Being in a multi-racial family is not an easy thing. There are constant moments that require a level of critical thought, analysis and consciousness. The necessity of these things, while always crucial, become magnified when you add a biracial daughter to the mix.
“Her skin tone is so nice!” “Look at that hair!” She has “so much attitude.” She is “so sassy!” She is “just like her mommy.” These are only a few of the “compliments” we receive about our daughter. Most of the time they are from people who mean well. Some of them are even family. They are always said with a smile. But they are all, also, reproductions of a particular stereotype of Black women: the Sapphire, and how white standards of beauty and the implicit bias and latent racism of white supremacy shape our everyday relationships, even ones that mean a lot to us.
The Sapphire stereotype — Black women having attitude, being mean, quick to snap, and aggressive– gets its name from the popular 1930’s radio (and later TV) show Amos ‘n’ Andy, but actually dates further back. During the 1800’s up to shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy Black women were portrayed in popular culture as “sassy mammies.” These figures were meant to soften the oppressive and violent nature of Jim Crow: White supremacy was just providing the same type of discipline and attitude that Black women did. As David Pilgrim wrote “The Sapphire Caricature is a harsh portrayal of African American women, but it is more than that; it is a social control mechanism that is employed to punish black women who violate the societal norms that encourage them to be passive, servile, non-threatening, and unseen.”
The Sapphire stereotype has persisted and continues to shape our collective view of Black women today. Many of us 80’s babies grew up on Martin and saw Pam embody the Angry Black Woman, the Sapphire. And Martin was not the only show. Today’s generation is being reared on a much more blatant and insidious manifestation: reality TV like Real Housewives and Bad Girls Club. With this level of saturation, it is no wonder that some of the first impressions people take from our daughter is that she has “attitude.”
Complicating the issue is that our daughter is biracial. She has fine “white girl” hair and her skin is light. When people say she is “just like her mom” and “has attitude” they are projecting their understanding of Blackness and specifically, Black femininity from Tiffany — because she is just like her mom– onto Zoe. This is a complicated and dangerous conflation.
First, when folks comment on Zoe’s sass and attitude and then tie that to her being just like her mother, they are betraying their own level of collusion with the Sapphire stereotype, and ultimately the system of white supremacy it is meant to uphold. Instead of choosing funny, smart, kind, or the myriad of other adjectives they could use to describe our daughter, they choose sassy. Not only have they boxed our daughter in, but they are damaging their relationship with Tiffany: What must they think about Tiffany if they are using this frame to understand her daughter?
Importantly, the implications are much farther reaching than our family: what other stereotypes about Blackness are they colluding with, whether explicitly or implicitly? It is not unreasonable to believe that the same people who see our daughter as having “attitude” are the same people who believe Darren Wilson when he said Mike Brown looked like a “demon.” It is not unreasonable to believe that if you strip our one year old of her childhood innocence by thinking she can be “sassy” you can also believe that a 12 year old boy named Tamir Rice “looked older” and that is why it was ok for police to take his life.
Becoming parents to a biracial child, we knew there were things that we would have to explain to Zoe about racial identity and colorism. It is very, very real and unfortunately there is nothing we can do to protect her from experiencing it. “Oh her skin is so beautiful,” or “Oh her skin tone is perfect.” Um, excuse me?! Stop please, because your racism is showing. The notion that light skin is more beautiful is disturbing and hella offensive to us! When you say our daughter has beautiful skin, it implies that Tiffany’s (darker) skin is not beautiful. How’s that for a slap in the face? There is no denying– in these parents biased opinion– that Zoe is beautiful, but that her beauty is due to the fairness of her skin, perpetrates the age-old “light is right” notion.
Let us take it back real quick: The term mulatto — which is an archaic definition of a child with a black and white parent– has been the subject of fascination and exoticization for centuries.The obsession and admiration of light skin has real consequences. Many scholars have conducted studies on what is called light skin privilege. Make no mistake, it is a product of white supremacy. The lighter you are the more likely it is that you can pass for white and enjoy the benefits that come with it. More than that though, across the planet, due to European imperialism and colonization– the lighter the skin the better you are treated. For example, it is common knowledge that lighter skin African’s (often the products of rape by the slave master) were treated better and given privileges. The fascination with biracial beauty actually dehumanizes mixed race folks and upholds the complexities of racism. In this day and age when we are dealing #teamlightskinned, and “light girls only” night at the clubs, we continue to wade in the waters of the color complex which dates back to slavery.Two things: If you haven’t read The Color Complex by Kathy Russell, check it out. Also, if you haven’t seen Alex Haley’s Queen, find it, rent it, watch it!
This oppressive ideology is so damaging to the psyche, as a society we don’t fully grasp its emotional impact on people. Not to mention, as Zoe gets older and continues to hear these descriptors, she may begin to associate negative images with Blackness.That is unacceptable to us as parents and why we are in full support of movements like Black Lives Matter which are calling for a fundamental shift in our framing of Blackness. Nonetheless, all of these messages inform her and are shaping her perspectives. As parents, we have to be diligent at breaking down these messages and arm her with the tools to craft and disseminate images herself.
At this point some of you may be feeling a bit defensive, or embarrassed, or maybe feeling bad for having perpetuated some of what we are talking about. As we said, most of the time these things are said by family or friends who intend no harm. But intent is not the point, impact is. In a world that is seeing an increase in multi-racial families with multi-racial children it is paramount that we sharpen our understanding of white supremacy and how its antiblack sentiments are damaging our children. If there is a better reason than our children and grandchildren for committing to racial justice, we don’t know it.