While my first instinct was to celebrate Jesse Williams’ recent Humanitarian Award from BET, my second instinct, which came just seconds later, was to brace myself for the backlash.
The Grey’s Anatomy actor and former teacher has been a highly visible activist within the Black Lives Matter movement, recently executive producing the documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement. Yet those born of racial admixture are often viewed as half-as, half-ass appropriators of blackness. We’re often seen as deceitful, dangerous, and damaging to black solidarity.
In his BET acceptance speech, Williams called out police brutality and the racial injustices black people have faced throughout history: “There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done. There is no tax they haven’t levied against us.” He added that, “We want [freedom] now.”
While fallout from his speech continues to reverberate — dueling petitions are now raging, calling for him to be fired from/kept on Grey’s Anatomy, respectively — his words were largely well-received in both black and white spheres. But, like anyone of mixed parentage who publicly rails against racial injustice, some questioned his right to speak at all.
Some also questioned his labels, arguing amongst themselves whether he has — or should — claim blackness over mixedness or mixedness over blackness. This incessant argument takes power away from the black lives movement and fails to consider a third option — that blackness and biraciality can exist simultaneously.
Jesse Williams has spoken openly about his biracial identity. He doesn’t shy away from discussing the challenges of growing up in the liminal space between two races. When, after his mic-dropping speech, he was accused of having light-skinned privilege, he graciously concurred. Williams knows his blue eyes open doors. He knows his European features make him “reliable” even before he opens his mouth. But he also knows the struggles of the black man. He knows injustice. He knows discrimination. And he likely knows what it’s like to have strangers step away in fear as they pass him on the sidewalk.
Williams’ identity matches my own. My black father and white mother raised me to be both black and biracial, with each identity holding equal importance. Perhaps it’s this ability to slip between two worlds that makes each world we enter uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s the inherent agency in multiple identifications that renders our existence somehow unreal. Our monoracial brothers and sisters don’t get to be one race one moment and another the next. It’s as if we’re given a power inaccessible to the rest of the world.
Still, this double-consciousness is not something we placed on ourselves. Our identifications come not just from our own beliefs, but as a direct reflection of the labels placed upon us by others. Every mixed race person I know has been categorized and re-categorized even before they were old enough to understand the concept of race. Our self-identification is a crucial empowerment that silences the voices of those who insist they have the right to determine our race. It comes from the reality of being labeled on a whim, with each labeler almost violent in his or her conviction. It comes from racial epithets hurled on the street, from black people we considered friends suddenly insisting their world is not ours.
Blackness cannot be taken away from us. Biraciality cannot be taken away from us. They exist as tangibly as our skin, made from Europe and Africa. We are the colonizer and the colonized. We are the oppressor and the oppressed. We bleed for our brothers and sisters. We carry on our backs the weight of what one half of us did to the other. We slip easily into white spheres, taking notes and taking names while nodding our European heads.
And we love. We love our white flesh and blood for whom we would sacrifice our lives. My white, blonde, blue-eyed sister is as real to me as my black father. I’d take a bullet for each, in no particular order. To exist as both black and biracial runs counter to America’s obsession with racial labels. It is a bold act — and one that can often draw attention.
Jesse Williams isn’t the only light-skinned biracial activist recently in the hot seat. Amandla Stenberg, the 17-year-old mixed race actor who doesn’t shy away from schooling Kylie Jenner on black appropriation, has been hailed by many for her efforts to combat racial injustice — but vehemently dismissed by others.
Stenberg’s claim to blackness is likely influenced by her experiences in the entertainment industry. Many remember Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games, the young tribute whom Katniss befriends in the televised event. Rue’s trope follows that of many black characters — she dies early in the Games and her character’s purpose is to highlight Katniss’s humanity. While Stenberg’s role was fairly typecasted, many of the book’s loyal fans decried a black Rue, despite the fact that the author had described her as having thick dark hair and brown skin. For anyone to claim that Stenberg does not have the right to claim blackness or to speak up about black issues fails to see the ways in which Stenberg herself experiences inequality. And while Stenberg is an outspoken advocate in the black community, she also participates in her mixed race one. She attended the Mixed Remixed Festival in 2014 and narrated the first chapter of Bird, a young adult novel with a mixed race protagonist.
Race is a social construct. It’s built on power dynamics meant to uphold Eurocentric ascendency. It’s natural for our monoracial brothers and sisters to view biracial activists with suspicion. But to hold tight to this suspicion instead of relinquishing it does harm to our cause. Those who control public policy and power use infighting to their advantage, as it takes the focus off injustices that are committed every day.
I exist in two worlds that play out simultaneously. My white world is the status quo, with lineage dating back to Germany on my grandfather’s side and New England settlers on my grandmother’s. My existence in that world lends itself to viewing inequality through an outside perspective. That side fights for social justice as an advocate and not as one of the marginalized. My other world loses count of its history after just a couple generations. It’s a history with ambiguous Southern black roots in Mississippi. Three generations back lands my history in Mexico, with no knowledge of that lineage except my last name. In that world, I am the marginalized. I’m the invisible backbone of the nation, grasping at pieces of the American Dream — pieces I know should be mine to take, but aren’t readily given.
Jesse Williams may have been handed a more visible platform because of his European features. His light eyes may have given him a place at the table. But he understands the struggle, and his natural ability to seamlessly weave between two worlds grants him a unique vantage point in which to gain the attention of those who might otherwise have closed ears. It’s our message — our collective message — and this black biracial brother is speaking your truth, his truth, my truth. The truth that no matter our melanin, no matter the color of our parents or grandparents, we have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and happiness.
Lead image: flickr/Zach Den Adel