A Simplistic View of a Mixed-ish America

ABC’s Black-ish spin-off joins a new memoir by Thomas Chatterton Williams in presenting a seemingly enlightened but ahistorical view of race.

ABC / Byron Cohen

Mixed-ish, the prequel of the Tracee Ellis Ross–fronted sitcom Black-ish, begins with a rupture. At the tender age of 12, Rainbow “Bow” Johnson (played by Arica Himmel) is ejected from the hippie commune where she and her family live. As the adult Bow, Ross narrates the predicament that follows the government raid of the utopian community: Bow’s black mother and white father must now raise their three biracial children in the harsh world of mid-1980s suburban America. Though it’s set during the broader tumult of the Reagan era, Mixed-ish is driven by the identity crisis that Rainbow and her siblings, Johan and Santamonica, face. On their first day at their new school, the trio is stopped by a pair of dark-skinned students who ask them, “What are you weirdos mixed with?” When the fairer-skinned Johnson kids naively respond, “What’s ‘mixed’?” their classmates laugh.

Ross, who also serves as a series writer and executive producer, talks viewers through this confrontation in a didactic voice-over. “I know the idea of not understanding what it means to be mixed sounds crazy, but you have to understand—growing up on the commune, race wasn’t a thing,” she says. “Do you have any idea how many more mixed babies there are today? Probably because interracial marriage was illegal until the Loving Act of 1967,” she explains, adding that she and her siblings were “were basically the beta testers for biraciality.” In this scene and in later episodes, Mixed-ish falls into the trap of framing its protagonists as pioneers of mixed-race consciousness, rather than inheritors of a long and complex history.

At the show’s premiere, Ross made comments that echoed Bow’s words about the Johnson kids as trailblazers. Speaking with Variety, the biracial actor said, “When I got Black-ish, it was the first time I’d ever been able to play a mixed woman on television because I’d [only] been playing black women.” This sentiment, while not technically false, frames blackness in curiously rigid terms. Ross implies that her previous acting repertoire lacked biracial characters. Yet her phenotype—light skin, loose curls, aquiline nose—is most often associated with mixed-race people and, in fact, proliferates in black entertainment (often to the exclusion of actors with darker skin, kinkier hair, and more Bantu-leaning features).

Still, Black-ish does address Bow’s background more directly than Ross’s prior projects did. One Season 3 episode, titled “Being Bow-Racial,” was particularly pointed: Rainbow was vexed when her son Junior brought home a white girlfriend, prompting Bow’s mother-in-law and brother to suggest her discomfort stemmed from confusion about being biracial. The claim sent Bow spiraling—and provided an opportunity for another voice-over. As an animated historical scene plays out, Bow explains how “mulattoes” born in America were often the result of white slave owners impregnating enslaved black women. “With a slave-owner daddy, you may have been one of few slaves who learned to read, write, or even got your freedom. Now, of course, this preferential treatment created major friction between black people and mulattoes.” Rainbow’s aside is ostensibly meant as a primer on the origins of biracial people in the United States. But her rhetoric shifts uncomfortably from focusing on the violent caste systems created by slavery to emphasizing the jealousy of dark-skinned people.

Like the reference to the so-called Loving Act in the Mixed-ish pilot, this sequence flattens the history of mixed-race people in America. Viewers are given a rigid binary of black and white, with “mixed” bouncing around somewhere in the middle. According to this logic, anyone with recent white ancestry cannot be black. Both Black-ish and its new spin-off paper over centuries of racial diversity among black Americans. Much of this oversight is revealed through the shows’ depictions of the Johnsons’ black relatives. Like Bow’s mother-in-law in Black-ish, her dark-skinned aunt is depicted in Mixed-ish as a loud, boisterous woman who insists that the kids “pick sides” and see themselves as black. The TV shows never acknowledge that mixed people in America were and are categorized as “black” explicitly because of white racism. Instead, Mixed-ish makes the all-too-common mistake of treating black people—especially those with dark skin—as the true enforcers of racial purity.

Bow may have mislabeled the Loving saga as a piece of legislation, but she didn’t fabricate it. In June 1958, two young Virginians absconded to Washington, D.C., to wed. Mildred Jeter, who was black, and Richard Loving, who was white, were later arrested under Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, prompting the couple to start a long legal battle. Adjudicated in 1967, Loving v. Virginia ended with the U.S. Supreme Court declaring state bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional. In the five decades since, the case has inspired films and social-media campaigns, as well as countless op-eds and journalism features. It’s sparked a commemorative holiday known as Loving Day. And it’s been invoked as the catalytic “Act” on both Black-ish and Mixed-ish, a testament to the power of love and the tenacity of those willing to fight for it.

Yet the case wasn’t won on the liberatory merits of transgressive romance. It was, instead, the anti-miscegenation laws’ eugenicist underpinnings that swayed the Supreme Court. Contrary to Bow’s musings about her and her siblings being “beta testers for biraciality,” Loving v. Virginia didn’t usher in a new demographic; after all, mixed-race black people have existed in the United States for nearly as long as any people of African descent. The ruling simply expanded access to one legal institution by which white Americans had maintained the country’s social order: marriage.

In addition to Mixed-ish, Loving and the mythos surrounding it have provided fodder for another recent work about biraciality. In his new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, the author Thomas Chatterton Williams notes that his “black” father and “white” mother met the year after the Loving decision. (In an author’s note, Williams explains that he sought “to cast doubt on and reject terms … such as ‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘mixed,’ ‘biracial,’ ‘Asian,’ ‘Latino,’ ‘monoracial,’ etc.” by placing them in quotation marks.) The author’s second memoir, Self-Portrait, was inspired by a moment of shock. When Williams’s white French wife gave birth to their daughter, he was stunned to see that the child had blond hair. The baby’s appearance upended Williams’s self-conception: How could he, a biracial man who’d identified as black and written Obama-era columns about his future children being undeniably black, produce a child who looked, well, white?

Williams spends the bulk of his new book-length excavation of race attempting to answer this question, ultimately deciding that his children’s appearance is evidence that race has always been a false distinction. Much like Bow’s shortsighted voice-over early in Mixed-ish, Williams’s book makes a simplistic argument that ignores historical precedent. Put simply, Williams isn’t the first “biracial” person to have “white” or “white-looking” children.

Nor is he the first thinker to ponder how multiracial people navigate a world so obsessed with the minutiae of race. Self-Portrait in Black and White doesn’t meaningfully engage with centuries of work from black-identifying scholars who wrote accessibly about their backgrounds, especially those with mixed-race ancestry. Nella Larsen’s novel Passing was published nearly a century ago; the former NAACP leader Walter White published his memoir, A Man Called White, in 1948. Upon his death in 1955, The New York Times wrote that the fair-skinned White “could easily have joined the 12,000 Negroes who pass the color-line and disappear into the white majority every year in this country. But he deliberately sacrificed his comfort to publicize himself as a Negro and to devote his entire adult life to completing the emancipation of his people.” Absent from Williams’s memoir is any critical analysis of texts written by White or even by major figures such as Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, or Malcolm X.

This omission might be read as a failure of research or of rhetoric. The book, like Williams’s first, is a confused and confusing text, full of clichéd turns of phrase that match its facile conclusion. (Of his decision to marry a French woman, for example, Williams writes that he “feared that, like a modern Oedipus, I’d metaphorically slept with my white mother and killed my black dad.”) And yet Williams’s refusal to integrate the work and legacies of certain mixed-race writers and activists into his theorizing seems intentional: He discounts the contributions of biracial people who feel and demonstrate kinship with their mono-racial black counterparts. In his book, Williams describes these expressions of intra-racial solidarity as farcical at best and harmful at worst. Because criteria such as the “one-drop rule” have their roots in white nationalism, he holds, black people who embrace their own blackness are deluded into accepting their fate as permanently downtrodden. “I am not so ingenuous as to think everyone can want to reconceive themselves, but I do believe the more people of good will—white, black, and everything in between—try, the more the rigidity of our collective faith in race will necessarily soften,” he writes.

This may sound like an appeal to shared humanity. But Williams’s text whiffs of disdain for black people who take refuge within their own communities, thus—in the author’s eyes—preventing progress. One of the most revealing passages of Self-Portrait comes early on: Shortly after conceding that he, as a light-skinned man, benefits from colorism, Williams writes of meeting Kmele Foster, a brown-skinned man of African descent who refuses to refer to himself as black. “Of course, the most common response to [Foster’s] position is dismissive: ‘Yeah, okay, that’s all well and good, but wait until you have a run-in with the police, and then you’ll see just how black you are,’” Williams says, before continuing: “I take seriously the raw pain and historical experience that is behind such an objection … But this is not an argument; it’s a threat, an appeal to an event that has not yet happened.”

Rather than presenting black people’s objections to Foster as words of caution, the author imbues these statements with a sense of danger. It’s hard to imagine how such appeals could be construed as actual threats: For example, surely a black person familiar with the ugly realities of policing in America wouldn’t call law enforcement on Foster simply to prove a point to him about his own identity. In his attempts to defend Foster’s position, Williams ends up equating black suspicion, teasing, or attempts at self-protection with racist violence.

Elevating the snide remarks made by some black people to the same level as racist systems and actions is a curious choice. Drawing that false equivalency is a misguided but perhaps understandable move for a sitcom such as Mixed-ish. That show, after all, is set 30 years in the past, and it has aired only five episodes. There is time for the series to course-correct and catch up to the stakes of its protagonists’ realities: Episode 4, for example, showed Bow learning how difficult it is to trace ancestry on her black mother’s side.

But at the conclusion of two memoirs, Williams remains stuck at the level of TV-friendly platitudes. Some readers may encounter Self-Portrait and conclude that Williams, like some other contemporary thinkers, envisions a more egalitarian future, that he wants others to free themselves from the shackles of racial resentment. But whatever the appeal of his postracial aspirations, Williams reserves his most ardent frustrations for the black people who will not—or cannot—follow suit.