My son is not biracial–not in the true sense of the word. He’s only a quarter Indian, just enough to have my dark eyes and hair, and hopefully some facility with Hindi. Chances are, he won’t marry an Indian, though it’s possible he’ll fall for someone half-Indian, or quarter Indian, as mixed race couples become more and more the norm. Mir is, instead, what photographer Kip Fulbeck (Part Asian 100% Hapa) refers to as multiracial in his book, Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids.
Books about multiracial kids are not the norm; biracial characters are still new to the young adult section, let alone the picture book one. And yet, in just two weeks, I’ve stumbled on two kid-appropriate books about growing up mixed, with two entirely different takes on the matter.
The first, Fulbeck’s Mixed, is primarily a photo book, the sort of thing you might expect to see in on a coffee table in an all-beige room filled with high end, also beige, furniture. It’s light on commentary, though the foreword by Maya Soetoro Ng, half-sister to President Obama, does give some useful context to the importance of a book about mixed race kids (and certainly more than the perfunctory afterword by Cher).
On the surface, the book may seem more pretty than functional: the kids within are fairly normal looking boys and girls, with no exotic angles or body modifications, no ethnic clothing or jewelry. And that’s the beauty of it, because for all our tolerant intent, most mixed kids (myself included), are expected to stand out in some way. Rarely, though, is that case: most of us take after one parent, an appearance that is as deceptive as it is liberating.
The liberating aspects of being mixed race are easily apparent: on the surface, it’s easier to belong, and there’s a rich cultural heritage each parent can explore with their child, creating special mom/dad-baby time (I regularly set aside special Hindi time with my son, and we make Indian meals together). My skin color takes me places my husband’s does not: I’ve been taken for a local in the Bahamas and Fiji; riding the bus into traditionally Hispanic and black parts of town, I’m seen to belong, while my Anglo-Australian husband is openly stared at.
The downside comes in the form of socialization and identity. Most mixed race kids are more aware of one particular culture than the other, and determining an identity that fits with both sides of a family gathering is challenging, even as an adult. Many times, when I’ve said I’m half-Indian, the person I’m speaking to has asked why I’m not wearing a sari, why there’s no dot on my forehead, and if I’m a fan of Ayurveda. These are questions I (somewhat gracefully) field from adults on a semi-regular basis.
As a child, the questions were more intense: Why aren’t you brown like me? Why aren’t you white like me? Why do you have more hair on your arms than me? (The last, asked by fair-haired twins when I was around seven, had me looking into bleaching my arm hair ten years later.) Life is particularly difficult when there are no identifying race features for one parent: I am often taken for my son’s nanny, as he’s pale like his father; only his dark eyes and hair come from me*.
Books like Fulbeck’s Mixed, with simple, easily accessible portraits, are an important gateway for mixed race kids, their parents, and their peers, demonstrating that mixed kids are just that: kids, kids who shop at The Gap and draw with crayons, and hug teddy bears the same as every other kid on their street, or in their school. Moreover, they give mixed race kids and their families a chance to see other mixed race families and have the all-important “they’re just like me!” moment we, as humans, tend to crave.
The second book, Spork, is not so favorable. Written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, is the story of everyone’s not-so-favorite utensil. A little bit fork, a little bit spoon, but not enough of either to fit in, Spork journeys through mealtimes alone, passed over in favor of his single-use counterparts. Yet Spork’s happy ending is a transient one: He has only one purpose, and is only useful as long as there is a baby, incapable of wielding fork or spoon, in the house.
Although it may seem that books like Mixed and Spork are unnecessary, they fill an important niche. A 1990 report from the US Census Bureau found there were at least 900,000 biracial marriages, while data tabulated by Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld shows that the number of interracial, or mixed race marriages in the US has increased from 4.4 percent in 1990 to 7.5 percent in 2000**. In 2000, 6.8 million Americans identified as multiracial on the census. Books which give mixed kids a space in which they can explore their identities, and the inherent problems of growing up mixed, are important, and deserve attention. Yet books such as Spork are possibly more detrimental than no books at all.
On the surface, Spork is a sweet story. It promotes individuality, a key component of developing self-esteem as a biracial child. Several phrases within the text are spot on, and had me nodding along. As a picture book, Spork’s final use is a fun surprise, the sort of reveal children love. But Spork’s joy at finding his place is a little too trite, and a little too condescending for the book to make its way onto our shelves any time soon.
Unlike Mixed, Spork focuses on the limitations of being mixed race. Rather than celebrating his mixed heritage–understandably difficult in a busy kitchen, I’ll grant–Spork is so desperate for acceptance that he settles for half a life, half usefulness. Spork is the equivalent of a non-career translator, or a student teaching English to make ends meet while holidaying overseas. His usefulness is tied specifically to his mixed race rather than to his value an individual. He is, in essence, the antithesis of what those of us of mixed race aspire to me: Merely the sum of his parts.
* My profile picture is misleading, as flashes wash me out; add three or four shades and you’re closer to the truth.
** M. Rosenfeld, 2007, Figure & worksheet, supplementary data for The Age of Independence: Interracial Unions, Same-Sex Unions, and the Changing American Family, Harvard University Press.