Tag Archives: Biracial

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.

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.

Who’s Afraid of The Little Mermaid?

Aged three. Make mine the Princess cup, please.

Visiting middle schools with my daughter last week has me musing about change: the upcoming changes in my daughter, in our relationship—as she relies on me less and less, on herself and her friends more and more.  I’m thinking about practical changes too: the changes in our schedule, as I’ll have two kids in two different schools in two different parts of town come September.  But as well as looking to the future, I can’t help glancing back with bittersweet nostalgia at the days of baby teeth and mispronunciations, of Dora and Blues Clues, Bob Books and Hop on Pop.   I also remember my parenting then, the things I thought were big deals: how meticulously I mixed water in every glass of juice, how white flour products hardly ever found their way into my kitchen—never, ever made it into my kids’ lunchboxes.

When it came to playthings, I was a little easier going.  Though I never bought my son a toy gun, I found it amusing that—from the time he was eighteen months old—Theo turned every object he got his hands on into one.  He’d take the letter “L” from an alphabet puzzle, grip it like a pistol and chase his sister around going: “Rahr!  Rahr!”  (Never having seen or heard actual artillery, the most aggressive sound he could come up with was the noise the lion made on Nature.)

I didn’t even object when my daughter, at three, became passionate about Ariel and the other Disney Princesses.  The way I figured: a plastic Disney Princess cup at Target cost about seventy-five cents.  If it would make her drink milk happily, why not?  I didn’t see it as anything that might one day harm her character.  (If one day she began to lament her lack of a fish-tail, we’d cross that bridge then.)

What follows is an article I wrote about two years ago, as a belated response to the Princess backlash I’d heard around the playground during my daughter’s Ariel days.   At the time, Zoe was nine, way finished with the Princesses and had entered a tomboy stage, banishing all dresses, all pink from her wardrobe.

 Don’t Throw the Mermaid out with The Bath Water

Fear not the Disney Princesses, nor their impact on your daughter!  They will pass, my young mother friend, as will the lure of Bratz dolls and even Hannah Montana.

When my daughter Zoe was three, turning four, Cinderella was released on DVD.  Everywhere you turned there were little girls in long, blue gauze dresses marked at the breast with the blond heroine’s picture.   Zoe’s fourth birthday party was a costume pageant, where she and no fewer than four guests showed up as Cindy—not to be confused with the three pink Auroras and two yellow Belles.  (Someone’s sleeping, stroller-bound baby arrived in Ariel’s seashell bikini top and tail).  It was a craze I succumbed to halfheartedly (yet another franchise, preying on children), but without too much guilt.  An Ariel cup?  No biggie.  Belle underwear?  Sure.  A Cinderella beach towel?  Well—Zoe would need cups, underwear and towels anyway; why not make her happy?

“Aren’t you concerned about the message it’s sending?”  said my friend Anne, who was writing a book on feminist parenting.  She was referring to the beauty myth laid out so eloquently by Naomi Wolf back in ’92.  The Princesses all perpetuated unrealistic standards of feminine beauty—dainty hands, feet, and noses; huge eyes with fabulous lashes; succulent lips, microscopic waists and flowing blankets of hair.  Anne, whose daughter Emma was younger—just breaking into Elmo—emailed me articles every week on how mass marketed toys undermined girls’ self esteem.

As a biracial woman whose daughter has inherited both my tightly curling hair and my brown skin, I admit, I was a little concerned.  The new African American Princess, Tiana, was years away and stores rarely stocked products featuring the darker Princesses—Jasmine, Esmeralda, Yulan and Pocahontas.  More than once I watched Zoe prance around in her blue Cinderella outfit with a real blanket on her head, simulating “Princess hair,” swinging it this way and that.   Oh, how I remember doing the blanket-head thing myself as a child;  Look, Mommy; I’m Marcia Brady!  (My generation’s reigning Princess.) Were we rejecting our real hair and identity, or just pretending for an afternoon to be something we weren’t?   Frankly, at four, Zoe was more inclined to pretend to be a pig.  I don’t think she was rejecting her species; just imagining a different sort of existence.  And isn’t imagination the place to be if you’re four anyway?

Emails from Anne kept coming: the Disney girls were just the tip of the iceberg; Bratz Dolls were next!  Worse than the Princesses, worse than Barbie back in her 39-21-33 measurement days—Bratz dolls were—and I suppose still are—eight-inch plastic renditions of big-haired teenage hookers with oversized heads, eyes and lips.  They all wore perpetual sneers, demonstrating cool—or, rather, a Brattiness that might appeal to the fashionably precocious five year old.  They were a horror, I admit, and thanks to successful marketing, Zoe wanted one.  (My emphatic NO made them all the more appealing.)  She never got one, however, and her interest quickly faded.  By the time Zoe was in first grade, Disney Princesses themselves were passé among Zoe’s crowd.  Hannah Montana held their interest for about a summer; High School Musical, about fifteen minutes.

Beginning in second grade, an aversion to all things girly—dresses, ballet, the color pink, the word pretty when offered as a compliment—had set in and persists to this day.  (Zoe, nine, is wrapping up third grade.)  Part of this is about asserting her identity as a being separate from me; I’m a former ballerina myself.   Zoe has heard me comment that she has natural dancing gifts that I myself wasn’t born with.  “If only she wanted to …” I’ve lamented, failing to make sure she’s out of earshot.  Which, of course is pressure just begging for rebellion.  Not to mention the treatment she gets from everyone who knows I used to dance.  The first thing they say to my daughter is, “Are we a little ballerina too?”

“No,” says Zoe.  “We are not.”

I haven’t the heart to stress politeness at times like these.  She is not a little ballerina, certainly not a little me.  Still, I see her dancing around the house when she forgets herself, leaping, pirouetting—riffing on all the steps she learned in ballet class when she was too young to decide she hated it.   Similarly, when we go clothes shopping, it’s the pink top she goes for first, then checks herself and asks for green.

I am proud of my daughter for designing her own code for dress and behavior.  I am proud of the individual that she is.   She loves pigs, snakes and insects; she can name the super powers of every member of the Justice League along with their back stories; she’s good at gymnastics, tennis and drawing; she runs like the wind; she’ beautiful (okay so I’m biased) and while adults tell her this all the time, she could not care less.

I confess, though, while the “girliness allergy” doesn’t worry me, at times it makes me a little sad.  I fear Zoe is holding herself to her own unrealistic standard, where skirts, pink, and dancing are off-limits, even if she secretly longs for them.  Whenever I fear that she’s cutting off the part of her that enjoys girly things, I reassure myself by remembering how quickly phases come and go.  The pendulum swings one way and then it swings back.  This applies to both my kids in terms of sleeping patterns, eating, quirky likes and dislikes and yes, style.

On a recent visit to the Gap outlet, Zoe grabbed a t-shirt and thrust it at me.  “I need this top,” she said with a grin.  Under a picture of the seven main members of the Justice League was the slogan: “I love Super Heroes.”  Typical Zoe, right?  Yeah.  Only the top was pink.

About the “Cultural Drive for Thinness” Article

Eating Disorders and the Forces Behind the Cultural Drive for Thinness: Are African American Women Really Protected?  began as a paper I wrote for graduate school, where everything I read about eating disorders seemed to exclude women of color.  It was 1996 and I kept opening books on eating disorders to find some statement like the following:

Because the African American community is more accepting of fuller body shapes, eating disorders are rare among black women.

Gee, I thought.  What about black women who live, work and play primarily in the mainstream or “White” Community?   What about upper middle class black women who share ideals of physical beauty with upper middle class white (and upper middle class Asian and upper middle class Latina) women?  What about biracial women with rail thin white mothers and cousins?

And speaking of biracial women, I know my world view is skewed by ballet but here’s some food for thought (no pun intended).   In all the years I was dancing, I knew a lot of white girls who did not have eating disorders, but I never met a single biracial girl who didn’t – myself included.

So I began to dig.   My Social Work in Healthcare article is the result.  The tone is way more radical than I’d be about it today, but the sentiment is still important to me.

(You can find the link to the original article on the My Articles page.  If for some reason, you can only get the abstract, let me know and I will post the whole article on this site.)

The Body As Self: Weight Identity for a Young Ballet Dancer

For years I struggled with identity without thinking about identity.  I was a secular Jewish, black and white biracial girl, an only child of “older” parents, an Upper Westside kid.  But I didn’t think about these designations.  More important than anything else was that I was a ballet dancer, and all that it entailed: daily after school practice, weekends booked with rehearsals, summers in a hot studio, no vacations, no French fries, no non-dancer friends.  When, I broke ranks and went to a liberal arts college instead of joining a ballet company, I was suddenly a swan out of pointe shoes, lost without the familiar ballet culture, but also deeply curious and so excited about what else the world might have in store for me.  I didn’t realize that my life was about duality, always straddling two roles, two cultures, navigating two divergent paths.  I said I struggled without thinking about it because I had no time to think about struggling with identity or anything else; all through college I had a full time job whose name was bulimia.

I’d been anorexic in high school, but in college, the stress led me to abuse food as a substance rather than starve myself.  Being thin was all that was left of my ballet self, I thought.  And I clung to it.

I had an eating disorder from the age of eleven until I was twenty-three, and at no point did I understand that this had to do with pain, a refusal to accept my body or myself.   I wonder what would have happened if one of the therapists I saw at the time had gotten me thinking about identity.

Who exactly are you anyway?

Who am I?  Thin, that’s who.

No, I mean besides that.

I had no idea.   Skinny was my starting point, my grounding: if I could feel my hip bones, if I stood feet together and my thighs didn’t touch, I was okay.

I remember a session when I was nineteen.  I was on a year’s hiatus from college to dance.  I’d just signed a contract with the Cincinnati Ballet and was preparing to move to Ohio.  I’d be rooming with a friend from my ballet school, Alessandra (name changed), who was also anorexic.  I was anxious about the move but not for the reason my therapist thought.

“Leaving home can be difficult,” she said, “to go far away for the first time brings up all kinds of feelings.”

This was true, but I’d lived away from home for a whole year in college.  Before that, I’d spent summers in California with friends.   What I was really afraid of was living with Alessandra, whom I knew was a “better” anorexic than I was.  She had restriction down to a science, never lapsed into vulgar binging and purging as I did.  She was thinner.

It’s hard to write this, hard to imagine that I once felt this way, but a big piece of my identity was being the thinnest among my closest friends.   Granted I now lived in the world of professional ballet, where reed-like was the norm.  My body-type dictated that I would never the thinnest in the dance studio.  Being just five foot three and busty—despite weighing well under one hundred pounds—disqualified me, I thought, from having the ideal dancer’s body.   In a land where a B cup is considered huge, I was a C-D, which did make me appear heavier than my scantly endowed counterparts.  But thinner dancers didn’t bother me so much in the rehearsal studio. There was distance between me and those girls.  They weren’t my closest friends; they weren’t my family, so they didn’t infringe on the space where I was me.  I was afraid of living with someone like Alessandra because I imagined that she was more me than I was.