‘On Being Biracial’ broadens the narrative on racial identity
“Whether biracial characters were depicted as acting for good or for evil, they were representations of disunity and isolation — caricatures more than fully realized people.”
“On Being Biracial” is a podcast hosted by journalists Daralyse Lyons and Malcolm Burnley exploring the complexities of biracial experiences and identities in the U.S. As a project powered by the newly launched Philadelphia Journalism Collaborative, “On Being Biracial” examines the nuances of multiracial identities over the course of ten episodes.
The podcast features an array of 30 guests ranging from comedian and documentarian W. Kamau Bell to Charlotte Gill, author of “Almost Brown: A Mixed-Race Family Memoir,” journalist and author of “Black, White, Other,” Lise Funderburg, and National Book Award-winning fiction writer Mat Johnson, among others. It also features many Philadelphians sharing their personal experiences. The series explores how perceptions and experiences of multiracial people’s identities have shaped their lives.
Having interviewed guests in a range of fields and areas of expertise, Burnley and Lyons seek to amplify the depth and variety of biracial experiences while also identifying overlapping patterns.
The first episode of the series highlights the importance of elevating the voices of those who have first-person perspectives of being biracial in an effort to take back agency over their stories.
“Representations of what it means to be racially mixed have largely been defined by those outside of the experience, until recently…” comments Burnley. “Whether biracial characters were depicted as acting for good or for evil, they were representations of disunity and isolation — caricatures more than fully realized people.”
Even though definitions and labels of being biracial in the United States have evolved over time, biracial people are often forced to confront their identity in harmful binaries.
“You can say, I'm half black, half white. You can say I'm black. You can say I'm mixed, or whatever, you know, but the thing you can't say is, I'm white,” comedian and filmmaker W. Kamau Bell explained to his multiracial daughters. “And for me that was a way of going, like, that's not how racial categorization works in this country.”
“Race is a social construct — a human-invented system of classifying groups of people, which can change based on geography and historical context — and we’ll be revisiting just how constructed, and how malleable, conceptions of race are over and over again throughout this series,” adds Lyons.
In exploring multiracial peoples’ experiences, the podcast seeks to understand the repeating themes across those stories, such as privilege, colorism, and appearance in mixed lives.
“These are stories that defy stereotype. These are stories that you, you can't, you cannot make up,” says Sandra Clarke, CEO of the audio archiving project StoryCorps and a longtime leader in Philadelphia journalism. “I mean, they are lived experiences of people who, you know, didn't fit into a box where we were out searching for a story, right?”
Other topics of discussion include the role of the U.S. Census in classifying multi-racial identities and the “one-drop” rule, as well as colorism and privilege within mixed-race communities.
Furthermore, Burnley and Lyons reflect over the psychological damage that can come with being biracial. Biracial people are often forced to identify with one part of their identity over the other, or have their identity labeled a certain way by outsider perceptions.
“It's that forced identification that tends to make people feel badly about themselves, right?
So if you are mixed, and to be fair, lots of people in the US are mixed by lineage because of slavery and other things in our history. If you are mixed, but really only claim one of your identities, doesn't mean you're gonna have horrible mental health consequences, right?” says Sarah Gaither, one of the more than 30 voices featured on the podcast. “But on average, this identity flexibility component does seem to be strongest for people who kind of claim their multiple selves.”
Most importantly, the “On Being Biracial” podcast is an opportunity to move past decades’ worth of incomplete and inaccurate representations and share the perspectives of biracial people whose stories have consistently been silenced.
“I’ve heard it said that the quality of our questions determines the quality of our lives,” says Lyons, “So let’s question the nameless, faceless, two-dimensional stories of the past and gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of identity, by listening to deeply personal narratives. Thank you in advance for joining us in that exploration.”
To learn more about “On Being Biracial” and stream the released episodes, here.