The Complexities of Biracial Identity in Popular Culture

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the-complexities-of-biracial-identity-in-popular-cultureI should start by mentioning that this is not the post I originally planned to write. I had planned to write a positive post praising biracial role models in film and TV, but as I sat down in front of my computer I realized I couldn’t think of any. I couldn’t think of one single film or TV show where a biracial character is shown in a positive light, in fact I couldn’t even think of anything that included a biracial character. Now, this doesn’t mean that they’re not there, of course they are but the problem is that their heritage isn’t highlighted and the audience are unaware they are biracial.

 

It’s only really been in the last two decades that actors and actresses of an ethnic minority have made it onto the small and big screen with relative frequency, but there is always a catch. You will probably find that a lot of your favorite ‘black’ TV characters are in fact biracial. This is down to the fact that no matter how far we seem to progress as a society, lighter skin will always be favored, hair with a looser curl is seen as more attractive and a brown face with a hint of Caucasian features is seen to be more relatable. The fact that biracial people are marketed as black leaves no space for biracial identity in popular culture. Mariah Carey once said – “It’s the law since slavery…. any amount of black in you, you are black.” And Halle Berry has made no secret of the fact that she considers herself and her daughter to be black even though they are both of mixed heritage.

 

Black people struggle enough in the dog eat dog world of Hollywood, as was highlighted in the recent the-complexities-of-biracial-identity-in-popular-cultureOscar’s scandal. The fact that black actors and actresses were excluded from the nominations was not so much a reflection on their abilities, but a reflection on the opportunities available. When black people play a role, the role is often specific to that race and culture e.g. 12 Years a Slave, when white people play a role it’s a role that can be taken on by anyone – this limits the possibilities and the scope of black actors and actresses and for biracial stars this scope is even smaller.

 

Would Obama becoming president have been such a big deal if he was labeled as the first biracial president rather than the first black president? Would the UK’s most successful formula one driver Lewis Hamilton have won over the public if everyone knew he was biracial and not black? Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is probably no. The core problem comes down to categorization, biracial people are not easily categorized – just by being born they are multi-dimensional, their families merged and blended, two cultures and sometimes more rubbing alongside each other and not always happily. To show this kind of complexity on screen seems to be too much for the film and TV industry. However, it is possible for biracial people to transcend racial boundaries in popular culture as long as they are prepared to drop their identity and become simply ‘other’ or ‘ethnic’ or ‘exotic’. Take Jennifer Lopez for example, throughout her career she has taken on roles that are either racially ambiguous or that are traditionally played by white people and whether we like to admit it or not it is these roles that are globally accepted. She’s therefore cemented her status as racially connected to all. Latina people identify with her, as do white people and black people. This career of regularly switching race allegiance is demonstrated in her 1999 music video ‘if you had my love’ within just three minutes Lopez appears as a cornrowed hip-hop girl a Latina flamenco dancer and a blonde bombshell with slick straight hair.

 

What does this mean for your children?

 
The reality is that biracial role models who identify as biracial are few and far between but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. While writing this post I’ve had time to think about my own role the-complexities-of-biracial-identity-in-popular-culturemodels growing up and the ones I have now and I realized something very important. Because I didn’t see anyone on my TV screen that looked like me, it forced me to look inside instead of outside. From an early age I learnt to shed the importance of what people look like. Other things became more important to me. When all my friends would be gushing over the hot girls in The Hills or the latest white movie star to break onto the circuit my own personal role models were and are far more diverse. I was in awe of Noel Clarke – a small time British film maker who broke the boundaries with ‘Kidulthood’ a semi-documentary movie about the struggles of growing up in inner city London. Although firmly connected to his Black roots Clarke also had other interests and wrote and starred in Doctor Who, a show not commonly associated with Black culture. Maggie Smith is another one of my heroes, better known as Professor McGonagall I have always been amazed by the strength and grace of every character she brings to life. This disregard of the outer shell has also traversed into my personal life. Most of my friends have a type when it comes to men, even if they don’t think they do – but I don’t as my diverse list of ex boyfriends can attest to.

 

The main point to remember is this:

 

Currently there may not be many biracial role models for your children to look up to, but this doesn’t mean they can’t identify and connect with others. Being forced to look further than skin color will allow them to see the things that really matter and they will likely become kinder, more accepting and more open minded individuals because of it.

~Lauren Riley

 
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