By Ismée Williams
One of the reasons I love to read YA fiction is that the characters resonate. They face the same struggles of the human experience we all face, struggles we remember, one of the most important of which is figuring out where you belong—finding your place and your pack. This can be more difficult if you start out not fitting in with your family, whether because of your personality, your sexuality, or your ability. But what if the difference between a teen and their family is one of race or culture? What if each of your parents is of a different race and/or culture and you are a product of both? Biracial and bicultural kids face unique challenges when it comes to identity formation. They can feel like islands, alone and without connection to either of their parents’ communities. But they can also become bridges, capable of bringing together distinct groups, improving communication and understanding.
I am the daughter of a Cuban immigrant. My mom’s parents—my abuelos—helped raise my brother and me. My father is not Cuban. He is from New Jersey. I spent much of my youth shuttling between Nochebuena dinners of roast pork and black beans with rice and Christmas Day suppers of leg of lamb with mint jelly. I often felt like I didn’t belong in either space. I felt like an island, not Latina enough for one side of my family and not WASP-y enough for the other. That sense of isolation carried over to my school life. In college, I joined the Latinx affiliation group, but as a white-passing girl who grew up in rural Connecticut, my experiences were different from those who grew up in Texas, New York City, Miami or Puerto Rico. Their families were predominantly monocultural as were many of their communities. This only heightened my fear that I didn’t belong, that I was an imposter in this space as well.
Astrea Greig, a psychology graduate student, wrote about the discrimination and microaggressions that children of mixed race face. Family members may not accept them because they look or act differently than un-mixed cousins. Demographic forms from schools and doctor’s offices require students to select a single identity and often do not acknowledge the possibility of mixed race and ethnicity. The lack of multiracial and multicultural communities also negatively impacts these young people. Sometimes, a biracial child will not see themselves as biracial. They will identify with one race, as former President Obama does. But many feel as if they do not fit in with either of their parents’ races or cultures. Even if they have a sibling, physical characteristics may vary. A child might be left without a pack.
There are considerable benefits to being multiracial and multicultural, however, including resilience and increased empathy. The summer between my junior and senior year of high school I lived in Japan as part of a youth exchange scholarship program. Before we left, all 100 of us assembled on the campus of Georgetown University for training in cultural sensitivity as well as to learn about life in Japan. Many of the general teachings seemed obvious to me. Years spent on the couch of a Washington Heights apartment watching my great aunts and uncles converse with my mother and abuelos in a language I did not understand taught me the value of careful observation and reading body language. In Japan, only the oldest daughter in my host family spoke English. That didn’t stop me from taking my 8-year old host brother out to play ball, or learning to make family-style sushi with my okasan. I even survived two weeks in Japanese high school, smiling and bowing to teachers and students with whom I couldn’t converse. I was used to this role, to being an island.
But I was learning to be a bridge. That was the point of the exchange program, actually. Youth for Understanding is still one of the leaders in intercultural exchanges. The realization that my mixed background, which had been a source of discomfort, could also be an asset was pivotal for my own sense of identity. I owe a large part of the success of my career in medicine to this cultural sensitivity. Even as a medical student, when my knowledge of medicine was small, I often was able to support understanding between patients and doctors who did not always see eye-to-eye. I carefully could suggest to the attending physician that the mother of our newborn patient, a woman who didn’t speak English and didn’t grow up in this country, likely would be unable to follow the complicated discharge instructions because she couldn’t read them–even though she was nodding her head and telling us, “Yes.”
Once, a pregnant woman came in with a dangerous symptom typically associated with ibuprofen ingestion. She denied taking any medications, however. I was the one who asked if her mother or grandmothers were giving her any special teas or herbal supplements. It turned out one such casera remedy was the culprit. The symptom went away and she delivered a healthy full-term newborn. The more I thought of myself as a bridge, instead of an island, the more confident I became and the better I felt about myself. I started to seek out ways I could create connections and support understanding between groups, even groups beyond my Latinx and WASP heritage. When I returned for Christmas dinners with both sides of my family, the not-fitting-in didn’t bother me as much. Though even now there are times when I feel like an island.
Some people don’t realize (I was one of them) that interracial marriage was illegal in many states until 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the pivotal case of Loving v. Virginia. Since then, rates of intermarriage have risen. In 2015, 1 in 6 newlywed couples were of mixed race according to Pew Research Center data. It should come as no surprise that the numbers of children of mixed race and culture also are rising. Projections for the 2020 US Census suggest that people who identify with two or more races comprise the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in our country, with an increase of a whopping 36 percent from 2010 to 2020. In contrast, the Latinx population is predicted to increase by 23 percent over the same period, while non-Hispanic whites will increase by only 1 percent.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry states that for most multiracial children “growing up associated with multiple races and cultures is enriching, rewarding, and contributes to healthy adult adjustment”. Yet the Academy recognized that multiracial children have unique emotional needs and urged caregivers to seek out books and movies that feature multiracial characters to serve as positive role models. I’m thrilled by this recommendation, by this validation of what we, as authors and publishers of books for young people, do. The Other Half of Empty by Rebecca Balcárcel, Color Me In by Natasha Diaz, Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay, and Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert are some KidLit stories that center the biracial/bicultural experience. My novels also feature protagonists who are half-white, half-Latinx. Book characters of mixed race and mixed cultures, like the people who inspire them, can be portrayed as islands and/or bridges, depending on the time, the place, and whose company they are keeping.
In these days where divisive words of hate and anger are so prevalent, it is even more important to highlight the strengths that come with the biracial/bicultural experience. We need to celebrate the potential of these individuals to be bridges while acknowledging the pain that accompanies seeing yourself as an island. Perhaps through literature we can provide a small sliver of the community that these young people of multiracial and multicultural heritage crave as well as inspire them to be the bridges they all have the potential to be.
This Train Is Being Held by Ismée Williams is out now. Order the book here!
Ismée Williams is a pediatric cardiologist by day and an accomplished author by night. Her first book with Abrams, Water in May, was released in 2017 to critical acclaim. She lives in New York City.