For this week in Heck YA, Diversity!, we're pleased to be joined by Hannah Gomez, blogger extraordinaire and soon-to-be school librarian. Hannah's here to talk about diversity within diversity: the multiracial and multicultural experience.
I seem a bit complicated to people who know me. I’m half black and half white, and I’m transracially and transculturally adopted into a Jewish and Chicano family. And because I was adopted as an infant, I identify totally with my cultural upbringing, though I can’t escape the fact that I am still viewed by the world as black, because that’s my physical look. So I’m all of those things.
To most people, that’s not allowed. It’s too many things, I was told growing up, and it’s impossible to identify as that many backgrounds.
When you think about it, that’s like telling someone they’re not allowed to like painting, playing violin, and soccer, because they’re all from different disciplines. And yet that’s what most people tell multiracial people all the time, in many different ways—whether it’s literally telling them to stop identifying as all things or by only allowing you to “check one” on the SAT, society still thinks you’re incomprehensible if your identity is multifaceted.
I am not that old, but I’m having a hard time remembering any books I read as a teen that featured a protagonist who was like me: transracially adopted, multiracial, or—GASP—both. When I created a spreadsheet of potential titles for my paper on biracial identity in YA realism, I came up with around 80 titles, some of which were around when I was young, but only one that I recall reading, Justina Chen’s Nothing But the Truth.
That comes from the fact that publishing has the oft-repeated perception that only books about white people are universal and that people won’t buy books about brown people unless they are brown (but also that brown people won’t buy books, period). But while there are at least specialty publishers and books labeled as “multicultural” and other well-meaning initiatives of varied success, people still seem a bit baffled by the biracial or multiracial experience. I’m guessing because while publishers can pretty easily claim (they’re wrong, but that doesn’t stop them from doing it) that there is a singular experience to being African American/Asian American/Native American/Latin@, there are endless types of multiracial people, so they can’t even pretend like there’s only one kind.
But while there are myriad types of mixed people, and while like all people, we all lead different lives and forge our identities in different ways, there are some experiences mixed people tend to share, and it’s extremely important that publishing recognize that, both because everyone should find a representation of themselves in literature and because a lot of the struggles and hilarities of being biracial are great metaphors for the struggles and hilarities of being a teen.
We tend to come up with cutesy things to call ourselves. Mixie. Blasian. Blaxican. Latte. Mexican WhiteBoy. Skim.Why do we do this? Well, it’s fun, for one. But also, there is no one word to describe a mixed person, because there are so many different ways to be mixed. So just as you can be Latin@, Hispanic, Chicana, Boricua, or multiple of those, you can be whatever word you make up to combine the heritages of your parents.
Even our well-meaning families can make us feel pressured to pick sides or be sufficiently one thing without forgetting to be the other. Violet Paz of Cuba 15 is being forced to have a quinceañera, but it’s her Polish American mom pressuring her to do it, while her Cuban dad won’t tell her anything about Cuba. Tough! Rachel of Heidi W. Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (not published as YA, but a great read for a YA) grew up with her white, Danish mother and now has to figure out how to continue to feel Danish but also communicate with the African American family now raising her.
It can be hard for people to understand that we are complex, multifaceted, complicated people in other ways. Sometimes I would rather talk to you about what it’s like to have bipolar disorder or why I went gluten-free than my cultural background. Let me have other things that make me complicated, please! Look at all of the crazy shit going on in Micah’s life when her boyfriend is found murdered. Let Hanna fight monsters and deal with her mom, okay?
Also, being biracial is not always a thing that makes me want to cry. Crazily enough, people who are multiracial do not have identity crises every day. We have them as often as one-raced people. Sometimes it is really hilarious to be biracial, like in probably my favorite novel about being mixed, Fran Ross’ Oreo. Sometimes all I want to do is call you a jive ass turkey.
No matter what you and I may disagree on in the future, you will always be my best friend because we’re both mixed. When you’re different from most of the people around you, meeting someone who is similarly different is, like, the best day of your life, and it never gets old. You have to be prepared, mixies and non-mixed people alike, for the day when you meet someone and don’t realize they’re mixed until they tell you, like Jaz in Janet Gurtler’s If I Tell finds out that Jackson has some black in him, too. It’s like immediate hand holding that tells you everything is going to be okay.
Can you see how important this is to have in YA?