Okay, so actor Taye Diggs says that he doesn’t want his young son, Walker, 6, to self-identify as Black and the internet explodes.
Why is that?
Biracial identity is often a hotly contested topic—especially when the Biracial person in question is a mix of Black and White in the USA. (Walker’s mother and Diggs’ ex, singer Idina Menzel, is Jewish and I don’t technically count Jews as White, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll group her in that general category).
Black/White Biracial identity is ALWAYS controversial in a racist environment (pretty much the whole planet). It’s frequently a big deal, and many people—especially Black people, White people and B/W Biracial people—have strong opinions about how we Mulatto types choose to self-identify.
Firm, forceful opinions that often collide and clash and sometimes cancel each other out in the perpetual warzone of Black vs. White that is the foundation of this nation’s cultural and societal dynamics.
Some ridicule any suggestion that we are other than Black; others consider those who do identify as Black as rejecting their White side. Neither of these notions is completely accurate, but they’re popular because the people expressing them don’t understand the real dynamics that go into shaping our identities.
So Diggs makes this statement, guaranteed to generate headlines, and perhaps not coincidentally, promote his new children’s book, Mixed Me! Controversy sells, and this brouhaha over Diggs’ stated preference about his son’s identity obscures the fact that he is in NO way qualified to be writing a book or even talking about being something that he has never experienced and cannot possibly understand. Being the parent of a Mixed child is one thing, but it doesn’t confer any expertise upon the parent related to how said child might choose to culturally affiliate or self-identify. It simply means that, assuming that Walker is Diggs’ only Biracial child, he has a few years of interracial parenting under his belt. So he is qualified to write about that. But not anything about being Mixed.
It was appropriate for him to write his earlier children’s book, Chocolate Me!, about his own life experience. He mentioned this when responding to the backlash about his statement that for Walker to self-identify as Black means he would be rejecting or ignoring or disrespecting his “White” ancestry.
He also mentioned that he made that public statement about Walker’s potential future choices because he had LISTENED to Biracial people talk about their experiences and choices. I want to pause and give Diggs a STANDING OVATION for that alone. Because very few people of any race or background—particularly Black or White—want to hear what we have to say. And while they feel free to beat us over the head with their feelings and views, they rarely ask us questions or seek our opinion, even though this topic is clearly all about us and our choices.
I realize this is because our speaking up is so new and unusual as to cause cultural dissonance, even among those who are closest to us. They’re accustomed to talking about us and to us, and most of all AT us, having appointed themselves the authorities on the topic of our identities. But the notion that we might not only talk back, let alone insist that we are in charge of our identities without any input or permission from them often seems to cause shock and dismay. And sometimes even anger.
So YES, we are pausing here to give Diggs all the credit and love for not only listening to people who represent his son’s experience, but factoring what they shared into his own public opinion.
What Diggs—and many of the people sharing their very strong opinions about his very strong opinion—might not realize is that it is simply not his place, nor his parental duty, to try to impact how Walker self-identifies, regardless of the choices that the boy makes as he grows up.
Yes. I. Said. It.
Many of the Blackfolks in my FB world reacted, predictably, by slamming Diggs as a self-hating denier of his own Blackness. But here’s the thing. In my life experience growing up in one of our country’s leading havens of Black/White interracial coupling, I assure you that it is not unusual for the Black partner in such a union to express these feelings. I’ve never seen or conducted official scientific research, but many folks view themselves as having created someone who is “more than Black” while being “less Black.” Yet the fluidity of their child’s identity choices seems something they want to clamp down on and control.
Let me emphasize here that this is some Blackfolk who mate and procreate interracially—NOT all of them. But I grew up hearing the popular notion that there was something inherently wrong with self-identifying as Black if you’re Mixed with non-Black ancestry on one hand, and that you were in denial and contributing to the national erasure of blackness if you did acknowledge that other ancestry.
So for me, it’s an old familiar song, one that young Walker Diggs will likely come to know well. And yet it is SO not the focus of the conversation. As my son, a Multi-generational Mixie, shared with me, Diggs is well-intentioned but missing the point because WHATEVER form of self-identification either parent pushes, Walker will predictably rebel against it as a normal, natural and healthy part of individuating as he grows into his own person.
That is the takeaway I offer here for parents of B/W Biracial children: while it might seem like a good idea, trying to impact, define, control, influence or police your child’s racial identity and cultural affiliation not only isn’t your job, it’s really none of your business. And it’s pretty much guaranteed to backfire and work against you and your relationship with your child once they’re grown.
You see, we don’t fashion our sense of self based on what our parents—or anybody—instructs us to do. Nor should we! As the authors of our own identities, we are the only ones who really have a say, and our decisions are ours alone to make and to live with. As any parent with children in or past their teens knows, the only thing that all children are guaranteed to do is to push back, reject, and rebel against whatever you try to force down their throats.
BUT WAIT, many of you are thinking…Walker is/will be viewed and treated as Black in a racist society.
Yes, that is a true and obvious fact. Even if he’s light-skinned with the “awesome” hair (pause here for an eye-roll) which Diggs mentions first thing in the book. And that is the other part of the equation that is so vital for parents, caregivers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, etc. of B/W Biracial people to know: how they might self-identify as they grow and once they’re grown never negates the fact that they MUST learn to understand the political realities of navigating racism as someone who is part of the Black collective in a racist environment.
Even if they don’t visually appear Black or choose not to affiliate in any way with Black people or culture once they’re grown, they absolutely need to know the truth about racism, to understand it as an objective reality. They need to know how to navigate the complexities, nuances, contradictions, booby traps and hidden bombs in the minefield of racism. Period. No exceptions. THAT is where Diggs needs to focus.
Fortunately, my #BLEWISH sisterfriend, Lisa Williamson Rosenberg, a psychotherapist specializing in these issues, appeared on NBC in New York to lend some real expertise to the chatter, along with famously #BLEWISH filmmaker Lacey Schwartz. So at least one media outlet had the good sense to go to the source for an opinion, though their inclusion of Ebony.com Senior Editor Jamilah Lemieux suggested that they didn’t quite consider the opinions of two brilliant and accomplished Biracial women sufficient without also repping the “official Black” point-of-view.
If Diggs is wise he will realize, as all parents do, that Walker is here to teach him, and not the other way around. And maybe Diggs will learn that the best thing he can do for Walker is to write and speak and honor HIS truths and experience rather than trying to influence how the world sees his son, or how his son views himself.
We look forward to seeing how Walker schools his daddy when the time comes. Meanwhile, I might send the kid a #BLEWISH tee-shirt to help that process along.