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November 27, 2014

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The Multiracial Population Is Growing, But Kid Lit Isn’t Keeping Up

SLJ Diversity web eyebrow The Multiracial Population Is Growing, But Kid Lit Isn’t Keeping Up

 

SLJ1405w DV Brown Monica The Multiracial Population Is Growing, But Kid Lit Isn’t Keeping Up

Monica Brown

Let me begin by recounting a story I heard from Melodia, the daughter of two African-American parents, who, like my book’s character Marisol McDonald (from the “Marisol McDonald” series published by Lee & Low), has peach skin and bright red hair.

Melodia tells me that she identifies as “black and proud.”

When a girl in Melodia’s class referred to her as “white,” Melodia corrected her only to be told, “You’re white to me.”

“Yes, but I’m black to me,” Melodia said.

When Melodia came home and told her mom the story, she ended it by announcing that she would be “wearing an afro tomorrow.”

When she is with her African-American parents, Melodia tells me she’s been asked if she’s adopted or albino.

Melodia says, “That’s the way people are. They have to label everything, and if they don’t know you, they have to make stuff up.”

When it comes to race, our culture is obsessed with labels and boxes. For those of us whose backgrounds and faces do not fall under a neat label, the impulse can be to exclude, erase, or question authenticity. Labels are rooted in racist ideas about “blood quantum” and in the legalese of the “one-drop rule.” From a 21st-century perspective, labels associated with ethnic identity and perceptions of authenticity often use the colonizer’s language and paradigm.

The multiracial population is undeniably growing. According to the 2010 United States Census, nine million people marked more than one race. In fact, the multiracial population grew by 32 percent since 2000, in contrast to the nine percent growth of the population marking a single race. Using the language of the U.S. Census, “interracial or interethnic” families grew by 28 percent. However, the Children’s Cooperative Book Center released the statistic that of the books published in 2013, a mere 253 out of 3,200 were about children of color. I look at these statistics and wonder how many of these 253 books feature protagonists who might fall into more than one of the categories used—African-American, American-Indian, Pacific Islander/Asian-American, or Latino. I suspect very few.

There are many words associated with multiracial people, some negative and some positive. For myself, the daughter of a North American father and a South American mother, I prefer “mestiza,” because it encompasses my European and Peruvian indigenous origins. But, that’s technically (or at least historically) incorrect, because while I have Spanish and indigenous Peruvian origins on my mother’s side, I also have African and Romanian Jewish origins.

On my father’s side, I have Scottish, Italian, and Hungarian Jewish origins. Some people prefer the terms “mixed” and others “biracial.” President Obama has jokingly called himself a “mutt,” and there are other terms meant to be humorous that I feel uncomfortable with. Of the limited choices available, I choose “multiracial” with an emphasis on the multi—I am made of multitudes, not fractions.

Although I’ve described myself as “half-Peruvian” or “half-Jewish” as a shortcut in the past, I fully reject those terms now. I am not half of anything. I am whole in myself, as are my daughters. I am the Latina daughter of a Latina woman. I am bilingual. Melodia is the African-American daughter of African-American parents. She is also Guatemalan and Scottish. We are the face of a complex, multiracial, multilingual, and diverse past, present, and future.

The time has long passed for our children’s literature to develop more complex and realistic representations of race. Our kids’ books need to represent the biracial or multiracial experience, and not only in black and white. Multiracial characters do not need to have one white parent—they can be Native American and Latino, for example, or Asian-American and African-American.

In my writing for children, and certainly in my “Marisol McDonald” series, I present an ethos of wholeness for children like my own. It is my hope that dialogues like this will encourage us all to write (and edit and publish) toward wholeness for our multiracial children.

Monica Brown (www.monicabrown.net) is the author of more than a dozen picture books, including “Tito Puente: Mambo King/Rey del mambo” (HarperCollins) and the award-winning “Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/no combina” (Lee & Low).

This article was published in School Library Journal's May 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. Another dimension of diversity that needs attention is that Native people are not generally well-served when categorized as “people of color.” If we are members/citizens of federally recognized tribes, we have a political status in addition to being people of color.

    Most people don’t know about that political status because it is not taught in school, but it is at the core of who we are and what we fight for, today, in Congress and statehouses across the country.

    Hundreds of years ago, the leaders of our nations made treaties with heads of state of European nations, and later, the nation that we know today as the United States of America. Other POC in the US cannot enter into diplomatic negotiations with other heads of states.

  2. Rose Guajardo says:

    Our culturally diverse children live in a colorlful America. The children learn prejudice and racism. Children learn more by what they see, than what they are taught. America needs to stand together and set the example, not only for our children, but, for ALL of the children of the world.We need to encourage ALL children to be culturally sensitive, and to treat everyone individually. This will only come from children watching, and following the communities examples. Let us start with children’s books, and go from there.

  3. I’ve shared Marisol and her stories with my classes and I appreciate meeting characters that demonstrate a multi-racial experience. I have some students that are so excited to see books where the parents have vey different racial backgrounds, just like their own families. Thank you for sharing your stories! I am finding more middle grade and picture books like this, but I have students who want even more choices.

  4. Monica, this is an excellent article and the subject matter is certainly coming up a lot lately! :)

    It is my feeling that probably one of the biggest reasons there is a lesser amount of main characters, etc. that are of “color” or multi/bi-racial ethnicity is likely because the authors of color or multi/bi-racial are also in the minority as well : / I’ve never done any research on the subject, but this is going by what seems to be.

    In picture books it is mostly through illustrations that you will see ethnic/racial variety and it is most easily depicted by skin and hair color. In older fiction, although everyone can imagine the inner workings of people different than ourselves (after all, anyone other than ourselves is different, right?), it can be very precarious walking the fine line of stereotyping, and no one wants to be insulting or to “get things wrong.” Unless an author knows—pretty intimately—what it’s like to be of a certain ethnic or racial background, whether through experience or research, to be authentic without crossing the wrong line is probably not something most authors are willing to tackle without serious consideration, regardless of which “color” that author is. Besides, authors are usually drawn to what they know, and this is not to be confused with prejudice/bigotry.

    Honestly, I think that if there’s an increase in authors of more diverse backgrounds, there will be an increase of quality books which include diverse characters and subject matter. And change rarely comes swiftly, especially when something can cost a LOT of money, both on the spending AND earning sides, creating a lot of risk. There are so many variables, it’s not an easy issue to resolve, but considering I’ve heard over the past couple decades, a welcoming of diverse, multi-cultural books, I’m thinking the biggest obstacle is the same as it is for ANY book—the work has to be of excellent quality, PLUS has to find the RIGHT agent/editor/publishing house and I think we all know how incredibly difficult that can be *sigh*

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