radio show, her self-published book titled EBONY AND IVY and racially-charged debates with several individuals throughout the film, including faculty, Sam comfortably fits the “angry” and “knowledgeable” stereotype Joseph describes. However, this is not complex nor progressive when compared to past representations of mixed race characters. Joseph goes on to state that “despite her many efforts to the contrary, [the new millennium mulatta] is unable to perform outside the confines of the tragic mulatta and ends up inevitably living up to the stereotype”. This tragic mulatta/mulatto is a stereotype that dates back to the 19th century, depicting mixed race characters as depressed or suicidal due to their biracial identities. Simply, they do not fit with the binaries of a black-white world.
By the end of DEAR WHITE PEOPLE, Sam moves out of the residence she fought to keep all-black and admits to being ashamed of her mixed heritage when speaking of her white father. “It used to piss me off because he’d follow me all the way to homeroom”, she says. “And whenever he tried to hold my hand I’d scream and pull it away”. She has also changed her hairstyle, reflecting her character development. In HAIR RAISING: BEAUTY, CULTURE, AND AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN, interdisciplinary race and gender scholar Noliwe Rooks describes how hair directly links to “racial identity politics as well as bonding between African American women”. She notes how “its style could lead to acceptance or rejection from certain groups and social classes, and its styling could provide the possibility of a career”. This suggests that changing her hair is representative of a change in Sam’s racial identity and in her bond and relationship with the African American community. This, coupled with Sam walking hand-in-hand with her white boyfriend while ignoring her friends from the Black Student Union, implies that Sam is rejecting her blackness and embracing whiteness.
There are examples of modern mixed race characters who do not appear to fall into this tragic mulatta role. In the television comedy drama BLACK-ISH, Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson) is married to a biracial woman named Rainbow, or “Bow” for short. Both Andre’s parents are black so he feels justified in mocking his wife’s mixed race parentage, especially in discussions concerning blackness. When Bow comforts Andre through his own cultural identity crisis in the pilot episode, he retorts: “all this coming from a biracial, mixed or omni-coloured complexion. Whatever it is they’re calling it today woman, who technically isn’t even really black”. It is important to take note of the context in which this is said. The episode centres on Andre’s fear that his family are losing touch with their black roots due to their lifestyle and predominately white neighbourhood. He dismisses Bow’s voice on the matter as he deems that she “isn’t even really black”. This perpetuates the idea that within the black community, if an individual is biracial, their input regarding black issues is irrelevant. As pointed out by gender and media scholar Karen Ross in BLACK AND WHITE MEDIA: BLACK IMAGES IN POPULAR FILM AND TELEVISION, “What the media ‘produce’ are representations and images of the social world”. Andre’s dismissal of Bow can therefore be read as representative of the black community’s rejection of mixed race voices.
THE BIRACIAL INDIVIDUAL IS IN A PERPETUAL STATE OF CHANGE.
What sets Bow apart from the tragic mulatta or even Joseph’s new millennium mulatta is that she is completely unapologetic about her mixed race parentage. She responds with, “Okay, well, if I’m not really black, then can someone please tell my hair and my ass?” Bow does not attempt to overcompensate, bargain or seek approval from Andre. She claims her blackness in the face of her identity being questioned.
While Bow may not adhere to these stereotypes, she does fall victim to other negative representations. As Joseph describes, “Other representations equate multiraciality with progress: the mixed race person functions as a bridge between estranged communities, a healing facilitator of an imagined racial utopia, even the embodiment of that utopia”. In other words, the mixed race character is considered a symbol of a post-racial society, a world in which racial prejudice and discrimination no longer exist. In the case of Bow, these ideals of a world without regards to race, culture, or ethnicity is produced through her colourblindness, which is frequently another hot issue between her and Andre. During a discussion in the pilot concerning their children, Bow questions Andre by passionately asking “They don’t see color. Don’t you think that’s beautiful?” Bow not only regards the colourblindness of her children as positive but also believes this ideology is “beautiful”. She takes the role of facilitator to this ideological utopia by passing it to the next generation. The representation of biracial characters promoting and embodying this ideal is problematic despite its well meaning. As Joseph tells us, to “equate multiraciality with progress” shows that “blackness is not seen as a positive part of multicultural identity”; it is “something to be struggled with or repressed”. Once again this calls attention to the hegemonic whiteness of our society.
Commenting on the subject of colourblind policy, antiracist essayist Tim Wise states in a 2010 article “Colorblind Ambition: The Rise of Post Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity” that “race-neutral policies cannot possibly solve persistent racial inequities. He goes on to note that “Because so many of those disparities are caused by racial discrimination - not merely the residue of past racism but ongoing racial discrimination in the present-day - universal efforts, though valuable, will prove insufficient”. This is to say that society is not a product of past racism but of continuing racial discrimination. Ignoring or disregarding race - that is, colourblindness - therefore equates to ignoring and disregarding the discrimination and racism that persists.
Biracial identity has been explored by sociologist Kerry Ann Rockquemore in her 2008 book BEYOND BLACK: BIRACIAL IDENTITY IN AMERICA. Rockquemore uses the term “protean identity”, suggesting it “differs from the singular and border identities because the individual does not possess a single, unified racial identity. Instead they possess multiple racial identities and personas that may be called up in appropriate contexts”. This idea of multiple racial identities may be where the aversive attitudes towards mixed race individuals stem from. An individual who alters their behaviours could be inauthentic and untrustworthy, or to quote Andre in reference to his son, a “light-skinned Judas”. An issue with this is that to effectively pass from persona to persona an individual must have intricate knowledge of various cultures to such a level that they can be emulated effortlessly. Rockquemore goes on to state this “requires a complex mastery of various cultural norms and values and an ongoing awareness and monitoring of one’s presentation of self”. To require a “complex mastery of various cultural norms”, the assumption must be made that the mixed race individual is accepted and integrated in the cultural community. However, as discussed here, this is not the case.
Although the representation of modern mixed race characters has progressed to include a wider variety of more complex characters, these characters cannot be considered progressive as they represent the ideals of a racist past or an anti-black ideology. Due to the contrasting and often juxtaposing cultures of the black and white communities, it is impossible to present an accurate and universally satisfying representation of a 21st century mixed race character. In the introduction to their edited collection MIXED RACE HOLLYWOOD, scholars Mary C. Beltrán and Camilla Fojas write “race historically has been viewed through a black-white binary”. Since a binary describes that which is oppositional and separate, an identity constructed from the blending of these two communities would be one that overlaps and contradicts itself in a multitude of aspects.
This conflict results in an individual who, culturally, is in a perpetual state of change, neither all one nor the other. It is this limbo and inability to be adequately categorised that causes the unease and discomfort towards mixed race individuals and towards biracialism as a concept.