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Who am I, really? Mixed race identities in television and media

Dichen Lachman, left, as Jiaying, the Chinese-born mother of Daisy Johnson, right (Chloe Bennet). Both Lachman and Bennet identify as mixed race. (Courtesy of ABC)

In a dimly lit office space, two white women huddle by a laptop screen littered with pictures of rotund, wide-eyed infant children, all of whom are filed under the hashtag: #mixedbabies. One child stares out from the computer screen with mouth agape, another rolls on their side, while another peeks out from under a white sheet with their young, impressionable eyes. “Oh, I just love mixed race babies!” one of the white women exclaims emphatically.

This simple scene, which comes from The CW network’s romantic musical-comedy drama “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” focuses “crazy ex” Rebecca Bunch’s (Rachel Bloom) asinine obsession of having children with her high school sweetheart, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) — specifically, mixed race children. As individuals who both identify as mixed race or multiracial, we were struck by the potency of this scene to act as a metonym for a larger issue at hand.

After both independently watching the show and noticing this biting critique, we decided to come together to discuss an issue that we had noticed but never directly discussed with each other, recognizing our differences in experiences and lenses through which we view television.

 

Alli Cruz (AC): All in all, I appreciate the show’s conscious decision to include interracial relationships, but I’m very aware of the fact that “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has yet to take the opportunity to elaborate more comprehensively on its presentation of mixed race identities.

Olivia Popp (OP): It’s tough to talk about so much, especially when “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has already tried to cover so much — same-sex relationships, female empowerment — and a special emphasis on mental health. But yes, with such an incredibly diverse cast already, I agree that some emphasis could be placed on this.

AC: I’d say that, overall, the show’s racially diverse cast is fairly adequately utilized as a gateway to salient discussions regarding race. For instance, in one episode, the Filipino male lead and love interest, Josh, refutes the term “oriental” as inherently racist and insensitive. But the show falls a bit flat in its dimensional scope of other various multifaceted identities. The show’s only mixed race character, Heather, played by the ever-charming Vella Lovell — opens up little dialogue about her racial identity.

AC: Although this is not to say that all multiracial characters need to talk about their respective identities — about how they think of and carry themselves in the world. But for a show like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” which spends most of its airtime deconstructing social norms, stigmas and stereotypes — one such stereotype, of course, being the rather oversimplified, sexist titular term “crazy ex-girlfriend” — there is certainly room for more engaging and fruitful identity-based conversations. I will say, however, the mere fact that “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” even showcases a person of mixed descent is a small, progressive step in the right direction.

OP: To the show’s credit I really value the show’s recognition of Lovell’s true racial background, which is black and white — despite her ethnicity, Lovell is often mistaken for being South Asian.

AC: You’ve seen Kumail Nanjiani’s “The Big Sick, right?” If you’ve seen that film, you might recognize her as Khadija, one of protagonist Kumail’s potential Pakistani brides.

OP: That does raise the larger question of POCs (people of color) playing other POCs. Think “Aladdin” on Broadway — many times, Aladdin is played by any such POC, sometimes not anyone who identifies as Middle Eastern or South Asian. But in this case, it isn’t really an intraracial substitution, Asian-identifying for Asian-identifying — it’s something entirely larger. In an interview with Rodriguez at CAAMFest 2017, Lovell stated that she tends to identify as mixed race or ambiguous, especially in the entertainment community. I can’t blame her for wanting to use that to her advantage, but the fact that performers have to resort to that is just indicative of the industry’s problems as a whole.

AC: I agree. I would certainly take issue with whitewashing POC roles — with one of the most egregious recent examples, of course, being Emma Stone’s portrayal of a white and Hawaiian mixed race individual in “Aloha” named Allison Ng. But in terms of POCs playing other POCs — well, that gets pretty complicated. In Lovell’s case, I would say that her decision to use her racial ambiguity as an advantage — especially in an industry which systematically underrepresents POCs — is understandable, although I still find the idea a bit disconcerting. I want to say that I totally support any and all visibility for POCs, but this definitely runs into the issue of race-based generalizations. If we openly support mixed race POCs, like Lovell, playing other POCs across racial lines, can we do so without considering it as a sort of infringement of identity?

OP: It does open so many more questions than answers, but it’s important for us to think about — even Darryl Whitefeather, an openly bisexual character on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” who identifies as one-eighth Chippewa, even though Pete Gardner is white. Darryl’s identity is treated as a running gag — he has all sorts of Native American art pieces in his office and proudly announces his last name everywhere he goes. While his character comes out as bisexual, this is treated as much more of a core identity than his self-identified racial background. Characters point out that he really has no true ties to his Native American heritage and simply parades it around as a sort of “exotic” identity — so is it appropriation? Does having this heritage and personal identity entitle one to use it in certain ways? It’s a hard question.

AC: Darryl is just one example of this complex, ambiguous and oft unaddressed issue. Overall, there’s such a lack of multiracial identities across mass media — think about multiracial Native American portrayals, let alone Native American portrayals as a whole. Where are they? Is a character like Darryl a step in the right direction?  And, as in the case of Darryl, even when these mixed race identities are present, they often fail to engender the complex and productive discussions that surround their very existence. For me, the issue here is that representation of mixed-identities alone is hardly enough to ameliorate the difficult and distinctive discriminatory practices and experiences thrusted upon mixed-race communities. I say “difficult and distinctive” because these experiences, much like the identities themselves, are not one-dimensional. We have to ask ourselves: What is representation, really? Can it exist beyond the mere display of identities? How can our media open dialogue regarding multiracialism and multiculturalism without oversimplifying and overlooking the nuances of identity?

OP: On that note — is a display of identity just simply the presence of an identity or more so, the purposeful incorporation of this into a narrative? I think television is a great medium to do that in, especially with large audiences and the ability to capture the attention of viewers for long spans of time over a period of seasons. Studios and producers are so hesitant to do so, though, because there’s no precedent. In order for this to happen, there have to be mixed-race creators actually creating this content — otherwise it’ll never start.

AC: The fact of the matter is that now, in either repressing discussions surrounding mixed race communities, as in the case of Lovell’s character, or exoticizing them, as with the multiracial babies in “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the media we consume may be complicit in perpetuating a social structure that categorically exploits racial ambiguity without considering its societal implications, a trend that then permeates into popular culture.

OP: I know a lot about this specific example because of my own multiracial identification, but many actresses who identify as multiracial white and Asian individuals are so often placed into that “badass” role of secret agent, police officer or assassin. Asian women as a whole are placed into this “dragon lady” role, but multiracial Asian actresses are pushed even more to the forefront. Take Maggie Q, for example. I’m a huge fan of her as an actress and artist, but of her three major television roles out of six to date, all three of them have been of this designation, and her starring role in The CW’s “Nikita” as the titular spy and assassin is a perfect example. She starred in the short-lived “Stalker” as a police officer, and now she’s part of “Designated Survivor” as a hardened FBI agent.

AC: Stereotypical oversimplifications of multiracial identities like this, as constructed by the media, ultimately do commodify the mixed race experience as some sort of token item, allowing for the continued marginalization of minority communities within an existing racial hierarchy. Put simply, we need more than diversity for the sake of diversity; we need diversified, variable content/backstories/plotlines for mixed race people of color. As an Asian/Latinx identifying individual, my first conscious experience with mixed race identity in media came from Alex Russo of Disney Channel’s “Wizards of Waverly Place,” played by Selena Gomez. Gomez’s character, as an Italian- and Mexican-American, was the first mixed race person in my life — that I can remember, at least — who presented herself as a real, tangible role model in the predominantly white world of television. I feel as though media visibility for Latinx characters, such as Alex, is crucial, especially for adolescent children who are still in their formative years of development, searching for a strong sense of both identity and community, wanting to find themselves in the characters they watch. What’s more, keeping in mind the fact that, according to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, one third of people just within Latinx community identify itself as mixed-race — largely due to the historical intermixing of European and indigenous cultures — it is important to recognize and subsequently legitimize the expansive definition of Latinx identities. Personally, as an adolescent, I didn’t even perceive Alex to be a Latinx person of color, as the show paid little attention to that aspect of her biracial identity until placing her in a short-lived quinceañera episode. My inability to recognize and appreciate her identity is perhaps a testament to the show’s lack of meaningful investigation of multiracialism.

OP: That’s a great example of how these specific identities in television and media are so important. I also watched “Wizards of Waverly Place” when I was younger, but I didn’t have this reaction, even as a mixed race individual. On the other hand, I had a similar reaction when I saw mixed race actresses of Asian descent on other shows with whom I could identify, and this still happens today. A recent example is Chloe Bennet, now well-known for her role as Daisy Johnson on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” — her legal last name at birth was Wang, but after a short stint of trying to be a pop star in China, she came back to the U.S. to become an actress. She became frustrated after being unable to secure any acting gigs, so she changed her last name to Bennet — which is actually her father’s first name — and the first audition after her name change, she secured her role as Hailey on “Nashville.” She’s been very outspoken about Asian American representation but suddenly started receiving flack after she spoke openly about changing her name because of racism in Hollywood — some people even began to tell her to change her name back to Wang. Bennet is arguably white-passing — so even with a last name such as Wang and the state of the industry as it is, I’m not entirely surprised that she couldn’t secure any roles. Many viewers were happy to note that the show didn’t engage in erasure of her ethnic background — rather, they cast Nepalese-born, Asian Australian actress Dichen Lachman as her mother, Jiaying, who happens to also be mixed-race. Nevertheless, Lachman isn’t white-passing and is of German and Tibetan ancestry, while Bennet is of Chinese descent.

AC: I have to wonder, like you said — where are the other mixed-race role models and examples? What happens when multiracial children attempt to search for a character like them through media formats that are bereft of such inclusive representation?

OP: Where are the Latinx/Asian, Black/Latinx or Afro-Latinx, Asian/Black and other identities in media? Why are so few biracial characters of dual POC descent? Moreover, people who are not just biracial, but multiracial. I think about YouTuber and actress Anna Akana as a prime example — she even did a video on this. People often ask her the intruding question that every multiracial person dreads — “What are you?” Her response is that her ethnic background is incredibly diverse, but most people identify her as Asian, which she also identifies as. Nevertheless, people are just genuinely confused because of her complex, unique multiracial background. Will there ever be a place for multiracial identities in television or in media as a whole?

AC: Does media visibility for multiracial people reflect what we experience in everyday life, or does the antiquated notion that white-passing, or at least, light-skinned, multiracial people are more deserving of representation still dominate popular opinion? I believe that, more often than it should, the latter option filters through the public conscious.

OP: The white-passing argument is something I think about all the time. As a non-white-passing multiracial individual, I often felt so confused and even ashamed when people asked, “Oh, you’re white?” I only really knew my father’s side of my family growing up, and that side of my family is of Polish descent — so I was always felt like there was something. People saw me as Asian and therefore had certain expectations of me — which is wrong in and of itself, but I felt dually confused and shut out of communities with which I wanted to identify with because of that. I couldn’t coexist in multiple communities or even exist as myself because people couldn’t come to terms with me. But going back to Bennet, even if she didn’t necessarily look like me, a similar identity crisis can happen — if you identify as Asian, and people only perceive you as white or otherwise, there’s erasure that occurs. In the entertainment industry especially, there are so many set molds of who can “look Asian” or “look Black.” It puts multiracial individuals in a tough place — if a character identifies only as Asian, and they don’t fit that mold, they either can’t play the role or face clapback from viewers stating that it’s erasure of multiracial identity, or they just “don’t look Asian enough.” Is it necessarily “wrong” to have someone who racially identifies half-white and half-Asian play a character who identifies as 100 percent Asian — or vice versa? Or does it create a deeper problem of distorting expectations of what people look like? Roles designated as “ethnically ambiguous” are also hard to come by, and even then, studios find it a burden to have to address anything remotely more complicated than, say, “this person is Asian.”

AC: We have to ask ourselves these questions as we continue to navigate popular media culture. Maybe if we all keep asking, keep searching, keep demanding, for the underrepresented identities that deserve to be heard, we can channel their narratives into our media and society at large. I want to see and participate in a world where being mixed race means something very specific — something more than just vague, indiscernible racially gray areas.

 

Contact Alli Cruz at allicruz ‘at’ stanford.edu and Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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