Taye Diggs Isn’t Wrong (Or Right) About His Son’s Biracial Identity
In October, Taye Diggs released Mixed Me! as a followup to his first children’s book, 2011’s Chocolate Me! While Chocolate Me! was inspired by Diggs’ experiences as a black child in a predominantly white neighborhood, Mixed Me! focuses on the hope he has for his biracial son.
While doing press for the book this month, Diggs (aka my most famous Twitter follower, and probably yours too) enraged a lot of people by choosing to describe his 6-year-old son Walker as biracial, rather than black, in order to acknowledge both of his parents’ cultures (Walker’s mother is the actress/singer Idina Menzel, who is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent).
In an interview with The Grio, Diggs also expressed curiosity about why President Barack Obama, who is biracial, is referred to as black:
“As African-Americans, we were so quick to say ‘okay he’s black he’s black,’ and then there were the white people who were afraid to say he was biracial because who knows.
Everybody refers to him as the first black president, I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just saying that it’s interesting. It would be great if it didn’t matter and that people could call him mixed. We’re still choosing to make that decision, and that’s when I think you get into some dangerous waters.”
Since The Grio piece came out, Black Twitter and other predominantly African-American outlets (and their commenters) have declared Diggs a race traitor whose self-loathing runs so deep, he is now forcing his insecurities upon his young child. They’ve chastised him for procreating with a white girl, among other things, and chided him for not being prepared for the consequences of that choice. (They’ve also rarely managed to spell Idina Menzel’s name right, apparently taking their lead from a certain Scientologist at the Oscars.)
The controversy has stirred up fresh debate about the divisive issue of biracial self-identification — a divisiveness I, and many other mixed-race people, have experienced firsthand. Personally, as a biracial American, I prefer to be identified as such. But my Establishment colleague, Ijeoma Oluo, who is also biracial, prefers to identify as black.
Neither of us are wrong.
Our differing perspectives — and the fact that despite them, we are friends who respect one another — sheds light on a simple truth about the decision to identify as black or biracial: There is no right or wrong, only personal truth.
My Take: I Identify As Biracial
In third grade, I was one of the only minorities in my school in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. I was aware of this fact, but not particularly bothered by it, despite being called a nigger on the second day of school by some 8-year-old with crummy parents. I was biracial, so I was used to being different from everyone else, including my family, but hadn’t yet learned about the one-drop rule; also known as hypo descent, this is a distinctly American tradition rooted in slavery and maintained by white supremacy, wherein children of mixed-race unions are automatically assigned to the minority, subordinate group. That lesson would come soon enough, but by age 8, my mother and recently deceased father had only taught me that I was half and half; mixed; both black and white; Jamaican, Italian, Bohemian, complete with immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents.
My most distinct memory of third grade is when we took a proficiency test. My hand shot up in the air twice before we’d even gotten to the first question: first, because my name didn’t fit in the space allotted on the Scantron, and then, because I didn’t know what to do about the race question.
“It says I can only pick one,” I whispered as my teacher crouched near my desk. I pointed at my options. “My mom is this one, and my daddy is this one. What should I do?” An overachiever since birth, I looked at her anxiously, fearful of making a mistake. I needed permission to choose both bubbles, or guidance to eliminate one of my races.
“Just pick both,” she shrugged and moved on. And so I did.
Being mixed is the only life I’ve ever known, yet since I was 8, I’ve been constantly reminded by monoracial folks that I need to fill in just one bubble, or check just one box. Their obsession with my race are the contents of a broken record I’ve been hearing my entire life, on a turntable I can’t stop.
This week, when the Taye Diggs comments generated controversy, several monoracial black friends told me that my choice to identify as biracial demonstrated self-hatred; that I clearly harbored a desire to distance myself from blackness, and from my black heritage.
Yet nobody has ever said that erasing my whiteness, one entire half of my heritage, is a bad thing. And the fact is, as much as I am black, I am white. I will never be just one race, because I am the sum of my parents, and my grandparents, and I look like it. When I peer into the mirror, I see a darker-skinned version of my white parent, and a lighter-skinned version of my black parent.
It’s true, obviously, that people often make snap judgments about race — and being biracial has never saved me from racial profiling by cops, shop owners, teachers, or even dudes on dating apps. It’s never stopped bigots from calling me racial slurs, or media from calling me “black.” Others see me as black, which is fine, because I am black. But I’m also white. I’m biracial, and nobody gets to tell me otherwise.
I haven’t asked for permission to be both black and white since third grade. And I don’t need anyone’s permission to be both now.
Ijeoma’s Take: I Identify As Black
I identify as black for many reasons — some externally defined, some internally. When my brother was asked why he didn’t identify as white as well as black, his answer was, “because whiteness doesn’t work that way” — and he’s right. Whiteness is a definition of purity, of exclusion. To become something other than white, all you need is one drop of impurity and there you go — the doors of whiteness have been slammed shut in your face. Even if I wanted to identify as white, I simply couldn’t. My whiteness will not protect me from police brutality, job discrimination, healthcare discrimination, wage discrimination, educational discrimination, or housing discrimination. My whiteness will not keep my brown skin from being fetishized, my nappy hair from being insulted. My whiteness will never equal shared history and culture with white people, because I’m not allowed in.
But I also choose to identify as black. This is a conscious rejection of my whiteness. To be mixed race, white and black, carries a lot of pain. To know that half of my heritage has actively worked to enslave, brutalize, dehumanize, and murder the other half of my heritage — it’s a violence that rages inside of me. To be white and black is to constantly have a window into a world of privilege that you will never belong to. To be white and black is to constantly be reminded that you are so close to a hue of respectability — but not close enough.
So I reject Whiteness. I reject a legacy of privilege that only serves to enslave me and others who look like me. I reject an identity built on the oppression of others. I reject a system that places me slightly higher on a fucked up ladder of white respectability over my darker brothers and sisters because of my lighter skin, while still fetishizing and exploiting my darkness. I am black. And the history of struggle and survival that shapes Black America has shaped me. The resilience and hope of blackness is within me. I live and die black, I rise and fall black. I love being black.
I would love to be able to embrace Whiteness, but right now, it’s hard to find something to love. Whiteness is the boot on my neck. And it’s very sad to me, to reject part of what made me. Some people can say, “fuck it, I determine what my Whiteness is for myself,” and are able to fully embrace their white and black heritage, like my friend Jessica can. I don’t think this is because she loves her blackness any less or rejects the black heritage that shapes her life.
I think these two different choices in how we identify are examples of people of color defining themselves for themselves, and the more we do that — no matter what definition we arrive at — the closer we come to breaking free of the oppressive hierarchy of race defined by White Supremacy.
Credit for Jessica Sutherland photo: Kendrick Brinson