Written in Black & White: A Discussion of Race & Social Justice from a Biracial Counselor’s Perspective
Note from Kim:
My 5-year-old son has come home from school telling me that his Indian friends say he’s not a “real Indian.” My sister-in-law has taken my 3-year-old daughter to Indian parties to hear the guests announce loudly, “Who’s that white girl?”
While I’m “white” (German, French, English, Irish, Scottish, and Cherokee to be exact) and my husband is Indian (as in, from India–Hyderabad to be exact), our children came out looking pretty light. People who don’t know them assume that they’re white, and in doing so they miss out on much of who they are.
The piece below, written by my colleague Cliff Flamer, struck a chord in me. In work, as in life, we owe it to each other to not make assumptions, to let each person define themselves. Certainly, our workplaces will be enriched if we encourage employees to bring their whole selves to the table. That’s the kind of world I’d like for my children.
Cliff’s bio is at the end, and you can reach him on his company’s Facebook page.
Written in Black & White: A Discussion of Race & Social Justice from a Biracial Counselor’s Perspective
by Cliff Flamer (Originally published in Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4)
In a public high school in suburban Connecticut, it’s a novelty.
“Why’s he wearing those clothes?”
“It’s cool. He’s actually part Black.”
In a public bathroom amidst a circle of leather-clad teenagers, it’s a threat.
“What, you think you’re Black or something?”
At a jazz show in Harlem it’s a challenge.
“This is your father? Your real father?
On the side of the road in South Carolina in the presence of a state trooper who’s letting me go with a warning, it’s a secret.
“You have a nice day, son.”
Around the cafeteria table on a small college campus in Boston, it’s access.
“Homeboy must be lost.”
“It’s cool. I know him.”
At a restaurant in San Francisco, it’s a cool party trick.
“No you’re not.”
“No. Really. I’m half black.”
In my counseling office at a San Mateo community college internship, it’s all of these things.
When I ask clients to guess what ethnicity I am, I get all kinds of answers—Mexican, Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, Italian, Greek, Native American, Latin, and of course White. But never Black. And never half Black.
With my stick straight hair alongside my slow pace, relaxed enunciation, and laid back demeanor, my medium dark complexion loses its ethnic power and becomes nothing more than the perfect tan on a White guy who probably surfs a lot. Like most multi-racial individuals, my heritage (Scandinavian and African-American) hides within me and unless I find myself confronted with those demanding check boxes on an application form, I usually don’t find reason to bring it up.
Maria Root (1996) introduced a model to address the complex identity issues of multiracial people. Within this model she offers the possibility that a multiracial individual may experience a shift from one identity to another according to the situation he’s experiencing. From a personal standpoint, the result of such oscillation is not only a lack of a singular and continuous identity but also a resentment towards the widespread acceptance of categorizing individuals by one and only one race.
Like most biracial people, my life has been all about shifting between identities. As a child, I grew up with black culture all around me, culminating in big family holiday gatherings at grandma’s house with candied yams and collard greens. Despite my lighter skin and “good” hair, I identified more with the Black side of my family, if for no other reason than that they were geographically closer than the White side. (My closest Norwegian-American relatives lived 2,000 miles away in Montana and North Dakota). But in grade school, there wasn’t a Black kid to be found (besides me) so I became just another White boy in Connecticut—equipped with all the privileges to which White people become accustomed. Peggy McIntosh (1988) refers to this compilation of unearned privileges as the “invisible knapsack.” So while I had all this wonderful Black culture pouring into me through my father’s extended family, I was simultaneously and unknowingly acquiring a sense of entitlement, belonging, and advantage as a member of the dominant White culture.
One aspect of being biracial that’s particularly irritating to people with definitively dark skin is that I have the “choice” as to whether or not to reveal my secret depending on the context of the situation (Tatum, 1997). In other words, when I get pulled over by a cop or when I’m buying my Gatorade at the corner store, I have the ability to keep my race hidden so as to maintain the advantage of being perceived as White or, perhaps more to the point, not Black. While I admit this choice protects me from the oppression of racism, there is a drawback to the power of choice. In not appearing Black, I’ve encountered numerous racists, in the most true and ugly sense of the word, most of them my friends and acquaintances. Especially during my formative years, I swallowed their slurs, telling myself “they didn’t really mean it”, while secretly battling the idea that I should end the relationship. I thought I could handle it. I thought I was letting those comments slide off my back, but they chipped away at me. I internalized that racism against Blacks, against that part of myself.
At 10 years old, two events changed the course of my identity development. My grandmother died and my parents got divorced. As a result, I lost touch with my father and his entire side of the family, all but stripping me of my Black culture. Without the usual visits to grandma’s house or my dad’s presence in the PTA and after-school soccer games, I began to view myself as simply White and conveniently had this perspective reinforced by my peers, teachers, and anyone else with which I came into contact.
My Black blood passed silently through my veins, that is, until I absolutely had to breach the subject of race. And revealing that dormant part of me at such a vulnerable stage in my life could certainly be compared to severing an artery.
In following William Cross’s Racial Identity Development Theory for people of color (1991), I pinpoint my first racial “Encounter” experience as happening during 8th grade History class. We were filling out one of those forms with the checkboxes on it and I was in the usual quandary. Deciding that this was an acceptable environment to mention my biracial heritage, I raised my hand and asked the teacher which box I should check. He responded in his southern accent (which I’ll never forget): “Oh I think you should know what you are by now.”From that point forward, he treated me differently and I learned for the first time what it really felt like to be Black. Subsequent events followed suit—my best friend called my brother a Nigger after he tilted his pinball game, school friends started telling Black jokes in the hall, and I acquired largely unclever nicknames such as “Zebra”, “Half-Breed”, “Oreo”, and “Whigger.”
In an act of typical teenage rebellion and in line with Cross’ third development stage of “Immersion/Emersion” (1991), I broadcast my Black heritage with amplified as of yet unexplored pride. I went to inner-city New Haven with my older brother and our White mother and shopped at Third World Imports, the only place on the map where we could find the Egyptian-style stretch pants with the super-low crotch. (These were the same pants that made 80’s icon, MC Hammer, famous.) I hung African power medallions around my neck. I went to a Baptist church with the hand-waving preachers and the bellowing choir. I listened to jazz, rap, blues, and hip hop in contrast to the more popular classic rock genre. In short, I didn’t make sense to a lot of people (including myself at that age). I wasn’t easily categorized and, in homogenous, rural Connecticut, I was quickly squeezed out of the mainstream culture. I swelled with indignation like a wave, rising out of the ocean’s surface and gathering reckless, inimitable speed.
In college, the wave finally broke. I began dressing myself down to ward off the quizzical often hostile glares of the other African-American students. Several weeks into the semester, a group of them approached me and provided me with an ultimatum.
“You put Black on your application to get in here, didn’t you.”
“I put White too.”
“Are you Black or aren’t you?”
“I don’t know.”
These words weren’t far from the truth. At this point, I identified as being identity-less, trying my best to throw away the burden of having to choose. I saw race as an unnecessary means of classification that prevented me from being who I really was. This confrontation acted as a sort of second “Encounter” for me, sling-shotting me further away from Black culture and into the comfort zone of the people who looked a lot more like me and who were seemingly more open to my quest for race-less individuality. Tatum suggests that “the areas where a person is a member of the dominant or advantaged social group, the category is usually not mentioned” (1997, p. 21). In being a part of White society I was allowed the option (or luxury as I perceived it at the time) of not having a racial identity. White people, as the dominant culture, generally do not bring up their race as a topic for discussion let alone as an aspect of their identity. It was just what I was looking for.
In retrospect, I can see how these Black students who confronted me were deep within the Immersion/Emersion phase of their own racial development, bonded together by their collective experience as being disadvantaged by racism (Cross, 1991). Had I too experienced more abundant and more consistent forms of oppression growing up as a result of being Black, I probably would have related more to these African-American students and perhaps viewed their interrogation as an invitation.
I’ve been rejected from all angles—for being Black, for being White, and for being both Black and White. I’m not mentioning this to elicit empathy, rather to summarize the conditioning that has led me to resent racial categories altogether. And I’m not alone in my bitterness. In being forced to choose one race or the other, most biracial individuals experience ambivalence and frustration surrounding their group identity (Carter, 1995).
There are five biracial graduate students in my multi-culturalism class. I know this because we bonded together one day when the professor divided the class into “people of color” and “White people”. Us biracial folk are used to not having a place in these situations; that’s not what’s bothersome. It’s when we’re forced to make the choice we’ve been avoiding all our lives that the recycled memories of rejection and finger-pointing resurface. This is our racism. This is the part that few understand. And unlike people of identifiable races, we can’t recognize each other from across the room.
For a biracial person, being assigned one race means being denied of the other. Thus, race itself becomes the enemy. From this perspective, refusing to label someone by their race is an act of kindness, a gesture that allows an individual to supersede the confinements of a singular race.
As someone who’s constantly been trying to avoid the “color question”, it’s difficult to comprehend the plight of people of color who want to be acknowledged for their race, identified by their race, and respected for their race. All my life I’ve boasted my ability to see beyond peoples’ skin color—that I’m uniquely colorless and colorblind—because I thought this was helping people to be 100% themselves. In commiserating with my fellow graduate students and opening up discussions with frustrated clients of color, I’ve come to realize that this carefully preserved “ability” of mine is actually a weakness. Colorblindness is not only impossible; it’s unethical. A counselor who denies a client his race is like a doctor ignoring her patient’s inflamed kidney. Good or bad, race is a part of that client, as essential to his survival as any organ in the body.
In a sense, we’re all looking for the same thing—to be acknowledged for the experiences that have shaped our identity. My clients, wonderfully strewn across the race continuum, remind me of this with their incredulousness, enthusiasm, and haphazard wisdom. I can comfortably say, with the renewed hope of a lucky transplant recipient that I’m beginning to understand.
When approaching biracial clients, I’ve found it extremely helpful to reflect on my own experiences through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Building rapport with biracial and multiracial clients starts before they even enter my office—by developing a culturally sensitive intake form. For many clients checking those boxes designating racial background is nothing more than a stroke of the pen, but for biracial clients this exercise may invoke immediate resistance (and they’re not even divulging their real issues yet!). Counselors can easily eliminate the risk of preeminently offending their clients by rewording the racial profile item on the intake form to read “Please Check All That Apply.” A minor change with major results.
Counselors should also avoid any and all questions that force a biracial client to choose a between races. This may be particularly challenging for Counselors who strongly identify with their own distinct culture or who perceive identification with a single culture as an essential component to developing a healthy personal identity. It’s common for biracial clients to present with feelings of isolation, rejection, bitterness, and estrangement as a result of not fitting in to one or more racial groups. Encouraging immersion with culturally homogeneous groups in hopes of eliminating these feelings can be counter-productive since it’s these kinds of groups that may have inspired self-deprecating feelings in the first place.
Coordinating biracial clients to meet with other biracial clients, though challenging, remains a safe venue for identity development. Just as People of Color may bond underneath acts of oppression and White individuals may gravitate to one another because of their similarities, biracial people find connection through their mutual experiences of exclusion. As College Counselors who collaborate with anywhere from five to fifteen students every day, we have the unique ability to “unveil” multi-racial and biracial individuals to bring them together. Counselors can prove themselves invaluable to biracial clients if only to lead them to their as of yet unidentifiable biracial peers.
Having developed a strong dislike for categorization, biracial clients, myself included, tend to exhibit reluctance towards personality tests, career assessments, interest inventories, and any other objective counseling tools or tests that involve imbuing the test-taker with a distinctive, all-encompassing label. Questioning this resistance can serve as an appropriate and effective means to uncover the larger underlying issue of a biracial client’s possible aversion to racial and cultural categorization. In fact, this dislike of human compartmentalization may extend outside of race into other areas of the client’s life such as religion and sexuality, merging into that client’s over-arching philosophical belief system.
Biracial and multi-racial clients prove especially challenging for Counselors due to their uncategorizability. This oft overlooked genre can present themselves in several different ways. According to Maria Roote (1996), biracial individuals may 1) identify with both sides of their heritage simultaneously, 2) identify with one side primarily but over time identify with several different groups, 3) shift from one side to the other depending on the circumstances, or 4) designate their race as “biracial”, thus embracing the border between the races. As a Counselor, it’s important for me to remember all of these possibilities and understand that these are viable options for a finite racial identity and not necessarily an unwelcome purgatory from which the client hopes to be saved.
In terms of appearance, biracial clients land on every point of the spectrum between looking distinctively ethnic and utterly unidentifiable. Furthermore, their appearance may completely contradict their culture. For example, I’ve worked with a blonde-haired. blue-eyed female student who grew up embedded in her African-American culture. For this reason, it’s imperative that Counselors remain unassuming. Oftentimes, when I gently inquire about a client’s cultural or racial identity who appears to be, say, Latino, I may get an incredulous response: “I’m Latino; what did you think?” Here is an opportunity to mention the possibility of his being biracial or multi-racial, as many of my clients are. By simply by posing this question to my client, I’m modeling that all-important virtue of “not knowing” when it comes to race, introducing the idea that other people outside of my office and possibly within the client’s own circle of friends, may be more racially complex than they first appear.
Biracial clients are used to being overlooked. Whether it be because they look too much like one race or not enough like any one race, there’s sure to be some level of alienation evident in their identity development. As Counselors, we have the option of becoming the exception to the norm. Biracial clients have a story to tell and, in my experience both personal and professional, they’re eager to tell it, especially to an unassuming audience who’s willing to give them the space in which to define themselves.
Carter, R. T. (1995). The influence of race and racial identity in psychotherapy: Toward a racially inclusive model. New York: John Wiley.
Cross, W. E. (1991). Shades of Black: Diversity in African-American identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondence through the work on women’s studies. Wellesley: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.
Root, M. P. P. (1996). The Multi-racial experience: Racial borders as a significant frontier in race relations. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? and other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books.
Cliff Flamer has been writing poetry, short fiction, and melodramatic bits of memoir since the 9th grade when his Teacher, Mr. V, forced him to start keeping a journal. After a year of “cheating” on his journal entries by writing them all at once in home room, Cliff discovered a knack for putting words together—a fascination that powered him through college and into near-homelessness following graduation. To pay for his 40’s and Big Macs in the real world, Cliff picked up a job at a bookstore where he’d often lay down in the aisles after hours and pay homage to the sideways names on the pocket book bindings. After getting tired of stretching out his $8/hour, Cliff took up a position as a Recruiter following through on the interview merely because the job description had the word “writer” in it. Within a year he was making more than anyone just out of college should, especially an English major. More important, he discovered a second love in resume writing and career counseling, which has become a new funding source for his 40’s and Big Macs, only now it’s Single Malts and Indian take-out.