When I was 6 at my all-white elementary school, my librarian read us a picture book one day on Martin Luther King, Jr. The book had nothing to do with this, but my little-kid brain had the urge to say something
I raised my hand.
“Yes, Jane? Do you have a question?” the librarian, Mrs. Bergman, asked.
“No,” I said, “I just wanted to tell you that my Mommy is black and my Daddy is white.”
I still remember the silence as my fellow 6-year-olds didn’t know how to respond to this. Then a girl named Stevie turned around and said, “No one cares!”
Well, this squelched any future exceptionalism I might’ve had. In that one otherwise mundane library period, I learned that being mixed race in the world can be a clumsy, polarizing experience. This week when Taye Diggs said to The Grio that people could call his son “mixed” instead of black, I thought back to the 6-year-old girl with two giant braids and a declaration to make.
Growing up, my parents taught me to embrace both my Jamaican and Irish heritage. My Jamaican-born mom taught me to be proud of my blackness. My parents and extended family never made me feel pressured to pick either side. I know that many biracial people are not as lucky. The multiracial experience is, well, multi-faceted. After Twitter slammed Diggs for his comments, many came from past experiences of internal anguish, of parents telling them to hide their blackness or be ashamed of it.
I see myself as both black and biracial and don’t view them as mutually exclusive. Mixed-race people can be perceived as many things to the outside world — white, black, Latinx and many other things people can project on you. Genetics can be a crapshoot, but we still face unfortunate truths. Half-black, half-white people still get arrested. They still get marginalized. 6-year-old, proudly biracial me was still called a “slave” by a white girl on the playground and “nigger” by white neighbors as a teenager.
Our self-identities are created from intimate reflections of our circumstances, past histories and communal value systems. Does this mean I side with Taye Diggs? Not really. For where he may be coming from a place to destroy the “One Drop Rule” (and I’m all for destroying vestiges of white supremacy), on the flip side you have people clamoring to dismiss their blackness. Those who need to tell you they’re part Cherokee or how well they can “pass” for something else. Biracial people can embrace both sides of their heritage and also acknowledge that one of those sides gets trampled on by society daily. That they may have to root for that side more.
Taye Diggs, you can raise your son to embrace both his black and white heritage to strengthen his self-identity. But you still need to give him “the talk.” You still have to teach him to navigate his space in the world as a black man. But I’m not trying to say teaching a biracial child about their blackness is only to teach them about a burden. I was taught to view my blackness as coming from a line of joyous, intelligent and cunning people. Sure, Taye Diggs’ son and I are mixed-race. But we’re also black — don’t forget it.
Jane Dempsey is a comedy writer who currently lives in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter.