Anna Holmes, the founder of Jezebel and editorial director at Topic.com, recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled, “Black With (Some) White Privilege.” Full disclosure: I’m part of a currently running, very interesting and insightful documentary series she executive-produced called The Loving Generation, which explores the lives and identities of kids born of one black and one white parent after the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision in 1967 that struck down state laws banning interracial marriage.
Holmes calls the children of interracial marriage born between 1960 and 1985 “the Loving Generation,” though where I’m from, we just call us mixed. Or black. Mostly black. Or “You know you black, right?”
Anyway, I have quite a few qualms about the piece, especially as a mixed person who identifies as black whose picture is included in the actual op-ed—which, petty or not, makes me feel as if I co-signed the opinions and perspective. I did not. All of us who are pictured in the op-ed are also part of a supplement to the documentary series. I can’t speak for anybody else involved, but I took issue with much of the op-ed because our experiences as mixed people are varied in a way that the piece mutes.
1. I HATE the title. “Black With (Some) White Privilege” conjures up that time Very Smart Brotha’s own Damon Young wrote “Straight Black Men Are the White People of Black People..” I got why folks hated that title then (even if I agreed in principle with his argument), and I hate this even more. Damon’s piece stated that male privilege exists and that black males have some privilege by virtue of being male. THIS piece alleges that mixed kids exercise some sort of white privilege by virtue of having a white parent. I think this entire premise is flawed; it is ENTIRELY circumstantial. She’s somehow conflating colorism with proximity to whiteness, and they’re two entirely different things.
You can be light-skinned with two black parents and receive the same benefits from lightness as a person who is mixed. And what if you’re a dark-skinned mixed person—somebody whose background is entirely impossible to tell from skin tone—and receive no “benefits”? Then what? Do you still have some white privilege because of your white parent? Like, do they need to show up to prove it? Maybe you just can’t use it in person, only on paper?
2. I don’t like this idea that there was some overarching political decision that so many black-and-white couples made after the Supreme Court decision to somehow stick it (no pun intended) to white supremacy by creating mixed children. While I’m sure that some white folks absolutely rebelled in the form of their bedroom decisions, and some black folks took that opportunity, do we really believe that people are thinking about a Supreme Court decision when they meet and go through life together? I doubt it. If there’s any proximity argument, I think this is where it exists. Most of these relationships—whether married or not—were born of desire, love and actual proximity.
3. This passage:
How does having one white parent change that “twice as good” calculation? Data on biracial people is tricky because it relies on self-reported identity. But my early inquiries into the Loving Generation showed that people with one black-identified and one white-identified parent seem to be disproportionately represented among black leaders and luminaries. Are our achievements impossible to separate from the benefits that, in this country, have always come with whiteness?
You know how you have an idea, then you find ideas to support it even if holes can be shot through it? So there are more mixed people than you’d expect in the “leaders and luminaries” category. OK. Holmes points out several at the beginning of the piece, namely actors, politicos, entertainers, athletes, etc.
For some, in particular entertainers and politicos, it would be asinine to suggest that their skin tone—folks like Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey and Halle Berry—doesn’t play a role in their success; their being mixed also contributed to their skin tone, of course. Carey may be an outlier because of her once-in-a-lifetime talent (the same with Derek Jeter and Jason Kidd, also name-checked in the article). But proximity to whiteness didn’t help them out as much as their complexion. And how do you reconcile that with folks like Beyoncé and Rihanna (and, hell, Muhammad Ali) who are (or was) light-skinned with two black parents? Are they just otherworldly talents? What about their white proximity?
4. Then this passage:
Sometimes, when I looked at the list I had made, it seemed entirely possible that our direct connection to whiteness — through immediate and extended family — had contributed to a certain familiarity with, and therefore accessibility to, the white norms, traditions and power structures that so many of us depend on for opportunity and success. The common denominator in the Loving Generation wasn’t necessarily so much white proximity as white acceptance and, in many cases, familial love and close connection to white people.
OK, so it’s not proximity, it’s access to white people that begets other access to white people and the white power structure. I’m connected to white people, so other white folks can tell and thus make an easier pathway toward success. Which, again, works if you can tell that a person is mixed and thus make a conscious decision because of it.
What about the rest of us who aren’t that easily discernible as mixed? What about our success? Not all heroes wear capes, and not all mixed people look like Meghan Markle. Or Vanessa Williams. Some of us actually aren’t that noticeable and are considered light-skinned black folks by society writ large until we show up with or tell you we have a white parent. Doors don’t open at that point either, by the way.
5. And this:
It’s likely, for example, that Barack Obama was able to imagine himself as president not just because he saw himself reflected in the white people around him, but because they saw themselves reflected in him.
I do agree that President Barack Obama’s proximity to whiteness absolutely helped shape his worldview, and being around white people who loved him unequivocally was a boon for him. Did that make him believe he could be the first black president? Eh. My black parents made me believe that I could, too. But being president seems like a terrible job, so I’ve never had the smallest of inklings to want to go down that road. Now, I suppose the question is, did I actually think that I could? Whereas maybe Obama always believed it with his whole heart? That’s a legit question.
6. Holy mother of God:
I knew, even as a young adult, that I moved among and around white people with relative ease, in a way that my blackness — and my own perception and self-consciousness of it — wasn’t at the foreground. What I didn’t know is whether that had something, or everything, to do with what I’d accomplished.
I’m mixed—my mother is a white woman—and I have never moved around white people with relative ease, though I’m not entirely sure what that means, either. In fact, short of my white mother, grandmother and stepfather, I am rarely around whiteness. I live in predominantly black cities and went to an HBCU and could literally put “professional black person” on my résumé without a hint of comedy. I think most folks would call me successful, so how would we qualify that success? And what about dark-skinned black people who move with ease around white people?
7. For heaven’s sake:
Turns out, I was not alone. Erin Cloud, a public defender in the South Bronx, has similar concerns. “At my job, there’s actually a lot of biracial people that are in more leadership opportunities, and I think about that. I’m like, ‘Well, is that because there’s something about their whiteness and our whiteness that is giving us space to communicate and that’s why we’re getting promotions and why we’re moving forward?” she said. “I am a black woman. I see myself as a black woman, but I also have to be honest. I love my mother. I can’t say for many of my black friends that they deeply, intimately, without any bounds love a white person.”
I love my mother, who is white. We do nothing but argue and have nothing in common. I’m starting to wonder if I’m just an exception to this whole mixed life that others manage to live.
The writer and activist Rebecca Walker (1969) told “The Loving Generation” director Lacey Schwartz last month that she believes biracial and mixed-race fluidity has led to significant cultural and political contributions. “Our ability to see things from so many different perspectives has really been a boon for this culture,” she said. She wonders, however, what the return is — that is, where do we go from here?
Mixed-race fluidity? What is that? Is that a thing? (It’s not.) I’m mixed and I view life through a very, very black-perspective lens. Because that’s my life; I’m black. How do you even see things with a white perspective? What is that? I’m REALLY asking. “Mixed-race fluidity” implies that you have some choices and can move easily between worlds. I don’t care to do that, but in my experiences, that’s not a thing. Being mixed just means that you don’t choose black, not that you are somehow white. Because that’s not a choice you actually have outside of the confines of your own mind and friends who let you cook.
9. It goes on, but that’s my larger issue with this piece: You can’t decide that colorism isn’t at the heart of whatever “privilege” is being attributed to whiteness. Mixed people come in so many different shades that you can’t always tell. Sure, some mixed folks are lighter and thus, perhaps, benefit in ways that other mixed folks may not, but that’s not because they’re mixed; it’s because they’re light-skinned.
What about me? I’m light-skinned, but I seriously doubt that there’s some significant benefit I’ve received, even though I’d wager that I have received some by virtue of my less-than-threatening visage. Saying that black folks receive white privilege is problematic because it entirely DISCOUNTS light-skinned points, something we joke about in the black community that is a real thing. You don’t need to be half-white for that.
10. The most I’ve ever discussed being “mixed” has been over the past six months. My life has been a largely black one since I was a child. I was raised in a black household, with some summers spent with my white mom in quasi-rural Michigan, where I was always aware of my blackness. Articles such as this push me further into the belief that my parents really did me a solid by not giving me a choice or considering me to be mixed in order to make sure I honored both of my parents. I am able to do so without trying to claim some racial connection that white people have spent centuries trying to remove from me.
Plus, why would I want that? I can love my white mother and be black. But more important, to me, it’s REALLY OK to be black. I don’t need to focus on the white proximity or the adjacency or the gaze. I can be equally successful as a black person who fully embraces that part of myself. There’s a reason I never think about whether my being mixed is partially responsible for my success—I don’t make it a thing. I don’t allow others to focus on it. It’s why I not only get to go to the cookout, but I can also bring macaroni and cheese.
I can acknowledge that I receive some benefits because I’m light-skinned—because I am. I also have the wherewithal to acknowledge that my black parents (and sometimes, ironically, my white mother) raised a black man who is comfortable with his accomplishments, without also feeling as if the whiteness in my veins that nobody knows exists is the reason for those accomplishments. That’s my beef with the piece and its centering so much whiteness.
Because it really is OK to black.