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Mixed Heritage in Young Adult Literature

Raising a multiracial, adopted daughter, I could find very few children’s books whose characters resembled her. So when I was a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I took advantage of its faculty, library, and other resources to hunt down YA fiction for her with multiracial and/or transracially adopted characters. Meanwhile, her honors English class, in which she was one of several multiracial students, was reading American classics with multiracial characters (Cora in James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans; Janey in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God. Although multiraciality plays a major role in each—the stigma attached to being “mixed” endangers both characters—neither teacher nor students ever mentioned it. On investigating further, I discovered that no critical study of mixed-heritage in YA existed. I had found my next book project.

About young adults with mixed heritage, from the introduction
Every day, answering the question “who are you?” gets more complicated, and the complexity is reflected at all levels of youth experience: at home, at school, in the workplace, and in the culture at large. Yet teens are still expected to fit a “multi” identity into a world of binary choices. In homage to the ideal of diversity, we have replaced the old “melting pot” ideal with the “salad bowl.” But this still excludes those of mixed heritage (unless we visualize adding a vegetable that is half-tomato and half-celery).

About names, from the introduction
The right to define ourselves is important for everyone, but most of all for those prohibited from doing so in the past. This right includes the right to redefine and rename. Names can change for many reasons; one reason is that the group named has lost control of how it is used. The previously neutral term “mental retardation” acquired a pejorative connotation after “retard” became a schoolyard epithet; thereafter, “developmentally disabled” took its place. Accusations of “political correctness” are heard when a group tries to regain control over its descriptors. Such complaints are valid only if we assume groups do not have the right to name themselves.

The tragic mulatto in television, excerpted from ch.1, Mulatto Heiress to Tragic Mulatto: The Evolution of an Archetype
Most Famous Tragic Mulatto honors go to Mr. Spock of the first Star Trek series, in nonstop reruns since the 1960s. The son of a Vulcan father and human mother, Spock is forever trying to negate his human side and gain recognition and acceptance, to pass as purely Vulcan. While his human shipmates repeatedly try to catch him out in acting “human,” he repeatedly fends off emotion—including the pain caused by his mixed status.

An endangered species, the tragic mulatto archetype is far from extinct. Although white authors created the stereotype, contemporary white authors of multiracial characters often seem oblivious to the gloomy cultural ghost hovering cloudlike above them, dripping sorrowful subtext onto their pages. Black and multiracial authors tolerate the tragic mulatto with humorous exasperation, an annoying relative who can’t be sent packing because—after all—she is family.

From ch.4, Divided Loyalties: Immigrant Mixed Heritage
Beyond our social constructs of race lie a multitude of complex cultures and ethnicities, including white heritage. Whether derived from southern slave-owners, Irish indentured servants, Norwegian fishers, or Polish farmers—their European American ancestry belongs to these characters every bit as much as their Chinese or Japanese or Cuban heritage. Dominant-caste ancestry is still ancestry. Recognizing and acknowledging the failings and achievements of one’s forebears is important. We are here because of them. Their choices, good and bad, set the stage for our own. In fiction, as in real life, we can’t heal past evils by pretending they don’t exist. To produce authentic fiction, novelists need to start depicting the white ethnicities of their mixed-heritage families.