May 7, 2015

5 Things You Need to Know About Writing Multi-ethnic and Bi-racial Characters



I've been thinking a lot lately about the Diversity Challenge. I think it's absolutely wonderful but its still missing something that's all too often overlooked. One of the most "unheard voices" comes from multi-ethnic people.

Here's 5 things that you need to know before you write a multi-ethnic or bi-racial character.

1. No Excuses- Pretty-Please! 
When multi-ethnic characters are presented in fiction it frequently is in the form of Fantasy where the MC is part of a secret mystic or magical bloodline. I want to see multi-ethnic characters that aren't defined as being the "different" one. I want to see a black mother and a white father and no explanation as to why this was such an extraordinary or unusual match (implying it wouldn't happen under "normal" circumstances). I want to see more Lucy and Ricky Ricardos or Jasmine and Crosby Bravermans. If we really want to end racism, we need to stop making excuses for why two people from different ethnic or racial backgrounds fall in love or have children together.

2. Appearance- "You're X but really you're Y." 
What many people don't realize is that when you are living between the groups (never fully in one or the other) you are literally told your entire life what you are. There is little room for you to figure this out for yourself when from day one you are told who you are and the views and opinions and interests you are expected to have are decided by everybody but you. And what's worse, these expectations differ from person to person. You can literally never please anyone or feel like you fully belong in any setting.

I look more Hispanic than my sisters and we all feel it. When I am with Hispanics I am constantly reminded that I am "white-washed" but when I'm with my Caucasian friends I'm "so Mexican" (I'm also the first one asked for a Spanish translation- it's just expected that I grew up with the language).

I once went to an Our Lady of Guadalupe festival with my sister. I got hungry and there was food so -why not? I was in line for a taco-truck where a group of Hispanic men stood around joking in Spanish. I understood enough to understand the jokes and laugh politely. They served me twice as much as I paid for. My sister (who doesn't understand any Spanish and looks much more Caucasian) stood in the same line just moments later, received several rude and condescending comments and was given half of what she paid for. No joke, it was my sister's parish (where she works) and I was a random volunteer but I was given free things all day and welcomed with open arms while my sister was given an uneven table and shoved in a corner. I had a great time. Sadly my sister did not.

My point is not that Hispanics are racist (though let's be honest, I've seen it happen quite a bit) but that nobody asked either me or my sister if we felt like Hispanics or whether or not we felt a connection with Our Lady of Guadalupe. We both grew up in the same region, with the same parents, in an English-only home. We both eat tacos and sauerkraut (not together of course) but when we're out in public we are told what we are by others. We are expected not to defy expectations and are forced into one of two constricting boxes- White or Hispanic Non-white. I don't want to be one or the other because I really do feel like I am both. It's complicated.  

3.  Language 
The languages you speak at home can be a huge determining factor with molding your personal identity and for bi-racial or multi-ethnic characters it becomes especially important.

Cultural identity is often tied closely to language. The more Spanish I learn, the more "Hispanic" I feel. One of my sisters speaks German and thus feels closely tied to that part of our ethnic identity.

When you are creating a multi-ethnic character, you don't have to represent both sides equally. The language used at home is often the ethnic group the individual will identify with slightly more. It is yet another factor but of course not the only one to consider.

4. Parents and Gender Roles 
In the West (where women are traditionally seen as the primary caregivers for children) there is a tendency to identify with the culture / race / ethnicity of their mother. Using our earlier examples, Little Ricky would probably grow up to view himself (mostly) as a White American while the character Jabbar, in Parenthood, (having a black mother) likely identifies more with being "black" than being "white" (like his father).

I grew up speaking mostly English and with a Caucasian (stay at home) mother. Thus, combined with my Conservative political views, it should make sense that I often feel "white" BUT the fact that I have been labeled my whole life as a "Chicana" and the fact that I speak some Spanish complicates my personal identity in a way that many of my siblings sympathize with but do not entirely understand.  I can't tell you exactly how to write a bi-racial or multi-ethnic character because everyone's personal experiences are so diverse which brings me to my next point.

5. Dynamic identity 
For bi-racial and multi-ethnic people, which "part" of ourselves we identify with can change from day to day, even from one hour to the next.

When I open the fridge I'm just as likely to reach for cheese and knäckebröd as I am to reach for Tapatio and a warm tortilla. I feel "white" when I listen to music like Metallica, Frank Siantra, or Garth Brooks. But I feel Hispanic when I listen to Selena, Daddy Yankee, or Elvis Crespo. But no matter what, I never feel like I am entirely one or the other. I'm both and it's complicated.

Hopefully I've given you a few things to consider about Multi-ethnic identity. In my personal opinion, being multi-ethnic is harder than just being a "minority" (though technically I am). People (and characters) often struggle to define themselves early in life but as they grow older they learn to care less about the "parts" of themselves and more about viewing themselves as a whole. Please don't be afraid to include bi-racial or multi-ethnic characters in your stories. There's more of us than you'd think and we would like some cultural sensitivity and representation too. 

1 comment:

Please keep it clean, mature, and respectful.