Shades of gray

An appearance on a TV talk show made our writer re-examine the issues surrounding her biracial identity

Catherine Atkins (left), Ananda Lewis and Elizabeth Atkins Bowman pose on the set.

Catherine Atkins (left), Ananda Lewis and Elizabeth Atkins Bowman pose on the set.

A small army of producers and assistants buzzed around backstage and on the set, shouting out instructions and directions. The amount of coordination going on backstage was frenetic and hectic. Microphones were laced in our shirts and clipped to our lapels. My sister, Elizabeth, and I would go on stage after the first guest, and then we’d be joined by another guest and the talk show host’s mother.

Before any of us went onstage, I had a moment of nervousness. I whispered to my sister: Did she remember the episode of The Brady Bunch when Cindy goes on TV for a children’s quiz show? My sister shook her head.

“Well,” I explained, “she freezes. All the other Brady siblings are at home watching Cindy stare blankly at the camera. When Cindy is asked to name the capital of Louisiana, the others shout at the TV, ‘Baton Rouge! She knows this! Come on, Cindy! Baton Rouge!’ “

Telling that banal story relaxed me, and I knew I would not freeze. After all, this was going to air nationally. I just didn’t want to leave the studios feeling ashamed of what I’d said—or not said.

I realized then that this was an opportunity to be like my sister—to share a message of hope and good will and rainbow links between the races. And I was going to have fun doing it. Here I was in a forum with an opportunity to enlighten through my experience and knowledge.

And I was going to do it with my big sister next to me, to help me out if I started to freeze, and to nudge me and whisper, “Come on, Catherine! You know the answer. Just look inside yourself.”

And I did.

A year and six days before I was born, my mother gave birth to the most outspoken person in my life: my sister, Elizabeth. She has always been protective of me, has always let me tag along and has always shared the spotlight she’s created around herself with me.

So naturally, when a producer from The Ananda Lewis Show—a nationally syndicated one-hour talk show that debuted in September—invited my sister to be on a show about biracial people, Elizabeth wanted me to join her.

You see, I look just like our father, who died 11 years ago. One glance at our white skin, and you’d never guess my sister and I were anything but white. Neither Elizabeth’s blonde hair nor my blue eyes and freckles give away any clue that our mother is black.

Elizabeth has written and published two romantic thrillers about the trials and tribulations of biracial people. She is also a member of a speaker’s bureau called the American Program Bureau, through which she is invited to schools, colleges, books clubs and organizations to speak about our black mother, white father and the experiences she’s had as a biracial person.

I, on the other hand, am not so outspoken. That’s why the producers wanted to talk to me before I went on the show.

So, on the phone, I shared with a producer many of my fly-on-the-wall observations about white-against-black racism. Perhaps the most blatant forms of racism I’ve seen have been when I’m with a group of white people who’ve made two weighty assumptions: first, that everyone in the group is white; and second, that everyone with fair skin shares their negative opinions about black people. No one is without prejudices, but in order to function in a working society, manners help keep those prejudices in check.

I told the producer that I spent a summer in a resort town in New England working in the courtesy booth of a grocery store. In the booth with me were local women in their 40s and 50s, with whom I got along very well from the start. They had their opinions about tourists, and they didn’t offend me or walk around on eggshells when I was around. I was accepted into their group.

But that acceptance made me privy to their behind-the-scenes personalities. Their racial slurs began like a trickle, and before I could say a word—that I’m part black, and that I’m not what they think I am—they had gotten to the statement that I live with in my mind’s ears: A black man had committed a crime in Boston, and one of the women said, “All black men should be castrated.” All present agreed but me.

I felt disgusted, sick and afraid—and I kept quiet.

My paradigm shifted. These women, who were closer than acquaintances, but not quite buddies, made me sick. They revealed their ignorance to me—and they scared me. The surprise I felt and the intensity of their words was not like anything I’d ever known. I fled from Cape Cod, and the memories of those women jab at me whenever I’m in a group of all-white people to this day.

The producer wanted to hear more, so I told her about my white high school boyfriend. On my college application, where it asked about my race, I checked both the black and white boxes. My boyfriend claimed that this was the reason the school accepted me and not him. I told the producer about another boyfriend, whose parents forbade him to bring home a black girl. He’d assured me I’d be all right, because I didn’t look black, and that the issue would never come up.

About two hours after I spoke to the producer, another woman from The Ananda Lewis Show called with flight information. Three days later, I was on a flight to New York City.

My sister and I had experienced this once before nine years ago, when we appeared with our mother on The Faith Daniels Show, a half-hour talk show that went off the air in the early ‘90s.

But this was different. My sister hadn’t been a best-selling author then. In fact, we were both in our early 20s and quite naïve. All we knew of the world was what our young eyes had seen and judged. Back then, I shrugged my shoulders and said with a smile, “I don’t call myself black or white. I’m Catherine.”

My sister, too, had a different, more militant stance then. “The white in me speaks for itself,” she said. “I want to vocalize the black part.”

Watching the tape of The Faith Daniels Show, you can see my sister ready to get in anyone’s face who says something disagreeable. She was on guard for someone saying accusingly, “How can you call yourself black when you don’t look black?”

Now, my sister calls herself “a biracial black woman,” and I say I’m biracial—black and white. But who I am cannot be summed up by the word “biracial.” That’s just one component.

From the experience in New England, I’ve learned that I can offer individuals another way of thinking. If I’m ever in that situation, I point out that I am biracial and not that I’ve been insulted, but that their ignorance is showing. It’s not about me—it’s about people who have a problem with what other people happen to be.

When we arrived at CBS Studios, we were both given a green room, but my sister moved into my room; after all, she does live in Michigan, and this was an opportunity to spend time together. As fancy as “green room” sounds, it’s not green at all. It’s just a dressing room with studio lights, a sink and a counter.

We went to hair and makeup first, where a woman put a layer of crack-resistant foundation on top of our subtle makeup, an extra layer of mascara, some blush and lipstick (which was still coloring my lips six hours later after dinner). The hair woman put Frizz-Ease on my sister’s hair. As for my hair … well, my sister told me my half-inch-long hair looks just like our father’s hair in a portrait of him from the ‘60s.

Then, it was back to the green room to wait. Before The Faith Daniels Show in 1992, I had been so nervous I thought I might faint or puke, due in part to having taken a red-eye flight only hours earlier. But this time was different: I was well-rested, and I felt armed with the knowledge of who I am.

While in the green room, the producer who’d interviewed us over the phone came in and ran through the procedures of the show. She reminded us of certain anecdotes we’d shared with her and asked us to be sure to say those during the taping.

My sister and I talked privately about what we had to say. We both knew that the topic of passing would come up. “Passing” is a term used for black people with fair skin who choose to “pass” for white. Would audience members accuse me of trying to “pass” because I was not living my life as a black woman? I didn’t know if the audience would be hostile—this was a talk show, after all, though a far cry from Rikki Lake or Jerry Springer. I was prepared for anything.

The show began with six of us biracial people standing on stage holding signs that read, “What am I?”

The audience of about 70 people—who didn’t know Elizabeth and I were sisters—guessed that I am Irish, Italian and Greek and that my sister is Swedish, Polish and black. We told the audience the score, and from then on, I felt like I was involved in a dynamic conversation about race. My Cindy Brady moment never came.

Once I began speaking, I couldn’t stop. I wanted to convey to everyone this sense of peace and safety I get from knowing who I am, and that what everybody else is calling themselves is not a concern.

I reminded everyone that no one has the right to judge anyone else unless and until they’ve walked a day (maybe I said a mile) in their shoes. I think as much as people understand that phrase, few live by it.

After the show, as my sister and I tooled around New York City, she kept telling me how proud she was of me for what I’d said on the show. No matter how self-actualized I may be, there’s nothing quite like approval from my big sister.