On Assuming Race and Being Biracial

After reading Desiree Rodriguez’s essay about Latinx representation and how we assume one’s race based on looks, I was inspired to write my own essay on the assumption of one’s race and biracial representation, while sharing some of my experiences as a black biracial woman.

Before we go any further, I’m African-American, Greek, French, and Scottish. However, I identify as being Black-Greek, black biracial, or half black/half white. I know this is a question I’m going to get, so I had to address it as soon as possible before diving even deeper into these subjects. Please remember that not everyone who is biracial and or a POC have had the same experiences as me; however, I’m simply adding my experiences to the conversation to hopefully give a new perspective.

One of the biggest problems in Hollywood is assuming race solely based on appearance, especially when it comes to casting actors and actresses who are “racially ambiguous.” This essentially can lead to whitewashing roles that should be given to POC. As a biracial woman, others assuming my race happens quite frequently, and it can be extremely frustrating.

Why is it frustrating to someone who is an aspiring actress? Doesn’t that mean I have a much wider playing field of characters if different people assume that I’m a different race? It does. But is that right? No, it’s not. We already know breaking into the entertainment industry is tough; it’s even tougher when you’re a POC, and it’s even tougher if you’re a non-mixed and or a light skinned POC. I should totally love the fact that, solely on my racial appearance, I’ll have an easier chance, but I don’t. Of course, it’s our job as an actor to step into the shoes of a character who’s different than us and also being able to empathize in some shape or form with our character; however, having experiences that are solely tied to race is very different than playing someone who has a different occupation than you. When it comes to POC actors in film and T.V., Latinx and Asian actors have some of the lowest representation. And as Desiree pointed out in her essay, “how many of the Latinx characters are actually being played by Latinx actors?” Honestly, very few. A lot of on screen Latinas and Latinos that we see are often played by white actors, especially Italian-American, who tan very nicely.

So exactly, where do I, a Black-Greek biracial woman, fit in to this conversation? Simply put: I’ve been mistaken several times for being Latina. Though my given surname — Pontikes — is Greek, there are people who don’t know and assume its Latin in origin. With my features and my last name, people have assumed I’m either Latina or at least Afro-Latina. Living in my biracial bubble of privilege, before a certain incident, I never really got all that upset when someone assumed my race. Did I correct them before? Oh, yes! But did it make me question the way we view facial features in races? Not really.

The first time it deeply bothered me, though, was in my English 100 class in college with a white male teacher who literally looked like John Voigt. This was also the time when I slowly started realizing that racism and biracial privilege is very much real in this day and age. Anyway, the teacher assigned a huge research paper in which we (individually) had to choose from a list of short stories to write about. I chose Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros and mentioned in my paper how being a Spanish speaker might have enriched reading the short story for me. Professor “Voight” pulled me aside after he graded my paper and asked me “why don’t you speak your native language?”

His question stunned me. Here was a white man who was offended that I, this Latina looking woman (at least to him) with a Spanish sounding last name did not speak Spanish. First of all, we have to understand that not all POC speak their ethnic language; those reasons can be many, one of them being assimilation of previous generations. However, I could see that he truly viewed me as less of a Latina solely because I didn’t speak Spanish. If I had actually been Latina, I would have been even more upset about this interaction and his reaction. To think someone isn’t fully their race or ethnicity because they don’t speak their “native” language is incredibly naïve and possibly damaging. So, I just told the professor that I wasn’t Latina, and that I was half Black, half Greek. And suddenly, his whole demeanor changed. He started being nicer to me though it was the second to last class of the semester.

I really wish in that moment that I fully understood what his sudden niceness meant. At the time, I wasn’t as educated on racism and racial privilege as I am now, so it didn’t occur to me why exactly he was being nice. He went on to say, “No wonder all of your essays have been good. You’re Greek; the original scholar.” This professor was not only racist, but he would cancel our classes to go play golf on the CAMPUS! golf course. The following English teacher I had after him, a woman named Natalie, who I’m now good friends with, told me about how at one of the faculty meetings he said to her “Sweetheart, go get me a coffee.”

Obviously, Professor Jon Voight lookalike is not a very lovely person at all. Though he was the most racist encounter I had with someone who assumed my race, he wasn’t and probably won’t be the last one.

I’ve had people walk up to me and start speaking Spanish to me because they assume I speak it. During a few encounters, they apologized in English, and then proceeded to ask me what it was that they needed to ask me. I had a Latino bible salesman knock on the door once and asking me in Spanish if the lady of the house was home. (I took French for like four years, so I can understand some words in Spanish.) When I told this man that “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Spanish.” He asked me, if my parents never taught it to me, and then I told him my race. He laughed, but apologized deeply. He, too, isn’t the last encounter I’ve had where someone assumed my race.

As I’ve said, I’m an actress, and I’ve taken acting classes with different teachers, before college acting classes, an acting teacher never asked me what my race was. My acting teacher in college, who taught beginning acting through advance acting, always does an acting showcase for the intermediate and higher level classes. For this, I’m going to call her “Carrie,” because she’s honestly a great teacher, and someone who just made the wrong assumption about my race. So it was the second time that I was going to be participating in the acting showcase: “Carrie” wanted all of the POC actors in class to be more familiar with playwrights who wrote plays with characters with our races. She told the African-American students (who didn’t look mixed) names of African-American playwrights. She then pointed at me and told me some playwrights who wrote plays for Latinx characters. So this is when I informed her what my racial makeup is, and she looked perplexed. And that’s when it dawned on me; there really isn’t truly a place for me.

I started thinking about, how many biracial or multiracial actors and actresses ever played characters that were actually stated as being mixed race. The answer is: not many. There are tons of mixed race actors and actresses out there, but they either have played characters who are racially ambiguous or whatever race they look the closest to. There are so many things wrong with this, because it’s erasing the fact that mixed people exist, it’s erasing the fact that mixed race people can identify as being mixed, and once again we’re back into putting actors in roles that aren’t racially the same as them. And also, there is a privilege in being biracial and being light skinned — that means you’re more likely to be seen as less threatening, more attractive, or just more marketable, which is terrible, but this is a reality. There are even more mixed race and or light skinned actresses who are starting to be cast in more projects; however, I don’t know how many of them are actually playing mixed race characters. Sure, this is a great leap in more diversity. However, dark skinned and or non-mixed race POC deserve to see themselves represented as well.

In my recent memory, there is only one film that ever captured to what I felt as being a biracial black woman and that film is Belle.

There are two scenes that really hit a personal cord with me, and it’s the scene where Ditto (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is being asked why does she not dine with the servants (non mixed black men and women), but also why doesn’t dine with her family. Her answer to that question is something on the lines of “it isn’t proper,” but it is in her eyes that it bothers her. That she is stuck in between two worlds, but might not ever really belong to either one of them. The other scene that hits a personal cord with me is where Ditto begins to hit herself and tries to pull the pigment of her skin off her while crying. She’s frustrated that she is in a position where she is too high born for one way of life, but still too low born for another. Her skin. Her features. Her race. All of this upsets her because she is trapped within the racial confines of being biracial: not really belonging solely to one group or the other.

Belle will always be one of my favorite movies because it is the closest to things I’ve felt at one time or another about my race and also helped me to become aware of the privileges that I have as a biracial woman.

Meghan Markle, another biracial woman who is half black and half white like me, recently wrote an essay on her experiences being a biracial actress. One of her passages about the anxiety and confusion a biracial person can feel about choosing what to identify as stuck out to me deeply.

“Fast-forward to the seventh grade and my parents couldn’t protect me as much as they could when I was younger. There was a mandatory census I had to complete in my English class — you had to check one of the boxes to indicate your ethnicity: white, black, Hispanic or Asian. There I was (my curly hair, my freckled face, my pale skin, my mixed race) looking down at these boxes, not wanting to mess up, but not knowing what to do. You could only choose one, but that would be to choose one parent over the other — and one half of myself over the other. My teacher told me to check the box for Caucasian. ‘Because that’s how you look, Meghan,’ she said. I put down my pen. Not as an act of defiance, but rather a symptom of my confusion. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, to picture the pit-in-her-belly sadness my mother would feel if she were to find out. So, I didn’t tick a box. I left my identity blank — a question mark, an absolute incomplete — much like how I felt.”

There’s this obsession with wanting mixed race people to pick only one race to identify as. This can increase racial anxiety that a lot of mixed race kids and people have. As Meghan said, you don’t want to pick only one box because it feels like you’re picking one parent over the other. Of course, not every mixed race person will have the same experience as other mixed race people; that’s a given. Depending on our features, our skin tone, what we’re mixed with, and where in the world we live will have a deep influence on how we identify. And of course, what our relationship is to our family members on either side. The reason I identify as being biracial is because I’ve always felt like I never really fit into either only one race. Just like Meghan, I feel as though you’re asking me to pick which parent I prefer. I love both my parents deeply, and I also know that my experiences in life will never be exactly the same as my (white) father’s experiences, nor like my (black) mother’s experiences. Very much Like Ditto in Belle, I feel very stuck in the middle, and most likely always will feel that way. That being said, I’m very proud to be both Black and Greek.

In college, I had two acting teachers: “Carrie” and then “Phil.” “Phil” teaches acting for camera and screen writing. He’s one of my favorite teachers I’ve ever had and also works in the industry and has many industry friends. He’s directed plays and wrote several screenplays. He was also one of those teachers who never tried to pronounce my last name, and wasn’t quite sure what my race is. However, I learned so much from him, and he really is a great person.

One day, in acting for camera class, I over heard him talking to another student who turned out to be a white passing biracial Latino (he looked like Paul Walker.) “Phil” was telling this student how his last name, Latin in origin, could put him in a box. He also told the student, “yes, you look like you’re 100% white, but your last name could very easily put you in a box.” So it dawned on me that my last name that so easily in the past (and still does) has gotten mistaken for being Latin would put me in a box as well. I remembered how my grandpa who was a stage actor in the 40s and 50s, went by Chris Ponti instead of Chris Pontikes. And then I started wrestling with the question of “should I drop my last name?”

At the time on social media, I was already going by Britney Monae, which is my first and middle name. I had done some projects with friends, worked on a couple of student films as a background actress, and I had done some auditions that I used my first and last name for. However, I kept telling myself, “As soon I can, I’m going to drop my last name.” Yet, it also made me feel guilty for this overwhelming need to drop my last name in fear of being type cast as a race that I’m not apart of and not wanting to take away roles from women who actually belong to that race.

The conversation I had with “Phil” was actually really great. I began with that I had overheard his conversation with the other student and was curious if I should do the same and not use my last name. He told me the same thing, as he did with the other student that my last name could box in me, but it would also be a great opportunity for me to educate people on where my last name comes from and let directors and casting directors know my race. “Phil” was actually grateful that I had brought this up cause he finally knew how to pronounce my last name and what ethnicity it was. He also told me, “Either way, you have a great name.”

I’m still undecided what I should do with my last name, if I ever get into a position where I can change how I get credited in projects. Regardless of what I decide to go by, my place in Hollywood is still undecided and my box is unchecked, as it is for other biracial people like me.

6 thoughts on “On Assuming Race and Being Biracial

  1. maybe cause im black (black/indian) and have been around all our shades but no sister i can see you are mixed, like a ruth negga cousin lol. dont change your name child. im so proud of my people like utkarsh ambudkar and aziz ansari who didnt change their name to more “white” sounding names like mindy kaling and kal penn and that agents of shield chick did (no tea no shade, its what they did). i know everyone cant nor should be a soldier and it can get tiring educating people but when the call comes sometimes you have to answer. keep on keeping on and rep your people. like phil said, its a great name and you will be unique. its always better to stand out when it comes to the arts

  2. This piece was very well written and I have a comment: I am not biracial as far as I know. I’m light skinned African American as is my father. My mother is a darker complexioned African American woman. People are always asking me if I’m Latina or mixed with something. I spent the early part of my childhood in a predominately Latina community and attended a public school with mostly Latino children. The teachers and staff always assumed I was some kind of Spanish and spoke to me in Spanish all the time. The children(mostly little girls) were in awe of the intricate braided styles my mother put in my hair and when they found out I wasn’t Spanish,they left me alone. I learned plenty of Spanish in those years but it didn’t matter because I had no friends. As an adult, whenever a man is flirting with me he ususally says “Your too fine to ONLY be Black” or(if I remove my glasses) “Wow, are you Asian?Anyway, thanks for putting this out there!!!

  3. This article really hit home for me as well. I think humans just cannot help themselves when they judge “books by their covers.” People typically make snap judgments about people not only by how they look, but how they talk, how they dress, where they live, etc.

    Hollywood, of course follows suit and always has. Casting actors based on how they look comes up in marketing, too. Before I went into law, I worked in Journalism and then PR/marketing and when we were casting for an ad for a hospital, a security person’s race came up. I knew the individual was Arabic, but he looked kind of Latino and thus the person in charge of casting cast him Hispanic because he wanted a Latino male in the shot. The individual was none the wiser until I informed him.

    Back to Hollywood, I have always found it interesting how actors like Halle Berry, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Zoe Saldana, Maya Rudolph, Meghan Markle, Ruth Negga, Rashida Jones and yes, Gugu Mbatha-Raw are cast. Belle the film is one of my favorites because of how it presents the intersection of law and race and social justice. The movie should have been better rewarded by the Academy, but for myriad reasons it was not. Bottomline in Hollywood as in real life: It’s about what you look like and how you you identify or present yourself to the world.

    We all know that there are plenty of celebrities who look Black but consider themselves White and vice versa.
    But, there are some people that no matter how hard they try and no matter what they really are, well they aren’t going to get cast in a White role if they look Black unless the role could be played by anyone (and these non-historic roles do exist, but alas, there is the anomaly that is Hamilton! LOL)

    I have a heritage that includes: Black, Chinese, Italian, Cherokee Indian and Caucasian/English, and despite this unique blend, I have been mistaken for Latina and/or Filipina and sometimes Middle Eastern/Egyptian, not just by Whites, but also by Asians and Hispanics and Arabs.

    Our paternal family surname was “Martino” and the “o” was dropped to assimilate in America. I could really be whatever ethnic entity I want to be (and I have plenty of relatives who have passed as White or non-Black,) yet I identify as Black. I think I would be a casting agent’s dream IF they were casting for anything ethnic under the sun except Japanese.

    Just embrace your uniqueness Ms. Monae and USE IT to YOUR advantage at casting calls and auditions. I learned a long time ago to just LOL at the ignorance of racists. They are just not worth the stress! But, maybe indirectly and if you care to, you can serve to educate them; who the hell knows if it will stick, but that’s their issue—not yours.

    When ScarJo plays Coffee or Foxy Brown or Jackie Brown, you know Hollywood’s really gone crazier than what it already is.

  4. Race is the never ending unresolved issue in this country. Has been from the beginning and I’m old enough to suspect it will always be a problem regardless of demographic changes. I am not in a position to dispute or debate your experiences because I am not mixed race. I’m unapologetically black because that’s who my parents and grandparents and great grandparents were. Maybe it’s easier to just pick that “one box” but I do appreciate that in your article you acknowledged that in spite of the issues you face from external sources, there is a color hierarchy which won’t ever benefit me as a dark skinned African American. This often leads to resentment that any lighter skinned or mixed race person is viewed as more attractive (especially women), smarter or whatever traits the majority population associates as “being better than” or “is closer” to white. That is not your fault. This society existed long before you came into the world but it is naive for people to think that there isn’t some justifiable anger from darker skinned people and anger when those who are lighter fail to acknowledge that there is that difference.

  5. This is a good commentary. It’s not easy to reject role because it’s cultural appropriation. Everyone needs to work. It’s the gatekeepers, those making the decisions who should be held responsible.

  6. Thanks for writing this! I’m a friend of your former professor Natalie (we went to grad school together) and she very proudly plugged your article. 🙂 This really hits home for me as someone who is mixed (half Asian Indian and half various Caucasian stuff) and who has dealt with people thinking I am Latina, not to mention asking other weird nosy questions. Ultimately I ended up writing a YA novel about it (The Latte Rebellion) as well as writing a 2nd master’s thesis about mixed race and visual art.

    Are you involved at all in the Mixed Remixed Fest? It’s a great place to find more stories about the mixed experience. I’ve been involved for a few years and it’s a really welcoming environment. There IS a place for us mixed folks! The stories are starting to be told, and hopefully Hollywood will follow.

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