“I hate covert racism. I always hated guessing whether someone is being mean/rude/nervous because they hate my race or because they are having a bad day. As I got older, I noticed that covert racism is like depression: You know it when you feel it, but it’s hard to explain to someone who has never experienced it. It’s like a sixth sense that God has given people of color that white people don’t believe in. We just know.”
In her memoir “Mixed: My Life in Black and White” (2006), Angela Nissel writes of the struggles she faces while growing up biracial. Nissel’s name may be familiar to fans of the NBC comedy series “Scrubs.” She has been a staff writer for the show for four years and is now consulting producer. As a starving artist (a.k.a. freelance writer), Nissel sold some goods on eBay for extra cash. The winning bidder for one of those items was a television executive who had read her first book “The Broke Diaries” (2001), which was about her days as a broke college student. The eBay winner introduced Nissel to a television literary agent who sent copies of “The Broke Diaries” to shows hiring comedy writers. Nissel had numerous job offers, but chose “Scrubs.”
Her knack for sarcastic, quick-witted humor that is a driving force in “Scrubs” is what makes “Mixed” a must read. When Nissel is in the fourth grade, two of her classmates, Jimmy and Michael, call her a zebra. (That isn’t the humorous part.) Nissel’s father finds out and goes to the boys’ houses with Angela. Jimmy’s parents scold their son. However, Michael’s father slams the door in Angela’s father’s face. That father’s dog has been using the Nissels’ yard as a bathroom, so Angela’s father concocts a hilarious scheme involving an Ex-Lax pill. Angela asks her father whether the Ex-Lax will hurt the dog. “‘No, just Michael’s father’s carpets,'” her dad replies.
Later, though, Angela discovers that her father has been cheating on her mother, but even this situation is steeped in humor. “I already knew my parents were having problems and she suspected my father of cheating. (Note to parents: Trying to have cryptic conversations by spelling words out no longer works once your child is reading.) Then later, “Ever since the first argument about my father c-h-e-a-t-i-n-g with w-h-o-r-e-s, my mother had started working a lot….”
The thing about this book is that the comedic moments are also sad ones. And this is Nissel’s strength: She makes you laugh, but she also makes you think. Comments from people about her looks teach her that there is “good” hair and an “ugly” nose. The features people consider pretty are from her white father.
She went to all-black schools, all-white schools, public, private, schools associated with different religions-yet she never fit in. She was never white enough or black enough, so she was the target of merciless teasing. “Being a mixed child, you get used to people staring at you,” she writes. She immediately follows with humor: “I learned that rolling my eyes or sticking out my tongue was the quickest way to get people to avert their gazes.” She learns that being biracial is no easier in the dating world. She notices that of six black male coworkers at a production company, “five had white wives and one was dating an Asian girl.”
The book is filled with Nissel’s struggles, but she doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her; she is explaining how her experiences (good or bad) made her who she is. She makes you care about the people in her life, particularly her mother, who let her daughter change schools and religions-almost as often as she changed her clothes-in an attempt to find herself. Nissel doesn’t censor herself-or anyone else-which makes for brilliant dialogue and unapologetic honesty.