Flashback to mid-June and I can tell you that I probably would have been watching the latest season of the brilliant Orange is the New Black. There I was, third season in, still revelling in the novelty of watching a racially diverse, female-centric, LGBT-themed show whilst admittedly not being invested in any specific characters. That is, until Brook Soso, the show's resident biracial, initiates the following exchange with Chang:
Brook: You know what sucks? Belonging to a race that doesn't commit enough low-value crimes to be relevant in a place like this. Where's my big, Asian prison family?
Chang: You're Scottish.
Brook: Not to white people I'm not. One drop of ethnic blood, and bam, I'm basically made in China, like you and my toothbrush.
While I am well aware that the point made here was probably a fleeting one for most OITNB fans, it really resonated with me because I, like Brook Soso, am biracial. I'm a German-born, half German, half Zambian Londoner and mixed race visibility is very important to me. As is the case with many biracial people, my mother is white and my father is black and I am as a result both black and white. Over the course of my life, however, it has become evident to me that this is extremely difficult for people to accept. For some reason, we still adhere to the frankly racist notion that "one drop of ethnic blood" sullies the "white blood" and I love Brook's character for reminding us just how conservative and divisive our views on race have remained.
Left to right: me (aged four presumably), my father, my mother, my brother and my maternal grandfather's partner.
So it's safe to say that I, as a biracial person, feel nothing but appreciation for OITNB. Yet the show is often the subject of complaint by the bisexual community, bemoaning the fact that the very word "bisexual" has not been uttered once in all three seasons. It is argued, for this reason, that the show engages in "bisexual erasure". At first I was pretty baffled by the complaints. I mean, the show's main character was very clearly attracted to men and women so why did it matter if no-one said the word "bisexual"? It didn't matter to me that no-one referred to Brook Soso as biracial or mixed race because it had been made perfectly clear that she was mixed race.
I understand the frustration a little more now. OITNB is one of the few shows to centre on a bisexual character yet you could be forgiven for thinking that it strives to avoid the word at all costs. To be honest, my initial indifference to the exclusion of the word "bisexual" was probably partly to do with the fact that I don't feel a personal attachment to it. After all, I'm a twenty-one year old woman and still unsure as to where I fit on the Kinsey scale, but I do know for a fact that I am half black, half white and so biracial erasure particularly irks me.
I have begun to realise that there is a clear intersection between biracial erasure and bisexual erasure. At the very least, they are both perpetuated by the idea that certain parts of our identity are mutually exclusive. In other words, you can be black, you can be white but you cannot be both black and white and in the same vein, you can be attracted to men, you can be attracted to women but you cannot be attracted to men and women.
Yet while there is currently a dialogue on bisexual erasure, this isn't true of biracial erasure which, unlike the former, is not an established term with its own Wikipedia page. We need to recognise that not all people of colour are from a uniform racial background. I, for one, was influenced by both sides of my race. I grew up spending summers in Germany with my maternal grandparents but also attending Zambian family gatherings in London. It seems silly to me that we are only "allowed" to identify with the most "ethnic" part of our racial makeup. It's silly that Brook Soso feels that she is only allowed to be part of an "Asian prison family" when in reality, she is no more East Asian than she is white.
Taken last month in Berlin: my mum and me.
We often discuss the lack of diversity in mainstream American film and television and yet completely gloss over the fact that biracial characters are nigh on non-existent. And even when actors are themselves biracial, you can rest assured that their onscreen parents will not be portrayed as an interracial couple.
Zendaya, who had her breakthrough role on Disney's Shake It Up, is a fairly recent example of this. She has a white mother and a black father in real life and when casting her parents, they could easily have chosen a black actor and a white actor to play them. Of course this proved far too radical for Disney and yet another potential biracial character was erased without a second thought. It's almost as if film and television executives desperately want to pretend that people with parents of different races don't exist, as if it is somehow offensive to depict interracial relationships and the products of those relationships.
Fortunately for me, television in England definitely makes a much bigger effort to include mixed race characters and characters in interracial relationships. And this is in spite of the fact that we are a much smaller country with a relatively smaller proportion of black and ethnic minorities. Although it would be tempting to remark that this probably says something about current race relations in America, I'm not sure it does. I think it's more specifically to do with American showrunners/producers/writers and, of course, Hollywood's inability to understand that we are no longer living in the 1950s. There are Americans that have meaningful relationships and friendships with people of other races that aren't limited to "white girl whose Asian college roommate never speaks" or "white guy called Doug who has the same first name as a black guy called Doug."
I sometimes wonder how much society has really progressed when we continue to see different races as being so separate and far removed from each other. So separate, in fact, that we cannot accept that a person can have both a white parent and a non-white parent without insisting that the white part will consequently be "cancelled out". While we should absolutely work harder at being racially inclusive, it's vital that we don't disregard mixed race people in the process.