By Sarah Hannah Gómez, Graduate Student, School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College
Editor’s Note: This, That, Both, Neither was accepted for the peer reviewed paper session at YALSA’s third annual Young Adult Literature Symposium held November 2-4, 2012 in St. Louis. The theme of the conference was “Hit me with the next big thing.”
Only in the lifetime of the Millennial generation has it become legally acceptable to mark more than one race on a federal form. In the 2010 Census, 2.9 percent of respondents indicated that they were two or more races, with even more assigning themselves other designations that speak to the many types of multiracial identities common today. As this population grows in real life, it also flourishes in young adult literature, where ever more protagonists identify with more than one racial or ethnic group and must decide how to assert themselves and what to call themselves. This paper explores some of these novels and tracks each character’s progress towards creating a “badge” of identity.
Every year when I was a student, my school district held awards ceremonies to honor distinguished students of color from all grade levels. There was an African American ceremony, a Hispanic ceremony, and presumably an Asian American and Native American one as well. High-achieving students were invited to their respective ceremonies as well as any students of color, although I’m not entirely sure. I didn’t even know the awards existed until seventh grade, when two girls in my homeroom asked me why I hadn’t been at the African American ceremony the evening before.
I hadn’t been invited.
“Oh.” It hit me. “The district has me down as white.”
If you’d been looking at me when I said that, you would be confused. I don’t exactly look like a character in a Nella Larsen novel. But it wasn’t a lie. I am white. I’m also black. And I’m adopted, so I also share a second mixed identity with my sister, one in which we are ethnically Jewish and Latina.
My mother knew that her children were mixed, and she wanted us to have the advantage of going to a diverse magnet elementary school, so when we started kindergarten, she checked the box marked “white.” This was the late 1980s and early 1990s, when you were only allowed to be one race. And so, without having to lie, my mother helped me and my sister pass as white—at least on paper.
Ironically, of course, her reason for checking the box marked “white” was different than the reasons that motivated many African Americans and multiracial or multiethnic individuals who have chosen to pass. They did so in order to have more career opportunities or to avoid racism and its acts of violence. For me, it was my mother’s way of ensuring that I would be given a spot at a school that boasted great diversity and thus would give me the chance to meet people who shared my background, or at least pieces of it. And it worked, to an extent, as the various types of people I met often assumed I was like them. My surname, my color, or my Yiddish expressions made me an insider in multiple groups that I could say I had ties to. If questions came up as to how I was mixed, my complicated life story was deemed interesting and then the conversation would move on.
For my last five years of school, I attended a private secondary school where my mixed identity was considered too complicated. I was told to “just pick one,” and it was assumed I was just trying to be interesting or difficult if I claimed multiple heritages. College courses in sociology and race helped me come up with my current preferred label, which is simply “mixed.” And on the 2010 Census, I was able to speak for myself and for the first time check all the boxes that I belonged to.
I share this story not because I’m writing my autobiography, but because this is an experience shared by other mixed-race individuals, an increasingly larger part of the young American population. These teens, I believe, are the future of young adult (YA) literature. For fifteen years now, Americans have been able to officially identify as mixed. As people who identify as mixed-race begin to publish novels that tell their stories, it seems natural that their fictional worlds will represent the worlds they see around them. As Michele Elam notes, “the census box represents the new nonviolent resistance, a finger in the eye of the racial status quo,” and we all know YA literature to be about testing boundaries and making bold statements.
I wanted to explore what contemporary YA literature does with these characters: What do they identify as? How do they assert their identity to others? Post-civil rights movement, do teens continue to pass, do they choose one racial or ethnic identity over the other, or do they find a way to identify with both?
My research differs from current research in a few ways. First, I did not examine traditional “passing novels,” like those of Larsen and others. Instead I looked at contemporary literature about contemporary teens, because today’s social mores discourage passing for white and consider such an act to be a rejection of one’s family. Second, little literary analysis deals with individuals whose mix differs from half-black and half-white, and so I looked also at characters who encompass a broader range of racial and ethnic identities. Third, since multiracial people are finally allowed to identify as such, I wanted to explore sociological and psychological research and Census data for clues as to why we might be seeing more biracial teens in YA literature in the coming years.
I created a spreadsheet of possible titles to examine using three sources: NoveList Plus, WorldCat, and GoodReads. Using WorldCat allowed me to search using Library of Congress headings such as “Racially mixed people in literature” and “Racially mixed people—Fiction.” NoveList and GoodReads use more varied and user-defined keywords, such as “Eurasian,” “Blasian,” “Blaxican,” and “multi-ethnic”; this allowed me to identify novels whose characters used more colloquial or specific mixed epithets. My initial list was 95 titles long but included some middle grade and adult fiction titles, as well as novels that had fantasy or science fiction elements. After the list was whittled down, I was left with approximately 40 potential titles that were published as YA literature and labeled as realistic, novel-length fiction. My selection of specific titles was random, based on availability of the titles in libraries and bookstores.
I constrained myself to realistic fiction only for two reasons. First, mixed-race identity becomes more complicated in science fiction and fantasy, where an individual might be metaphorically biracial by being half-vampire and half-werewolf, and it was too large of an undertaking to unpack the fantastic metaphors alongside the racial ones. Second, I wanted to investigate whether multiracial authors would use fiction to explore, revisit, or rewrite their own experiences to fit into today’s world, and this seemed to require a certain level of verisimilitude.
I focused my theoretical and historical research in psychology and sociology rather than literary studies because I feel that this new trend in YA literature is based on the mixed identities of the roughly 20- to 40-year-old generation of YA authors and their post-civil-rights-era upbringing. If more people in the general population are identifying as mixed-race, it follows that more YA authors are as well, especially as interest in reading and writing YA literature continues to grow. Texts used in this part of my study were found using WorldCat and the resources at MixedRaceStudies.org.
Adolescence is about personal development and the forging of identity. In my reading of these novels, I identified what seemed to be the three main steps in the journey toward developing an identity as a mixed person, rather than just white or just as a person of color. My three-step process is informed by Kellogg and Liddell’s work with multiracial/multiethnic college students. First, the individual must be confronted with an event or situation in which they are required to associate or dissociate with a racial or ethnic group. This is adapted from Kellogg and Liddell’s finding that many students “realized the relevance of race in their daily lives, and were faced with an awareness of racism, both intellectually and experientially.” Recognition of race as relevant to one’s personal life is crucial to each mixed-race individual in defining an identity. As Kellogg and Liddell note, these experiences don’t only have to be negative; they cite a student whose college sent invitations to join ethnic student organizations and social groups who was surprised there was such a push to identify racially in college. Similar shock or surprise happens in fiction and serves as the catalyst for further exploration and assertion of identity.
Second, they must seek a community that does not require them to dissociate from one of their heritages in order to fit in. Kellogg and Liddell did not have a corresponding point here, but their interviews with the students indicated that experiences like coursework and class discussions in critical race theory, experimenting with campus ethnic societies, and sharing life experiences with other students contributed to a better sense of wellbeing. I found that the way these college experiences are most often mimicked in YA fiction was through creating personal relationships with other mixed individuals, which sometimes entailed similar sharing and learning.
And third, in the absence of an official racial label, they must develop one for themselves. To use Kellogg and Liddell’s terminology, these “critical incidents” in young adults’ lives can be “powerful, emotional, and often negative,” but they can also lead to empowerment for the individual who experiences them. This empowerment is what allows for a successful “badging,” or identifying of oneself with a created or adopted label that rejects monoraciality.
Also informing this study is the burden Michele Elam calls “genealogical debt,” in which a multiracial person feels obligated to adequately identify with, support, or participate in the racial or ethnic group of each parent. This requires the individual to tread carefully, to consider the impact their identity has on their family, and to always be ready to renegotiate or redefine themselves depending on their context.
While each novel in this paper deals with issues of identity, community-building, and naming, I placed each one in a certain section to act as a representative sample for each point in the process.
The mixed-race community knows all too well the intrusive and dehumanizing question, “What are you?” When an unsatisfactory answer is given, the questioner often assigns an identity to the individual, generally based on physical appearance. Often even if the question is not explicitly asked, individuals of one race will confront the mixed-race individual in some way, indicating that they are uncomfortable with mixed identity, usually because it has no standard definition and does not allow a person to fit easily into one social group. This phenomenon was found in several of the books included in this study, with antagonists more likely to act this way than tertiary characters.
In Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim, a graphic novel, the protagonist has been given the titular nickname because of her half-Japanese, half-white heritage, not because she chose it. When her teacher asks her about her nickname, her explanation of it is offhand and complaisant, indicating that she has not given much thought to it and allows others to define her. Since the text deals more directly with Skim’s romantic relationship with her teacher, the nickname is a confrontation with which Skim declines to engage, disallowing her to continue through the process.
While Skim’s confrontation experience is passive, Asha of Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s The Latte Rebellion opens her story with a more troubling experience:
The jeering male voice came from somewhere behind me, waking me up from a heatstroke-induced doze.
“Hey, check it out—Asha’s a towel-head.”
The term, presumably meant to be a joke because Asha is at the pool and has a towel wrapped around her head, hits close to home because Asha is part Indian. She is also part Mexican and part white. When the bearer of the insult, Roger, follows up by telling Asha she has no right to be offended because she is “barely Asian,” Asha and her friend Carey, also mixed-race, are inspired to create a label for themselves—latte—in order, ostensibly, to be prepared for the next time such a confrontation occurs. Interestingly, by calling her “barely Asian,” Roger implies that Asha has been passing for white, even though she has not done so intentionally. Since passing for white is not en vogue these days, and since the Millennial Asha lives in a world where being mixed-race is at least legally acceptable, if not always socially, this is a confrontation that makes it necessary for her to look in the mirror—literally and figuratively—to assess who she is and where she places herself racially, culturally, and socially. She responds by using her Millennial generation to her advantage—she and Carey utilize viral marketing and e-commerce to turn their identities not just into badges but also a brand. As the popularity of the Latte Rebellion grows, Asha and Carey are invited onto college campuses to meet with other students starting clubs based on their cause, placing a strong emphasis on step two, community, as well as confrontation.
Violet Paz of Nancy Osa’s Cuba 15 comes to this from the opposite direction. Having no strong associations with any one group, the half-Polish-Jewish and half-Cuban 14-year-old decides that if she is going to be forced to have a quinceañera (a big party and coming-out for a young woman’s fifteenth birthday), she needs to learn more about Cuba and Cuban culture to validate the event. Her father, however, keeps her from this knowledge because he is not ready to talk about the country he was forced to leave. In a sense, he forces her to pass as white, and she must take it upon herself to assert her identity as half-Cuban. It is this non-confrontation that is her confrontation, and her father’s resistance to helping her feel more Cuban speaks, in part, to his belonging to another generation where non-white identity was less acceptable.
In a study of mixed-race college students, Kellogg and Liddell proposed that college is an especially useful time for individuals to explore racial identity because independence gives them the freedom, and academics—especially the humanities— gives them the space to learn about and assert racial and ethnic affiliations. Just like the subjects in their study, these novels feature protagonists defining and redefining their ethnicities. YA literature, however, is primarily concerned with high school-aged protagonists, which means that the change in setting removes from reach a resource to which real-life students have access. In college, there are support services and social groups for students of color. In high school, this is less often the case. While the data from the study revealed that many multiracial students felt ostracized or out of place at ethnic student centers or groups, such spaces at least allow for experimentation and exploration. However, as most multiracial people will attest, there is nothing quite like meeting another mixed-race person, regardless of their specific heritages. It’s an instant bond that isn’t easily shaken even if personalities or interests don’t click beyond that. Meeting more and more people like this begins to build a supportive community for an individual of mixed heritage.
In the novels I read for this project, community isn’t offered as readily to the high school students featured. Danny of Matt de la Peña’s Mexican WhiteBoy finds teens with similar experiences almost by accident. This occurs when he spends the summer with the Mexican side of his family, after growing up with his Mexican father absent from the family. Danny has never spoken to Liberty, the girl he has a crush on, but he overhears people at a party talking about how she moved to California from her home in Mexico by petitioning her white American father who lives there. Danny, whose Mexican father has been out of the picture for years, wonders how he will communicate with the girl when they are so similar and yet so different: “It’s weird that he and Liberty have been doing the same thing from opposite countries. And it’s weird that she doesn’t speak English and he doesn’t speak Spanish. How would they ever communicate? It’s almost like she’s his exact opposite.” Danny also creates an unspoken bond with Uno, the second protagonist of the novel, who can feel the discrimination he gets in his largely Mexican neighborhood because his father is black. Without much discussion, the novel nonetheless shows how both of these young men struggle with wanting to fit in with their peers without insulting or failing to acknowledge one of their parents, the genealogical debt mentioned by Elam.
Half-white, half-black Jaz of Janet Gurtler’s If I Tell has had negative confrontations with racism her entire life, mostly at school. She is attracted to Jackson, a boy from school who keeps hanging around the coffee shop where she works, but she thinks he won’t understand her experience because he is white. When she tells him so, she is surprised by his response: “My grandma is black. I guess my grandpa was a grumpy white guy, but Grams, not so much. My mom was like you. Well, lighter, but the same. She never let me forget it either. Whenever she was drunk, she told me I was ‘stained by black blood.’ And she was drunk a lot.” Though he, like Asha of The Latte Rebellion, has unintentionally passed as white, Jackson himself chooses to identify as mixed because of genealogical debt. After she hears this, Jaz finds herself even more drawn to Jackson, and not just romantically. Knowing that he has a similar experience allows Jaz to express herself with less explanation and context, and she and Jackson together create a small community.
Elam suspects that mixed-race identity is becoming more accepted because it is a movement that allows for “the branding of multiracials as a distinct population associated with a hip, young, new people.” After Asha and Carey start the Latte Rebellion, an online t-shirt company turned mixed-race advocacy movement, they are lucky enough to attract a huge community of members who become very vocal and choose together to call themselves “latte,” moving the badge that much closer to universally accepted, just like traditional labels like “black” or “Caucasian.” They are able to literally wear their identity like a badge when they make t-shirts with the logo and name they design, which is something that arguably no other racial group can do without serious backlash or resistance.
In Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrong by Joan Steinau Lester, protagonist Nina literally bounces between identities by experimenting with which groups she sits with at lunchtime and by traveling back and forth between her two parents’ homes, since they are separated. By the end of the novel, she chooses to identify as biracial and rejects those who would have her choose one identity or the other by rapping about it: “I’m big and bad and bold. Comin’ in from the cold. I be black and I be white. If you my friend, you all right.” Later she coins the phrase “gheppies,” a combination of “ghetto” and “preppy,” as a social extension of her biracial identity.
By creating these badges, literal or metaphorical, these multiracial protagonists can both shield and arm themselves for future confrontations. The badge is a ready answer, a retort, and a built-in community, whether made up of one person or thousands. By virtue of their being person-created, badges resist societal expectations—they are not Library of Congress subject headings; rather, they are user tags, defined by the person who identifies them, and changeable whenever the individual must renegotiate a racialized situation.
The 2010 Census registered 2.9 percent of its respondents as having chosen one or more race. In addition, 16.3 percent were listed as Hispanic or Latino , and many people who identify this way also acknowledge either known mixed heritage or the likely possibility of being mixed in some way with indigenous, black, and white heritage. Anecdotes from blogs, podcasts, interviews, and academic research further muddle these numbers by explaining that some people who acknowledge their mixed heritage prefer to choose only one race (their non-white one) on federal forms so as to assert their minority status or to ensure that the Census data is used for services and programs sorely needed in minority communities, so it is impossible to have exact numbers. But simply by viewing the ever-growing number of social groups, novels, research institutions, and publications dedicated to the exploration and assertion of multiracial identity, it is clear that this group, however they choose to identify or associate, is swelling in both number and in voice. As YA literature grows in popularity, more readers and writers contribute to the expression, expansion, and volume of the multiracial experience. As more and more individuals come of age in a nation that has always allowed them to designate as many racial categories as they feel necessary, I feel quite certain that novels depicting multiracial and multiethnic identity, especially in YA literature, will continue to grow.
 Federal forms allowed this for the first time in 1997.
 Michele Elam, The Souls Of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 13.
 Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity ( Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012), 2.
 Angela H. Kellogg and Debra Liddell, “Not Half but Double”: Exploring Critical Incidents of Multiracial Students, The Journal of College Student Development, (August 2012), 524-541.
 Ibid, 530.
 Ibid, 530.
 Ibid, 524.
 Michele Elam, The Souls Of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 50.
 Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, Skim (Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books, 2008).
 Sarah Jamila Stevenson, The Latte Rebellion (Woodbury, MN: Flux, 2011), 1.
 Nancy Osa, Cuba 15 (New York, NY: Random House, 2005).
 Angela H. Kellogg and Debra Liddell, “Not Half but Double”: Exploring Critical Incidents of Multiracial Students, The Journal of College Student Development, (August 2012), 535-6.
 Matt de la Peña, Mexican Whiteboy (New York, NY: Random House, 2008).
 Ibid, 68-9.
 Janet Gurtler, If I Tell (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Fire, 2011).
 Ibid, 159.
 Michele Elam, The Souls Of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 39.
 Joan Steinau Lester, Black, White, Other: In Search of Nina Armstrong (Grand Rapids, MI: Zonderkidz, 2011).
 Ibid, 88.