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.