Opinion: Sorry Taye Diggs, Race Matters and Biracial Children Can’t Afford to Pretend It Doesn’t
Known for being the center of controversy on topics involving self-hate and colorism, actor Taye Diggs has found himself in the thick of it yet again. This time over comments about his mixed race son.
Diggs spoke with urban website The Grio last week about the release of his latest children’s book Mixed Me, inspired by his son. The child’s mother is Diggs’ ex-wife, singer and actress Idina Menzel. The actor penned the book to encourage self-love among young biracial children who are often faced with a conflict of identity between Black and white. Back in 2012, he wrote his first children’s book, titled Chocolate Me, based on his own experiences as a dark-skinned boy growing up in a predominately white neighborhood and being teased for his dark complexion.
“The book [Mixed Me] is kind of along similar lines [as Chocolate Me] for my son, even though in this day and age he’s going to have less of an issue being mixed than I did [being dark-skinned]. It’s a book of self-love and self-appreciation and knowing that you are special regardless of what people will say about you because people will always say stuff,” Diggs explained.
The Best Man Holiday star further expressed his desire for his son not to have to choose between being Black or white saying, “When you do [choose to be black or white], you risk disrespecting that one half of who you are, and that’s my fear is that I don’t want my son to be in a situation where he calls himself black and everyone thinks he has a black mom and a black dad, and then they see a white mother, they’re wondering, ‘Oh, well, what’s going on? Are you ashamed of your white mother?’”
While Diggs only intended to express his hope that his son would fully love himself, his comments have been interpreted by some in the Black community as a manifestation of the “self-hate” Diggs has spoken of in the past and sparked a greater social debate about colorism and racial identity. What is the right choice for a biracial person? Do we adhere to the one-drop rule of yesteryear and consider him Black because he has black in him? Do we go by the shade of his skin? I’ve sifted through lengths of Facebook and Twitter posts, reading and digesting the varied viewpoints and I have arrived at the only logical conclusion, and appropriately, it’s a mixture of both.
For those who would like to label Taye Diggs a self-hater, he’s not, but he has admitted to having a hard time coping with his dark skin as a young man. The perception of his skin color outside the home clashed with the perception of his skin color in the eyes of his family. He was told he was beautiful by his parents, but the outside world didn’t agree. These things have affected him. He may be proud of his skin color now, but he also knows what it is like to feel unsure of himself, to hate the way he looked, and to, in effect, not totally love himself. At the heart of his comments, he just wants his son to know that he should embrace himself fully and not feel that one side is better and the other side worse.
So, he wants his child to be seen as mixed. It makes sense. He is mixed. But let’s get down to brass tacks. Mixed is not a race. And, yes, race is a social construct—an unhappy divider of people who are all human. But race exists and “mixed” is not one of them. The term covers a multitude of combinations. For instance, a person can be mixed with black and white or mixed with Asian and Indian. Diggs’ son Walker is black, not because of the one-drop rule or dominant and recessive genes, but because one of his parents is. It’s that simple. By the same logic, his son is also white because one of his parents is. It is possible to teach a child duality–that he can be both black and another race– without teaching him that he has to choose one. Naturally, there may come a time when he gravitates towards one over the other, or he may not. But the distinctions are important and to teach a child that he is both races and therefore neither in a society that unfortunately sees color is a barrier to surviving, thriving, and understanding the world.
I have a biracial niece and nephew with whom I spend nearly all my time. I tell them they are mixed with both black and white. It’s obvious to them. Their parents are not the same color. I also emphasize to them that they are black, and black people are treated differently than white people in our society. And I don’t take offense when people think they’re Hispanic because they often do. I laugh and politely correct those individuals, knowing that my niece and nephew’s appearance lead people to believe that they know who they are.
Perception is reality. How you look is how people will perceive you. A mixed child with a tan, medium, or dark skin complexion will be seen as Black by those around him, or if not Black, some other minority. The odds for him or her are not favorable in comparison to his or her white counterpart. That child needs to understand and respect his blackness while also understanding and respecting his whiteness. He needs to be aware that his treatment by other people and institutions will vary. He will be discriminated against because he’s Black, he will be discriminated against because he’s not Black enough (a side effect of colorism), and at other times, he may be treated better because he is not too Black (another unfortunate consequence of colorism). In all cases, he needs to understand why and how to navigate those testy waters of race. That understanding cannot come without first knowledge of race and acceptance of it.
By the same token, a biracial child whose skin complexion is light enough that he appears white will be seen as white by most others. Though he may be half Black, that child needs to understand that he probably won’t be seen that way by those who don’t know him intimately. His life will be more privileged than some other mixed or Black children. He needs to understand that in some cases he will also be treated differently and discriminated against by his Black brethren. He, too, needs to understand why and how to navigate that reality. That understanding cannot come while living in a bubble where his race doesn’t matter because he’s just “mixed.” He needs to understand and respect his blackness while also understanding and respecting his whiteness. In fact, in this case, it may be all the more important for the child to understand that he is Black because there will be those who will try to discount his background because of his skin color.
These ideas of race should not define biracial children but inform them. Without a doubt, they should be proud of both cultures that created them. In no wise should they feel ashamed of one over the other, but race means something. They should be raised to have pride in both but also to understand that at any point one will have a profoundly greater impact on their lives than the other. A child who doesn’t understand that will be ill-equipped to deal with the real world. And it’s the same for a child born of any race mixture, not only those of Black and white blood. In an ideal society, it wouldn’t matter, but we ought to prepare our children for the world they live in not the world we wish for.