I’ll never forget the first Black Lives Matter protest I attended in New York. After years of rallying against police violence in New York, this was the first night where race was the central message. As a Black woman it spoke to the deeply personal feelings I already had about police killings.
With each victim killed by the police without recourse, I feared for my life, for my family members, my friends and my future children. But I am also biracial. A Peace Corps baby, my white mother met and later married my Black father while teaching in in Liberia. When I go home to visit family almost every face at the table, most of my closest loved ones are white.
Across the country, Black people are combating institutionalized racism and demanding justice. But what happens when the very people doing this work are biracial: biologically connected to our current Black movement and also the white power systems we are searching to change?
Am I black enough to be stepping up in the Black Lives Matter Movement?
Being a mixed race activist has its complications. One year I had to shut shit down at Seder dinner after my loving white mother tried to brag to family members about my activism by proudly telling them I was an “angry black women.”
"As a mother of a biracial woman I have been dealing with and fending off [racism] all your life, but I still have to check myself and be careful of what I say and think," said my mom when I gave her the heads up that I would include this example in my article.
While talking through an inherently racist stereotype with your mom is extremely difficult for everyone involved, it’s just an example of the conversations that are happening in biracial families all over the country. Incidents like this one show how deeply racism can embed itself in our psyche without our consent and the resulting conversations prove that many of our basic ideas about racism are incomplete.
Being a biracial black woman has forced me to face my community and my family in ways that are atypical for a Black person active in the movement. But, I am not alone. There is a small, yet growing group of women collectively thinking through what it means to be biracial in a black liberation movement.
Marissa Johnson is one of the Black Lives Matter protesters who disrupted Bernie Sanders’ Seattle rally launching a national conversation about the relationship between the movement and the upcoming elections. After disclosing her biracial background, reporters have repeatedly asked her the ridiculous question, “Do you hate white people?” Her response has been perfect: “Do you love Black people?”
Like the changes needed in this country, the movement for black lives is not just black and white.
It is the political question of our time. The average white American -- submitted to racist media stereotypes and a highly segregated American society, cannot easily answer yes to this question. But the parent, or sibling, or family member of a biracial person has the ability to say yes, honestly, at least once.
“I’ve thought about what it means for my mom to really love me and support me and really have my back while experiencing the world as a white woman,” said Johnson. “In general people think that the biggest issue with white supremacy is that people are segregated or that people don’t know each other, but that is actually false. White supremacy is incredibly intimate and it always has been.”
Interracial families are forced to acknowledge that intimacy and it is one of the central differences that many biracial people have to their Black comrades in the movement.
Audre Lorde once wrote, “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to ... educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has boldly promoted this idea that oppressed people are not responsible for educating their oppressors. White allies are increasingly asked to talk to their own. Creating this safety for Black people in the movement creates needed emotional space for more focus and work. But it is impossible for Black biracial people to avoid these conversations with white family members and these relationships often give us a responsibility to also talk to our own.
Sometimes a conversation is enough. Activists like Margaret Kwateng, a member of my biracial affinity group who is making headlines protesting for police accountability in the murder of Samuel Harrell, says she has increased the number of conversations she is having with her white family members since becoming involved in the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Biracial people are serving as chameleons, walking back and forth along the difficult racial lines that have always divided our country.
Having these conversations opens up questions of what anti-racist education should actually look like outside of the all-white structures it typically happens in. Johnson says she has lessened the number of conversations she has and instead allows her emotional responses to instances of racism among family to teach them acceptable ways to treat all black people.
Both tactics present the opportunity of unconditional love, which allows for deeper racial conversations between white and black people, but the privilege to have these intimate conversations lends to some discomfort in movement spaces. “Am I black enough to be stepping up in the Black Lives Matter Movement?” is a question that I have heard my biracial community pose in various ways.
“My experience as a black woman has been easier because of the way that I look,” said Nicole Tennermann, a member of my biracial affinity group who has been active in the Black Lives Matter protests in New York City. “I want to lift up the struggle and advance for black people, but I also know that I shouldn't be the face of the Black Lives Matter Movement. I’m trying to balance that by not marginalizing other people who are more affected.”
But I have also seen more than one movement groups implement ways to use varying levels of skin privilege to their advantage. For example, lighter skinned black people have been able to use the perceived stereotype that they are less dangerous in order to be received more kindly by police during rallies.
Black, biracial people are serving as chameleons, walking back and forth along the difficult racial lines that have always divided our country. The perspective and responsibility during a moment of intense racial analysis means we have the opportunities to do more than awkwardly sit in the middle.
Like the changes needed in this country, the movement for black lives is not just black and white. As black biracial people increasingly engage in honest conversations about race, we are sure to see the biracial privilege to have safe and loving conversations with white people become an added benefit for the Movement as well.
Peace, after justice.