My Mother Is White, I Am Not: On Being Biracial Without Identity Issues

Panama Jackson,  1 year old, with his dad (courtesy of Panama Jackson)
Panama Jackson, 1 year old, with his dad (courtesy of Panama Jackson)

Editor’s note: This piece speaks from the perspective of being biracial with black and white parents. I realize that other biracial ethnic mixes may or may not share any of these experiences.


A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece called “Black Folks Who, Though Invited, Probably Wouldn’t Come to the Cookout.” On this list I included the following people: Mariah Carey, Meghan Markle, Rashida Jones and Lenny Kravitz. Would they come? We many never know, but sure as shootin’, an early comment on Facebook pointed out, solely, that “Mariah Carey is biracial. I believe Megan Merkel [sic] is biracial as well … ”

While I can’t speak for the commenter, my assumption is that he believed that their biracialness excludes them from a list with the lead of “Black Folks,” though I’m surprised he didn’t realize that Rashida and Lenny are also biracial in the way that Sean Fury can appreciate. Put a pin in this.

Last week, the world was abuzz with the news that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle became engaged. As these things typically go, the black community was aflutter with unicorn sightings and fairy dust and all the other components of Black Girl Magic up in here, up in here. And sure as more shootin’, it didn’t take long before “the other half” (pun intended) pointed out that Markle was not, in fact, black, but biracial. This led to a piece right here by Damon Young titled, “Everything You Need to Know About Meghan Markle’s ‘Level of Blackness,’ Explained,” in which he included the following:

There’s also been a conversation about whether Meghan Markle even deserves this type of specifically black-ass attention because she might not identify as black. Basically, she’s not black enough to get any love from black people.

Yeah, I know. And that’s fucking dumb. Meghan Markle was born black and is gonna die black. Her mom is from freakin’ Crenshaw, Calif., for Chrissake. If your mom is from the exact-same place where “I hate the back of Forest Whitaker’s neck” was said, any offspring she has will be blacker than a bottle of S-curl activator. It’s science.

But what if Meghan Markle rejects her blackness?

She hasn’t done that. But even if she had, well, that ain’t her choice to make. Her saying, “Yeah, I’m not black” would be like me saying, “Yeah, I’m going to be 6 feet 7 inches from now on.” People who know me would say, “Um, Damon. I’m sorry, but you’re 6 feet 2 inches now and you haven’t grown since you were 19. Stilts might help, maybe?” And people who hate me would still say, “I hate your 6-foot-2 ass. Fuck you and your 74 inches, b.” That I called myself 6 feet 7 inches wouldn’t mean shit to anyone. Except maybe a psychologist. Or an optometrist.

The world sees her as a black woman. The hate mail and racist tweets directed toward her are because of said blackness, not her character arc with Mike Ross. The people attempting to be the arbiters of Meghan Markle’s lack of blackness need a new hill to die on.

What Damon is speaking to is the historical “one-drop rule,” the slave-era relic that requires anybody with even one drop of black blood to identify as black or, at the very least, not white to make sure that “pure white folks” could maintain their power—probably once they realized that after raping and torturing black women, they were not creating new white people but new black people. Put a pin in this.

I read the op-ed that Markle wrote for Elle in which she spoke about how she identifies herself. It’s an interesting read‚ or as interesting as one of those pieces where a racially ambiguous person attempts to explain how they deal with their racial ambiguousness can be. Her conclusion? Instead of living in the gray of being both black and white, she chooses to create her own box of self-identity. Good for her. I respect that.


“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I’d be crunched into other people’s fantasies and eaten alive.”

—Audre Lorde


“Self-identity” is defined as the recognition of one’s potential and qualities as an individual, especially in relation to social context.


Here is where I point out some facts about myself. I am mixed. I’m the product of a white woman from France and a black man from Alabama. I will tell you, without hesitation, that I am biracial.


What I will also tell you, without hesitation and with pride, is that I’m black. I identify as black. I was raised that way. I was raised in a household by my black father and black stepmother and my black sisters. My upbringing was full of blackness, not even intentionally but by virtue of who my parents are. My white mother obviously had a hand in raising me—we spent summers with her in Michigan—but largely, my foundation, self-esteem, pride and identity were crafted by my black parents.

And also by society. I grew up overseas, and while we were mostly Americans to our German hosts, the word “nigger” isn’t just an American term. The difference between being black and white was made clear from an early age, and my father made sure to prepare me for that. Be who you are—just don’t forget who they see.


Rude awakenings are not my ministry. While my self-identity wasn’t shaped to protect me from the big, bad world, it did instill in me a sense of pride in who I was. I am mixed, but I’m black and I learned lessons from that vantage point. That’s how I grew up.

Let me also say that I’ve never, in my entire life, had anybody tell me I wasn’t black enough or that I wasn’t white enough. I don’t know if that’s because of the energy I put out, my surroundings or because I’m a man—maybe it’s all three—but I think it’s worth mentioning that I’ve never dealt with the “stereotypical mixed-kid struggle.”


Of course I’ve been on the receiving end of light-skinned jokes, and when appropriate, my friends all point out which half of my being is responsible for certain actions. My punctuality? That’s that white side. My love for brown liquor? That’s the black side. But who I am has never been called into question.

While I acknowledge both my mother and that I’m mixed, for me, the choice of how I identify myself is very easy. I love being black and always have. It’s part of my identity on purpose and with intention because being black is beautiful. To me. For me. And what I had to realize, especially when I got to college, is that not every mixed person feels this way or views it through such a simple and clear lens.


Some of my earliest arguments in college came from discussions with other mixed individuals who felt like I was denying who I am by claiming to be black. I wasn’t being true to myself by choosing only one-half of my genetic makeup to claim. Acknowledging being mixed but claiming to be black was a slap in the face to my mother and my true heritage, a mixed one. I had some variation of that debate every year of college and even some postcollege.

What I found most telling about those discussions is that I had to defend my blackness to other mixed students ... at HBCUs. I went to Morehouse College, and I was having discussions with other people from Morehouse and Spelman College who were trying to get me to claim, at least partially, my whiteness WHILE basking in and benefiting from black surroundings.


I don’t know if that pushed me further into my black identity or not, but I never wavered. How could I not be proud to be black, especially given our location, and why would anybody tell me I had to check the “other” or “biracial” or “black” and “white” box on forms? For why? My reality and my truth and how I was raised were clear: Acknowledge your mother, but don’t forget who you are.

I realize that for many other people, it’s not that simple. I can entirely understand the desire to give credit and respect to both halves of your makeup. That’s fair and reasonable. I also get how anybody would hate for OTHERS to dictate who they are. Especially people who don’t share in your struggle, as it were.


I’m sure Damon’s piece, while an opinion, annoyed some mixed people: Who is this nonmixed person to tell me who I am and how I have to identify? Why do others or society get to determine who I am, and why don’t I get to define myself FOR myself? If Markle isn’t choosing one over the other, why does anybody ELSE get to do that for her? If she’s setting her OWN identity, why does anybody else get to chime in on what that is?

More important, why do the relics of slavery get to impact who anybody is in 2017? The short answer is, because they do. The truth is—and this is difficult for a lot of mixed people to hear—that society DOES affect who we are. It does help to shape our worldview. You don’t have to identify as black if you don’t want to, but don’t pretend that when other people see you, their eyes are deceiving them, either. Which is also where I think a lot of mixed folks get into trouble.


It’s always off-putting when somebody makes sure to point out that they’re NOT black but mixed. In a conversation, if you make it a point to dissociate yourself from blackness, it comes across as condescending, as if being black is an issue or a problem. And this would likely be the same whether talking to black OR white people. Black people don’t want to hear that “I’m not black” shit, and I’m guessing white people don’t want to hear that “I’m half-white” shit. You can be who you want, but it’s important to remember that nobody cares until you start splicing and dicing situationally.


Defining yourself is very important for many reasons. But race isn’t easy. It’s been the defining issue for the duration of our existence as a nation. To think that our nation is going to be enlightened about the plight of mixed children is a fool’s errand. At the same time, again, I entirely get not liking other people trying to tell you, or any other mixed people, who you are and how you should identify. But that’s not going to change, either, not anytime soon.

Because keep this in mind: When black folks point out that somebody is biracial, as was done in the comments on Facebook, it was done to distance them from blackness. That wasn’t pointed out to grant mixed folks the agency over their self-identity. It was to point out that, hey, those mixed folks aren’t black, fam. They don’t get to claim blackness. That’s a privilege or struggle (depending on your worldview) that belongs to ACTUAL black folks, not mixed kids.


(I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out here that there’s always a bit of irony in black Americans’ insistence on shooting down biracial folks’ blackness as inauthentic because of a white parent, considering that the vast majority of black Americans absolutely have white blood from the not-so-distant past in our blood.)

For some in the black community, biracial folks are nothing but walking, talking tragic figures who spend their lives complaining about fitting in and acceptance. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t know some mixed people who still struggle with their identity. That’s their struggle and they’re entitled to it. I, like most of us, don’t know what drives that train for them. I think my upbringing made it easy for me, but again, my reality seems to be far removed from many others.


Even when talking with my white mother and discussing her desire for me to partake of things that felt more true to her, like dating white women, I never wavered in explaining how I live and why I live that way, why I’m comfortable with who I am, and how my racial politics affect my life and choices. She might not like it, but she was forced to accept it because, well, she had no choice. I also never felt that I was dishonoring my mother or my heritage in any way. Others might feel different.

Race is a very complicated part of our nation’s history. White folks, like usual, fucked up some shit and then hid their hands and left future generations to deal with the remnants. So it’s entirely reasonable for children who are of mixed heritage, particularly black and white, to have struggles with both their own identity and how others perceive them.


I think it was very important that Barack Obama identified as a black man while acknowledging his white family because so many white people tried to claim him as being not black but half-white, probably forcing so many of their ancestors to sit up in their graves for allowing this uppity Negro to ascend to the presidency. Never had I seen so many white people clamoring to take somebody’s blackness from them, when they spent so many years giving out blackness like Oprah gives out cars.

To some people, Markle is a black woman, plain and simple. To others, she’s a biracial woman. To me, you can be both. To others, she can’t. It looks like she appreciates both sides of herself and doesn’t want to choose for career and personal reasons. But she’s also not running from being black, which is what black folks hate more than anything in discussions like this.


I think all of us who are mixed and who struggle with the identity politics of it all need to accept that because of our complicated history, the debate will never cease. And it’s very important to realize that you don’t have to reject one thing to accept another; walking and chewing gum is a thing. That goes for mixed folks and nonmixed people.

Everybody hates being defined by people who don’t share their history or reality. But we all do it in so many other ways. We are a label-centric culture; that is not likely to change soon. Be you, but don’t forget that others are looking, too. And if you largely benefit from proximity to blackness—which a lot of people do—remember how much of an asshole you look like when folks are talking about race and you make sure to point out that you’re not black. Don’t be an asshole, basically.


Me? My black is beautiful all day every day. My mother is white; I am not.

How real is this?

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.


Reclaiming My Time

We simply need to acknowledge and accept that we need more descriptors to describe the totality of blackness. I am blackity black-black but some stupid people tried to tell me that I’m not because of my Caribbean heritage and straight-ish hair. My husband is technically multiracial (Italian white absentee father, mother is half black, half Taino from Puerto Rico), white passing, born in da Bronx and will knock you the fuck out if you tell him that he’s not black because he’s culturally as black as they come.

It’s okay to use terms that explain ethnicity and race (Caribbean black, southern American black, etc) instead of dumping everybody in the same bucket and pretending that all of our experiences are the same - because THEY AREN’T.

I, a phenotypically black woman, appreciate the fact that mixed people are beginning to acknowledge that they are different. Are they black? To me, they are black*. Meaning black with other attributes that can often soften (but not erase) the blow of blackness inspired racism.

This is more true for women — unmixed black men are highly represented and lauded in sports and music. Not as much for women. Because until VERY recently, black women were almost exclusive represented in media by clearly mixed and racially ambiguous black women. Through no fault of their own, mixed women, though statistically a tiny portion of black women, were anointed our media spokespersons, models, actresses — representations of black women like Angela Bassett, were eclipsed in number by women like Halle Berry, and the Soledad O’brian’s and Melissa Harris Perry’s of the world clinched opportunities that most Gwen Ifill types couldn’t dream of.

So go ahead and come to the cookout - I have no problem with it. But can we PLEASE stop pretending that their experiences are the same, mixed people have always been at the front of the back of the bus.