Independent Film Spotlight: Look At Me, Damn It!

For filmmaker Carolyn Battle-Cochrane, “Biracial, Not Black, Damn It” is not just a film series title, but a way of life. Battle-Cochrane spent most of her life trying to hide her biracial identity, which was the source of more than a few school yard brawls in her youth, and the past decade learning to understand and embrace the unique contributions she and other biracial and mixed race people contribute to the world.

“Look at Me, Damn it,” delves deeper into the complexities of race and racial codes in America, examining everything from the experiences of biracial people who are adopted into mono-racial homes, and the lack of drug testing for mixed-race folks in the medical community, passing, entitlements, to the mixed story-line that does not have a first generation African American, European, Asian or Latino parent and mixes that are not just black and white. Battle-Cochrane’s aspirations for the project, which recently launched a fundraising effort on the website indiegogo include debuting at the Sundance Film Festival and sharing her message of self-love and racial healing.

What was your experience growing up as a biracial child in New York in the 60’s and 70’s?

It wasn’t an easy existence being biracial in a black neighborhood in New York in the 60’s and early 70’s. Racially our country was going through changes, it was smack dab in the mist of the civil rights movement.  I lived in a black neighborhood in Queens, and the Black Panthers marched down our block often–one time a black girlfriend of my moms came unglued when they came marching and chanting that she screamed, “Carolyn get in the closet“. Mom didn’t budge…she peeked out the window and watched as they passed our home.  What that meant for my brothers and I is that we had to run fast or be ready for a fight.  

My older brother Jacques and I were always together so we were either dodging rocks, snowballs or hearing “ain’t your momma pretty, she got meatballs in her titties and scrambled eggs between her legs, ain’t your momma pretty…(I still remember that to this day)”, and your Momma is a “white ho” would quickly be tagged on.  My dad, a rather hard man, made it clear he was not raising any sissies, we better put rocks in our snowballs and throw twice as many until we drew blood!  If we lost the fight Mr. Battle was gonna whup us, so take your pick…fight kids or get beat by a man lathered in several shots of Old Crow yielding a belt.  Jacques and I never lost a fight.  The only time we got beat up is if we were alone or got jumped by several kids.  After you make it clear you’re not going to run, you’re not going to cry, you’re going to fight to win, you gain a reputation and then for whatever reason you become friends.  Unfortunately we moved often, which meant the process was repeated never giving us time to create lasting friendships in our neighborhood.  Mom did have us in church every Saturday, our lasting friendships were made there.  Saturday church and the Sabbath (and not a Synagogue) was an oddity much like our racial identity.  

Behind closed doors, life showcased elements that were essential to making me who I am today. The waltz and Lawrence Welk were Mom’s favorite–so she danced with my brothers often and taught me how to be a proper young lady.  How to set a table correctly. One of the first books I remember reading was a book on etiquette.  The contrast being the blues and R&B, scatted by my father in his bombastic tone, weaved and intertwined into the core of all I love.  Classical music  makes my heart swell, and I love the blues…I sing them regularly.  

I want to say I never felt tragic during this period of my life.  I concluded as a child that my personal family was dysfunctional, and that daddy didn’t really like white people, and that Mom wasn’t light skin. My life was my life, so that was my normal…we were always moving fast so there was nothing to compare it to.   

Why did you once hide your biracial identity?

I hid my biracial identity most of my childhood.  Most of my life actually.  I was ashamed of having a white mother (as a child). I cry every time I have to speak on this or am reminded of this.  I denied she was my mother in school. I was in a classroom filled with black kids, it wasn’t cool having a white mother and more than likely it meant I was going to have to fight someone, or several someone’s.  As an adult it was just easier to represent myself as a light skin black than deal with the possibility that someone might see me as the enemy in some way. I owned a hair salon that catered to black clientele, and the things I’ve heard about white people, umph…to this day are “interesting” to say the least. I just have to say on the record, my Mom never smelled like a wet dog…she smelled like baked cookies and roses.

Why is it so important that biracial people identify as such and not choose a side?

What I don’t want to do is speak for all biracial people, so I am going to speak to why I think biracial identity is important (to me) and why I won’t choose one side any longer.

First and foremost my awakening came with memories of denying my mother, an amazing woman that gave love and positivity regardless of where we found ourselves. I asked my Mom once why she didn’t just walk back into the white world and leave us, and be okay.  The life she endured because she was our mother at that time in American history was so harsh, and the toll racism had on my father, her husband came into the home and landed on her.  As a woman, as a mother, I fell apart and realized how much she had endured, it was unbearable to digest.  In that moment I was proud for the first time in my life of who I was, who I was because of her.  I was sick to my stomach of my actions as a child and realized I wasn’t much different as an adult if I didn’t take pride in her as my mother.  Respect and love for my mother is the real reason for me to identify as biracial.

How can I choose a side other than to give the illusion of choosing when I am equal parts of an experience.  In theory I can, but the voices that play out in your head when you do, would suggest you never really choose a side if you’re biracial even if your appear to be doing so.  Let me explain, to choose a side means that you are also denying a side. When doing that you are denying a part of yourself, which means at some point that choice is going to be painful.  Being biracial gives you this incredible ability to see people as people, with all of their wrappings.  It gives you clarity on right and wrong, good and bad, equality and inequality and doesn’t usually come with the stereotypes attached for most mono-racial folks.  We live in that space of both, but not really…we live in observation of both, which gives us the ultimate reality check.  Ya’ll ain’t that different at all.  It might come down to you want mayo and he wants hot sauce.  But at the end of the day, we are more alike than different. Cultural differences are learned/taught…so when you remove those, what are the real differences besides the shade of your skin.  Personally I am still trying to figure that out.  

As I get close to the end of my series on being biracial, mixed-race, multi-ethnic, I am finding I am still singing the jingle in my head, “Just different shades of the same human race.”  That’s my signature tune, BUT, we don’t live in that world just yet.  In the past several years race, and the topic of race have become more profound and disconnected than I can recall since being a child.  It’s Obama’s fault. (SMH)

There is another reason I think that identifying as biracial holds importance.  Over the course of my life I have had several close friends that have had two black parents, they are striking women, the most gorgeous chocolate skin, and the sweetest spirits.  Cassandra almost sounds like Marilyn Monroe when she speaks.  Over the course of many decades I have witnessed something that has been heart breaking. I was always described as the pretty one when I have been with them…and it was a damn lie! Cassandra has always been the beauty, still is.  Somehow the standard of beauty in this country often comes with the shade of your skin, and not necessarily anything to do with what you really look like.  That was the back-bone of discomfort for me when it comes to who is pretty.  

Fast forward, CNN did the baby doll test, where black girls found the white (light doll) as the pretty doll.  Pull my heart out, my daughter married a toasty brown man, which means my grand-daughters are not “light-skinned” and the day came when my grand-daughter told me she wished her skin was lighter like her Umi’s or mine because that would mean she would be pretty.  Nooooooooooooo, that is not true baby-girl  It is not true!!! 

Then, I saw the interview where CNN sent Soledad O’Brien to interview the family of this beautiful little brown baby girl about her feelings.  That night I realized we have so much work to do…at a time where this child’s self esteem could have, should have been elevated it wasn’t.  The celebrity host, which showed up looked more white to a child’s eye, than black like her.  When major black magazines tout Halle Berry as the most beautiful Black woman in THE WORLD…there is a problem with this, to me.  Halle and Soledad have a white parent, which creates some one that is different from someone that doesn’t have a white parent.  We cannot define that as black, and then say that is the standard for beauty in the back community. It makes it an unobtainable standard to children, little girls that do not have a white parent.  I will not play by those rules.  

And, one final point…in the black community the standard of beauty has been the lighter the better (paper bag test, Jack & Jill club), even tho…the darker the berry the sweeter the juice is the other slogan.  Knowing this as biracial people, why not just remove ourselves from a box we don’t belong in, of course we are people of color, of course we share in the black experience.  However, we also have had experiences that blacks without a white parent will probably never understand, the entitlements are real, the ability to feel pretty damn comfortable within the white community is real…we can’t walk in each others shoes.  They don’t fit.


I am raising a biracial daughter, what advice do you have for us?

First, thank goodness it ain’t 1963…

Basic advice, make sure she is proud of all that she is, knows who she is, her background and her heritage.  Make sure she is grounded in that.  Don’t let her buy into the pretty light girl crap, pretty girl, okay!  People are people, it’s that basic.  Is her father in her life…if yes, great.  If not, still knowing that side of who she is, is extremely important (in many interviews with biracial girls raised by their black mothers, they needed to have a connection to their white family to feel whole.)

Also, have your daughter be the voice for those that can’t speak for themselves.  Because we are both, more often than not both races feel a certain level of ease with us, which they don’t usually feel with the mono-racial other team (sad, but true)  we can teach blacks about whites and whites about blacks…show them how we are not really different. Speak up when something racist is being said (both teams have their fair share of hurt and fear).  Educate folks.  We have evolved (somewhat-minus the Cheerios bullshit) the children of today are not going to be my story.  Thank goodness.  I learned in making this series, that we have documented history…my story is one of the past. Your daughter’s story isn’t going to be streaked with the undertones of those of us born in the 50’s and 60’s when it was illegal to be in an interracial relationship.  So parenting a biracial child is less intense, they will have friends, they are everywhere…they will change the world, bridge the gap between the races.

I wrote a series called, The Half Series: When Black People Look White, in 2010 and it remains a top story on the network. Have you read it? If so, what do you think?

I really enjoyed it…the one place we might slightly differ in thought process is,  the definition of race.  When we bring in institutionalized definitions of what race is, the reality or the myth that doesn’t really make a difference in the day to day, walking in the skin we’re in.  It’s how we’re perceived and how that impacts our lives personally and what we need to do to survive those perceptions.  Of course race is not real, it’s created, and defined (by perception)…but when you live in a world where you are denied housing because of your skin shade it is real, when you are denied advancement because of your skin shade it is real, when you can get you shot for walking down the street with a hoodie and Skittles…it has to be dealt with.  We cannot pretend race is fictional when it has life and death consequences attached.  The perception of who we are is as real as the other person’s choice to pick up or put down that weapon based on what we look like and how that translates to their issues of fear, hatred and bigotry based on the illusion of race.

I love what you are doing, getting folks talking offers another perspective, another story…and there is never one story on any topic…so keep at it!!

Visit Carolyn at

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