Biracial Identity As the Standard Bearer For Blackness

Lately, whenever there’s a mention of a woke, young Black starlet it’s either Zendaya, Yara Shahidi, or Amandla Stenberg. It’s great that these actresses are getting recognition, but the fact that three biracial girls have become the predominant representatives of young, Black girlhood makes me wonder about the roles colorism and their mixed backgrounds have played in their visibility.

When I consider other young, Black actresses with large teen and young adult fan bases like Keke Palmer or China McClain, I don’t see or hear nearly as much about them as the aforementioned starlets. Whenever one of these biracial actresses is mentioned as an example of Black representation, I feel conflicted because, as much as I adore these actresses, biracial girls are constantly positioned as examples of Black representation in media. As a Black girl who is not mixed, I don’t feel that three light-skinned girls with loose curl patterns fully represents all of us. I’m tired of being force-fed the notion that their success is a win for all Black girls representation-wise because it’s just a repeat of what has always happened in media. Light-skinned, biracial women are granted more praise, access, and visibility than dark-skinned or mono-racial Black women.

biracial, biracial, biracial
Amandla Stenberg

The response to Amandla Stenberg’s participation in the upcoming film The Hate U Give exemplifies this issue. While a lot of people are excited to see Stenberg shine as the film’s protagonist, many people are reasonably frustrated by Stenberg being cast because it’s just another instance of a biracial actress being cast in the role of a mono-racial Black character. It begs the question: why are young Black girl’s constantly portrayed by mixed actresses?

Many shows featuring young, mono-racial Black female characters tend to cast biracial actresses. It happens so often that I find myself questioning the implications of those casting decisions. While there were great representations of Black teens in shows like Moesha and One on One, there are many more shows like My Wife and Kids, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Instant Mom, and Black-ish that cast biracial actresses as mono-racial characters. When this happens, biracial actresses typically portray beautiful, popular characters that audiences are encouraged to relate to and root for. The current high visibility of Zendaya, Amandla, and Yara suggests that this casting practice is still common.

biracial, biracial, biracial
Zendaya

I feel conflicted about the presence of biracial women in these roles. These women are Black and are welcome to portray Black characters, but considering the role colorism plays in the entertainment industry, I can’t ignore the fact that biracial individuals are upheld as more desirable and marketable. Blackness itself is varied and depictions of Black characters should be reflective of how diverse our communities and cultures truly are. But rather than portray the broad diversity of Blackness, a specific type is upheld with the casting of biracial actresses. These women are part of the culture and their presence is welcome, but sometimes it feels dominant.

As a mono-racial Black woman, I have struggled with the prevalence of Black characters who are portrayed by biracial actresses. Do these actresses represent the way Black women or girls are expected to look, and what does that expectation convey to Black girls who deviate from it? When will we see mono-racial Black actresses portray the protagonists, trendy “It girls,” the love interests, or Black characters, period?

In an episode of Black-ish when Yara Shahidi’s character Zoey was accused of being an out-of-touch “mixed chick,” her response was “Only my mom is mixed.” That statement spoke volumes because it showed how Zoey doesn’t personally identify as mixed, despite the fact that people in the show may view her as such. It demonstrates that the way she self-identifies doesn’t nullify how she’s viewed by others. That line being delivered by a biracial woman portraying a character who considers herself mono-racial, despite the fact that she is perceived as otherwise is heavy with the complexity of this issue.

Yara Shahidi

This occurrence is a result of limited opportunities for diversity. Typically, we are shown biracial women who fit the narrow, predominant beauty standards, and as we’re shown these women, their heritage is hidden or misrepresented on screen. People who see these actresses in these roles are ultimately served a very narrow representation of what Black girlhood looks like. While that is harmful in a broad sense, it is especially harmful to mono-racial Black girls who don’t get to see themselves well-represented and to biracial girls who are shown that they need to be thin, light-skinned, and have loose-curl patterns in order to be seen.

Casting decisions should be made with more awareness regarding who is regularly under and overrepresented. And we should all be questioning why biracial women and girls are being coded and portrayed as if they are mono-racial and what those depictions show us about expectations of Blackness and Black girlhood.

 

By Veronica Glover

Veronica is a Bay Area-based writer, editor, and actress. Talk pop culture with her via Twitter: @TheChildQueen

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  • Shazza

    I love these girls too but you have quite a point. Don’t forget Vixen too, while I imagined Kelly Rowland (when she had short hair) as Vixen, I was disappointed that the CW decided to cast a biracial actress.

  • Dat Girl

    You have a lot of great points! It’s definitely not okay that hollywood is using a handful of
    biracial people to represent the black community, specifically
    mono-racial black people.

    Asia has a similar colorism problem, so that’s not even exclusively a hollywood issue. If you watch Japanese movies, read comics etc. everyone is pale and light skinned, but that does not reflect a giant chunk of their population, especially in southern Japan where people have darker skin. The lack of representation of people with darker skin-tones happens in many places in asia.

    I’m actually biracial myself, so while I agree with many of your points this article still leaves me feeling like: “okay, but what about us biracial people?” because unfortunately the media has not caught up with the reality that mixed heritage people are only becoming more and more common. I can’t think of any books I’ve read with biracial characters this year, movies that I’ve seen featuring characters with my heritage….so if biracial people aren’t black enough to be black people on screen(or let’s face it, in real life sometimes too depending on your community) and we’re not white enough to be white, or asian enough to be asian….where the hell are we supposed to fit in? I’ve never been black enough for black people, I got picked on by my black classmates as a kid for the way my mom attempted to do my hair(she did a good job!) and white people are always like: “What are you?” so…. reading this has me feeling even more like a blip in the universe. Though, I agree as I said above that it’s totally not okay for a handful of biracial people to represent a mono-racial community, black or not.

    • qwassie

      Wow, you brought a whole side to this. I didn’t really consider this from other points of views either. I think the solution is for more original roles to be made. There should be equal representation and more diversity within all different types of stories. Biracial people deserve representation on screen as much as any type of ethnic group out there. While I understand the author’s POV and can relate on a personal level, I think it’s the first step to the movie/tv industry being more accepting.

      Pondering over America’s divisive history, the lighter your skin is, the more desirable it is. This is not only a belief that needs to be destroyed, but changed. I long for the day when people of varying shades and religions can be correctly depicted on our tv screens without it being a scandal, but for now I will take victories in seeing my role models — Viola, Amandla, Ava, Zendaya, Lupita, Yara, Taraji, etc. — portraying strong, complicated, beautiful black women. Mixed or not, I can and will celebrate that because this wouldn’t have happened just a few decades ago.

    • Khürt L. Williams

      Hmmm … as the father of tri-racial/multi-ethnic kids (me:Afro-Caribbean, European, mom: South East Asian) I never fully considered how the world might see them.

      I hear what you are saying. Some Americans (black and white) seem to have a stereo-type of “blackness” which doesn’t seem to include me and my family (or my kids).

      My daughter is so sick of the “What are you … “ question.

  • Carly Lee

    black girls are being ERASED…simple as that

  • Khürt L. Williams

    Hmmm … as the father of tri-racial/multi-ethnic kids (Afro-Caribbean, European, Indian) I never fully considered how the world might see them.

  • adrienne king

    If lightskinned men were represented as the standard for what a black man looks like, black men would cause an uproar.

  • Dee21

    Honestly, I cringed when you mentioned Keke Palmer. Why is it that the black community seems to forget her “all lives matter” comment? Just because she is mono black does not excuse her anti blackness. I would rathee give me support of a biracial woman who fully embraces her blackness and uses it to protest anti black racism. Then a mono black woman who has internalized her own oppression.

    • Yahmo Bethere

      Consider the extent to which monoracials don’t have the latitude to be so unabashed. Do you really think her work prospects are like Zendaya?

      Consider economic disparities among AfAms and what early leaders looked like.

      Phenotype matters.

  • Yahmo Bethere

    I noticed this in commercials YEARS ago. Two NW45 complexion parents don’t make a loose-curled light-eyed kid.

  • Persephone Jones

    These actresses are not black. They are biracial. The sooner black America lets go of this archaic one-drop-rule the sooner the confusion will disappear. The U.S. should have abandoned the one-drop-rule after the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964. In no other race are biracial people used to represent “monoracial” people. Please spare me the claim that all black people in America mixed. Few of us have more than 20% non-West African ancestry.

    • Kylie

      If you’re biracial and you identify as Black, you’re Black. If you biracial and you identify as mixed, you’re mixed. We make this more complicated than needed.

  • darla

    Every group has this same complaint in some form. Too many tall, thin, pretty girls, not enough short girls or average girls. Too many blondes, not enough dark haired or red heads. Too many males as buff, not enough skinny, geeky boys. Gays are flaming and not regular people. Like everything it goes through phases. Imitation is all Hollywood and most people know. If someone or something is popular or does well, expect to see it repeated ad naseum. Is it meant to offensive? Not really, it is all about making money.

    • jessA

      How does limiting what you’re selling to such a narrow parameter make money? You’re just cutting a massive chunk of you’re audience out if anything.

  • Kianndria Devereaux

    I think we tend to forget Zendaya and amandla have stood up for black lives matter and fought against racism on their personal platforms did you think about this is why they’re the face of this particular movement? Let’s not forget that Colin kaepernick is biracial as well and he started the #TakeAKnee movement… Black people are the only ones that keep colorism afloat because I don’t care if their light skin biracial or dark skin it’s somebody trying to make a difference for us and you’re still not happy about it. You throughout Keke Palmer’s name and I did cringe a little bit you throughout Kiki Palmer‘s name and I did cringe a little bit because she is a cool sweet girl but let’s be honest even though she’s an adult there have been times she has exhibited the stereotype of what black women are which is why people like to keep us down and keep it stereotype going… There was also her comment where a there was also her comment where all lives matter… did you forget that Zendaya when she wore dress they said she look like she smelled like weed and patchouli?

  • Kurenai24

    I want to say thank you for pointing out the fact that these actresses are biracial and that Hollywood is hiring biracial actresses. Like, yes colorism is real, yes light skinned black women have privileges but there is no mono-racial light skinned actresses in Hollywood.

    A part of me believes if these casting choices were only about colorism then there should be an even or close to even amount of light-skinned biracial and mono-racial light-skinned actresses, but that’s not what we see, what we see are only light-skinned biracial actresses, and I do believe their mixed background plays a part in their opportunities jusy as their light skin does.