You wouldn’t be alone if you simply assumed that musician Halsey was gay. The female performer, known for working in genres as pop-punk, electropop, and synth-pop is lightly melanated and mostly swims in genres that typically don’t tend to spotlight a great number of women of color.
But skin tone isn’t always the clearest indication of someone’s experiences, and Halsey has been very vocal in her support of racial justice protests. The truth is more complicated, and it reveals both some of the complexities of the black American experience and Halsey’s complex and sophisticated understanding of her own racial identity.
Is Halsey Black?
Like Nicki Minaj, Halsey is both a biracial woman and a woman of color. Her father Chris is African-American while her mother Nicole is Hungarian and Italian. In large part because of her mother’s genetics, Halsey is white-passing, and that’s been both a privilege and a difficulty to navigate – but Halsey has been through plenty of struggles with her identity that have nothing to do with her race.
Halsey is a biracial woman, but she also identifies as bisexual and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Halsey was bullied throughout high school, and it reached a boiling point when she attempted suicide at age 17. It was then that she was diagnosed with bipolar – a disorder that her mother also suffers from. After having to drop out of the Rhode Island School of Design due to financial hardship, Halsey enrolled in community college.
And after leaving community college, she was expelled from her home. Said Halsey of the experience, “They just didn’t agree with a lot of things about me” in regards to her parents. It seems clear that Halsey considers her intricately complex relationships with race, mentality, and sexuality to be a core part of her identity. Early in her career, she allegedly identified all three aspects when referring to herself as “tri-bi”.
It was a comment that stirred up some brief controversy and raised some serious questions about how we identify and how we might subconsciously rank our privileges. As the internet community raged with questions about whether these factors can be compared with one another, Halsey was largely dismissive, claiming that the “tri-bi” comment was a misquote.
Halsey would allude to the complex rituals of navigating these different identifiers while also expressing her discontent at being tokenized by them in a later interview with Rolling Stone. “I f*cking hate it, the idea that something like that would be trivialized down to a fucking hashtag. I mean, there’s a ton of biphobia—people refuse to accept bisexuality as actual sexuality. And I’m biracial, but also white-passing, which is a unique perspective. So these kids say, like, ‘Oh, fucking tri-bi Halsey! She’ll never miss an opportunity to talk about it!’ I want to sit them down as a mom and go, ‘Six months ago you were begging for an artist that would talk about this shit! But then I do, and you say, ‘Oh, not her. Someone else.’”
Advocating For Communities of Color
Regardless of whether or not everyone recognizes that she’s a black woman, Halsey has used her celebrity to aggressively advocate on behalf of communities of color – and particularly regarding issues of social and criminal justice. In May of 2020, Halsey joined in Los Angeles protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police.
And just a short few months later, Halsey would come to form the Black Creators Funding Initiative, an initiative that drew from Halsey’s celebrity (and her 32.9 million followers) to promote the works of black creators from around the world working in any form of creative design. It will be used as both a means to draw the spotlight on artists of color while also allocating money to creators that show the greatest promise to do the most good.
Halsey’s black justice initiatives are well documented and lasting, but she’s also devoted herself to activist causes at practically every point of intersection between identity and her life. She’s engaged in multiple campaigns for suicide prevention and mental health awareness and even dedicated her entire third album to her struggles with bipolar order.
Similarly, she’s been one of the most aggressive proponents for LGBQT+ rights in celebrity circles and proven herself one of the more progressive and insightful advocates. In 2018, she criticized Victoria’s Secret for the lack of trans models in their marketing and advertising campaigns, and she formed a benefit concert in the immediate wake of the tragic mass shooting at Miami’s Pulse nightclub. And she’s been at the forefront of musicians speaking out against sexism.
A Complex Relationship With Blackness
As a white-passing woman, Halsey’s complication with her race has been understandably complicated. Being accepted in white communities often means having her blackness unrecognized or discounted, while elements of colorism in the black community mean sometimes having to “prove” her blackness.
Ultimately, it would be a seemingly innocuous question on social media that would spark the most serious questions about Halsey’s identity. In 2018, Halsey tweeted to her followers her frustration that hotels only carried shampoos and conditioners tailored for white people, and she got discontent from just about every angle. Some attacked her for making a racial issue of something they found trivial, while others saw her as co-opting blackness for the sake of her own ego.
Her sincerity would further be called into question in June of 2020 when Twitter publicly called her out for the language she used when discussing the struggle for black rights and accused her of not claiming her black language.
For Halsey, the response would be nuanced, and understandably so. Finding a way to navigate a place between white and black communities was something she’s had to do for her entire life. Her tweet read “im white passing. it’s not my place to say “we”. it’s my place to help. i am in pain for my family, but nobody is gonna kill me based on my skin color. I’ve always been proud of who I am but it’d be an absolute disservice to say “we” when I’m not susceptible to the same violence.”
It wouldn’t be the first time she spoke about her sometimes difficult relationships with race either. In the December 2018 issue of Playboy, she opened up about being light-skinned. “I look like a white girl, but I don’t feel like one. I’m a black woman. So it’s been weird navigating that. When I was growing up I didn’t know if I was supposed to love TLC or Britney.”
Ultimately, Halsey found an identity all her own. As a bisexual woman of color, she sometimes finds her experiences discounted in both the traditional gay community and in both black and white circles, but that hasn’t muted her compassion for other peoples’ struggles or her engagement in the communities to which she belongs.
Because while her sense of identity is informed by her blackness, her queerness, and her mental illness, she’s ultimately managed to carve out an identity and a brand that manages to stand distinct from those things while never rejecting them as a part of who she is. And it’s likely she’ll continue to be an advocate against further injustices moving forward. She definitely understands the power of artists to bring about change.