Category Archives: multiracial identity

Tuesday Tale of Identity

imagesCA4BU1Y3This story was in Sunday’s New York Times and it inspired me so much; I can’t stop thinking about it.  Overcoming Addiction, Professor Tackles Perils American Indians Face.  The article, by Alan Schwarz, describes the journey of Dr. David A. Patterson, a social work professor at Washington University in St. Louis, from the throes of addiction and hopelessness, to a full life of teaching, researching the difficulties facing Native Americans, seeking solutions and changing lives.

Patterson was a young man on a collision course with disaster, a step away from taking his own life, when he was rescued by an uncle who taught him something precious: his own Native American heritage (he is part Cherokee), about which he knew nothing.  This gift, an understanding of who he was and where he came from, made him value himself for the first time in his life.

The notion of being part of a group with deep, meaningful traditions, that had endured despite years of marginalization, gave Patterson the strength to overcome the challenges holding him back.   I believe this is true of any group that has suffered oppression–anywhere–and managed to survive nevertheless.  Somehow it made me think of the Bob Marley song, Buffalo Soldier:

If you know your history,
Then you would know where you coming from,
Then you wouldn’t have to ask me,
Who the heck do I think I am.

Of course, my description doesn’t scratch the surface, read the article for yourself.   (See link above.)

Writer of Color, White YA Protagonist: Where Weightism cuts deeper than Racism

I had the idea for this post a while ago, after reading a few articles about whether white writers have the “right” to write from the perspective of a black main character–see The Confessions of Nat Turner and The Help.  Both books have been both widely admired and scathingly criticized for their respective authors handling of the “white author/black protagonist” problem.   I have also read a number of blog posts and articles encouraging authors of YA fiction to diversify their books, including characters that reflect the mosaic of our nation. Justine Larbalestier, a white author and blogger, is so committed to this purpose that none of her main characters are white.

I agree that this is important, as long as it’s organic and feels natural.  (As opposed to every non-white character being beautiful and/or noble.)  And, I agree that the world American teens live in is not monochromatic; YA authors therefore need to show diversity in their work.  As a non-white writer, I have the advantage here; white is not my default, I experience the world through a non-white lens.  So, why is the protagonist of my first YA novel white?

I think when an author is black, we expect the protagonists to be black, the story line to deal with black themes.  As a biracial author, shouldn’t I deal with racial identity somehow?

The fact is, I do and I have—in this blog, in the adult books I’ve yet to complete, as well as the adult novel I spent six years writing and three years submitting.  Birch Wood Doll, which sits in my hard drive, awaiting a big revision, a WIP I refer to as The “Eddie” story, involving a guy with dissociative identity disorder, and Big, Black Woman Mad, the one I’m determined to finish a draft of by year’s end, all have protagonists who are mixed-race.  The characters cope in various ways with being non-white in mostly white ballet companies, universities or families.  What does it mean, for example, that your white birth mother chose to parent your white half-sibling, but placed you for adoption?  These adult characters wear their races like coats that don’t quite fit.

For Second Company, however, my focus—like that of this blog—is on body image and identity, just not racial identity.   Yes, there are non-white characters in Second Company.  For example: Lynette, whose story is coming in a sequel.  She gives a few hints that she’s struggled with difference as the only black girl in NYBT II, but Lynette is fortunate to have the ideal ballet body.  She has therefore escaped the mistreatment her best friend, the novel’s female protagonist, Livia, suffers because of her weight.

Second Company started with my wish to write about the experience of being a member of an elite society—the ballet world—who barely fits in because of some difference.  This was me back in 1989, when I joined Boston Ballet II, Boston Ballet’s own “second company.”  How was I different from the rest of BB II?

*I had graduated from a four year college (I was keeping it secret, because back then, college was considered the death knell for an aspiring ballerina; ballet companies wanted you at seventeen, so they could mold you, intellectually as well as physically.)

*I was over twenty-one and lying about it. (Really, twenty-one was way too old not to be in a first company.  I claimed I was nineteen and mostly pulled it off.)

*I was black (okay—biracial, with a fairly European body type, but still, the only woman of color in BB II.  The one Greek girl who’d had a tan when the contract started had lost it by Nutcracker season.)

*I had real boobs.  (In a world where a girl with a b-cup was considered top-heavy, I was a C-D.  This disqualified me from being considered thin.  I had a petite-enough frame; most costumes fit me with no problem, but people usually expressed uncensored surprise that I could get into small sizes. At 5’3” and 101 lbs., I was considered chunky.)  Oh, I have a photograph:

Me in the center. Lying about my age, weight and cup size.

Me in the center. Lying about my age, height, weight and cup size.

So—for review—I was “old,” over-educated, dark and curvaceous.  Which of these differences do I write about now?  Well, all of them, I think—just not all at once.

My adult novel, Birch Wood Doll was swamped with too much subject matter—biracial identity, eating disorders, the clash of socioeconomic classes, the collision of the dance and academic worlds.  In Second Company, which I intend to be part of a series, I’ll take the issues one or two at a time.  Livia may be white—Irish and Italian American–but she’s short and curvy-to-zaftig in a reed-thin ballet company.  (Her twin brother Oliver, also white, is gay, dealing with homophobic Dad’s efforts to stop him from dancing.)

The ballet world isn’t—let’s face it—especially diverse.  In a corps de ballet, the girls are supposed to look fairly interchangeable on stage.  Standing out isn’t encouraged, but skin color is less likely to be held against you than weight, which is supposedly in your control. You are not judged for having dark skin (ok—we were all cautioned not to get tan before Swan Lake, and I will write a post about that one day).  But gain weight and all bets are off.

There may be racism in the ballet world, but it’s quiet—an assumption here, a hushed comment there.  Weightism, on the other hand, buttism, boobism, shortism—that stuff is expressed loudly, welcomed and condoned by those in charge.  This is the difference I chose to tackle in my first YA book.

Feeling, Living the Black in Biracial

This post is something I lifted from a novel I once began and then abandoned.  The character is quite obviously speaking for the author. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA younger friend, who is also biracial, has said before that she’s just never felt black, which I understood very well.  It’s hard to feel black—the way you think black is supposed to feel—if you grow up with more advantages than most white people have.  Especially if one or both of your parents is white.  You might get looks when you’re out together with the white parent—but everywhere you go, you go under the shield of the parent’s whiteness, even viewing the world through a white lens.  You can’t see yourself, so you may forget you’re different at all.  To be fair, the mirror will remind you, as will a stray comment from a stranger to your white parent (she’s yours?).    Each time, you’re jolted into awareness: you stand out.   Depending on your environment (better if you live near the coasts, where different is more likely to be status-quo), you may have some self-esteem issues.   Maybe you’ll become self-destructive as a teen: date some bad guys or develop an eating disorder.  You may become a tireless people-pleaser, allowing the world—black, white and other—to walk all over you.  But there will be nothing off limits to you because of your race; nothing a white person gets that you don’t.   Racism itself will be an abstract concept that you read about or hear about—and when you do, you’ll feel not outrage, but guilt.  On those odd occasions when racism is directed at you yourself, you may not notice because it’s the last thing you’re expecting.

I never felt black either—not until I got that black is not a feeling at all.  It is a part of you that you wear and are; it never goes away.  I was still dancing professionally when it all finally clicked for me.  Ballet dancers spend most of their working lives in a mirror-lined studio—company class in the morning, the rest of the day in rehearsal.  The only time you’re not looking in the mirror—comparing yourself to everyone else—is the tiny fraction of the time when you’re actually on stage.  So, maybe I had an advantage: I never got to “forget” that I was the black girl, usually the only one in the room.  (Though I was always told I “washed out” under the stage lights: you couldn’t tell unless you looked at my photo in the program.)

Ballet companies usually have affiliated schools, full of little girls in pink and black with ribbons in their hair.  Each one’s biggest dream is to be you.  When the company is rehearsing, you can see these tiny aspirants watching through the glass doors, hoping, wishing they’ll be in your place one day.  When you pass these girls in the hallways, you’ll hear them sigh with awe (she smiled at me! No—she was looking at me!).  After performances, they come to the stage door, begging for a smelly, used-up pointe shoe with your signature on it.

img002The little black girls—sometimes there were only one or two—always came to me.  I had plenty of white fans—particularly the shorter girls—but the black girls looked only for me.   I remembered the few such role models I’d had as a kid: what they’d meant to me—even on a subconscious level: hope and validation.  I saw myself in the girls—no matter how many shades darker they might have been—they were mine.  I liked most of the kids; I had smiles for all of them but the black girls were always first to get my discarded shoes.  I remember thinking for the first time, thank God I’m black; thank God I’m here or—who would they have?  I’ve single-handedly integrated three different corps de ballet in my career.  Maybe it was an accident that there were no black girls when I got there, but I like to think I opened doors.   Opened their eyes to the fact that—contrary to what George Ballanchine declared—there were skinny black girls out there with “feet” and turn out and all the other non-negotiables a ballerina needs.

It’s like Obama (how does everything circle back to him?).  This country is home to many, many black people who are educated, accomplished, refined, and yes: articulate!  Our president is all those things, as well as being capable of reaching people of all races—all nationalities—without making any of it about race.  And still, he wears his race with pride.

Race 2012 Post #2: “A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

The following is my second (technically third) post for the blogging project affiliated with Race 2012: A Conversation about Race in America, the PBS Documentary that airs tonight, right after the presidential debate, and will be rebroadcast on October 19th.  Check your local listings; the air times are approximate and different everywhere.  Read more details about the blogging project on my friend Monica Medina‘s website.  Tune in!

“A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

You are on the subway, on your way to work, the train hurtling through the tunnels, when suddenly it screeches to a halt.
“We are experiencing delays,” the conductor announces over the aged, whistling speaker system. “There is a sick passenger on the train directly ahead of us.  We expect to be moving shortly.”  Maybe he expects to be moving shortly because he’s new in town.  You, however, have been riding the subways for 20 years.  You know that “a sick passenger” on the train ahead equals roughly a 45 minute wait.  So you settle in.  You sigh, you look around the train car for a kindred spirit with whom to make eye contact, share a sigh and a headshake.  You’re a woman in your thirties.  Chances are the one with whom you make eye contact is also a woman, also in her thirties, or else forties, or twenties.

Or maybe you’re not heading to work; you’re going to the zoo and have your child in a stroller.  Your child fusses with the sudden motionlessness of the train, the noise of the speaker.  Some riders glare at you as the baby gets louder: maybe it’s not your fault we’ve stopped, but it is your child making the wait less pleasant.  But now a woman, clearly a mother herself, smiles at you.  It helps because you guess that she’s been in your shoes.  Another woman offers a baggie of crackers she usually saves for her child in situations like these.  She asks how old your baby is and tells you a story of her child at that age.  And just because of who you are and what you represent: a mother with a child, you have a community.

Your child is calm now, munching away on crackers.  You look up to notice that two elderly black men who did not get on the train together, who were not sitting near one another, seem to have introduced themselves and struck up a conversation.  Now they are laughing, warmly, with the acknowledgement of some shared experience.  They are too far away for you to hear what they’re saying but you can feel it between them: community.

And those college age girls, both dressed in black, eyes outlined in thick kohl—now they’ve exchanged the eye roll, the headshake.  Community.  You’re like me; I’m like you.  We’ll be here for a while.  But at least we’re a we sharing this nightmare.  And that we-ness, belonging to a group defined as much by who we are as who we’re not, really helps you get by sometimes.

Sometimes the we-ness comes from age, gender, being a parent or not a parent, sometimes from religion, class or marital status and sometimes from race.

Ah, race.  I see it as just one of many aspects of the person, but it’s often the one you see first, the one that’s most loaded, hardest to talk about and therefore the one I’ve been asked to discuss in the context of this current election.

How much does racial solidarity impact how we vote?  How important is it to have a “Like-me” president?   And when a candidate reflects our race, are we more likely to approve of him?  Are we more likely to find fault with a candidate of a different race?

In some ways, this election, like the last, is all about identity.  The issues that matter to a voter depend on his or her personal history,  socioeconomic status, education level and yes, in some cases, race.  Each of us wants our president to suit who we see ourselves as being.

Last time around each ticket had its own flavor.   We had the dynamic, black community-organizer-attorney and the older white guy with down home appeal.  On the other side was the aging, white war hero and the plain-spoken hockey mom who said things like “you betcha”?  Which ticket felt like YOU?  Were you one of Sarah Palin’s Mama Grizzlies?  Or were you an Obama Mama?  Were you a member of the chai-drinking, tree-hugging liberal elite?  Or were you a gun-loving bible thumper?  Wherever you stood, whatever the candidates’ styles and values, right there in all our faces was this brand new development that meant something in history and to most everyone in the country as well.  The next president might be a black man.  A big deal, no matter how you felt about it.

Before 2008, only white, straight, Christian men had the option of picking a “like-me” candidate.  But with the last election, for the first time in history, it seemed that people of other descriptions might get that choice in the near future.  Those who supported a “liberal agenda” (and I mean liberal in a good way, going by the dictionary definition which is something like “applauding progress”) came in all persuasions, all races, orientations and religions.  Many saw themselves in Obama.

For affluent, educated blacks, Obama was more than a black candidate, he was a stereotype buster.  He made very public the image of a black man that we identified with and wanted the country to see.  Educated, well-spoken, passionate and above all, a family man through and through.  That the number one criticism of Obama, as he campaigned through the grain belt and the rust belt, was that he was too elite, too aloof, didn’t understand the concerns of the “working man” (remember Joe the plumber?).  For all of us who’d been living in the shadow of the angry-lazy-violent black stereotype, this was vindicating.  So you guys don’t want him because he’s too smart to be president?

Jump ahead four years.  It’s 2012 and we’ve been living with a biracial president for four years.  The fact of his race is no longer a novelty, but  there are those who still see the president first and formost as a black man.  He has been accused of hating white people, and at the same time, due to his mixed heritage, of not being black enough.

In any case race still matters in this country.  I know this when I Google words like African American, or black women, or interracial families.  I come up with blogs where strong opinions are voiced on everything race-related.  Some of it’s intense: white-separatist, Afro-centric, and everything in between.

Alas, we are not a post-racial society—as some jumped the gun in declaring, back in 2008, popping open the champagne bottles, tossing the confetti, cheering not just the election of the first African American president, but also the end of the Age of Race as we know it.   I think it was foolish to believe that electing a black president might somehow make racism a moot issue.  The higher any minority rises, the more of a threat he is to bigoted haters, the more vocal those haters will become.  All over the blogosphere are so called “patriots” who “love” the country and are heartbroken to that anyone with roots in the African continent should be running it.  They openly admit to hating Obama because of his race.  They call him horrible names, and the caricatures—don’t get me started.  But I believe those so called “patriots” (who flaunt their rabid disrespect for the president of our country) are on the fringe.

For the many of us who want him around for another four years, I think it’s less about Obama’s race these days than what he stands for. This time, it’s about the president’s policies.  How do you think he handled the mess he was handed?  Do you believe Obama truly saved us from another Depression?  And what about his approach abroad?  Do we want to keep him at the helm going forward?   Regardless of race, I do.

I won’t vote for Mitt Romney—not because he is white or Mormon or rich.  I won’t vote for Romney because I have no idea who he really is.  I don’t believe a word he says; I don’t trust him.  And maybe I think it’s cool that the president is biracial like me, but it’s not why I’m voting for him.  I’m voting for him because his worldview—not his skintone—matches mine.

The Would-be Master of Compromise

Sometimes I wish I were Obama’s therapist.  Not that I think he suffers from any kind of mental illness, on the contrary, he may be the sanest man in Washington.  It’s just that I think anyone with a stressful life deserves someone to talk to, to help them manage daily frustrations without taking them out on loved ones, developing an ulcer, or worse.   I don’t know what the president’s out-of-network mental health benefits are—if any—but I’d take him on pro-bono, viewing it as my patriotic duty.

I’d start with the unraveling of his well-intended plan to be a “bridge builder” between left and right, to heal this country as a Master of Compromise.  Boy did he walk into a firestorm with that one.  But I understand all too well where he was coming from.    My hypothesis?  On some level at least, it’s a biracial thing.

There’s a sort of naïve, benevolent, yet hubristic thing you do as a mixed person.  You believe you can go anywhere, talk to anyone, say anything about any issue and be heard in a way you wouldn’t be if you couldn’t claim membership in so many groups.  You’re pliable, agile, adaptable, with loads of finesse (stored up from fitting in with relatives of both colors who might not have gotten you or trusted you at first, but who you now have wrapped around your finger).  You believe you can fit anywhere, join any group—even ones you weren’t born to.  You have black friends, white friends, East Asian, South Asian and Latino friends.  You get along with them all and believe, in some small part of your brain, that you have what it takes to make them all get along with one another.  You believe if you’re careful, if you’re nice, if you’re smart, if you speak the right way; you can pull anything off.

Being mixed is different for all of us, we all have different experiences, different attitudes, different alliances, different world views.  Even within a family, siblings have different lives.  The variables include family constellation, birth order, gender, age, education level, socioeconomic status, as well as physical things like hair texture, skin color, facial features.  Yes, the degree to which you “look black” affects your experience of being biracial.  For example, if you appear white—to whites and others—you may go through life feeling angry and misunderstood, even as you unwittingly reap certain privileges.  You might go out of your way to prove your blackness to others, becoming more Afro-centric than you might otherwise be.   I’ve seen this in colleagues, friends and psychotherapy clients alike.   If you appear black—to whites, to other blacks—if your mixed-ness is invisible, you might feel defensive about your dual heritage being constantly overlooked.  You might bend over backwards to avoid having black stereotypes pinned on you.  I’ve seen this contribute to eating disorders in young women (myself included), as well as anxiety and depression in young, professional men.

As a family therapist, I’ve worked with lots of interracial families and couples, as well as biracial individuals.  (Once word got out that there was a biracial family therapist in my very diverse town, I began getting almost weekly referrals from clients answering to those descriptions.)

On several occasions, I got intake calls from young men, hoping to make appointments—either for their families, with spouses or for themselves alone.  The voice on the other end would be soft, yet clear and chatty—total absence of accent, flawless diction.  The tone would be deferential: Doctor Rosenberg, they’d call me, though as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I am no such thing.

Gentle voices, polite patience, clipped consonants—fastidiousness about taking down the hours I was available and agreeing to my full fee without the slightest hesitation.

“That guy’s biracial,” I’d say to myself.  And four out of five times he was.  (The fifth time he was white and gay, but that’s another story.)

These guys presented as the polar opposite of the stereotypical angry, black man.  Some of them had gone through phases where they’d had to prove themselves to “the brothers,” acting “blacker” during high school, but then “whiter” during college, where success depended on not matching anyone’s stereotype.  By the time they got to me, these guys were mostly settled in being themselves, with flexible identities, stores of bicultural competence, a few different selves to wear depending on the occasion.  I didn’t consider this dishonest; they were just gauging the situation and coming prepared.  (During the intake calls, I’d been treated to their professional telephone voices.)

These men still had trouble expressing anger however.  They were the appeasers in their families, leaving wrathful outbursts to “whiter-looking” siblings; they were the quiet ones in their marriages, sighing wordlessly as their wives (who were a range of races) hurled accusations and went on tirades.

And yet, the exhausting task of controlling how they were seen, how they were judged, how they did or did not defy expectations, meant that the guys were often full of unexpressed rage.  One man—who had been bullied by employer after employer—said to me:

I can’t let myself get as angry as I feel; if I do, I’ll choke on it—or choke someone else.  Then I’ll have given them what they expect.

He settled that day for tears, which streamed down his face.  What, I wondered, would it have been like for him to stand up for himself in a healthy way?  How would he have been seen and how would he see himself?

I know anger can be destructive.  It can stand in the way of accomplishing great things.  When you are yelling, it is impossible for others to listen to your words.  But anger, channeled properly, can lead to action, to addressing injustice, to change.  Which brings me back to the president.

What would it have been like, Mr. Obama, to challenge your haters as soon as you took office?  When you learned how committed our Republican Congress was—not to working with you to save the economy, create jobs, invest in education and infrastructure—but to making you a one-term president?  I’m not in Washington, I’m not even in politics and sometimes I miss the news because I’m so preoccupied writing books about ballerinas and getting my kids to tennis on time.  Still, I noticed it, how long the list was, how it was growing, even as you took your oath on that blustery January day in 2009: the list of people devoted to purging you from the White House.  They’d stop at nothing.  Even when evidence pointed to your stimulus package’s effectiveness in preventing another 1929 style Depression, they blocked your continued efforts to boost the economy. They signed the Norquist Pledge, tying their own hands, even as they knew—they had to know—that all cuts, no taxes would only dig us into a deeper, more divided hole.  They knew that if they worked with you, if things improved, you would look good and their one-term dreams would go up in smoke.  It was more important to make you look bad than to help save the country.  You got that, but you got that too late, only after the hand you reached across the aisle got bitten a slew of times.  You believed too long in your own power to make a pie-in-the-sky dream of compromise come true.

But then again, I guess I share that with you, Mr. Obama, as I shared it with those young men I saw for therapy: this idea—often but not always misguided—that we are uniquely suited to build bridges wherever we go.  How very biracial of us.

Not Jungle Fever

In London, a few years ago

I mentioned in my last post that I’d been interviewed by the Washington Post’s Carol Morello for her article entitled:  Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade.  In the article, Ms. Morello graciously included a link to this blog, which led to the highest traffic day it has had since its inception in December.  Checking my stats, I discovered people were not just finding me through the Washington Post article, they were also hitting my blog via other blogs and online publications that were buzzing about the article.   Checking these sites out, I found myself exploring some unexpected turf, including a site that horrified me: a virulently white supremacist site which I will spare my followers by not linking.  Some of the comments, reacting to Morella’s article were along the lines of: how could any self-respecting white person allow themselves to get involved with one of those?  (I paraphrase.)  Suffice it to say I didn’t stay long, though some of the heinously stereotyped caricatures of African Americans stayed with me for a while.

Since that time, I’ve been meaning to do another post on interracial marriage, thinking about why it works when it works, and why, when it fails, race isn’t always to blame.  Here goes:

Not Jungle Fever

 Why does it bother me so much when high profile interracial couples like Heidi Klum and Seal, or Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren break up?  Why do I want run out there and explain to the media: this kind of thing happens with mono-racial couples too!?  This wasn’t about race!?    These highly visible couples were supposed to be poster children for mixed marriages, publicly validating my personal history, thumbing their hue-blended noses at the skeptics and naysayers, the racial separatists who suggest there is something lewd and unsavory about interracial pairings.

The good news is that interracial marriage is more prevalent than ever, that these couples divorce at a rate barely higher than same-race couples.  There’s even a biracial president sitting in the Oval Office, dispelling the insidious myth that mixed couples’ progeny are lower-functioning than others.  Yet, interracial couples still face insensitive questions, sometimes outright hostility, even parental rejection.  Marriage is hard enough; why make it harder?

The irony is that the burden of outside opinion is often the hardest part.  All mixed marriages, especially black and white ones—which draw by far the most press, the most ire—exist in both a public and private sphere; all have to contend with an often unappreciative world outside their home.  Even the strongest such couples—those for whom commonalities outweigh differences—still bear the weight of other people’s prejudices.  But public perception is only part of the story.  What naysayers don’t see is that an interracial couple’s private unity can be its greatest strength.

As a clinical social worker and couples therapist, I have seen many interracial couples.  The happiest share a beautiful sense of partnership—truly a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  What I have learned, professionally and personally, is that the most successful of these couples have each other’s backs in the face of public stares and criticisms.  In private, the partners’ blend of two selves, two worlds, unifies their home.

As followers of this blog know, I’m the daughter of a black father and a white, Jewish mother.  Though my maternal grandmother was not the least bit religious—despite running a kosher restaurant—she sat shiva for my mother when my parents married.  It was 1950 and interracial marriage was still illegal in thirty states, though not Illinois.

“It can’t last,” my grandmother’s friends consoled her.  “These marriages never do.”

But the day my father breathed his last, after forty-five years of marriage, my mother was at his bedside, his hand in hers.   My parents weren’t an anomaly.  When I was growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my parents’ large community of friends included many other intermarried blacks and whites whose marriages worked and lasted.  As a child, I was unaware that there was anything unusual about this.  Later, when I learned the stereotypes and taboos around race-mixing, I was shocked at how removed they were from my own experience.

In Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, the romance between a black, married architect and a white office temp elicits rage and resentment from family and friends of both partners.  It’s the race difference, not the adultery, which brings on the most vehement censure.  I saw the film with my parents when it was first released; they’d been married forty-one years at the time.  As I sat between them—our three contrasting skin tones visible in the not-yet-darkened theater—I looked around, wondering if people thought we were trying to make a statement.

I remember being outraged by the film’s suggestion that black and white partners were drawn to one another solely for the thrill of breaking taboos.   In fact, Lee was just showing one specific example, making as much a point about gender politics and class as he was about race.  I doubt I’d have taken it so personally if there had been other films portraying black and white relationships in a positive, normalizing light.

Fast-forward twenty years: I’m a psychotherapist, specializing—not surprisingly—in multiracial families and couples, in a strong interracial marriage of my own, with two beautiful second-generation biracial children.  In Montclair, New Jersey, the town where we live (which Interrace Magazine named the Best Town in America for Interracial Families in 2002), our kind of family is so common, we’re boring.  People who give us an extra once-over do so with approval or, in the case of other interracial families, camaraderie.  This town, as I noted in the last post, is also full of multiracial adoptive families, interfaith families, and families headed by same-sex parents.  Many of us moved here to raise our children in a place where they were nothing unusual.  (A typical Montclair moment was the time my daughter came home from preschool and asked how many mommies she had.  When I told her I was it, she said it wasn’t fair; her friends Sophia and Jacob had two mommies each!)

But even if we’re “normal” here, in public our family inspires speculation.  Did our parents approve of our union?  Do Jon and I have struggles at home over our differences?  Do we clash over parenting values?  We know that our racial disparity is what people see—not the fact that my mother’s ancestry is the same as my husband’s.  Like us or not, we’re making a statement just by being us.  The public eye is just part of what you live with as an interracial couple; even if you’re not Heidi Klum and Seal.  Some black and white marriages crack under this pressure; I have seen many split up—some, regrettably in line with the stereotypes.  But many have succeeded, ultimately achieving the stable, loving comfort that makes a good marriage last through the decades.   Interracial couples do require a special kind of care, sensitivity and knowhow, an acknowledgement and ownership of the potential challenges that can arise.  But when commonalities outweigh differences, when there is a good social support network–which may mean family, though not necessarily–when both members of the couple share values about childrearing, the role of religion and other big-ticket items, the odds are well in a mixed couple’s favor.

Some ’70s Style Racial Candor from the Drunk on the Bus

(I dedicate this post to my dad, Mel Williamson, who would have celebrated his 89th birthday today.)

The Jeffersons,
1970s "Multiracial" TV

Yesterday, I was honored to be interviewed by Carol Morello, journalist for the Washington Post for an article entitled Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade.  Naturally, I spoke to Ms. Morello on the phone, during the after school hours while the usual mayhem was transpiring in my home–the little girls down the block ringing the doorbell looking for playmates, my own kids’ particular homework snafus.  I had to interrupt the interview no less than three times: once to give my daughter my cell phone so she could call a BFF for the homework; once to drop said daughter off at a Girl Scouts and once because my son–who had proudly informed his 3rd grade teacher that he understood long division and could therefore skip the lesson–discovered that he did not in fact have the foggiest grasp of long division and needed me to teach it to him so he could do his homework.  (Not that I remember how to do long division myself.)

In any case, I was a little distracted during the interview and rambled just a bit, though Ms. Morello was very patient.  There was one question, however, that I wish I’d had more time to mull over, which was how my children’s awareness of race differed from my own growing up.  (Remember, I grew up biracial in the 1970s; my children are “second-generation” biracial, growing up now.)  My answer to Ms. Morello was fine, but I spoke more about the differences between the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s vs. Montclair, New Jersey right now.  I stated that, in terms of the number of interracial families and the acceptance of such by the community, the difference is surprisingly minimal.  But having had some time to think about it, I have to say that I was much more aware of race than my children are for a number of reasons.

1) I had a fully black parent (Dad), who had grown up on the South Side of Chicago during the 1930s, at a time where things were not so comfortable racially.  Dad felt the need to arm me with information about race relations, so I would be prepared for racism when it found me (notwithstanding the fact that I took his warnings with a grain of salt, that his predictions never quite came to pass).

2) On second thought, our town and our time are actually quite different from the city and era in which I was raised.   In Montclair, diversity–integrated diversity–is everywhere.  In their public school, my children each have three or four fellow biracial classmates.  My husband and I have never been to a restaurant in town where we were the only interracial couple.  Everywhere you look are not only interracial families, but also adoptive families, families headed by same-sex parents, as well as transracially-adoptive families headed by same-sex parents.   So, anyone inclined to stare at the family who stands out would be out of luck here in Montclair.   Families who might stand out elsewhere blend right in.  Since most everyone is different, there is less pressure to discuss race with young children, except in the interest of embracing one’s identity.  When my kids were little, we talked about brown skin and kinky hair in relationship to our African Ancestry; we looked at photographs of great grandparents who arrived from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century.

Now we talk more about race; I answer their questions about black, white, Asian and being biracial; they talk about what they see and hear at school and in the newspaper.   But I am careful not to make my children anxious about race, not to make them fear that being black, or mixed will be held against them.   (I address this in a talk I’ve done called Speaking of Color.   See My Talks.)

3) The last the difference between my understanding of race then and my children’s now, has to do with our current culture’s increased tendency to protect children from hard topics.  I consider my own childhood pretty sheltered compared to some, but still I watched the news every night with my parents.  (They couldn’t get it on-line in those days as I do.)  I also watched adult sit-coms produced by Normal Lear, as did many of my friends.

All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times put race and racism out there with no apology.  In one episode of The Jeffersons, the word “honkey,” meaning white person, comes up about fifty times.  And talk about stereotypes; roughly half of what every black person says on these shows rhymes.  And it wasn’t just race that the Lear line-up was candid about.  Sexual innuendoes and booze were front and center too.  I think there was an entire episode of All-in-the Family, where Archie is locked in the basement getting soused.  Ned The Wino was my favorite character on Good Times.  Drunk was funny.  So was JJ, the most stereotypical African American character since Stepin Fetchit.  So was Archie Bunker, the reigning bigot of 1970s prime time.

Come to think of it, growing up in New York City in the post-deinstitutionalization, post-summer-of-love, Vietnam war era, the images from the Lear shows didn’t seem all that far-fetched.  (Except for Black people rhyming.)  By fifth grade–my daughter’s age–I took the city bus home from school.  There was always, always a drunk on the bus.  Sometimes it was a white drunk, sometimes a black drunk, sometimes a woman who yelled and screamed and scolded everyone who got on, sometimes a man who sat quietly, smelled and snored.  I traveled with friends, but most of them got off the bus before I did, so there was frequently a period each afternoon where I was alone on the bus with the driver, a handful of adult strangers and a drunk person.  (In those days, the concepts of mental illness and self-medication, substance abuse, and hallucinations were not on my radar.)  In person, I was afraid of drunk people because they were out of control, but they were always worth listening to for a laugh.

One in particular provided me with an early lesson on race.   He was tall, lean and black, of indeterminate age, though he had a wild tangle of yellow/grey hair.  When my friends and I got on the bus–showed our passes and found seats–he took a break from his monologue–or self-dialogue, to be accurate–to greet us:

“Helloooo, li’l ones!”  and began talking about how lazy kids were today, what smart mouths we all had, how different from his day when he would have gotten whupped for saying the kind of things we said.  Then he went off on graffiti, then he went off on dogs, and then we stopped trying to follow what he had to say.

By the time my friends had gotten off, the man had begun petitioning the bus driver to let him drive a while.

“I can really cut them corners!”  I thought this amusing, but a well-dressed woman apparently did not.  She muttered something under her breath as she exited the bus at her stop.

Insulted, the drunken man turned to me.

“You hear that? Lady call me a bum!  Humph!”  He straightened up, flipped the collar of what–in better days–might have been described as a trench coat.  “I ain’t no bum,” he directed this at the woman’s retreating image.  “Everybody know: bums is whiteWinos is black.  I am a W-I-N-O.  Wino.”

Having cleared up the confusion, the man nodded self-approvingly and promptly dropped off to sleep.

The Hunger Games, Corduroy and Me

Though I read The Hunger Games Trilogy, I have yet to see the movie—just because I haven’t found time.  I’m thrilled that the reviews are so good, that all this anticipation won’t be for naught.  I am also desperately relieved—unlike some on the Twittersphere—that a black child (the impossibly cute Amandla Stenberg, who is actually biracial) was cast in the role of Rue.  Reading the books, I cried when Rue died in the first book, bawled in the second book, when Katniss visits Rue’s district and has contact with the child’s family.  I imagined Rue black, not because I am black, but because Suzanne Collins told me she was.  (Or implied it and later acknowledged that this was her intent.)  In fact, because Thresh, who is not related to Rue, is also described as having dark skin, I was under the impression that most of District 11 was black.  When I learned that there was a film in the works, one of my first thoughts was: will the casting reflect this description?

I had reason to wonder.  A little factoid not everyone knows about me is that I am Lisa, the little girl from the beloved Don Freeman children’s classic book Corduroy.   Well sort of.  Here’s the true story.  My father and Don Freeman were friends through publishing.  Mr. Freeman had been to the house, met me, met my stuffed bear in overalls and got his concept.  Of course, I was just two and my bear had no name, but together we inspired him, or so I’ve been told.  His Lisa is black, the way he imagined I would look when I was eight or nine.  When I was five, Mr. Freeman gave me an original drawing of Lisa and Corduroy—only in this version, he gave her two pigtails like mine, instead of the long ponytail in the book.  He also gave her extra chubby cheeks like I had at that age.  (I am looking at the drawing as I write this: it hangs on my wall.)

Though I didn’t write the book, I’ve often been invited to do readings of it which has been fun.  (I’m told that I really do look like a grown up version of the girl in the book!)  I’ve also read the book to my kids so many times and always thought they knew the words and pictures by heart.  But one day, when I read the book at my children’s school, my daughter, Zoe who was sitting in front, raised her hand and asked:

“If it’s supposed to be you, Mommy, why does the mother in the story have brown skin too?”   Meaning, why wasn’t Lisa’s mother white, like Grandma?  I responded that it was 1968, and back then, it was easier for people to accept children being the same color as their parents. I didn’t hold the publishing industry of the 1960s to such a high standard.  But when I hear people of all races talk about Corduroy the thing they say most is: That was my favorite book as a child!  Or That’s my children’s favorite book!  Everyone loved Corduroy and the little girl who took him home—regardless of the fact that she was not white.  What Corduroy proves is that audiences connect with characters who look different from them, as long as the story is genuine and the feelings are familiar.

I believe the same is true for The Hunger Games.  Rue would be compelling in any color, though the author envisioned her brown.  I wonder if viewers of the film expected Rue to look like Prim, since Rue reminds Katniss of Prim (and Prim is described in the book as fairer than Katniss).  But it is Rue’s youth, sweetness and innocence that touches Katniss’s heart–the fact that she is dark does not dilute these qualities.

And speaking of Katniss, what about the casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence, a blue-eyed blond, playing the role of a girl the book described as having olive skin, dark hair and eyes?   (More like Naya Rivera, who plays Santana on Glee  .  Granted, for the role, Lawrence dyed her hair a little darker.)   Was there a moment when the film was being cast, when people said, okay, what race should Katniss be?  What went into the decision to make her white?  Or was it was always assumed that she would be white because this was going to be such a huge film, and having a white star seemed like the most marketable choice?  Actually, Katniss’s race wasn’t a big deal for me; many white people have olive skin and dark hair anyway.   What would have been a big deal—what would have smacked of deep cowardice—would have been casting a white actress for the role of Rue.  That would have sent the message that: no matter what the writer’s vision was, Hollywood could not expect an audience to weep for a black kid.

It is growing more common in films and on television to cast people of diverse racial backgrounds in mainstream roles without anyone making a big deal out of it.  For example, in Bridesmaids, the protagonist’s best friend Lillian–who was the bride herself—was clearly biracial.  She was played by Maya Rudolph, a biracial actress and comedienne, and in the film, she had a clearly black father and clearly white mother.  I loved that no one mentioned race in the film.  It was just there, and no big deal.  Is that reality–race being no big deal?  No, but what a wonderful wish.  If Hollywood perpetuated that fantasy more—rather than ramming stereotypes down our throats, I wonder: would those stereotypes begin to dissolve?

I do see hope for this though (including the casting choices of The Hunger Games).  In a television show called Flashforward,   which—like most shows I really love (see Rubicon  and Farscape)—got cancelled, the young, hot, engaged couple was interracial: an Asian American FBI guy, and a lovely brown-skinned African American woman.  Though they were leads in the show, there was no mention that their relationship was mixed.  It was no big deal, which I loved.  I also love when a TV show has a character with a same sex partner and that’s no big deal; I love when someone has to leave work a little early to celebrate Shabbos and that’s no big deal.  (Disclosure: I’ve never seen those last two, though it’s possible that just missed them, since I don’t watch a whole lot of TV.)

We’ve come so far since The Jeffersons,  a sit-com about a rich, black couple, where the whole joke was that they were a rich black couple.  For this we can thank the Huxtables, of The Cosby Show, a rich black family, where the show was about being a family. (What I want to see next is a crime drama where the main detective is a lesbian, married to her partner, and that’s no big deal.)

But I was talking about Hunger Games and the furor that’s rocked Twitter this week: fans of the book who saw the movie and were appalled that Rue was shown as black.  Some of the thoughts expressed were that Rue’s being black made her death “less sad.”  Others said it ruined the film, while some criticized the film for not sticking to the book (in which all characters who mattered were white?  Not true, not true!)

When I first read about these reactions, I clicked the red X, closed the page, closed my ears and eyes because I did not want to be reminded that anyone in America felt this way.  That anyone in America would feel less sad if my daughter died than if a white child died.  (The Trayvon Martin case is staring us all in the face as I write this.)  I know that I live with a certain amount of healthy denial; possibly I am giving Americans too much credit.  But if I am, then so was Suzanne Collins when she made Rue a dark skinned child and then dared us to care; so were Gary Ross and Debra Zane (the film’s director and casting director respectively) when they cast Stenberg as Rue and Dayo Okeniyi as Thresh.  (And I love that Lenny Kravitz, a biracial, black, Jewish guy, was cast as Cinna, whose race is not mentioned in the book!)  It should be no big deal.  Does someone have to be like us for us to care about them?  I really hope not.

Other Side of the Lake

My Dad and me at another lake at an earlier time. I think I'm two.

The summer I was ten, my parents and I rented a big yellow farm house which was a stone’s throw from a clear, blue lake. Everyone with a weekend house in the vicinity used the lake; it was the main attraction of the place.  It had a soft (more likely than not, man-made), sandy bank and a wooden raft anchored in the middle that you could swim or canoe out to.  People would lie out on that raft and just sun themselves for half the day.  No one worried about UV rays back in the seventies; people slathered themselves with baby oil and Ban de Soleil–sometimes held those aluminum sheets under their chins–and baked copper-brown in the sun, myself included.  (I know many people of color who were cautioned as children to stay out of the sun–to keep from getting darker.  My mother, who valued a nice tan in those days, was envious of how easily I browned.)

Our second week at the house, a group of boys arrived at a nearby estate.  There were ten of them, all about thirteen, all black, hailing from a place called “Inner City,” of which I’d never heard.  These boys had been awarded this special trip as a prize for academic excellence in a program which was basically for smart kids from rotten schools.  In addition to staying in a huge, old manor house and having access to a lake and the beautiful country, the boys were also taking enrichment classes in all the major academic areas.  Sort of like The Fresh Air Fund meets Prep for Prep.

My dad loved to observe these boys as they play-wrestled and exchanged insults involving one another’s mamas.  They were loud and wild and splashed a lot.  Most of the well-heeled regulars stayed away when the boys came out to swim—Inner-City-brand hilarity not being the vacationers’ speed.   The boys always greeted my dad with respect.  They could tell he understood them, though they didn’t know what to think about our family.  The boys seemed surprised that my mother—The White Lady—wasn’t afraid of them.  She spoke to them like a teacher would, even stepping in when their routine scuffles got out of hand.   They certainly didn’t know what to make of me.  Once the boys saw that my parents had no problem with them—didn’t clutch me and flee when they arrived, like the other parents did—they felt it was safe to approach me.  They never asked my name, but addressed me as “Little Girl,” referred to me as such amongst themselves.  As in:  “There go the Little Girl, y’all.”

The way I talked, which was nasal and squeaky with prominent r’s, amused them.

“Hey, Little Girl, you better watch out: Jaws is in the water.” (The film had been released earlier that summer.)

“No he’s not,” I’d say, not realizing they were trying to get a rise out of me.  “This lake is fresh water.  Sharks only live in salt water.”

They’d howl and slap each other’s hands as someone else would come up with a question for me, just to hear me talk.

The reason my dad got such a big kick out of these boys was that he had been one of these boys.   He had grown up in the thirties on the South Side of Chicago, part of what was referred to as “The Black Belt.”  His father—whom I never met because I was born too late—was a Pullman Porter, which meant he was always employed, even throughout the Depression.  So compared to those around them, my father’s family was not poor–my grandmother even took to leaving meals out on their front porch for those who had none.  Nevertheless, they were still black; they still struggled and faced the same kind of pervasive racism that all “colored people” faced back then, regardless of class.

It was immediately apparent to everyone that my father was a smart little boy, taking after his brother, Stan, who was eleven years his senior and clearly headed for University.  My father wore glasses from an early age, which no doubt helped people take his intellect seriously.  But it was more than that.  By seven, he was reading everything he could get his hands on; by ten, under his brother’s tutelage, he could differentiate Mozart from Beethoven from Schubert.  In Nineteen thirty-seven–seventeen years before Brown versus the Board of Education–my father was one of a very few black students who began attending a white high school, where he joined the staff of the school newspaper, ultimately becoming its chief cartoonist.

Still, his friends were the boys from his neighborhood.  They splashed around in their lake—Lake Michigan—and derided one another’s mamas just like these boys did.  Of course, the mobile sunshine delineated the white section of their beach.  If the sun moved while my father and his friends were in the water—which it invariably did—the racial divide moved.  That meant trouble.   As Dad would ultimately write:

‘No one had ever designated which sections of the beach were for white and black.  There were no signs as I had seen south … saying “white only, “ or “colored.”  But rigid segregation prevailed.  And the group of pugnacious white men and boys was always there at some arbitrary dividing line, with bats in their hands, watching us.  It was a different group every time we came to the lake, but they always looked the same.  Thin, fat, or muscular, narrowed eyes, tight little mouths and hard frowns …

If any black swimmers lost their sense of direction, or place, they would hear the shouts and curses and racial epithets.  If that didn’t do the job, into the water the group would come, eager for the attack.’[1]

Watching those boys at the lake that summer brought my father back to his beginnings: what it was like to be young, black, smart and way out of place wherever he went.   He never talked to me about those days when I was a kid, only when I found drafts of his memoirs later on and asked about them.  What stories he did tell me of black life in the 1930s on the South Side of Chicago involved a world very far removed from my own.

I spent my whole childhood without a single overt incident of racism—that I noticed.  I know I was raised in a bubble: a city where biracial was common, a private school where the black kids were no different socioeconomically from the white kids.  I had no frame of reference for relating to my father’s tales of segregation and fear.  Also, my father’s job in publishing meant later hours and more business trips than those of my mother, who was a teacher.   Mom was with me more, meaning I negotiated the world accompanied by a white, educated woman.  We may have gotten more than our share of looks when we went places together, but that was an easy trade.  No matter where we went, my mother’s race provided access.

Still, the trials my father endured as a youth, the character they built in him, paved the way for me to have a very different sort of life, in a different sort of time and place.


[1] From Untitled Memoir by Mel Williamson (The manuscript is undated, but he worked on it continuously between 1985 and 1994. ) This excerpt takes place in the summer of 1940.

Why I Believe Marriage Equality = Common Sense

I am glad to say that by now—nearly a week after Valentine’s Day, 2012, the day  “The Loving Story” aired on HBO—interracial marriage is more accepted in this country than ever.  According to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, about one out of every seven new marriages in the U.S. is interracial.  (Which you can read about in this link from GOOD Magazine.)  On that note, I believe it’s time to extend marriage rights to same sex couples.

As the child of a very long and happy interracial marriage, I know that it is possible for two people to have a loving, lasting bond even if there are societal barriers to “their kind” of union.

I believe that a marriage between two people of different races is no less a marriage than one between two people of the same race.

I believe that a marriage between two people of the same sex is no less a marriage than one between two people of different sexes.

If you love and wish to marry someone of a different race, and I love and wish to marry someone of my same race, I do not believe that your marriage in any way undermines my marriage.

If I love and wish to marry someone of a different gender and you love and wish to marry someone of your own gender, I do not believe that your marriage in any way undermines my marriage.

But what about the children?  One reason people used to give (and still give) for opposing interracial marriage was the children.   As in: Think of the children!  Won’t they have issues?  Well, yes we do have issues, just as every other group or combination of groups has issues.  We are also teachers, doctors, lawyers, dancers, writers, husbands, wives, same-sex partners, parents … and—oh yeah—the U.S. president.  We’re doing OK.   As are children of same-sex parents, last I checked.

What about that business about undermining the sanctity of marriage in general? 

I believe that if one couple’s inter-sex marriage is undermined by another couple’s same-sex marriage, then the first marriage wasn’t particularly strong to begin with.  Same-sex marriages don’t undermine marriage any more than same-race marriages do.

What undermines marriage is marrying someone because your publicist told you to.   What undermines marriage is doing it for reality show ratings.  What undermines marriage is infidelity.  What undermines marriage is denigrating other peoples’ marriages when you are supplementing your marriage with extramarital partners.  What undermines marriage is going into it while keeping your options open.  What undermines marriage is violence.

My parents—a black man and a white, Jewish woman—got married in Chicago, Illinois in 1950, eight years before Richard and Mildred Loving wed.  At the time, interracial marriage was illegal in over thirty states.  My parents were married for forty-five years when my father died.  In four and a half decades, their interracial marriage did not threaten the sanctity of anyone’s same-race marriage.   Not even a little bit.

I think it is time to acknowledge that marriage is a loving, committed relationship between two people who love and commit to one another.