The Hillbillies of California


(15-minute read)

No, not the Clampetts, although they had a great nine-season run. I’m talking about J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a work that continues to hold a place on the New York Times bestseller list since its publication in 2016.

In his memoir, Vance’s family and history serve as a microcosm of the Appalachian hillbilly lifestyle, poverty-line warts and all. Among the inconsistencies, oversimplifications, and spotty logic, one thing stood out to me: The people Vance describes sound a lot like my family and childhood community. I didn’t grow up in Breathitt County, Kentucky, or Middletown, Ohio, but Duarte, California, a suburb of Los Angeles County.

All in the Family

To clarify—Vance’s tales sound a lot like my family minus the guns. Well, kinda. Thankfully, for a whole lot of reasons, we never had guns in our house. But, a lot of people I knew did, including my mom’s good friend Lorna Mae, who shot her husband E.J. with a shotgun. (He miraculously lived to tell about it.)

A contemporary trip to the Inland Empire—where some of my family and many of the people I grew up with now live—is more likely than not to land you in a shopping center with stores featuring one or more gun magazine racks. Shooting ranges abound—as one local website proclaims, “Nothing is more quintessentially Inland Empire than a day at the shooting range.” Any time I get a Facebook friend suggestion with a picture of a camouflage-clad hunter, kneeling and smiling with a rifle and a dead animal, it’s always of someone I grew up with.

Clinging to Guns and Religion


Like Vance’s childhood world, religion was also pervasive where I grew up, as it is now in the areas where Duarteans relocated to as adults. Kids are confused at best, mortified at worst when they see a schoolteacher in public. I was both when I saw my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Sheehan, signing an anti-abortion petition at a table set up outside my family’s Catholic church. One of my high school’s graduating classes picketed after it was announced that prayer would no longer be part of the baccalaureate ceremony. The school put it back in.

Then there’s the military. Many men and women from my hometown honorably enlisted and served. For many of my cousins and all of my American uncles, it was a natural step on the way to adulthood. From WWII to Vietnam to Desert Storm and beyond, the military runs in the blood of many working-class Southern Californians.

A Mixed-Race, Suburban Bumpkin


Although far removed from “the holler,” my life in Duarte and Vance’s childhood anecdotes share further similarities, some oddly parallel.

  • Vance’s church warned of Satanic rock lyrics. My father took my little brother and me to a church meeting once, where a white guy with an Afro played Stairway to Heaven backwards. We were terrified.
  • Like Vance, I grew fearful when my drunken parent (my father) threatened to crash the car—with my mom, my older brother, and me in it.
  • At a young age, I had one pair of shoes, but like Vance, I had access to books. My father beamed whenever the Scholastic Book Club order arrived at school. He was there to pay cash on delivery.
  • Like Vance’s beloved “Mamaw,” so many key people “saved” me—my Aunt Blos and Aunt Sister Maggie from Jamaica; my Aunt Cecelia who lived in La Puente, California; plus nuns, priests, teachers, and track coaches—providing valuable lessons that combined equal measures of hard knocks, kindness, and discipline.
  • When I graduated from Stanford University and got my first salaried position (as an editorial assistant), I paid for my mother’s at-home nursing care, just as Vance covered his mother’s hotel room during her drug rehabilitation.

From fast food to ubiquitous expletives to police calls for domestic disputes, the people I grew up with shared many habits, values, and morals with Vance’s home community. At their core lay hard work, family values, love of country, and a belief in the American Dream.

How does all of this translate to socioeconomics? More importantly, how can two seemingly disparate cultures such as the ones that Vance and I represent bridge divides and identify common ground? Why aren’t we all raising shared hell over our current place in the socioeconomic cosmos?

What Doesn’t Kill Us….

Even though Vance now occupies space in the 1% and I’m closer to the 10%, being raised in an America-loving, Bible-worshipping, family-honoring, yet economically marginal environment can lead to certain behaviors. Again, Vance and I share a few things in common here, especially as economic minorities who went on to achieve—in our own ways and to different degrees—odds-defying levels of success. “Even at my best, I’m a delayed explosion,” he writes. “I can be defused, but only with skill and precision.” Thankfully, Vance has his wife Usha, whom he met in law school (on a financial-need-based scholarship) to keep him in line. She’s often there to remind him that it’s better to walk away from a potential altercation than to invite unnecessary trouble.

Where I grew up, a putdown—particularly a racial epithet—could land you in the hospital or worse. You just didn’t “talk about my mama.” Despite my own, current mild manners, I used to have a tendency to throw things—never at people, mind you—an impulse I’ve only recently conquered. Things I’ve lobbed, chucked, or otherwise propelled include DVDs, potatoes, and my fist into a door. Like Vance, I’ve overcome a habit of simply walking out of a room when an argument isn’t going my way. My own wife, Sarah, helps me be my better self in these moments.

Vance and I are both survivors. We share a somewhat reciprocal history. Which is to say—seems like there’s something more to our stories than geography.

The Story of (Poor) Us


While there are certainly many cultural and regional differences between large parts of Southern California and Vance’s Appalachia—notwithstanding pockets of the middle and upper middle class—there are enough similarities to make his story a universal elegy for the working and nonworking poor.

Why not connect Appalachia to a broader story of the dispossessed?

Of course, Vance is focused on the world he knew and knows best—that of poor, white America. My town—and my family—was mostly shades of Black and Brown, although it was also surprisingly diverse. Still, isn’t his past a larger narrative of America’s underprivileged? And wouldn’t the issues he raises be better served by viewing them through a universal lens?

Vance is a conservative, I’m a card-carrying progressive. How can people from such similar backgrounds develop such different political leanings?

I’ll get to that in a moment. But first….

About Those Inconsistencies

“Jackson, [Ohio,] like the Blanton men, is full of contradictions.”
– J.D. Vance

So is Vance’s book.

Vance insightfully points out the complexities and advantages of payday lending—instead of simply calling for its elimination—yet castigates the entire Democratic Party for programs that enable “welfare queens” and the purchase of T-bone steaks. Later, he laments how a young man, with whom he’s sharing a fast food meal, seems ashamed to ask, “almost in a whisper: ‘I wonder if I could get a few more French fries?’.” Where’s the talk of complexity here? How can it be pitiful to not ask for food, but also wrong to insist on steak? Is Vance suggesting that it’s okay and expected for people to ask for, in common right-wing parlance, “free stuff,” just so long as the government’s not involved?

It’s a contradiction to blame people for not getting their shit together, while at the same time pointing out what hillbillies don’t know—what it’s impossible for them to know—that would allow them to get ahead. Whether through social education or a “government program,” the fact remains that certain knowledge or access increases the chances of success.

Hillbilly Elegy is persuasive and well-researched at some points, simplistic and incomplete at others. He goes into great detail around a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research that shows people who go to church are healthier, happier, and live longer than non-churchgoers. The actual study results reveal a focus not on the act of going to church, but “being in an area with more co-religionists” (i.e., having a stable community). It “does not investigate the mechanism through which religiosity creates these results.”

The study suggests four possibilities for its results:

  1. Religious attendance increases the number of social interactions in a way particular to religious settings.
  2. Religious institutions provide financial and emotional ‘insurance’ that help people mitigate their losses when setbacks occur.
  3. Attendance at religious schools may be an advantage.
  4. Religious faith may simply improve well-being directly by enabling the faithful to be “less stressed out by the problems of everyday life.”

Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t explore any of these deeper shades of meaning. In fact, studies have found similar results among such groups as the Japanese and soldiers with strong personal relationships. In other words, tight-knit communities.

While Vance clearly describes certain issues—for instance, ACEs, which he defines as “traumatic childhood events [whose] consequences reach far into adulthood”—he skimps on others. One such instance is the racism surrounding Obama’s presidency.

Vance explains why hillbillies don’t like Obama and why so many of them didn’t believe he was a US citizen:

“Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president [being a foreign-born Muslim with ties to Islamic extremists]. But the president feels like an alien to many hillbillies for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color. Recall that not a single one of my high school classmates attended an Ivy League School. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He is brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor—which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the people I admired growing up: His accent—clean, perfect, neutral—is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy was built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right—adversity familiar to many of us—but that was long before any of us knew him.”

Was Obama the first president to attend an Ivy League school? Did that pedigree stop hillbillies from voting for George H. W. Bush, or George W. Bush, or John F. Kennedy, the last Democratic president they elected since they voted for Truman in 1948? Have hillbillies never supported someone wealthy for president—for instance, someone who currently holds that position who has a net worth of $3.5 billion? Did their religious fanaticism not allow them to identify with Obama singing Amazing Grace at Senator Clementa Pinckney’s funeral? Was Mitt Romney more “down home” than Obama, who consistently slammed Romney’s “47%” comment—such as in their second presidential debate, where Obama defended the rights of people on Social Security “who’ve worked all their lives,” veterans “who’ve sacrificed for this country,” students, soldiers and “people working hard every day”? Isn’t this many of them? Did they, of the witty comeback, also miss Obama’s various disses, burns, and retorts—his many shades of throwing shade?

What president, however “alien,” has ever been mistaken for a terrorist?

When did Vance and hillbillies discover Obama’s story of adversity? How long could it possibly have taken to get to know him? This clearly didn’t happen during the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where Obama shared his story in the keynote address. It obviously wasn’t during four years of getting to know him as President of the United States. At what point did hillbillies “know” Obama?

We have to call it what it is. This is racism. Plus, Obama’s not the only one who benefitted from “the system.”

Social Capital Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Vance points out the system of meritocracy—which both he and I benefitted from. How does it work, and how can a poor Southern/Southern Californian hillbilly buy into it?

Vance offers detailed (and humorous) stories of navigating the social clubs and norms of the affluent. He spits out his first sip of sparkling water, not unlike my initial forays into fine dining. “What? It costs how much for this tiny ravioli and a leaf?”

Still, Vance and I developed different views on how social capital should be spent. For him, the network is fueled, aided, and abetted by a narrative of personal responsibility, of tapping into the network to mine its greatest advantages and stride headily into the “American Dream.”

This is the dichotomy of social conditioning, the bellwether not of personal responsibility, but personal growth—the confirmation that two people can have similar experiences and yet come to vastly different conclusions.

It’s another big difference between Vance and my landing points, at least by the time of his writing Hillbilly Elegy—he focuses on personal responsibility, I focus on compassion-infused government policy.

After all, I received a very contrasting payoff from my investment in social capital—the eventual understanding that certain barriers have to be brought down before people can even pretend to be their best selves. I believe not in using my experience to pen bossy missives or dictate what others should do, but to provide help and resources, partner with others seeking deeper solutions to social ills, and agitate for systemic change so that people can more freely decide for themselves.

Vance does allow for some level of government intervention and reform. He can’t be painted as inhumane or coldhearted. His calls for Appalachians to “do better” are sincere and come from a good place. He wants the best for his community.

Perhaps, then, a common starting point is precisely those economic realities that keep Appalachians, southern Californians, and so many other neglected communities locked in cycles of poverty, or that keep them several, gaping steps away from the middle class.

The Road to Success Is a Rope Bridge

I’ll say it again: certain knowledge and access increases the chances of success. Vance is well aware of this.

He discusses how he had people “helping me every step of the way.” He essentially became a recipient of what author and historian Ibram X. Kendi describes as social affirmative action—the unwritten rule that says if you’re white, you gain the “affirmative action” of nepotism and biased standardized tests.

As Betsy Radar writes in the Washington Post, “What does motivate most people is the belief that the future can be better and that we have a realistic opportunity to achieve it. But sometimes that takes help.” J.D. Vance maintains that this belief can’t be legislated. While I believe he’s ultimately right, his life is a perfect case study of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs—if you don’t have access to a decent standard of living, a feeling of safety, and a sense of belonging, you can hardly start thinking about self-esteem and realizing a higher purpose.

Also as of the writing of his book, Vance seemed to be at the beginning of his journey toward self-actualization, of greater empathy. This state of compassion—in Vance, myself, and others—can lead precisely to the self-esteem and self-actualization that Vance so badly wants for his people. To describe the way to get there, I’ll use a football metaphor: the offensive line must defend and clear the way for the quarterback, so that he can make the most successful play and score a touchdown.

What’s in a Community?

Vance calls for his community to “wake the hell up” and help each other navigate the difficult terrain towards the American Dream. Despite not going into greater detail on the religious study he cites, he eventually (and correctly) identifies community as the essential ingredient missing from the hillbilly status quo. Where exactly does community stop and good government begin, though? Communities can band together and protest. They can refuse to participate or cooperate with corrupt governments.

But, how can community alone solve the systemic dilemmas of a massively corrupt and unjust prison system, government surveillance, legislation of bedrooms and bathrooms, and predatory banking and business practices and systems?

And, as Vance points out, even if industry and jobs were to increase in a certain location, people must be able to afford to live and purchase there. How can economic barriers be removed and greater job security ensured? The great problems of our day require even greater solutions. Good and effective government can help.

We Can Do This

We live in a period of great innovation. As engineers, scientists, and visionaries create new technologies, medicines, and ways of existing in a globalized world, those who adapt and expand their worldview will be best equipped to navigate change. “Thinking outside of the box” will no longer be just a business cliché, but a new model for broadening our perspectives and recognizing that our commonalities are greater than our differences.

Despite the similarities, as I’ve stated, Vance is conservative and I’m a progressive. I agree that at some point, people have to be the masters of their own destinies. But here’s the thing: We have to identify systemic barriers that make it literally impossible to be master of anything. Once these are brought down, then personal choices can lead the way. This requires a combination of empathy, strategic thinking, and good, accountable government. It calls for broad, bold ideas, and levels of complexity and nuance that don’t often appear in current, mainstream dialogue.

I think we can get there.

There are some significant economic differences between Appalachia and the Inland Empire: the latter has distribution centers for large employers such as Toyota, Whirlpool, and APL Logistics. It has booming industries including construction, retail, healthcare, and transportation; ports for imported cargo; and large police and military forces. The area is projected to be California’s fastest-growing region, but it’s also expected to maintain the lowest wages. Unemployment has been above the national average since 2007 and many rely on public assistance.

Appalachia and Inland Empire aren’t isolated places. They share characteristics with other areas of the U.S.—and the world—where a sense of pride, belonging, and community are increasingly at risk. Theirs is a global story, of opportunity on the one hand and struggle on the other. With some generous helpings of empathy, critical thinking, and government help, their economic destinies could very well trend positive.

Isn’t that a great thing to work towards?


8 Suggestions to Hardcore-Search Your Family History

Poitou region of France, 1633

Ever since the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1976, and especially because of the rise of services like,, The Freedmen’s Bureau Project, and 23andMe, people are wild about genealogies. Some devote decades to teasing out their family history. Others often travel to various global destinations, retracing migratory paths.

I’m using all of the above to do the same. Maybe I’ll end up devoting years to it. Fine by me. These are all the fun things you can do to find your place in the world history cosmos:

  1. Travel to places you otherwise might never see. So far, I’ve been to Louisiana, Jamaica, and France, although the former two places I visited before officially starting my family quest. In France, I drove with my daughter Dakota from Paris to Martaizé, which I mistakenly believed to be the village that the first Breaux left to pursue adventure in the New World. After getting back home, I learned he actually hailed from La Chaussée. Bummer — I’ll have to take another international trip!
  2. As you learn more, travel more. Other places that are now must-sees include Nova Scotia, Senegal, and return trips to Jamaica and Louisiana.
  3. Continually dig deep into ancestry sites. After extensive digging in, I found out that one of my forebears, Joseph Troisville Breaux, was a white man who had an interracial “relationship”. Another one, Joseph Breaux, owned slaves, as did Firmin Breaux, whose namesake is Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.
  4. The web is your oyster. A lot of library microfilm is now web-searchable, text-based content. This is how I discovered the list of slaves owned by Joseph Breaux, as well as the names of the ships that brought slaves from Senegal to New Orleans. Keep clicking, and don’t rely on just the first page of search results.
  5. Books still exist. Young’uns — believe it or not, people still read books, huge ones! And there are so, so many of them. I’m currently about to make my way through The French Peasantry in the Seventeenth Century and A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland. If you end up reading Roots, let me know and we can chat!
  6. Visualize and imagine. The more you learn, the more you know about past daily customs, dress, weather, and physical characteristics (Acadian men were “of good height,” for instance). Close your eyes and imagine. Or, re-imagine the space right in front of you. For example, as you pick up a fork to eat a meal, picture the hand of an ancestor doing the same.
  7. Watch movies. Movies are, by default, usually not 100% historically accurate, but period piece dramas are a great way to get even a remote sense of what a certain time period must’ve been like. And, like 12 Years a Slave, many movies bring stories and narratives to life that were previously lost in obscurity. Binge watch that shit.
  8. Talk to people. If you’re lucky, you have a family that passed down stories of long-deceased crazy uncles, or angry Cajun men, or renegade frontier guerrillas. Or, get in contact with a professor specializing in whatever time period or subject you’re studying. Many brilliant scholars are out there and sometimes available to answer questions. Look up their faculty page to find their email address.

And a bonus suggestion: Create a Google Drive folder and organize all of the information you find into folders and files. Share it with family, so that they can contribute, too. Never before have we had such access to easy archiving tools, so be sure to use them. The Great Fire of London ain’t got nothin’ on Google Drive!

Happy sifting. Let me know what you find.


Confessions of a Mixed-Race Ham
Genealogist Parent

Awhile ago I promised to make all my films available online, one by one, working backward in time until we got to the first movie I made back in 2000. This is still ongoing, among so many other things:

  • Parenting
  • Researching my family history
  • Occasional bouts of depression
  • Frequent moments of awe and wonder
  • Sleep
  • Work

So, the movie thing is still in progress. My new goal is to upload one film a month, starting in December. Wish me luck. Until then, I confess to thinking about a few things….

Family History Probably Repeats Itself, but I’ll Never Know 100% For Sure

On the family history front, things are scientific and metaphysical — the scientific including 23andMe, and the metaphysical centered on meditative, imaginative states where I try to visualize the daily lives of my ancestors. Notable things I’ve contemplated so far:

  • The Acadian Expulsion packed huddled bodies onto flimsy boats and sent them to various locations all over the Eastern Seaboard, in addition to Louisiana. Unlike my Western African progenitors, they were not sold into slavery.
  • According to a Publishers Weekly review of John Mack Faragher’s book A Great and Noble Scheme, the Expulsion “was the first episode of state-sponsored ethnic cleansing in American history.” Except for millions of Native Americans.
  • Modern French kicked in around 1600.
  • I suspect one of my forebears, Firmin Breaux, had a falling out with his family when he moved to Louisiana from Boston at age 17 and they returned to
    Quebec, Canada.
  • Beausoleil was one of Beyoncé’s ancestors, so we’re all clearly related.

Social Media is Still Media — It Presents Only Select Glimpses of a Full Person

In my case, I post things that are either political, an attempt at comedy, or happy. What I don’t usually post: the moments of recognition where I understand how challenging parenting, being an artist, and living with depression can be. How do I cope?

My mother relied heavily on medication to detrimental effects, so I opt for exercise, relaxation, and gratitude practice, all of which work most of the time. Depression isn’t something one readily talks about when asked, “How’s it going?” Although, I do have friends who answer this question honestly. I also have friends with whom I can be honest.

Such are the current thoughts of someone attempting to not only piece together the distant past, but to prepare for an unknown future with a very predictable end of an earthly departure. Oh, and check out my 23andMe ancestry composition.

What are your current obsessions?


7 Thoughts for the Beginning of 2015

Cinemulatto’s mind has been all over the place—still tracing my family history (yes, someday I may even participate in an Acadian reenactment), reading a lot, breathing a bit after some big work deadlines. I’ve faced a few film festival rejections, leading me to wonder why I bother submitting to film festivals (and spending way too much money on submission fees, travel and housing costs in the event of an actual acceptance, and moving-target distribution opportunities).

I’ve had many moments where there’s been “just a little question in my mind,” to quote Arthur Lee. Here are the resulting thoughts.

Obama. A friend and I once had a debate about Jungle Fever and the gist was this: he felt Spike Lee could do no wrong since he’s the most radical African American filmmaker who’s ever hit the mainstream. Although I wouldn’t consider Obama radical, in many ways his presidency is a deviation, one mixed with inspired moments of governance—becoming “the LGBT president,” giving us Obamacare, pushing for immigration reform, reaching out to Cuba. I recognize there’s still work to be done and that he’s not perfect. Still, Obama has had an active and relatively progressive tenure, and this is why I find myself forgiving some of his political transgressions. After all, just about all of the “bad” things about his time in office predated him; things like wiretapping, drones, and detainees at military prisons were started by others. Obama hasn’t stopped them, for sure, but he also inherited them and likely stepped into an already well-established culture that predated him by several decades. So, I’ve been thinking about this. I’ll keep defending him.

Progress. The universe is almost 14 billion years old. Astronomer estimates say there are over 100 billion galaxies. What’s the nature of progress?

Democracy. In writing about Jane Austen’s female leads, Azar Nafisi states in Reading Lolita in Tehran, “They risk ostracism and poverty to gain love and companionship, and to embrace that elusive goal at the heart of democracy: the right to choose.” Does this mean that the second episode of Black Mirror has a happy ending?

Vaccinations. Why are we debating this?

Compassion. My brother David is in San Antonio, Texas, continuing his year-long compassion tour. Meanwhile, I’m making arrangements to visit the child I sponsor in Jackson, Mississippi, and the number of impoverished public school children has risen. Compassion is doing whatever one can to help at least one other person.

Films of the imagination. Have things like reality TV and the John Cassavetes Award inured us to creativity? Does make-believe only exist in the realm of science fiction? Can’t I pull a story and fictitious world out of my ass and have it be believable on its own terms?

Athanasia. My short film got accepted into this year’s Queer Women of Color Film Festival! The story is completely fabricated. It looks at how death affects an aunt who loses her nephew and her relationship with her partner. Everyone has their own way of dealing with death. More details to come once I have them. (By the way, there are no submission fees for this festival, it’s local, and all films are free.)

What are your current thoughts?


A Few Notes on Forgiveness

Eva Kor

Happy 2015. It’s been awhile. I haven’t posted to this blog since November 26th, but I took a much-needed, end-of-year break to recuperate from multiple film productions and the ongoing physical and emotional demands of parenting.

However—I’ve been thinking about history, my own past, and my place in the genetic cosmos. In the process, I’ve also been continuing to contemplate the nature of forgiveness. When I studied abroad at Stanford in Oxford in the spring of 1990, I dated a young man whom we’ll call Peter (since that was his name). Whenever I stayed over at his place, he’d be up bright and early, and would leave way before I woke up. I finally asked him about this and he said his early morning trips were to the library, to “look for answers.”

I thought he was weird.

Now, so many years later, I’m in the middle of my own search for “answers.” It seems this has been accompanied by a mid-life crisis that’s been going on for about the last 20 years—or maybe not so much a crisis as an awakening. Or maybe I’m mistaking it for my Peruvian ayahuasca experience.

Whatever the cause, I find myself living life not necessarily as if each day is my last, but definitely with an awareness that each moment is filled with its own poetry. It’s a hyperawareness, a need to stay calm most of the time so that I don’t overwhelm anybody. I asked my psychotherapist wife recently if there’s such a thing as low-level bipolar disorder. She said yes.

I’ve posted here before about both my mother and my father, and about how I’ve largely forgiven my father for cruelties to my mother—hitting her, throwing water into her face, subjecting her to daily invective. Since then, I keep having flashbacks to moments of my father’s kindness I didn’t recognize as such at the time:

  • I used to collect aluminum cans in a bag, and every so often, my father would gather them, roll a cement block over to them, and crush the cans flat. We’d travel together to the local recycling center, where he’d give me the cash from my saved cans.
  • A staple for kids growing up in the 1970s was the Scholastic Book Club and their paper order forms jam-packed with a wide variety of children’s books. Whenever I brought the flyer home, my father would let me order whatever books I wanted (there must’ve been a limit). On book delivery day, he’d be there in the classroom, cash in hand, with a wide grin.
  • The first memory I have of my mother’s schizophrenia probably dates back to 1971 or 1972. I didn’t understand why she was standing on the other side of the room, acting so strangely. I know my younger brother wasn’t born yet. My older brother and I sat on our couch, our dad in the middle with an arm around each of us. I felt scared and protected at the same time.

The media would have us see things as clearly black or white—this or that, good or bad, either with us or against us. We’ve largely become a society of very little gray area, uncertainty, or “it depends”. We’d rather argue in absolutes.

I used to have absolute hatred for my father before maturing to the point of absolutely understanding he was a human being.

There have been far greater acts of mercy than what I’m going through with him. Eva Kor and The Forgiveness Project come to mind. If someone can forgive the men who, during the Holocaust, used human beings as lab rats, then I have no excuse for not making peace with my father. The memories that keep rolling in make it much easier.

Like Eva Cor, I haven’t forgotten, but I’ve forgiven.


I’m Black, I’m White, I’m Neither

James Weldon Johnson

“I cannot repress the thought, that after all I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”–James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

It’s been over a century since the publication of James Weldon Johnson’s novel in which a bi-racial man passes for white in post-Reconstruction America. He shares first his experience of living as a black youth, then as a young man who passes for white in order to become successful and avoid persecution. He goes from a continual sense of doom and danger to a life of safety and security.

James Weldon Johnson lived during a time when it was perhaps understandable why someone would want to shed one’s skin, so to speak, and be done with social ostracism or culturally sanctioned murder.

Just when it seems as though things and times have changed—along comes Trayvon Martin. And Michael Brown. And John Crawford. And a list way too long, with statistics way too skewed against black males in America’s prison industrial complex.

The novel’s lead character, Ex-Colored Man, passes as white. One wonders why anyone wouldn’t still want to do the same thing, if possible, to secure a fat slice of the American, upper-crust pie. Well, no self-respecting bi-racial person, or at least not a socially conscious one, would do that today. (Right?) Still, perhaps she’s found herself in situations where she’s assumed to be a certain race and has to act accordingly.

What has this looked like for me? What does it mean for a mixed-race black and white person to experience blackness, whiteness, and something outside of either?

My father was told not to marry my mother because she was Jamaican. (We know how that turned out.) Once he went ahead with it, he was told to not have kids. (Ditto.) As a young girl, I experienced racism within my own extended family. I was never expected to do well, never encouraged to even speak at social gatherings, and always assumed to be, in the words of one of my aunts, “dumb.” As I got older, I learned what it’s like to be invisible in groups of mostly white people (especially in upstate New York). I’ve gotten side eye, up and down eye, glare eye, and annoyed face. In college, I started understanding and returning “the nod” when walking by a black person, as if I was part of a secret club.

I was also the first in my family (and I believe hometown) to go to a prestigious college. I’ve always—knock on wood—had good job karma, usually landing positions after one or two interviews, if I’ve even had to interview. I grew up being ridiculed for loving The Beatles. I’ve been told, “Oh, I thought you were white.” I’ve heard the N-word uttered, with no black people in sight, when no one thought I would care. I was often told as a child that I had “good hair.” I’ve gone to clubs with black friends who were turned away at the door after I was told I could go in (followed by me yelling at door guy, my own “annoyed face”, and leaving in a huff).

I’ve experienced both racism and privilege. Is this what it feels to be black and/or white? Is this the mixed-race experience?

Mixed-race, as it turns out, is a whole different beast, an alternate reality that takes elements of both white and black, and everything between, outside, and around. The puzzled looks of people trying to figure out what I am. The conversations with other mixed-race people that can only happen after such incidents as a recent trip to the grocery store. An older white man came very close to my mixed-race toddler, exclaimed, “The hair!”, and tried to give her a high five. She cowered and I interrupted with, “Hello, strange man, I don’t think she likes that.”

The mixed-race woman in the next aisle saw the whole thing. Thus came the post-game commentary: eye rolling accompanied by a discussion of how annoying it is when that happens. She told me that it wasn’t until she was 25 until she realized she had “good hair.” On the one hand I thought, great, maybe all the comments my daughter gets about her hair or indeterminate race won’t affect her all that much and she won’t even think about them until she’s older. On the other hand, I thought, wait, this woman spent two decades of her life thinking she had awful hair? Is this what it means to be mixed race—existing in a no man’s land created by society’s need to peg someone definitively as something, until such time that the someone finds her own sense of pride, identity, and self-respect? And what forms of suffering happen until then?

Ours is not a tragic mulatto!

Like any identity, mixed-race is a culmination of life experience, some good, some bad, and some uncertain. It’s refusing James Weldon Johnson’s “mess of pottage.” It’s taking the best of two worlds, processing the rest, and offering a unique perspective that can only come from seeing the larger world in different ways.

On a train in Italy back in the late 1980s, three Canadian guys mistook me for German, talking about me openly behind my back and not realizing we spoke the same language. My Italian friend said something to me and blew my cover. Being racially ambiguous has its more entertaining moments.


Am I Raising a Mixed-Race Child?

Forced photo credit: Dakota Billops-Breaux

“Are you raising me white?”

“I don’t think so.”

“So you’re raising me mixed?”

I have two mixed-race daughters. My teen daughter and I had the above exchange as we drove to her SAT. It came right after my sage advice to use either ‘bruh’ or ‘blood’, depending on who she was talking to, in the event of a race war. (Always know who you’re dealing with.)

This wasn’t a situation where someone was asking me or my wife if either of us is the birth parent of our toddler. It had nothing to do with someone trying to figure out our daughters’ racial heritage. There were no skin tone comparisons, or earnest inquiries, or attempts to touch hair.

What does it mean to raise a child to be mixed-race? Is there a mixed-race culture?

The teen daughter in question is fond of music. Her favorite genre is pop-punk, whose musicians are predominantly white. Although she’s familiar with contemporary hip hop and can quote lyrics like nobody’s business (or is it bidness?), there are no black hip hop artists on her smartphone. Does this make her mixed-race? Would having music by black artists allow her to play a race card?

Her meals run the gamut from organic and vegan to cheap and processed. Does this make her mixed-race?

She can dance. Does this make her mixed-race?

She has self-proclaimed “hair issues”. But doesn’t that cross racial lines? (Doesn’t it?)

She can switch from a “white” accent to a “black” one. Is this the defining factor?

Most importantly, how has parenting contributed to any and all of the above? Was it early exposure to The Beatles? Did slipping in The Roots shake things up? Was it the hip hop dance classes?

I have no idea. I know she’s aware of the predominance of white women and girls in books and media. Her friends are diverse. The first report she ever wrote for school was on Ruby Bridges. She doesn’t currently identify so much with her Asian heritage, although she wants to someday visit Japan. (She’s not part-Japanese.) We have a blended family that includes black, white, Native American, and Filipino.

Perhaps I have indeed raised a mixed-race child. How has this manifested? My daughter is smart, sensitive, hilarious, and culturally attuned. She can interact with people of all races, ethnicities, creeds, and backgrounds. She even knows how to combat hair issues.

We haven’t laminated the race card, but we’re working on it.


6 Profound Statements from a Mixed-Race Aunt

Mom, Dad, and Aunt Alice

My Aunt Alice is pushing 100. We’ve never been close, but we’re cordial during very rare get-togethers. When I was a kid, however, she was a regular presence in my life. While her heart was in the right place, her tongue couldn’t always keep pace. As a result, she holds the esteemed title of Most Likely to Say Clueless, Inappropriate Things at Breaux Family Gatherings.

But were the things Aunt Alice said really all that bad? Can we learn something from her rudest and most egregious utterances?

I think we can.

  1. I wasn’t talking to her, anyway. My family and Aunt Alice were at a restaurant. Aunt Alice was complaining about my dad. Mom stepped in to defend, wherein Aunt Alice mumbled, “I wasn’t talking to her, anyway.” Important lesson, particularly for artists and marketers: Know your audience. Also be aware of how you’re crafting your message for optimal impact.
  2. Don’t raise your skirt for any boys. I took this one to heart. Because of this important forewarning, I came out during the summer of 1989 and never looked back. I may have looked sideways a few times, but now I’m here and I’m queer. I even think Aunt Alice got used to it.
  3. Learn how to sew. I really wish I’d taken Aunt Alice up on this one. How useful would it be to be able to fix a rip in one’s own pants (that I now wear to avoid raising my skirt), or dabble in bespoke fashions? I missed the boat and the sewing machine on this one.
  4. Did you find a rich husband yet? With some kind of mystic prescience of the economic downturns of the 80s, 90s, and our recent “Great Recession,” Aunt Alice knew how to save a buck and inform others how to do the same. I have a wife who’s doing okay, but alas, no rich husband for me.
  5. Did you win the lottery yet? Advice: Think big.
  6. She looks better now than when she was alive. At my mother’s wake in 1997, as I walked back to the Catholic church pew after viewing the body, these were the hushed, insightful words that lit from Aunt Alice’s red-lipsticked mouth. I’ll never forget them. I know that during someone’s “difficult time,” I can pass along the same words of encouragement, knowing I was taught by the best.

So, the next time that crazy uncle or madcap auntie causes a ruckus at the annual family potluck, or if you ever happen to be down on your luck and dealing with circumstances beyond your control—remember Aunt Alice. I do, and I’m a better person for it.


Guest blogger:
Dakota Billops-Breaux

To honor Millennials, mixed chicks, and digital natives, Cinemulatto presents our first guest blogger: my daughter. May this serve as a time capsule and provide insight on what the “young people” are thinking.

Ladies and gentlemen, you are now experiencing an EXTREME. BLOG. TAKEOVER!
(Cue intense classic rock music and fire shooting up from unexpected places.)

My name is Dakota Billops-Breaux and I am honored to be Cinemulatto’s first guest blogger. Because I’m not a blogger, nor do I know the first thing about being a blogger, this should be an interesting experience. I do know, however, that this particular blog is about film. And race. And stuff. It says so in the header. So, readers, for the next three to five (or maybe six) hundred words, I’ll do my best to enlighten you on all of my knowledge of those three subjects.

Unlike my mother, I’m not one to pay close attention to the films I watch. How they were made, what shots were used, and various trivial facts about the films aren’t really in my best interest. (I mean, really, the only reason I’m even calling them “films” instead of “movies” is because I know that’s the Cinemulatto way!) However, I do know a lot about my mom’s films, and I’ve been on the set or a part of the cast or crew for basically my entire life. Being behind the scenes of several movies has really taught me a lot about film. For instance, when you’re four and wearing plastic purple heels and your assignment is to walk towards three drag queens, sometimes you just have to stop crying and suck it up for the camera, no matter how scary their false eyelashes and tall stature may be.

I am extremely mixed race. I’m about as mixed as a person can get; the only race missing is Latina. In addition to being mixed race, I come from a very mixed family, thus having relatives in a bunch of different parts of the world including Jamaica, England, New Mexico, Texas, and Minnesota. I visited my Minnesota relatives this past winter break for the celebration of my great grandmother’s 100th  birthday. (She lives in North Dakota. She’s adorable.) The reason I’m telling you about my trip to Minnesota is relevant, promise. I was staying in a hotel there (The Hilton. Very fancy. We used a Groupon.) and I took my sister, Precious, downstairs to see what was going on in the lobby, as bored 16-year-olds do. In the elevator a girl with straightened hair and a black headband turned to me and, with a fascinated look on her face, asked, “Are you Blasian?”
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Blasian,” she repeated, “You know, like, Black and Asian?”
“Ah. That would make sense. I mean, I guess I am, yeah.” I obviously was not aware that “Blasian” was a thing. Turns out the 14-year-old Minnesotan was also “Blasian”, being a mix of African-American and Cambodian. It’s interesting that she chose to define herself as specifically as “Blasian” (in addition to choosing to create her Internet friend group out of almost entirely “Blasians”) when she could easily define herself as mixed, like I do. Granted, I am more than two races. What would my term be? Whi-a-bl-native-sian?


  • Dakota Fanning’s real name is Hannah.
  • In the music video for “What’s My Age Again?” by Blink 182, the band was naked about 40% of the time.
  • License plates in the Canadian Northwest territories are shaped like polar bears.

Well, I have thoroughly enjoyed being Cinemulatto’s first guest blogger. Because I don’t have a relevant thought to end on and keep you thinking about for the rest of the week, remember to eat your vegetables!


Identity and Resilience, Part Four: Drunk

I’ve never been big on groups. I’m sure it’s because of my family of origin, but I get skeptical whenever anyone invites me to be part of any organized, regular gathering—I assume some nasty group dynamic will eventually arise, or groupthink will quickly set in.

As a result, I didn’t last very long in AA. I stopped drinking, though.

I’ve been sober since September 17th, 2005. I remember that morning: I woke up supremely hung-over in a situation I hadn’t expected, recalling very little of the night before. I know I’d been in a lesbian bar in Los Angeles. I know a friend saved me from doing some extremely stupid and potentially life-altering things.

I used to be the one in clubs who “watched” drinks while my friends danced. They’d come back to find all the glasses on the table emptied, whether they held cosmos, vodka, or beer. My weapon of choice, however, was whiskey—Jack Daniels, from the bottle.

During my time of regular weekend night intoxication (and many weekend days during college), I engaged in all sorts of daredevil activities. Here are just a few of the many, many examples:

  • Sprinted down hills in North Beach to land on the hood of whatever car happened to be in the way
  • Tried to instigate fistfights with equally drunk frat boys (luckily I failed)
  • Dry-humped a friend’s broken leg during Dyke March as she rolled in a wheelchair
  • Ended up in the wrong, rich-white-men-only seat at the Academy Awards
  • Approached off-white young men with the greeting, “mah mulatto bruthah”

In other words, I had a blast.

The thing is, alcohol is amazing. It’s legal, cheap, and easily accessible. Being drunk was incredibly freeing and otherworldly, to the extent that I could do just about anything I wanted and think it was okay. It made me comfortable around women, as I’ve mentioned.

My inebriated party lasted for somewhere around 17 or 18 years before I realized that once I started drinking, I couldn’t stop. It was starting to affect my relationships. My blackouts became more frequent. I was a parent now and after seeing how my father acted while drunk when I was a kid, I couldn’t bear the thought of bringing the same stuff into my new family. And, being an aging, lonely alcoholic didn’t sound very attractive.

Still, once I admitted to myself that things would only get worse if I continued drinking, what did it feel like to identify as an alcoholic?

I know there can be a self-perpetuated social stigma to this label. I had trouble with it and still do, partly because I no longer drink. I have a greater desire to binge on sugar than to accept an offered alcoholic beverage. As for AA—half of the handful of meetings I attended felt like gay pickup scenes. The others just weren’t for me, the group-averse skeptic. In the end, I cozied up more to the identity of health nut, reducing my intake of sugar, exercising, and eating organic fruit and veggies, whole grains, and grass-fed things. If I was cutting out alcohol for my health and well-being, I was going whole hog, dammit.

Once again, like so many other times in my life, I bounced back (and not just from car hoods). Resilience extended to jumping on the wagon. To his great credit, my father did the same thing, kicking his alcohol habit in time to ensure I had just a messed-up upbringing, instead of messed-up and fatherless.

I still love alcohol, just not having it. I like being around drunk people; just because I don’t drink doesn’t mean they can’t have fun. I often volunteer to be designated driver. Life’s too short to not appreciate those who can get away with something.

So let’s raise a glass—to identity, resilience, sobriety, and alcohol.