It’s safe to wager that when well-meaning black actor Taye Diggs took a recent dip into controversy over his biracial son’s identity, there was no less than white former Mrs. Taye Diggs putting on the pressure in the background: “Hey, I’m here. White mom. Don’t forget about me.” And who knows? Taut playpen discussions might have taken an interesting turn. Somewhat understandably, but too publicly and too clumsily, Diggs obliged, and met the ire of many African Americans head on. While Diggs gets some nod for courage, he did rip back a rather mean layer of onion in the process.
But the mistake Diggs made here is not so much the demand that his son stand firm on his biracialness. It’s that he trivializes that kind of existence as a simple mark-the-box choice. Contrary to the warped and misguided conjecture that biracial sons and daughters somehow have more control over their racial selfness than black people do, it’s really a lot more complex than that.
Don’t get me wrong: Diggs loves his son. And he should demand respect and love for the mother from the start. No surprise, even, if it was also Diggs’ conclusion that his boy’s complete embrace of the biracial construct could somehow shield him from the beastly assaults of routine racism.
It won’t. We can’t casually escape our “blackness,” even if we wanted to. The world won’t let us. There’s a multifaceted texture to that conversation that is completely ignored by Diggs and fellow The Root writer Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele. Seemingly self-credentialed in the piece as an expert biracial psychologist, she fumbles around a dark subject in search of a light switch. The result is a missed opportunity in her open note of solidarity with Diggs, which she makes more about their sensibilities on the topic rather than taking a few extra moments to draw in the perspective of an actual biracial fam or two. Apparently—who knew—bird-watching President Barack Obama is enough to keep you all versed and caught up on it.
If it were only that easy. Living as biracial is not about what the parents think or how they feel—a common mistake in the sometimes daft discourse on a subject that deserves way more scholarly examination than either she or Diggs just gave it. It’s not about “disrespecting” the “white parent”—which makes Eromosele’s assertion shaky, anyway, in leaving the black parent out of it, as if that can’t strike in both directions. If the kid is neither black nor white, then why isn’t the respect paradigm a two-way street?
Still, that doesn’t matter as much because it’s not about choice for people who live or look like us. It’s about a lifetime of hazardous racial navigation that we didn’t ask for, crawling through the mud of society’s uninvited expectations and assumptions regarding who we are or should be. James Weldon Johnson’s forgotten masterpiece, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, which delves deeply into this issue, is a book that became enormously helpful to me during some very foggy young-adult years.
Of course, I can’t speak for all biracial people and they can’t speak for me. But I do know that folks shouldn’t wrongly dismiss biracial kids as being magically anointed with identity superpowers that others don’t have. The scent of that flawed argument (and, perhaps, envy for some reason) is strong in Eromosele’s sketch while it descends into the very dangerous realm—subtle or not—of ugly and unnecessary light skin vs. dark skin games that black people didn’t create (even though, these days, many seem to happily perpetuate).
Nor, as Diggs and Eromosele would have us think, do all biracial kids live in idyllic middle-class realities where they can neatly tuck away the gravity of their blackness. It might, theoretically, work like that for Diggs’ kid because his parents have resources to actively keep their kid largely insulated from the everyday racial challenges the rest of us can’t avoid. He leaves that part out.
But not all biracial kids grew up with both parents around. Many of us didn’t and still don’t enjoy the kind of Black-ish or Modern Family social mobility hinted at by Diggs and Eromosele. Lots of us grew up in urban, working-class black neighborhoods, and many in single-parent homes. The white family was, or still is, largely absent because of a number of factors—race and economics perhaps most prominent. The data are largely absent on this because we’re still boxing “mixed kids” into black categories, but we’ll probably find that a large segment of this population is greatly affected by socioeconomic environments beyond their control. “Blackness” is more necessary and real than any would accept or like. We were never in a position to “pick.” We were already there.
Being biracial in the millennial sense is much different from what it was during the Gen X years, a time when it felt as if there were very few like me in a viciously self-segregated Philadelphia. The world is a little smaller now, and there’s (thankfully) much more open racial exchange and interface despite the tension. However, being biracial—especially during my time in that kind of city—was not easy. I still got chased down by white bullies on the other side of the tracks, too.
I grew up on a very black block where broadcasting your mixed heritage meant getting your ass kicked. Black uncles, aunts and others would have tough-love conversations in which you were brutally reminded that racist Philly wouldn’t pause for your “half-whiteness.” There were two other biracial brothers who lived across the street and went through similar issues—and, ironically, they were raised by the only single white mother in that neighborhood. But she’d go missing for days when they probably needed her most, the consequence of a gritty Philly life. One brother seemed to use his blackness as a survival tool, yet sadly channeled it though nonstop fighting and dope dealing. (The other one, who had a physical handicap, ended up telling jokes on BET’s Comic View. We laughed hard about those days when we caught up.)
Later on, I was finally saved from Philly’s public school madness by way of scholarship to a predominantly white prep school (and if that hadn’t happened, I would not have ended up here). The culture shock of a daily mass-transit commute between a working-class black neighborhood and an affluent white Philadelphia suburb was so intense that I actually started jogging and sometimes skateboarding the 5 miles as therapy.
Consistent connections with my broader white family, after years of distance from Dad, didn’t really occur until Obama’s election, and their recognition that the black kid had somehow, by stroke of luck, made it. One bright spot was the ceaseless affection of white grandparents 3,000 miles away, who, despite their own red-state views, made strong efforts to connect with me from childhood on. There were occasional summer trips and the culture shock of people and places that looked different. But I always ended up back in North Philly. There were painful complications as a teen and some easier transitions as an adult.
There’s no perfect way to address this. And yes, we should be proud of our total cultural makeup. But there’s a fine line between confident self-awareness and stupidity. In demanding biracial allegiance from their kids, parents like Diggs should be brutally honest about the racial monsters on both sides of that equation. Have the keep-it-real conversation before other, less well-intentioned folks do. Any day now is that one defining punch-in-the-stomach moment when he’ll be taught, the hard way, that others forcefully set identity rules whether he’s viewing himself as black or not.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.