When you belong to a mixed-race family like my own—white mom, black dad, Asian uncle, Latin husband—you get used to hearing all kinds of crazy things. “Where are you from?” What’s your mix?” And that perennial favorite: “What’s your nationality?” (Full disclosure: I’m American!)
Nothing, however, prepared me for an exchange I had a few years ago with a well-respected television producer who—despite being intrigued by my unique background—made it clear that folks like me would never be welcomed into her own family.
Back then, in those pre-#metoo days, I–like so many other African-Americans—held my tongue, and accepted racial offenses as the price we pay for inhabiting mostly white worlds. But things have changed. Today, the #timesup movement is finally allowing women to name the men who’ve violated their bodies, undervalued their minds, and bled their souls.
No such movement has ever existed for blacks to confront the whites who’ve systemically wronged them. In fact, for most of American history, blacks who demanded racial justice were met with impunity at best—outright lynching at worst. Perhaps that’s why Oprah Winfrey told the story of Recy Taylor at this year’s Golden Globe Awards—the black Alabama woman (paywall) gang-raped by a white mob in 1944.
Expected to stay silent, Taylor’s quest for justice was emblematic of both Jim Crow-era violence—and the silence that every black person still faces each time they’re reduced to a dark-skinned prop amid a sea of whiteness. Oprah lauded Taylor for telling her own story and challenged America to share theirs, too. “Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have,” Winfrey implored.
Now is the time to speak my truth—or at least as much as I will speak today.
A few winters back I took a breakfast meeting at a buzzy East Midtown bistro with a well-known television producer and a mutual publicist friend. I’d written an opinion piece for The New York Post (where I was an editor at the time) about actor Taye Diggs’ efforts to celebrate his son’s mixed-race identity. In the piece, I casually noted that a recent 23andme DNA test revealed that I was actually 50% “more” white than black—an unexpected data point which I joked to this publicist could make for a charming television sitcom in the hands of the right producer. She thought this idea had legs and knew an ideal producer—and so this breakfast was arranged.
The producer—and let’s call her, “The Producer”—was a long-time industry vet who’d struck out on her own after a string of successful television shows. Considered a visionary in identity-themed and unscripted programming, she was working on a new project that focused on multi-racial relationships.
The breakfast got off on solid footing. The Producer was smart and Jewish and brassy—I’m smart and Jewish and funny—and we quickly established an easy rapport. Recently divorced, she talked about her work and kids and even her family’s appreciation for modern design.
We may have met to discuss a piece I’d written about being black (or at least part black), but I suspect that The Producer—like so many before her—allowed my #nicejewishboy demeanor to obscure my race. In other words—I think she forgot I was black at all.
This isn’t so uncommon. Indeed, in a recent New York Times opinion piece focusing on the half-black/half-white children resulting from the 1967 Loving case which ended nationwide miscegenation laws, Anna Holmes wrote (paywall) how biracial people—like she and I—often move with ease within mostly Caucasian milieus thanks to our innate familiarity with whiteness.
“Adjacency to whiteness” is how her piece termed this condition—which Holmes linked to the outsize success of many biracial Americans. It’s a phenomena I’ve also seen result in whites—usually progressives, privileged, powerful whites—who feel so comfortable with minorities that they unwittingly deactivate their cultural-sensitivity filters.
Which is where our problems began.
The conversation shifted to The Producer’s latest project and the startling statistic—back before Rachel Lindsay, the first “black Bachelorette”—that reality relationship television remained incredibly segregated. She wanted to correct this and was actively casting for a new kind of program that felt truly inclusive. I naturally supported the idea and agreed it would be groundbreaking.
As this thread continued The Producer returned to her own family, mentioning—unsolicited—that her teenage son had recently come out as gay. Despite his youth, she rightfully supported her child—so much so she breezily noted that she “had less problem having a gay son” than she would if, say, her older daughter “decided to marry a black man.”
I was startled by her candor, but intrigued—particularly because she was developing a television show with a specific focus on inclusivity. “How come,” I asked, thinking she probably hoped her daughter would marry a Jew, which I could understand.
But race—rather than religion was at the heart of The Producer’s sentiments.
“I guess it’s because I wouldn’t want to have black grandchildren,” she deadpanned.
And that’s when the table went silent.
I didn’t know what to say, but I instantly knew what I felt—shock, rage, horror. Didn’t she realize she was speaking with the product of such a relationship? And that I was hardly the only half-black/half-Jewish person out there? Four decades after my mother’s Yiddish-speaking family rejected her for having “black children,” I was stunned that things had changed so little.
“Well,” I began to slowly muster, “you know those grandchildren would be me.”
When you’re born into a mixed-race family, you’re left with few fantasies about white America. White-adjacency—while providing privilege—also provides front-row access to the type of innate racism that coursed through The Producer’s words. Of course when the white folks are your family—privy to the unconditional love that can only exist, say, between child and parent—you tend to emerge far more forgiving, or at least understanding of the Caucasians around you.
That’s mostly been my M.O., keeping calm despite a lifetime of offense—followed in stores, mistaken for waiters, eyed suspiciously in elevators. But The Producer presented an entirely new type of challenge—an entirely new level of outrage.
My outrage was twofold: First that she was so indifferent to…well..me…that she blithely, literally declared my very existence an affront to her notion of family. Second, she was—at that exact moment—empowered with defining the optics around interracial relationships for American television audiences despite her own bigoted views of miscegenation. It was if Matt Lauer was tasked with developing an exposé about inter-office infidelity.
True, The Producer hadn’t harassed or assaulted me, but how different was her power to determine black representation than, say, Harvey Weinstein’s ability to shape the views of womanhood for a generation of American moviegoers. Moreover, while The Producer’s may have inadvertently demonstrated overt racism that morning, her likely history of silent racism had quite possibly impacted her hiring and promoting of minorities in an industry where diversity recently reached its lowest-ever levels.
That day I told friends and family about what happened, and each expressed shock, anger, and a sad sigh of resignation. No one was truly surprised—yet no one offered a tangible resolution. I could confront The Producer and call her on her racism. Or, perhaps, leak the entire saga to Page Six, which sat just down the hallway. But then what—I wasn’t entirely sure. One thing I did know—I wasn’t alone.
In fact, the entire episode reminds me of a podcast I once heard from the African-American performer and radio host Al Letson. In it, Letson describes a similarly startling scenario: Fancy New York boîte, a meal with an influential, progressive Manhattan macher, and a startling descent into racism.
In his case, the racism came after the meal—when one of his hosts invited him back to her home for some tea. “You know,” she said as they headed to her brownstone, “we’ve never had a nigger in our house before.”
Like me (like so many of us) Letson held his tongue—paralyzed by fury, yet keenly aware that confronting his racist would probably backfire against him and fuel backlash against others in his circle. He, like me, felt diminished and reduced—put in his centuries-old place by a near-stranger who confirmed, yet again, that few folks are more suspect than a jolly white liberal fronting as “part of the solution.”
The philanthropist and the Producer spoke to Letson and I that way because, like Weinstein and Lauer, they simply believed they could. They assumed their wealth and prominence and whiteness would shield them from consequence—and in my case, for more than two years it did.
As the #metoo moment gathered steam last year, I couldn’t help but think about well…me too. Without doubt, this new era of accountability is certainly welcomed, but it feels overwhelmingly white. Indeed, despite the phrase #metoo being coined by an African-American women, Tarana Burke—and high-profile black women like Lupita Nyong’o disclosing histories of abuse—the movement has mostly been about wealthy white women exposing wealthy white men.
Of course, most women impacted by sexism are not wealthy—and likely not white. Which left me wondering, why aren’t more of their stories being told; why aren’t stories of discrimination against blacks of all genders generating their own #metoo outrage? And so I now speak my own truth—well aware that generations of black people were literally slaughtered for disclosing the racism committed against them.
Sadly (at least for today) people like Letson and myself still have too much to lose to actually name names—and little to gain from publicly shaming our racists. They might be momentarily shunned by the media, temporarily sidelined from their left-leaning causes. But ultimately, they’d keep their co-ops and townhouses while we struggle to pay the rent; retain their position and privilege as we work twice as hard for half as much. And, to be honest, I just couldn’t stomach potentially destroying The Producer’s career—even if she was unworthy of it.
As evidenced by the female voters who supported Donald Trump or Roy Moore, white women—even in this highly-politicized climate—can still opt out of feminism and into misogyny. Black folks, however, have no such option in the battle against white supremacy—the numbers are simply far too stacked against them.
Still, I suspect the next generation won’t be so generous, emboldened by movements like #metoo and #blacklivesmatter to cultivate zero tolerance for all forms of incivility—to create, perhaps, their own “shitty racists” list. They’ll be braver than I ever was—brave enough to name their racists and demand that America finally, publicly deliver justice.