The full episode transcript is below.
You are listening to the Be the Bridge podcast with Latasha Morrison.
Latasha Morrison 0:05
[Intro] How you guys doing today? This is exciting!
Each week, Be the Bridge podcast tackles subjects related to race and culture, with the goal of bringing understanding.
Latasha Morrison 0:16
[Intro] …but I’m gonna do it in the spirit of love.
We believe understanding can move us toward racial healing, racial equity, and racial unity. Latasha Morrison is the founder of Be the Bridge, which is an organization responding to racial brokenness and systemic injustice in our world. This podcast is an extension of our vision to make sure people are no longer conditioned by a racialized society, but grounded in truth. If you have not hit the subscribe button, please do so now. Without further ado, let’s begin today’s podcast. Oh, and stick around for some important information at the end!
Clip from “Mixed-ish” 0:52
[Tika]: “Rainbow, you half Black, so…you Black.”
[Bow]: “…But I’m also half white.”
[Tika]: “That might be scientifically accurate, but science has no place in the real world. You Black.”
[Bow]: “I know. But I’m white too.”
Latasha Morrison 1:05
That was a clip from ABC’s popular TV show “Mixed-ish.” “Mixed-ish” explores life through the lens of a biracial preteen girl named Bow, which is short for Rainbow. Bow is raised with her brother and sister in the 80s by her parents, one being white and the other being Black. Today we will be discussing what it means to be biracial in America. I was able to begin to unpack this subject through two separate conversations I had with two women who happen to be biracial: Shannon Doyle Bell and LeTesha Wheeler. Both Shannon and LeTesha were raised by Black fathers and white mothers. Both are wives and mothers themselves. Shannon is an accomplished TV producer who is also one of the hosts of the podcast “Mixed Life ATL.” LeTesha is a successful author of the book “Half Breed.” The first thing a biracial person must grapple with is what makes them who they are. I asked Shannon, what makes her who she is? Shannon’s answer is fascinating. Let’s hear her answer.
Shannon Doyle Bell 2:11
I am a biracial Black woman. And I like to include the cities when I talk about who I am. Because it’s def—they’ve all been instrumental in who I am. It’s another whole layer of diversity and culture and whatnot that’s added to my story and the make-up of who I am. So, you know, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, West Michigan, (I know you know a few people there) is where I, you know, grew up. So going from there to then Los Angeles to then Brooklyn to Atlanta, you know, I mean, there’s a lot going on. And it’s given me a really good perspective on people. Again, with my, you know, little sociology background that I studied in college, I just loved to learn about people and what makes them who they are.
Latasha Morrison 3:10
There’s a theme I think you’re going to pick up on. Check out LeTesha’s answer as we delve more into her upbringing.
LeTesha Wheeler 3:17
I moved around, in my younger years, quite a bit through my elementary, middle school, high school years. And so I lived in three different states. I lived in the Pacific Northwest, I lived in Texas, I lived in Louisiana, I had the opportunity to live in rural areas and the country and the city and the suburbs. And I lived in low-income housing, to a house with a swimming pool, and everything in between. And those states were different politically, they were different socioeconomically, they were different culturally. And through not only my own family dynamic of white and Black—and having white aunts, uncles, and white cousins, and Black cousins and aunts and, you know grandparents—I also culturally lived among different people groups as well. And so through my life journey I, you know, developed these relationships and these experiences really on both sides of the spectrum, in essence you could say. I had family members that were Catholic and some were Baptists and some were Methodists and some were non-denominational, and some voted Democrat and some voted Republican and, you know, on different spectrums, right? And so I had to learn to navigate being on both sides of the bridge in essence.
Latasha Morrison 4:36
Yeah, I would love to hear just a little bit about that story and journey that you had with your, with your father, as you navigated this.
LeTesha Wheeler 4:44
That’s probably one of my most favorite stories I place in [my] book. In fact, as I wrote that I had tears streaming down my face. And so like you said, I was born in 1980. And yes, I was the oldest. I was the oldest of four girls and so they, you know, like you said they were trying to navigate. My dad was raised in the segregated Black south, in a country town that it was very clear of what side of the tracks you were from. And my mother was an Army brat in essence, and so she moved around quite often from different Army bases. And so her world was a little bit more diverse, but she ultimately was raised in the Pacific Northwest, which is very different from you know, the rural Black south. And so I was five years old, at this point I lived in Houston. We lived in Houston, Texas, and I want to say it was probably the inner city portion of Houston, we lived in a Black neighborhood. And I don’t recall what happened or what was said, leading up to this very moment, but it was a pivotal moment that defined my life really going forward. And it was: I remember my father saying, “Tesha, who is better, Black or white?” And now mind you, I’m only five. Right? And I remember saying to him, I remember thinking this answer is so obvious. And I said to him, “white,” so he proceeds to turn me around, and he spanks me on my bottom. He turns me back around and he says, “Tesha, who’s better, Black or white?” So now I’m thinking, well, it’s really obvious now—I know what he wants me to say. So I say, “Black.” He turns me around, and he spanks me again. And he says, “Tesha, who is better?” And I said, “Neither.” And he said, “That’s correct.” And that is in essence, how my father raised us, in knowing you’re not one or the other, you’re both. And to equally love both cultures that in essence, that’s in your DNA, that God made you. And I know that is a unique story and a unique journey because I have had multiple biracial friends, and being half black and half white, where like you said earlier, maybe the father was missing. And the child was only raised by their mother, maybe their white mother. And so maybe the Black father wasn’t around. Like Obama, right? In essence, it was just one family member or vice versa, where they were only raised with their Black and not their white. And I would say overwhelmingly, the majority of my biracial friends, half white and half Black, truly would identify with one or the other and not both equally like we were raised. And so I know that’s a very unique story. But I also felt like that story in essence, at that point in my life, it helped me decide, “Am I going to live in bondage for the rest of my life, where I’m always constantly believing that one part of me is not equal to the other?” Right? Or live in shame or guilt about one or the other. But that is, in essence, how we were raised and we grew up. We equally loved both of our cultures. I was raised—I got to [know] both my sets of my grandparents. My dad’s Black family, my “Big Mama”—we affectionately called my grandmother “Big Mama”—raised 15 kids in a segregated Black south. I have probably 45 or 50 first cousins, 60-something second cousins. And so I got to know her and my family very well. You know, we ate sweet potato pie at Big Mama’s house, but yet at my German grandmother’s house we had pumpkin pie. And we listened to music on both sides, and we engaged in food and conversation, you know, on both sides. And so we were very fortunate, very blessed to be able to equally enjoy both cultures.
Latasha Morrison 8:34
People who are biracial are not a monolith, making their upbringings varied. Check out Shannon’s thoughts on the same subject of upbringing.
Shannon Doyle Bell 8:43
I don’t know…I can’t speak for everybody’s family on this, but I feel when you are born into a family and you’re biracial, we were talking—I was always asking questions. [My co-host] Tarana and I both actually talk about how we think that definitely spearheaded our careers, and wanting to tell people stories, and wanting to understand people just period. Because we were just, you know, always asking questions and putting our parents on the spot and them not having the answers, because no one’s going to tell them. There’s not a book, you know, so a lot of times they got it wrong. A lot of times. And I think it’s huge, when you have the biracial experience of being—of me growing up as a Black woman with a white mother, is huge. And I feel like she and I are still dissecting it. Because you have to have a lot of truth and not take it personal. I think, you know, she would say (and I hate to talk for her) but I had—there were a lot of times where it would almost feel, you know, it would be sensitive. Because if someone were to, you know, look at her and not think that I’m her child, you know, strangers or that type of thing or think that she’s the nanny or something like that, right? Those types of things are hurtful. Or on the flip side, you know, [strangers might] hate on or, you know, [have] those types of negative feelings towards her and her children and her family. It’s new. You know, when you step into that you’re giving up a little bit of white privilege. And I had never thought about that. That was something I like kind of looked at when I was a little bit—a lot older, I should say.
I think there’s tension with that for her. And she grew up in a Christian family, her father was a pastor of a Lutheran church. And he had started, he had planted like 13 or 14 churches all over the Midwest and East Coast. Youngest of four. And then my dad’s, you know, one of seven [kids]. Very New York-bred, Trinidad and Tobago Caribbean background. And so they definitely came from two very different worlds. And my dad was kind of throwing himself out of, you know, New York—the devastation of New York that was happening in the early 70s. I mean, it was rough. And I remember him telling me as a child, you know, “I’m either seeing my friends go to jail, be killed by a drug, you know, get caught up in drug situations or whatever, and I need to get out to give myself a chance.” He really, really felt that. So then he’s plopped in the middle of the snow in the Midwest where he went to college and then met my mom. And I think when you’re young and optimistic and in love, you’re ready to face the world no matter the challenges. But when the challenges actually hit, it’s a real thing. So, you know, they faced a lot. And they protected us from a lot. You know, as you grow up, your parents start revealing more things to you. Like, “Wait, what?!” you know, just total shock. My parents, after they were married in Michigan, they moved back, obviously, and then so I was born in Brooklyn. And Brooklyn was, you know, this is 1980, and it was not what it is now. I mean, this is when crack was, you know, planted into the—it was taking over. You know, and it was devastating. And my family’s from the projects, we lived in the projects there. And, you know, here’s my mom—culture shock can we say? So you know, my dad was kind of accepted in his culture shock moment in Michigan, he actually went there on a basketball scholarship. So he’s like, the star in basketball, right? And then take her, throw her into that situation. And there was even, you know…It was a lot.
Latasha Morrison 13:31
Our upbringing is often a quest for identity. For those who are biracial, navigating the quest of identity is not only unique and challenging, but in a lot of cases, it feels like an endless journey. Let’s jump back in my conversation with Shannon.
[Talking to Shannon] So tell us a little bit about that journey, and the discovery, and I think you were just saying like, you know, there was this fear of saying the wrong thing. And so I want you just to delve into that a little bit more. What has this journey been like as it relates to your identity and the fullness that makes you Shannon?
Shannon Doyle Bell 14:13
It’s continuing! The journey is continuing, for one, and I’ve, you know, accepted that and I’m excited about it. Questioning, you know, especially as a young child, and trying to figure out how to define my identity. Biracial and multiracial people have kind of been boxed in racially for very hurtful and sensitive reasons. But you know, I had to get to a point—I was okay and I was confident enough to say, “This is who I am, and this is my identity.” To say I’m a biracial Black woman, not just biracial or just Black. Both are important to me to say.
Latasha Morrison 14:53
People of color, biracial or not, are faced with racism based on learned biases that are a byproduct of racism. The vehicle for this form of overt and covert racism is fleshed out through perceptions or aesthetics. This is most evident with colorism—how a biracial person is perceived aesthetically on both sides of their heritage yields privilege. At the same time, some of those perceptions yield penalties. Let’s hear about LeTesha’s experience.
LeTesha Wheeler 15:26
What I also say about being biracial—half white, half Black—how many of us (and I’ll speak for myself and my sisters because we’ve had this conversation) I think many times we felt like we had the best of both worlds many times. Because though I might have gone to an all-white school and all-Black school, and I typically tended to be the one that looked the most different of everyone, at the same time, when I went to the all white school I had the best “tan” and all the girls wanted my “tan,” right? And I went to the all-Black school, they said I had the good hair, right? And so you tend to feel like “man, I got the best of both worlds.” And so maybe the same negative experiences that either one of those cultures have, maybe I’m immune to them.
Latasha Morrison 16:07
Let’s hear Shannon expound on the same subject.
Shannon Doyle Bell 16:10
Growing up in the 80s and this is why we said, “Okay, we have got to be part of this conversation.” Because this is a group that, not that we’re more special than anybody, we’re just saying that this is a specific generation in America.
Latasha Morrison 16:29
You know, like some of the things that you dealt with where, you know, maybe some groups thought, “hey, you’re too light or you’re too dark” or, you know. What defines good hair, you know?! My hair isn’t necessarily curly hair or, you know what I’m saying? But just how these supremacy-type ideologies that we’ve taken in and ingested within our community, and haven’t even you know really discussed that and what that is and what defines beauty. You know, versus dark skin, light skin, and all these different things. And so that’s a whole nother conversation as it relates to…I know some families that are biracial like yourself, where they have maybe one child is a lighter [skin tone] and maybe they have blue eyes, and so there’s going to be some privileges that come with that, and talking about that! But then maybe another child has darker skin and brown eyes. Even how—they’re brothers and sisters, or sisters, or two brothers, but how they navigate the world is gonna be different for one than the other. And how they present. And you know, that’s not the same in a white family. Having a child with red hair and blonde hair, you know, you know what I’m saying? There’s no comparison in this as it relates to colorism. But that happens a lot. I have a friend who is Native American and her husband is white. And she actually is biracial, but she presents as more of a darker Native. And two of her children present darker, and one daughter you wouldn’t know unless she told you. But she’s experienced how her brother has to navigate.
Navigating this can be complicated. First, there’s the understanding of what it means to be biracial. Then there are ancillary effects to being biracial based on how you present. Now let’s dig into a bit of terminology. What is the proper way to identify someone who is biracial? Shannon addressed this.
Shannon Doyle Bell 18:37
You know, my dad ended up into a career of Diversity, Inclusion & Equity in the corporate sector, and, you know, we just—I think as a family, we just embraced this whole entire world of…You know, whatever, I mean…people were not—a lot of the language we hear now, they were not talking about this when I was growing up. And let me back up to even like the “Mixed-ish.” Like you were saying, was that how we called [ourselves]…? You know, when I first heard the title [of the show] I was kind of cringing a little. My dad raised us to say, “You’re not mixed, you’re not dogs or mutts” and whatever, you know, “You’re biracial.” And he was very, you know, “We’re African American and biracial.” That was the term that he really wanted to embrace so…but I mean culture, you know, kind of takes over those things sometimes. So I’d rather embrace it and empower it, than just keep fighting against this, whatever machine. I mean, just how Black people, we’ve gone from “Negro” to this and that and you know…
Latasha Morrison 19:50
There’s another layer, because as a biracial person, understanding who you are—codifying, identifying terminology—and working through how you present is one thing. As a parent of a biracial child, there’s yet another layer. I think LeTesha helps us to understand the complexities of these dilemmas, but also gives insight on how to address these dilemmas. Let’s take a listen.
LeTesha Wheeler 20:17
We tried to do the same obviously with our boys. So my husband, ironically, is also biracial. He is mixed also. So his father actually was Creole as well. And he actually was dark-skinned Creole, but he had blue eyes, and his mother was white and Native American. I think she was Irish and Native American. And he [my husband] has five brothers and sisters or you know, total five siblings, and every single one of them have a different eye color and skin tone. And in fact, you know, one of his brothers whose wife is blonde-haired and white, their daughter looks—she’s blue eyes, blonde curly hair, she doesn’t look like she’s an ounce of Black blood in her. My boys on the other hand, having children with a biracial male, our boys look mixed/Black. You know, depending on what, you know, part of America you’re in, and some may pick up that they’re biracial because of their hair texture and tone. And others, they may say well you look Black. But yeah, our boys which, you know, I remember just having that same feeling when I went with my oldest son who’s now 16—when I went to go fill out the school form for him and it asked his race. I mean…I wanted to cry, really, Tasha. I didn’t know—because I’m thinking, I mean, my husband and I knew like, okay, you know, you pick Black because that’s what most people think…but you know, our moms were white, and we knew we could put Black/white, but he has two biracial parents. So what do you put for a biracial biracial child, you know?
Latasha Morrison 21:49
Oh my goodness…
LeTesha Wheeler 21:51
Latasha Morrison 21:53
LeTesha Wheeler 21:54
And all my cousins now who have you know, husbands that are Hispanic and…I mean like, all my grandmother’s children now are so biracial, there’s no way you can really pick a race for them. Right?
Latasha Morrison 22:05
And it’s like, you don’t want to pick “other!” Who wants to choose “other?!”
LeTesha Wheeler 22:08
I don’t want to choose “other”! So I think one of my sisters finally just started picking “other” because she’s like, “this is just too much at this point.” But yeah, what we teach our boys is again, what we believe—is first and foremost to know who you are, know the promises of God. And there’s going to be obstacles and trials you have to overcome on this earth, and people are going to try to discourage you and hurt you and divide you if it has to do with race, or has to do with, you know, a thousand other things that we deal with here on this earth. But ultimately, we love to affirm our boys in their identity. That we love their skin color, we love their hair, you know, and I think even just like practical things of affirming their identity. Like making sure my boys have really good lotion so that they don’t go to school with ashy knees, right? Because they do go to a school that is predominantly white, and the last thing I need to do is send my kid to school with ashy knees and legs and he’s being made fun of. I think many times it’s these practical things, and making sure that I take the time to find the right hair products because again, they’re biracial/biracial at this point, and let me tell you there are no hair products out there that really can understand just the multitude of DNA that, you know, God has put in us! And so one has more textured hair, and the other one has a little bit more fuzzier hair, and you know, there’s nothing that really fits them perfectly. But you know, just trying to figure that out. But really just affirming their identity and how intelligent they are and how proud we are, of who they are before they even have, you know, accomplished really anything. They’re both really great athletes and so we affirm their identity in their academics and their athletics. But ultimately teaching them that, “Hey, there’s evil in the world, and there may be people who judge you based on the skin color, or even where you live, or where you’re from or how you speak. But that’s never gonna hold you down and hold you back from the ultimate purpose and identity that God has for you, if you don’t allow it to. You can allow it to, if that’s where you’re going to find your identity. If you find your identity and people, man, we’ll never make it in life.” So, um, but yeah, I think it’s very important. And then there are experiences. So you know, they play sports so they play basketball, and they’ve played golf with my husband, and they run track and they played soccer. And so each of those sports too, bring very different ethnic groups as well, right? So they’re playing basketball where the majority of their teammates are Black, but then they go play golf where a majority of their teammates are not, and they play soccer where they have more Hispanic teammates. And then trying to make sure they have diverse experiences in school with you know, drama and you know, honor classes, and just different experiences so that they can appreciate and know who they are and love other people as well.
Latasha Morrison 24:54
I’m sure for some of you, your landing spot for all of this is reconciliation. But it’s interesting where the direction of our conversations went. I love what Shannon says here.
Shannon Doyle Bell 25:05
Well, I would definitely say don’t—yeah, you have not arrived to any place just because you have now had Black children or biracial children. When I say arrived to any place of—you’re not, you know, eliminated from having biases or being racist, or now you’re all of a sudden educated. Like, dive into educating yourself about the background of your child’s race. That’s what I would say. I would say now you are going to get a Masters in your child’s race. That’s what I would say. Because yeah, I think there’s definitely some assumptions.
Latasha Morrison 25:45
To be honest, that is something that we all can do! We should all dive in and learn more about the people who are around us. We can all do our own research by reading and also googling. Before we go, I had one more question for Letesha.
[Speaking to LeTesha] What is one thing that you wish that people understood about your experience?
LeTesha Wheeler 26:10
Yeah, um, I think that—with being biracial, you know, a lot of what we’ve talked about is that you don’t live a life where you have to come in and automatically side with one side or the other. You have lived a life of finding a way to walk in unity. You have found a way to accept people for who they are—their differences, their good and their bad, and make a way to still be in relationship with them to truly love them.
Clip from “Mixed-ish” 26:57
[Bow]: “Can I ask you a question?”
[Paul]: “Of course, anytime.”
[Bow]: “Why is being different so hard?”
[Paul]: “We come from a place where everyone is treated the same, no matter what they look like. But that’s not how it works here…for so many complicated reasons. But we have a choice not to let that affect who we are. You are different. I am different. So is your mom! That’s what makes us special. And I promise you that one day you’ll realize that being different is your superpower.”
Latasha Morrison 27:33
Are you really ready to truly love one another? Maybe that means being willing to take the extra step and learn more about one another’s heritage and culture and things that make us different—and also the same. Let’s not box people into our place of comfort, even those who come from multiple cultural backgrounds. These two conversations were just a start. We’re going to dive back into this topic on being biracial in future episodes. I want to thank LeTesha and Shannon for their honesty and transparency as they helped us to try to understand what it means to be biracial in America.
That’s all for today. But again, let’s become more willing to show love for one another, by taking the extra step to learn more about one another. We did a little bit of that today. Until next time, build bridges and not walls.
In the next episode, you’ll hear…
Thanks for listening to the Be the Bridge podcast! To find out more about the Be the Bridge organization, and/or to become a bridge builder in your community, go to BeTheBridge.com. Again, that’s BeTheBridge.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, remember to rate and review it on this platform and share it with as many people as you possibly can. You can also connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Today’s show was edited and produced by Trayvon Potts at Integrated Entertainment Studios in Metro Atlanta, GA. The host and executive producer is Latasha Morrison. Lauren C. Brown is the senior producer. This podcast was recorded by Josh Deng with additional editing by Roshane Ricky. Brittany Prescott was our transcriber. Please join us next time! This has been a Be the Bridge production.