How ‘mixed-ish’ Failed To Tackle Biracial Identity and Chose To Rely On Tropes
Mixed-ish puts forth a very narrow, self-centered, and unimaginative interpretation of what it means to be multicultural or multi-racial.
By Nylah Burton
Set in the 1980s, ABC’s mixed-ish, the newest black-ish spin-off, tells the story of Dr. Rainbow “Bow” Johnson’s (Arica Himmel) experience growing up biracial. The Johnson family — white father Paul (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Black mother Alicia (Tika Sumpter), Bow and her siblings Johan (Ethan William Childress) and Santamonica (Mykal-Michelle Harris) — are also former members of a “hippy” commune, where presumably, neither race nor racism existed.
The show’s premise is that being forced into the “real world,” where race and racism do exist, is a major source of culture shock that the entire family must now navigate.
As a Black multiracial woman who doesn’t have a white parent, I’m tired of portrayals of mixedness that mock Blackness, portray multiraciality and interracial marriages as the more “righteous” path, and ignore experiences that don’t fit into POC/white binaries.
Unfortunately, mixed-ish embodies all this and more.
In mixed-ish, Blackness is most often the butt of the joke. The Johnsons — including the monoracial characters of Alicia and Paul — have positioned themselves as existing outside of race altogether. As a consequence, the humor at the expense of Blackness is uncomfortable to watch, as it lacks the in-group affection and inherent respect that defines black-ish and grown-ish.
This is likely by design, to show the family as existing in a constant state of unbelonging, thereby shoving the concept of being “torn between two worlds” into the forefront. But the clumsy, overt attempts to show the limbo between Blackness and whiteness have erased nuance and unnecessarily demeaned the Black characters.
For example, the dark-skinned Black children at the Johnsons’ new public school are framed as their primary tormentors, immediately interrogating the children about what they’re “mixed” with and laughing relentlessly when the Johnsons don’t understand the concept.
The white kids join in, but the message is clear — the Black kids led the charge. But the idea that in 1985, Black kids would be the main source of Black biracial children’s racial trauma is highly unrealistic. Also, the scene asks viewers to suspend their knowledge of the diversity of Blackness — especially in a state like California — to imagine that all the Black children are both monoracial and have never seen light-skinned people before. The show also continuously and ungenerously conflates being teased for being biracial with being teased for dressing in prairie dresses and never having seen a toilet before at the big age of 12.
Alicia’s sister, Aunt Dee Dee (Christina Anthony), is another example of the uncomfortable line between in-group humor and anti-blackness. Dee Dee is lazy, dislikes interracial relationships, wields Tasers recklessly, and is introduced to viewers with a trope-laden diatribe about hot combs and runaway house slaves. She’s clearly loved by the Johnsons, but even Bow refers to her as having “the personality of a TSA worker.” It’s a chafing comment, as the TSA workforce is often widely perceived as predominantly Black, “ghetto,” rude, and aggressive.
It’s also worth noting that Aunt Dee Dee is the only character that the Johnsons ask to leave their home, despite white Grandpa Harrison’s repeated racist, homophobic, and sexist attacks on the family. She and gun-toting, Reagan-voting Grandpa Harrison are meant to represent the extremes of racial expression, which implies that the violence of Grandpa Harrison’s bigotry is comparable to unapologetic Blackness and apprehension around allowing white folks into intimate spaces.
Dee Dee stands in direct contrast to her sister Alicia, who is portrayed as naive and idealistic about race, but also cultured, educated, and gentle. The not-so-implicit suggestion is that Alicia’s openness to an interracial relationship makes her more enlightened than Dee Dee, whose resistance to the idea of dating white men is portrayed as somewhat understandable, but ignorant nonetheless.
This is perhaps the most disturbing part of the show; interracial relationships and biraciality are shown as morally pure and revolutionary. When Alicia and Paul display their misconceptions about race, it always stems from their noble intentions… not their bias, hatred, or internalized anti-Blackness.
Literally stripped of the flowing, messianic white robes they wore on the commune — communes at the time were not free of racism, by the way — the Johnsons are depicted as a family that is untouched by the sin of racism, and must be taught social norms and harsh realities by the tainted, monoracial populace of the “real world.” They’re shown as frustratingly innocent, but never capable of causing harm, because their very existence is shown as the ultimate good deed.
But their understanding of their place in history is more than a bit self-centered. In a voice-over explaining how the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case made interracial marriage legal in the U.S., a grown-up Bow asserts that she and her siblings were “basically the beta-testers for biraciality.” This is a weird comment.
Saying that biraciality became valid after the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws implies that biracial identity is only valid if the parents are married, love each other, and are accepted by most of white society.
Furthermore, to put it bluntly, biraciality — in the context of whiteness — in the U.S. began with the children conceived during the Atlantic Slave Trade—in the castle, on the ships, on the plantation. Biraciality has long existed because of the violence of colonialism/colonization throughout the American continent and the Caribbean.
Procreating with someone of a different race — with or without their consent — was woven into American history long before 1967. Loving allowed interracial couples to marry, and led to an increase in multiracial children. But interracial marriages are not a radical act of social justice, and the state can’t legislate biracial identity or realities into validity.
To people like me, shows like mixed-ish are exhausting, because they parrot the hurtful messages we’ve received all our lives. As a multiracial person who proudly, unquestioningly identifies as Black, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in multiracial and biracial spaces only to be subjected to a hyperfocus on dark-skinned Black peoples’ supposed “racism” towards light-skinned or white passing folks.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to respect someone’s “white side,” and stop asking them to “pick races,” even though because it’s defined by power and oppression, whiteness isn’t a side worth picking.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen other experiences of multiraciality buried under the weight of having to perform emotional labor for biracial people with white parents, who cling to oppressor identities and broken conceptions of race as though they were a lifeline.
Mixed-ish puts forth a very narrow, self-centered, and unimaginative interpretation of what it means to be multicultural or multi-racial. It’s centered on a very specific experience of growing up with a white parent, but this isn’t an experience that many biracial or multiracial people share. To see this reality consistently upheld as the definition of mixed heritage is extremely frustrating.
Ironically, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, who plays the white father Paul, actually has an Indonesian mother. It’s almost an insult to see this because we’re long overdue for more diverse depictions of multiraciality, such an Asian man married to a Black woman. But instead, that richness is buried in favor of another iteration of the same broken discourse.
This isn’t to say that we should stop portraying biracial people with white parents. Everyone’s existence is worthy of representation and contains important lessons that can be imparted to others. However, we need to be more critical of how we portray narratives of the mixed experience. Are we having hard conversations about how racism and colorism show up in mixed families? Who are we erasing? What systems of oppression are we perpetuating? What truths are we obscuring?
Not every mixed person is light-skinned. Not every mixed person feels torn between two worlds — some are torn between several, or they’re not torn at all. And not every mixed person has a white parent. In their quest to portray diverse experiences, mixed-ish has traded diversity for easy narratives and half-baked conceptions about race and belonging.
Nylah Burton is Denver-based writer with bylines in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, Bustle, and The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter, at @yumcoconutmilk.
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