‘Mixed-ish’ and the anti-Black myth of post-racial insulated societies
Unless I had no awareness of myself or others at all, my Blackness would always be a thing even in the communes established by my community
Perhaps due to my own intentional insulation inside of a cultish virtual world of angry Black radicals, last week I witnessed an overwhelmingly negative response on social media to the trailer for mixed-ish, ABC’s upcoming black-ish spinoff. Originally conceived as an episode of black-ish, mixed-ish will focus on Rainbow Johnson’s (Tracee Ellis Ross) childhood growing up in a biracial white/Black family after leaving a cult.
Many of those criticisms rightly focused on the demonization of the unambiguously Black children with whom Rainbow comes into contact after leaving the cult in the trailer, contrasted with the pure innocence of Rainbow and her mixed siblings. “What are you weirdos mixed with?” one Black child spits viciously at Rainbow and her siblings on their first day of school, apparently unprompted, to the laughter of another table of unambiguously Black children nearby. Grown-up Rainbow then goes on to narrate, as if to show facts have no place in this universe, that children of the 80s had no biracial role-models, because Bob Marley and Sade did not exist.
But as a Black person who grew up in and around communes with many similarities to how Rainbow describes the one of her childhood, what infuriated me most about the trailer was the show’s seemingly full-throated embrace of the myth of post-racial insulated societies. This is a myth that has done incredible damage to so many Black children like me.
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Following a montage of idyllic images featuring a vibrant spectrum of all kinds of people dancing and holding hands in the cult, Rainbow narrates, “My parents had sent us out into the world with absolutely no warning that being mixed was even a thing.” In the cult, she implies, Blackness was a non-issue, and so she and her siblings didn’t even notice that they carried it until the outside world forced her to.
Rainbow’s narration was similar to the narratives I heard growing up in the Hare Krsna community, a branch of Hinduism that gained popularity in my mother’s generation (famous dabblers in the religion include George Harrison and KRS-1). But it was not similar, in any way whatsoever, to what I actually experienced.
Unless I had no awareness of myself or others at all, my Blackness would always be a thing even in the communes established by my community, no matter how insular they became, and whether my parents warned me of it or not.
When my mother went to get initiated into the religion in the 70s, she was turned away by a white temple president because she was Black. Her guru, Srila Prabhupada, who is responsible for bringing the religion from India to Europe and the states, then told my mother that the temple president’s actions were ignorant, but if she let them get to her, she was making his anti-Blackness her problem.
This absurd idea that “letting anti-Blackness get to you” as a Black person somehow makes it the Black person’s personal problem, coupled with the Hare Krsna doctrine that no one is defined by their bodies, that they are “spirit souls,” allowed for violence like this to go unchallenged, but not to go away. There were different versions of that temple president all across the country, in isolated farm communes we’d stay at many times a year.
Though I grew up in an urban city, my mother homeschooled her children and made sure visits to these communes were a huge part of our lives. Devotees in these communities told themselves they were “not the body,” but non-Black devotees would often forbid their children from dating Black devotees and would discipline Black children more harshly. Many of their children would make racist jokes and spew anti-Black epithets, but because they had supposedly learned it from the outside world, that was criticized, not them (the likelihood that they learned these words from their parents was hardly acknowledged). And because “letting it get to us” made their racism our problem as Black devotees, many forced themselves and their children not to react, to reject their own pain and feelings, to be gaslit.
Plenty of Hare Krsna devotees, like I imagine the members of Rainbow’s childhood commune, found themselves in an environment separated from the outside world, but they had still come from it. They grew up steeped in anti-Blackness, and coming into a faith that told them they were “not the body” could never have erased all of the years of conditioning they had experienced, what to speak of if they refused to acknowledge the conditioning existed. This anti-Blackness rained down hard on the heads of Black children, and there wasn’t a one of us who did not know it, although some of us tried and tried and failed not to make it “our problem” to our own detriment.
The myth of post-racial insulated communities is one that is upheld both within said communities and, as mixed-ish promises to demonstrate, outside of them. It supports a comforting fantasy that all we need to do to destroy anti-Blackness is refuse to acknowledge the world that birthed it, which is as wonderfully simple as it is wonderously silly. It ignores the ways we have all been shaped and formed by that same anti-Black world, and the hard work necessary to unlearn all it has taught us. And the Black children who are forced into these spaces where acknowledging the world is refused pay the biggest price.
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Some would argue that you shouldn’t read too much social commentary into television show’s trailer because all of its nuance couldn’t possibly be boiled down into two short minutes. But this would ignore the fact that the entire purpose of a trailer is to tell the viewer what to expect, including the most significant themes and conflicts. Trailers are usually also accompanied by descriptions of the series, and Deadline provided this one mixed-ish:
“Rainbow Johnson (Ross) recounts her experience growing up in a mixed-race family in the ‘80s and the constant dilemmas they had to face over whether to assimilate or stay true to themselves. Bow’s parents Paul and Alicia decide to move from a hippie commune to the suburbs to better provide for their family. As her parents struggle with the challenges of their new life, Bow and her siblings navigate a mainstream school in which they’re perceived as neither black nor white. This family’s experiences illuminate the challenges of finding one’s own identity when the rest of the world can’t decide where you belong.”
Aside from the ridiculous and colorist idea that light skinned Black children have never been able to find community within Blackness, separating “the rest of the world” that has trouble figuring out where Black people belong from the insular cult is a stated theme of the show, and it is a theme that is damaging. Made up of members who have been taught all of their lives to accept anti-Blackness, Rainbow’s commune would have inherently struggled to figure out where she belonged too, and refusing to acknowledge that struggle is not only inaccurate, but dangerous.
Anti-Blackness seeps into every crevice and community in a colonized world. We cannot wish and fantasize it away, which is what so many Black parents in the Hare Krsna community did to the detriment of children like Rainbow. By pretending otherwise—by forcing those children in the form of its characters not to react, to overlook the real pain and feelings that would have been enacted—mixed-ish promises to gaslight us all over again.
*Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Smokey Robinson as biracial