Does the Controversy Over ‘Mixed-ish’ Have Merit?
In the third episode of the new sitcom Mixed-ish, which debuts September 24 on ABC, there is a classroom scene in which the camera zooms in on the back of 12-year-old Rainbow Johnson’s head (played by Arica Himmel) as she faces the teacher. Her hair is worn naturally and seemingly without gels, oils, or styling products. It’s big. Poof. It fills the screen.
Bow’s parents lived on a commune for the first 12 years of her life, where no one felt the need to discuss race, much less to style a biracial Black girl’s hair. When federal agents raided the farm, young Bow and her family were thrust into the real world, a place she doesn’t understand. Her voiceover reflections give the show a kind of “Wonder Years quality,” say producers, as she reflects on what it was like to grow up mixed-race in the 1980s.
Tameka, who is Brown-skinned, taps Bow’s shoulder. Unlike Rainbow, she wears her hot-comb straightened hair pulled back into a smooth ponytail.
“Your hair is making it hard to learn.”
Bow leans to the right.
Hair is just one of the many topics the series will tackle as it sets out to explore biracial identity from the point of view of a young girl being raised by a Black mother and a White father. The show is a prequel spinoff of Black-ish, the wildly successful ABC sitcom that follows the lives of Rainbow and Dre Johnson and their five children as they navigate the murky cultural waters of race.
“Hair is a very personal thing, and just one more thing that’s used to divide us,” says Angela Nissel, a co-executive producer on Mixed-ish and the author of Mixed: My Life in Black and White.
Growing up, Nissel says she didn’t understand why, when she moved to the Black neighborhood of West Philadelphia, hair that had previously been problematic in the White part of the city, was now considered “good.” She describes how biracial hair can deepen one’s sense of alienation, depending on who’s doing the looking.
They’re a fish out of water family for many reasons. But at its core, the show highlights a dilemma that will ring true for many biracial viewers.
“If we went to Supercuts, they were like, ‘Oh I don’t know how to cut this.’ Or, when we went to a Black salon they’d say, ‘You don’t need to be doing all this to your hair. You already have good hair.’ I’d wear my hair straight just so people wouldn’t think I was biracial and call me different. Because once I straightened my hair I was just light-skinned. My hair made me stand out with the stereotypical biracial curls, so I’d try to get rid of it any way I could and just say that I’m Puerto Rican. That was more acceptable than having a White dad.”
Speaking of Bow’s character, she says: “We both have a proud Black mother, and one who also had some issues with her own complexion that she had to work out. Issues about not feeling beautiful, and feeling like she wasn’t enough. Because of how people who looked like her daughter, treated her, at times.” For Nissel, being biracial is a constant balancing act of learning how not to flaunt privilege, while also finding a way to love who you are and how you look.
As the episode continues, Bow is confronted with the decision of whether or not to straighten her hair after a White teacher warns her to make it “neat” for picture day. Explosive reactions follow, from Bow’s parents, siblings, and extended family members.
For Peter Saji, co-creator of the show and one of the key forces behind its existence, Mixed-ish is deeply personal.
When I meet him in his office at Disney Studios in Burbank, he sits across from me on a couch to share some thoughts about the show and his own life. He’s soft-spoken, and his tall-framed presence comes across as humble. At one point, he shares a memory. Or perhaps, it’s more of a revelation. He was young. Maybe four. “I saw the teacher whisper something to a little girl. Then the little girl came over and asked what I was.” Saji pauses to consider the weight of this question, and that age-old feeling of “constantly wondering what you are and how you fit in.”
And then it hit him.
“It felt like a lightning bolt. I was so excited that I had an answer. There’s Black, there’s White, and I’m tan. I remember turning to the teacher and saying I’m tan. Like, ‘I have the answer now. I figured it out!’”
Saji’s own upbringing could be seen as a “version” of the show, he says.
The youngest of eight, he grew up outside Maryland, the only one of his siblings who was biracial and the only one with a White mom. His brothers and sisters weren’t allies, for reasons he says he now understands. “Their parents divorced. I was the punctuation to the divorce. The new wife was White.”
Still, because of these tensions, he grew up feeling less-than. Different. Also, “I’m very pale as biracial people go.” He laughs, gesturing at his own skin. “So I was always overcompensating to try to prove to my siblings that I was as Black as them, as tough as them, or whatever society had taught me to believe that being Black was.”
Since Saji doesn’t disclose his age (“27-ish,” he says) it’s hard to get a handle on formative childhood events. But suffice it to say that when he was still probably a young boy, his mother died. Ten years later, he lost his father too, leaving him alone in his struggle to navigate questions of race and identity. “Just don’t date any White women,” his siblings teased. “You don’t want any more cream in your coffee.”
After serving as a writer during the first five seasons of Black-ish — (he wrote the celebrated episode on colorism, “Black Like Us”) — Saji was excited when the opportunity arose to create a spinoff on a subject that was “near and dear to my heart.”
“They’re a fish out of water family for many reasons,” he explains. But at its core, the show highlights a dilemma that will ring true for many biracial viewers. As Bow puts it to her father: “If I choose White, I’m giving up on mom. If I choose Black, I’m giving up on you.”
When faced with this tug and pull, Bow’s younger siblings decide they need to pick a side in order to be able to fit into their new school. Santamonica (played by Mykal-Michelle Harris) “chooses” White by dressing up like Madonna, while Johan (played by Ethan Michael Childress) “chooses” to be a B-boy by wearing a heavy gold chain and hip-hop fashion. In response, their mother, Alicia, turns to her husband and asks plaintively: “Did we make a mistake by never talking to the kids about race?”
“All of the stories are seen through Bow’s lens,” says Karin Gist, the showrunner for Mixed-ish. She describes future episodes in which Bow visits a country club with her wealthy, White grandfather, Harrison (played by Gary Cole), and is confronted with racism inside her own family. In another episode, the relationship between Bow’s mother Alicia (played by Tika Sumpter) and Aunt Denise (played by Christina Anthony) is highlighted, says Gist, as viewers see “how culture is stolen… or not so easily defined for African Americans.” Another focuses on Rainbow’s first dance, where the decision of who to date “feels weightier” to her because she’s biracial.
As much as the show may be a breath of fresh air for some, others are already offended by its premise for a number of reasons.
In this post-Obama universe, being Black-White biracial can almost seem like a nonstarter, says Saji. “The questions of ‘What are you?’ are much less frequent.” When he does get them “it’s like they want a third thing,” he says, laughing. “Like, ‘Oh, you’re just Black and White. That’s not so interesting.’” But Mixed-ish goes back to a time when the country didn’t have this kind of understanding of multiracial identity, he says. Back to when there were constant questions, spoken and unspoken. Like: “Why are your parents together?” “Why are you this way?” Or as Angela Nissel puts it in her book: “How in the world did that happen?”
Still, as much as the show may be a breath of fresh air for some, others are already offended by its premise for a number of reasons. To start, the trailer shows Bow and her siblings being teased by darker-skinned Black children at their new school. One of the critiques leveled via social media is that privileging the light-skinned narrative and point of view once again perpetuates the stereotype of the “tragic mulatto” as victim, with darker-skinned Blacks being complicit in their victimization.
“Yes give us ANOTHER show about light-skinned black people” tweets @Moyooxo.
“Ya’ll can take this colorism-ish show back!” said @faithebacon.
Others were more succinct:
A more nuanced critique is that Black-ish seems to already cover the “spectrum” of Blackness, which includes cultural estrangement, alienation, and assimilation, and that focusing on Bow’s biraciality on yet another show is redundant.
Mixed-ish producers and writers disagree.
“That’s a different story,” says Karin Gist. “Black-ish is about a guy who pulls himself up and has access and privilege and then looks around at his family and says, ‘Did I miss the mark culturally with them?’ Rainbow is biracial but there’s a difference for her in trying to incorporate both sides of herself. It’s not just about being lighter-skinned. That’s a different journey.”
As a Black woman, Gist says that she can understand the fear and the sense that “maybe we’ll just be Whitewashing our stories. But that’s not what this is about,” she says. “This show is not a celebration of being light-skinned.”
“That makes me sad,” says Saji, when asked about the criticism. “Because I feel like a poignant story is a poignant story. And the life of “a mixed child in a mixed family hasn’t been told on television before. Black people don’t all have the same struggles,” he adds. “A true, meaningful, productive conversation is about seeing everybody’s point of view. For people who think those stories aren’t worth hearing… that’s disappointing because they haven’t heard us tell them yet.”
The show is also personal for Tracee Ellis Ross, who plays grown-up Rainbow on Black-ish and who is the daughter of a Black mother (singer Diana Ross) and a White father (music business manager Robert Ellis Silberstein) and for singer Mariah Carey, who wrote the theme song for the show, and is of Irish, Black, and Venezuelan descent.
The actor Tika Sumpter, who plays Bow’s mother Alicia, is also married to a White man and the couple have a biracial daughter together. “The show has eased my worries about how to talk about important topics when my daughter gets older,” she wrote in an email. “I hope people can watch, laugh, learn.”
Among the show’s diverse collection of 13 writers there is a mix of “Black, White, biracial, Asian, [Latinx], gay, straight,” says Karin Gist, all of whom have a connection to the material. For example, there’s a White writer who has biracial kids. “We’re trying to find a way into the material through all different points of view.”
I found Angela Nissel on-set, watching a live television monitor with script in hand as the classroom scene with young Bow unfolded. Between takes, she described more of her own upbringing.
“I grew up in the ’80s in Southwest Philadelphia in an all-White, working-class and Irish neighborhood that was rapidly becoming more Black.” In 1985, when she was 10, the home of another Black-White interracial couple was burned down by angry White residents who were “afraid of their block becoming like ours.” As many as 400 White protestors demonstrated. “It was scary,” she said, remembering the police presence that took over her neighborhood.
At 11, when her parents divorced, she moved with her mother, a nurse and a former Black Panther, to West Philadelphia, where she heard the word “light-skinned” for the first time. In that neighborhood, she was suddenly Black, and forced to navigate a whole new world.
“I wouldn’t want people to think that Bow is supposed to represent every single mixed-race, Black-White girl in America,” says Nissel. But it’s a start.
“I think mixed people have their own story to tell. Might be interesting. Might.” tweeted @LaLaSeckNC.
“I think the experience of a black child with one white and one black parent is important and it’s a story I’d like to see on tv,” agreed @_Pamcakess.
“This is highly needed. Media hardly ever shows the life of a biracial person,” said @morgandabeau.
“We know where Rainbow ends up,” says Karin Gist. “We know that she becomes this strong and brilliant and bright and successful woman. So hopefully that will take away from the feeling of, ‘Oh, here we go again with this sad girl who’s gonna be confused for the rest of her life. We know that’s not the story.”