Class of ’98 | For those who are children of parents of different races, says Angela Nissel C’98, there is a virtual palette of colorful designations, all of which have a bit of the negative to them.
“Some people, particularly mothers of the kids, only want to use multi-racial or bi-racial, which somehow doesn’t seem inclusive,” says Nissel, with a start of a chuckle. “Some people like brown, but that is pretty bland and doesn’t seem to be uplifting. Then there is the tragic mulatto, which only has bad historical connotations.
“I grew up with my mom telling me about the one-drop rule, that if you have one drop of black blood in you, you are black. It’s like the black blood taints the white blood,” adds Nissel, this time with a laugh that isn’t so comfortable. “But maybe all this time I have been thinking wrong, just subscribing to those racist standards.”
Nissel’s stories about growing up in Southwest Philadelphia as the child of
a white father and a black mother—and all the sometimes-humorous, sometimes-grim things that status entails—are the subject of her second memoir, Mixed: My Life in Black and White (Villard, 2006). Her first memoir, The Broke Diaries: The Completely True and Hilarious Misadventures of a Good Girl Gone Broke [“Off the Shelf,” July/Aug 2001], came out of her online postings about her penniless times as a Penn financial-aid student in the 1990s.
She is no longer broke. Now in her fourth season as a writer for the NBC hospital sitcom Scrubs, Nissel also signed a one-year deal to develop a separate comedy project for NBC Universal Television Studio, which recently “greenlit” the pilot idea. And with the help of actress Halle Berry—herself a Hollywood mixed-race woman, albeit with a white mother and black father—Nissel is working to transform her books and life into television. Berry and her agent, Vincent Cirrincione, are “shopping (or executive producing) my life story,” she says. “They have the option on both of my books and are currently shopping them to networks.”
Having Berry in her camp has some unexpected benefits. “[She is] my husband’s one crush, so whenever we meet, it’s his reward that he gets to hug her good-bye,” explains Nissel, back to her signature throaty laugh over the cell phone from Los Angeles.
A good deal of both Broke Diaries and Mixed is funny and self-mocking, but a lot is just plain serious. Nissel can make fun of the racism she has encountered, her brief stop in a mental hospital, and the lengths her mother went to after her divorce to bring up Angela and her younger brother with the right attitudes and values. Yet there is also a rough edge to her writing, a sense that by now racism should be out of the American scene—and why the heck isn’t it?
Mixed has scenes from Nissel’s childhood that make her seem like a ping-pong ball in pigtails. She goes through acceptance and rejection in both the white and black schoolyards she gets shuttled to, based on her mother’s financial condition and her own scholarship possibilities. Things never quite get resolved at Penn, either, as she joins some black social and political organizations, faces a somewhat screwed-up dating scene, succumbs to depression, and ends up taking six years to graduate with her degree in medical anthropology.
All along, though, she knew she wanted to write humor, and by her mid-20s, she made it to Hollywood. Though she is comfortable now, with her Scrubs salary and development deal, she still remembers her empty-wallet days with some reverence.
“I don’t want to say I want to return to those Broke days, but it’s the things you learn when you are broke that help you make it out here,” she explains. “You have to be nice to all kinds of people—or at least learn to get along—when you are in low-level customer-service jobs. Here, you have to be in a room with a load of people for 14 hours a day when you write sitcoms. The people who don’t make it are the ones who never learned the skills you do when you are broke. For me, that’s the easy part, so I never forget where I came from.”
Given California’s many mixed marriages and rich blend of ethnic cultures, one might think it would be a leader in mixed-race relations. Not so, says Nissel.
“Actually what happens is there are no multi-cultural groups, and so what you then see is the ‘tragic mulatto,’ pitied or ignored or whatever,” she says. “Still, a lot of kids do have some early confidence and think they are, so to speak, normal. That’s until they get to college or work and find out that not everyone thinks that way.”
Still, she hopes that she can make people laugh at racism, and maybe help make it dissipate. And in the meantime, she has found her career.
“If you have any ounce of fun in you, you should try Hollywood while you are young, because it is definitely a young people’s game,” she says.
And about those boxes on various forms where she has to indicate Race?
“I guess I’ll go where it seems best,” she laughs. “If I’m getting arrested, I’d better put White. If it’s an award, then why not Black?”