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Diving deep into the biracial minefield of 2018
"What is your race/ethnicity? Please choose one."
That's a standard question for most people on most government forms, job applications or standardized tests, but for the ever-growing biracial population it's a trigger for an existential crisis. For those born with a blend of cultures and racial identities running in their blood, that question is an ultimatum set up by a societal system that even in 2018 hasn't fully figured out what to do with its mixed population. Choose one, but beware that choice will form how you are viewed from here on out. So what do you choose?
The Bold Type, Freeform's millennial feminist dramedy, decided to tackle that complicated question head on in its Season 2 premiere on Tuesday (June 12). In the season opener's second hour, Kat (Aisha Dee), a biracial, bisexual badass, was asked to cement her promotion as Scarlet's first black head of department with a professional bio that could be used for press packets. Kat purposefully neglected to mention her race in the first draft of the bio, drawing criticism from her black colleagues for not owning her skin color and sending her into an internal tailspin.
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"That was one thing that I was missing as a viewer in Season 1 -- exploring Kat's racial identity," executive producer Amanda Lasher, who signed on for the show's sophomore season, explained to TV Guide. "It just felt like I wanted to find out more about her and where she was and how her racial identity affected her. She has a run-in with the police [in Season 1] and they talk about racial profiling for Adena, but I really wanted to see what that would look like for Kat, and where her decisions came from in that moment."
Lasher decided to have that conversation right off the bat. The pressure to identify as black reminded Kat of those old standardized tests and that all-important race question. The thing is that Kat is neither black nor white, but both. The problem is that America isn't a place that allows for that duality to exist in full. It is still a system of bias and privilege that only computes white or other, and thus biracial kids are often forced to join the system or try to fight against it. It's a stressful minefield of racial politics that forces biracial people to choose between sides of themselves like a child picking a parent in the midst of a contentious custody battle.
Naturally, Kat avoided the question for as long as possible but when pushed by her co-worker and girlfriend, she revealed that she never answered the race question on those forms. Her parents afforded her that privilege due to their financial status and Kat was able to live most of her life refusing to apply labels to her identity. She found a rare loophole in the problem, but even that had intense consequences.
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"There's this whole idea that people being brought up as colorblind and that being a good thing...It's not acknowledging the reality of the world we live in and there's a denial of people's identity and their existence," Lasher said. "We wanted to explore this idea that people are brought up being colorblind, and while their intentions might be good there's actually real harm in that."
This is where it gets tricky. The ability to choose (or to choose not to choose, in Kat's case) between the white and black halves of your identity is not a universal biracial rite of passage. Men who are both black and white rarely get to choose one because they are profiled in the eyes of the law the same as fully black males. It's saved for women like Kat and myself with lighter skin tones who are too racially ambiguous to be confined in one box.
Like Kat, I am the product of a black dad and a white mom and was raised in an upper-middle class family in the suburbs. I also remember that question on tests and doctors' forms and the inner turmoil over what to fill in, but I wasn't raised colorblind. I chose one, because it laid out the path of least resistance to success. The decision had repercussions that took decades to understand and begin to undo, though.
I was tapped to test for the academically gifted (AG) track when I was in the third grade and was the only student of color in the whole grade level to be selected. The process included an aptitude test, submitting writing samples and recommendation forms. The AG coordinator lost my submission packet twice so when my mom handed her the paperwork for the third time sensing that twice was not a coincidence but rather a case of racial bias, she threatened to report the woman to her boss. I had my first AG session two days later and stayed on that track until I graduated high school. I was eight years old when I figured out that sometimes it's just easier to pick white.
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Other minority students were rare in the classes I was sorted into, likely because most of them didn't have parents working in the school system to notice them being overlooked or purposefully held back by biased teachers. My privilege awarded me a better education, but it surrounded me with white students. Those students became my friends. Of course there were times I was the token minority friend that had to explain black references, but those were my people. I shared their interests, music tastes. I talked like them, which in in my pre-"woke" adolescence led to accusations of "acting white" from my black peers.
That alienation was compounded with my black extended family's complicated ostracization of my white mom. She suffered from the resentment well-documented in movies like Save the Last Dance which caused a rift between her and my father's relatives that lasted years. (Kat suffered the same weird distance with her black relatives after her father cut ties with them). My situation created a weird internalized bias against half of my identity. I felt so uncomfortable in black spaces that by the time I arrived at a magnet boarding school at age 16 with a significant black population that shared my similar background and experiences, I was too scared to accept the invitation to join them and explore that side of my identity. It wasn't until my early 20s, in the "post-racism" Obama era, that I felt it imperative to embrace a long-ignored side of my existence. I couldn't live with myself if I sat out the revolution.
Making the decision to embrace my blackness was a terrifying one though, and I recognized that same fear in Kat during The Bold Type premiere. When Alex (Matt Ward) pushed Kat to identify as black in her bio, he was pushing her to join the movement being led by films like Black Panther and artists like Beyoncé that are putting unapologetic blackness in the mainstream in a positive light for the first time ever. He wanted her to be part of that discussion and I couldn't blame him when he assumed her hesitation to do so was the product of Kat's own internalized racism, but I believe Kat's reaction to his pushing was more nuanced and that rather than based in bias, it was based in fear.
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Embracing that side of her identity means asking for a seat at a table that is still clamoring to be heard. I paid to see Black Panther three times and am a die-hard Beyoncé stan but at times I still feel self-conscious about my own blackness. Is T'Challa my super hero? Am I invited to join Bey's formation? Am I entitled to be outraged by the visceral reality of Donald Glover's "This Is America"? And if the answer to these questions are yes for both me and Kat, are we just turning our backs on the other sides of ourselves if we accept? No, because owning that culture is being done on our own terms as Kat did when she submitted her bio identifying herself as the first black department head at Scarlet at the end of the episode.
"[Kat] wanted to take ownership of that part of herself for the first time. It was something that she leaned away from and that she wanted to lean into," Lasher explained. "It was really empowering for her to choose how to define herself as a black woman and that she could choose to define herself however she wanted and that definition could constantly be changing. She was the one who got to determine it."
It was important for Kat to make that choice and for The Bold Type to depict a woman of color in a position of power, to be part of the revolution and as Alex said, to show young black girls that there are avenues for professional success. It's only when those examples of black success are equal in number to our white counterparts that young girls that look like Kat and me won't feel like they have to choose one, black or white, but be who they are -- both.
The Bold Type continues Tuesdays at 8/7c on Freeform.
Additional reporting by Lindsay MacDonald.