Saturday, October 13, 2018

Mothering Biracial Kids: Representation is Everything

Oldest kid with her first stack of summer reading (plus a couple of her sisters' books)

There are so many books out there these days that reflect the diversity of where we live, regionally speaking (NYC metro area). Locally speaking, I live in the whitest area ever! that a lot of the time, it’s a wonder how I’m surviving! While yes, more can be done to increase the diversity of books overall –and I’m thinking, here, specifically of children’s books—there are more out there now than when I was a kid.

My kids are bookworms. They devour books. Sometimes to the point where it’s borderline detrimental to their health (i.e they read under the covers so late at night which equals sleep deprivation which equals weak immune system which equals sick!). Never mind that they never hear anything when they’re stuck inside a book. A Mac truck could be barreling their way and they wouldn’t hear it. I’d have to dive into the street and shove them out of the way, letting myself get pancaked by the semi. And while you might think this exaggeration, you would be incorrect. Yes, the Mac truck example is exaggerated, but the lack of hearing is not. The immersion in a book can also be a problem (i.e homework does not get done). But I’m not here to talk about the challenges of raising bookworms.

I want to say: representation is everything.


Last month, I went to see “Crazy Rich Asians” – more for the curiosity of it than anything else. Let’s just say I’m less than thrilled by romantic comedies in general. But an all-Asian cast in a movie that is notkung-fu? What? What’s that like? So, I watched it and I was –I don’t know… overwhelmed? I felt like suddenly, I was being seen. Not as a spectacle, but as an actual person. I felt like my very existence was somehow solidified. As if I had been walking in this life like an apparition. There but not quite there. Now, suddenly, all of my molecules drew in closer together. All the gaps in my physical being, all the spaces between the atoms, drew closer together. I was an actual solid human being!

What’s interesting to note is that I never thought of myself in this way –as an apparition, a ghost of a person who is not quite there in the physical sense—until I became solid. It makes me wonder what else I don’t know. For example, how much emotional weight am I carrying right now? How much mental work do I exert every day?

The movie itself was fine. I’m sure there were problematic issues (as some friends had pointed out prior to my seeing it), but I was so taken by seeing what I saw and feeling what I felt that my critical mind was distracted. There were little parts of the story that were so familiar, it could have been taken from my own life experiences. That took my breath away. Sent tears to my eyes. You mean I’m not the only one? You mean I’m not a weirdo who comes from a weirdo family and culture? You mean other people do this? Think like this? Act like this, too?It’s one thing to find your people, to connect with your community. It’s quite another to see it broadcast on the silver screen for all to see. And to get validation from that.

This is the power of representation.


My kids are biracial. They present as white. We live in a mostly white town in a mostly white county. For all intents and purposes, my kids are growing up white. (“Not if I can help it!” screams a voice from within me.) They go to a school with a mostly white population. There are a few kids of color, but not many. And of those, some of them (Latino) present as white (skin tone). I do what I can with my kids to create awareness about race, but it’s so abstract when everyone around you is white. I don’t know how much actually sinks in.

I remember when my middle kid was four-years-old, I was saying something about race (in an age-appropriate context, of course) and mentioned that her dad was white. She said: “He’s not white. He’s a person.” Hah! Indeed.

It’s been a challenge to talk with them about race in more specific and concrete ways. When shit comes up in the news (black men getting shot and killed by police, the Charleston shootings, Charlottesville), I do my best to keep them informed about what has happened and try to teach them about the dynamics of race in this country. They seem to understand. 

The same goes for gender. I try to talk with them about how the systems in place are built against girls and women, and they seem to grasp this concept a little better. They get angry at the injustice of it all. They pump their fists and vow to fight back. And because of their ages (I’m thinking of my younger ones, ages 9 and 10), they come up with some pretty spectacular scenarios to demonstrate how they’d fight back. (If I could remember any, I’d tell you, but my memory is foggy today.)

I understand that I am very privileged in this way. I do not have to educate them in order to keep them safe like black mothers must do for their sons. Though, with regard to gender, I do have to educate them to try to keep them safe as girls.

That said, I think about representation in the books they read. 

They have not been told they are different because of the way they look and so do not belong. Because they look white, they will not likely suffer from racial discrimination. So, I am asking these questions: how do my kids read and understand the characters they come across in their books? Do they see themselves in everything they read? Or do they only see themselves in certain books? Or do they not see themselves at all?

Generally speaking, my kids love fantasy and sci-fi books. They’re all about magic and superpowers and worlds very different from this one. My oldest is obsessed with every book series where the protagonist is usually a girl who must fight for her kingdom, family, world, etc. And the girl’s journey usually leads her to realize her true self, her fullest potential, which is fantastic! (We’ll ignore the fact that a lot of these books have a boy love interest in it. Must we always have a boy love interest??) She’s not really into the realist teen drama/romance stuff (thank God! Haha!). She’s got pretty badass taste, if you ask me. I wish I had these books as a kid! 

Anyway, she reads so much so fast that I’ve long given up on screening her books before she reads them (I think I gave up when she was 10. She’s 13 now.). But I wonder about representation. These books are usually populated with white characters (aren’t they all?). Still, I do my best to give her books that have protagonists of color when I find them.

One of them is Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X. I am dying to read this book! I picked it up at Split This Rock Poetry Festival this past April. The concept –a novel in verse—was so thrilling for me. Not to mention that it’s a story about a girl of color written by a woman of color! (As an aside; I remember Elizabeth from back in the day when I taught at Youth Speaks NYC (now Urban Word) – she was always so fierce!) I cracked it open this morning and read the inside flap to remind myself the overall concept of the book. I read the first poem. I totally love it! If I could, I’d take today and just sit down and read the whole thing (but alas, this is not the reality of my life right now as there are giant stacks of student poems awaiting my comments).

I am thinking about how my daughter will read this.

I am not speculating or predicting or imposing any expectations. Okay, wait. That’s a lie. I do want her to love this book. I don’t know if she will. She won’t dislike it, but she might not have the same enthusiasm as I do. I have to be okay with that. But I am thinking, again, about representation.

I am not Dominican but there is a resonance for me when I read stories and poems written by people of color for people of color. The details might be different, but the feelings? So, so familiar. What I’ve read so far, Acevedo’s book is bringing me back to my own experiences of that age –high school. While her story-poems in this book are different from mine on the literal level, the emotional core is the same. The strict immigrant mother, for example. The secret writing of poems. My daughter does not have these experiences. But will she find herself somewhere in this book? Perhaps simply as a poet, a writer, a girl navigating the ever-changing landscape of her world. I can’t say. But I hope she does see herself somewhere, whether it’s in this book or in the other books she reads. And I hope the same for my other daughters.

We learn who we are based on what is reflected back to us. If we see white folks all around, we will think we, too, are white. Until someone tells us –usually abrasively—otherwise. Sometimes we don’t see ourselves at all. Sometimes there is no reflection. Sometimes we just accept that we are invisible. But sometimes, we find that book, that poem, that movie (!) that shows you finally –finally! —that you indeed are here, that you exist, and that you are beautiful.

And that is when the world opens up for you into something amazing and open to infinite possibilities for greatness. Your own greatness.