Guest Post: Being Biracial and Writing Biracial Characters

We have a fantastic guest post on biracial identity and writing biracial characters by author Jackie Lau!

Jackie Lau writes romantic comedies with Chinese-Canadian characters. She studied engineering and worked as a geophysicist before turning to writing romance novels. When she’s not writing, she enjoys gelato, gourmet donuts, cooking, wandering the city, and reading on the balcony when it’s raining. She lives in Toronto with her husband.

Ice Cream Lover
A | BN | K | AB
As a biracial woman, I’m always on the lookout for good biracial representation in fiction, especially romance, and I’d always planned to write my own story with a biracial heroine. I recently published Ice Cream Lover, a rom-com with a heroine who has the same background as I do. The book also deals with grief and identity issues, based on my own experiences.

This is, of course, not the only #ownvoices biracial romance out there. But although biracial heroes and heroines are not terribly uncommon in the romance genre, few are actually written by authors who identify as biracial. Many of these characters are written by White authors, and unfortunately, I often find their portrayal problematic.

Biracial Representation in Romance

I think much of my frustration with many biracial characters stems from why White authors might choose to write biracial characters, specifically characters with one White parent and one POC parent. It often feels like the author wanted to hop on the diversity train or get cookies for having a POC lead, but didn’t really want to write a POC character. They might decide a half-White biracial character would be easiest for them to write and may assume they don’t need to do any research. Perhaps they also see biracial characters as more palatable for White readers, too.

There are several features that I’ve noticed among many biracial characters in romance fiction that lead me to these conclusions. For example, the biracial character is frequently a token character, maybe the only POC in the book. These characters are typically lacking POC friends and family. Frequently, they are only children, raised by their White family, and their POC parent has been absent or dead since they were quite young.

These biracial characters often seem White on the inside, but look slightly “exotic”—cringe-worthy language is common. Their “exotic” looks may be fetishized by the other hero or heroine, who is inevitably White. The biracial character may reflect on their looks in ways that, frankly, seem odd to me and don’t make much sense in their point of view.

Biracial characters paired with another POC are uncommon. The biracial hero/heroine rarely seems conscious of the fact that they are surrounded by White people and has no identity issues as a result. On the rare occasions they do, it’s handled in a simplistic way.

After seeing these things in a book or two, I didn’t think much of it, but when I noticed it again and again, it became frustrating. The poor representation has also turned some readers off all books with biracial characters, and I’ve seen biracial characters in general—even those written by biracial authors, in fact—disparaged as a cop-out, etc.

This is hurtful to me: I’m not biracial just to provide convenient diversity in the world. I think it’s important to express frustration with poor biracial representation in a way that doesn’t make biracial people feel lesser or discourage biracial authors from writing about their own experiences. But I totally understand the frustration with many of the biracial characters that exist in romance.

I’m not going to list books that I think do a crappy job of this, nor am I going to list a few books by White authors that do an okay job of it—they do exist, but they are not the majority. Rather, I’m going to talk about my experiences and how they relate to the biracial heroine I wrote in Ice Cream Lover.

Of course, I didn’t write this book just to hop on the diversity train (ugh). I wanted to write a story of someone similar to me. I wanted to see my reality reflected on the page and show that we deserve to have our stories told honestly.

My Background and My Biracial Heroine

Both of my parents were born in Canada and grew up here. My father is White, and his family is originally from the British Isles, many generations back. Some of his ancestors were Loyalists who came to what is now Canada after the American Revolution. My mother’s family is from southern China, and her parents came to Canada in the 1950s. My parents met when they were studying at the University of Toronto.

I gave the Chloe, heroine of Ice Cream Lover, a similar family history to my own. I then did one of the things that I just ranted about: I killed off her mother and gave her no other Asian family, aside from an aunt who lives in another country. While writing this book, I was conscious of any similarities between it and the romances I described above. But there are some significant differences.

Chloe’s mother died when she was twenty, but her mother was around for her entire childhood, as were her grandparents and her aunt. So this isn’t a case of her being raised by her White family and having no memories of her other family.

It’s also similar to my own life: my mother died unexpectedly when I was twenty-five.

I wanted to explore the feelings of a heroine who had a grief similar to my own, and how the loss of her mother (and her maternal grandparents around the same time) caused her to think a lot about her identity.

Chloe has a large White family—her father is one of six kids and her paternal grandmother is alive—and she’s conscious of how she doesn’t look like any of them. She feels like she doesn’t quite belong with her own family, but at the same time, she’s frustrated with herself for feeling this way because they’re still family.

Like me, Chloe gets asked, “What are you?” and complains about the word “exotic.” She has a somewhat strained relationship with her father, who says he never saw her mother as being Asian, and Chloe feels like he’s dismissive of his wife’s experiences.

Chloe tried to connect more with her Chinese heritage after her mother’s death, partly in an attempt to feel closer to her mom. She tried to learn the language, except that there are no classes in Toronto for Toisanese, her maternal family’s language, so she took Mandarin. She read about Chinese history and folklore, but it didn’t give her what she was looking for.

The thing is, Chloe’s mother was removed from all those things, too. Her mom didn’t speak Mandarin (and only spoke Toisanese poorly) and grew up in Canada at a time when there were fewer Chinese Canadians and a lot of pressure to assimilate. Chloe’s mom was made to feel ashamed for her background and how she looked, so learning about those things doesn’t give Chloe any connection to her mother.

Chloe is not a token POC in Ice Cream Lover. Her family in Toronto is all White—though her Asian aunt does show up later in the story—but her best friend is a POC, as is the hero. Drew isn’t biracial, but his father’s family has a similar history to Chloe’s mother’s family, and she’s excited when she first learns this because it’s rare for her to meet someone with that background.

While some of Chloe’s experiences relate to being biracial, some are simply related to being third generation. Like me, the other Chinese Canadians she knew growing up were second generation and had immigrant parents, none of them from the same area of China as her family. Chloe doesn’t feel like she belongs in Chinatown or that she’s part of the Chinese community. If she says she’s Chinese Canadian, she feels almost like a fraud. It’s like nobody sees her as being a part of their group.

Sometimes being biracial is not so much being both as it is being neither.

I admit that sometimes I, too, feel like a “fraud,” using a Chinese surname in my pen name and writing about Chinese-Canadian characters. It’s part of who I am, and yet in some ways I’m quite different from many of the people I know with the same label. I have to remind myself that this doesn’t make what I’ve gone through invalid.

Media about Asian Canadians and Asian Americans often centers on young people who are second generation and the culture clash with their immigrant parents. However, this is not mine—or Chloe’s—experience. Sometimes I’ll see a situation described as something all Asian Canadians or Asian Americans can relate to, and when I can’t relate to it, I’ll feel like there’s something wrong with me.

Not Another Family Wedding
A | BN | K | AB
There isn’t one correct biracial (or third generation) experience, of course. Biracial people have a wide variety of experiences, but I hope readers who are biracial will relate to Chloe, even if the specifics of their lives vary, in a way that I don’t feel when I read romances with biracial heroes/heroines written by White authors. Although Chloe is not the first biracial heroine I’ve written—Natalie in Not Another Family Wedding is also biracial—it’s the first book I’ve written with a focus on biracial identity issues.

I plan to write more biracial characters in the future and am currently working on a novella series with four biracial siblings, who all have different relationships with their hometown and their background. I would love to see more biracial characters written by biracial authors, and more thoughtful representations by other authors.

I don’t think White authors need to avoid writing biracial main characters, but if you want to write one, seriously think about why you are doing it. If you are just doing it for diversity points and think it’s exotic and cool, then…don’t. If you think White/POC biracial characters are easy to write and basically White, then…don’t. I hope my reflections on writing about Chloe above show how very not simple it can be, and there’s an awful lot I left out, like racial “passing.” I’m also not saying that you can never write biracial characters who are surrounded by White people and don’t have any POC family…but be aware that this is commonly done and frequently handled poorly.

I do think, however, that stories focusing on biracial identity issues, like Ice Cream Lover, should be #ownvoices. I also recognize that many parts of my experience would not apply to, say, a biracial heroine with a White father and Black mother growing up in the US. If I wrote a story with such a heroine, I certainly would not say it was #ownvoices and would not feel comfortable writing in detail about the heroine’s identity.

Chloe’s life is strongly shaped by her background and family, and the way she interacts with the world and sees herself has changed following her mother’s death. She chooses to open an ice cream shop specializing in Asian-inspired flavors, whereas she had previously planned to be a dentist. Chloe isn’t just like me, but in some ways, her story is my story, and people like us need the chance to tell our own stories. We deserve to see ourselves reflected in fiction in a way that rings true.

Comments are Closed

  1. k says:

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful post!

    This really sums up a lot of my feelings about being biracial:”Sometimes being biracial is not so much being both as it is being neither.”

    Especially for me, because I look a lot less Asian than most half-Asians I know. When my white dad introduces me to his friends/coworkers, they say “she must look like her mom.” When my Korean mom’s Korean friends see me, they say, “she looks just like her dad.” So basically I look like neither.

    And being a military brat who moved around as a kid didn’t help. I’m still working on an answer to “where are you from? that is both short and feels true. I feel like a fraud when I tell people I’m from Washington State when I only lived there for four years in college. But it’s also where my dad’s family lives, so as ill-fitting as this answer feels, it’s the best I’ve got right now.

    Anyway, that’s another unique biracial story. Not actually sure how relevant it is to this post now that I’ve typed it out. But thank you Jackie, for writing the post and sharing your experience. I look forward to reading your characters’ experiences too!

  2. Nicole says:

    Thanks for sharing this- I’m also biracial, and you’re spot on about how difficult it can be to find community, or good biracial representation. My (Indian) father also faced (and adopted) a lot of pressure to assimilate, so what little of my culture I’m connected to comes from my grandmother.

    It’s also so deeply frustrating to see biracial representation done poorly, and it’s also irritating that because there’s so little good biracial rep, when that representation shows an experience different from my own it’s also frustrating! Which isn’t to say it’s invalid- it’s just that we need a lot more authentic, realistic biracial representation. I’d love to see more characters who have to navigate these paths, and the ways they do, so it feels like there’s less pressure on each individual one to represent all of us.

    I don’t have great words to express how much I appreciate that you’re talking about your experience. We need to create spaces for those of us who have non-standard backgrounds to talk about our experiences and hopes and dreams. I loved Not Another Family Wedding- it was really wonderful to see a heroine who was so sure about what she wanted from life, and had a kick-ass career in academic science. I’m looking forward to Ice Cream Lover!

  3. Amber says:

    Thank you for this interesting article. I appreciate the fact that the perspective is Asian/White, as I feel like (in the US anyway) biracial seems to often be shorthand for Black/White. My daughter is biracial (Asian/White), and I’m glad that she has authors like this to give her better representation in romance by the time she’s old enough to read them. I’m going to check these out myself. And now I’m hungry for Asian-inspired flavor ice cream!

  4. Mzcue says:

    Thank you for this article. I found you books through the Seasoned Romance promo last month, and read Ice Cream lover only last week.

    This exchange between Cloe and her white dad knocked me back on my heels. She points out that her father saw his late Chinese Canadian wife as different from white, which he felt was as it should be.

    Cloe says: “You think we should just deny that race exists,” I say, “but I can’t. That’s a luxury only white people have, and you can’t seem to get it through your head that I’m not white. I don’t look just like you.”

    She goes on: “You think you’re progressive because you married my mother,” I say, “but it’s still easy for you to be ignorant of so many things. You don’t understand me at all, like I’m an outsider in my own family.”

    Lau, Jackie. Ice Cream Lover (Baldwin Village Book 2) . Jackie Lau Books. Kindle Edition.

    As a white person it is seductive to assume that color blindness is a good perspective on race, but in truth it’s terribly dismissive and insular. Perhaps I encountered Ice Cream Lover at just the right moment in my own life to be ready to hear the message, but it never struck me as clearly as this.

  5. Erica H says:

    I am so happy this issue has been brought up. I get so frustrated by “token” biracial characters. Biracial characters are rarely portrayed well or authentically – I tend to hold tightly books that do it well.

  6. chacha1 says:

    Thank you for this, I really appreciate the way SBTB provides a platform for writers and readers of romance to discuss issues like the various identity experiences that are so integral to creating good characters.

    I write a lot of non-white (including biracial) characters, and I’m white. So when I read something like this it makes me doubt myself a bit. 🙂 But I also write a lot of non-straight characters, and I’m straight. My perspective on both is that I live in a city that is majority non-white, in which bi-racial can mean an infinity of combinations (as can ‘gender identity’). It’s a city where there is a significant population of non-straight people and where that population has all the rights and freedoms of straight people (as, I hope obviously, I believe they should). I am very closely connected to a number of non-straight people, and I chose to marry a non-white man myself.

    I guess I’ve always felt that being in the middle of those experiences gives me a valid basis for writing about people who are not exactly like me. I’m not color blind, but I don’t write about racial identity; I write about love. My characters’ average age is well over 30, so by the time most of my characters meet, they have dealt with most of whatever identity issues they may have had. My stories are based in Los Angeles (with infrequent excursions to other large, diverse cities) because that’s the city I know best. My #ownvoices story would be tedious to write more than once (a blog post was sufficient). So I write other voices.

  7. EC Spurlock says:

    Thank you for this insightful article, Jackie. I am a White person doing my best to include POC and biracial characters in my writing in a respectful and honest way. While I am not biracial, I am a bicultural second-generation immigrant myself and it struck me how similar our experiences were in some ways. I too was pushed to “choose a side” from birth, while at the same time feeling pressure to assimilate and conform from the larger community. I too was caught between trying to maintain cultural traditions diluted by time and distance while also trying not to be defined by them. I spent my life defending my unique identity and personhood from both families as well as the expectations of others around me. In many ways we are not so different.

    I do recognize that unlike me, you are not able to declare “I am neither” and walk away. I married a man whose family roots go back to Jamestown and moved 2000 miles away in the hope of finally being judged on my own merits. My husband then spent the rest of his life trying to erase both of my cultures, and getting frustrated that he could never quite succeed.

  8. This is a fantastic post! I am also Asian/White and though I’ve read biracial characters in fiction before, I always found them to be unrealistic. I’m lucky enough to have been exposed to both sides of my cultural and racial heritage, but there are aspects of both I don’t know. So I find it unrealistic when a biracial characters knows really obscure cultural things. TV Tropes describes biracial characters as “not too foreign” for a white audience. But biracial people have different experiences growing up. We’re not a one size fits all or a particular racial combination fits all demographic.

  9. Francine says:

    “Sometimes being biracial is not so much being both as it is being neither.”

    This hit me right in the feels. I often describe it as “having one foot in each door, but never fully being in either room”. Thank you so much for this post, it really spoke to me!

    I love the safe space created here for people to discuss their own experiences, because the point is that everyone’s experiences will inherently NOT be the same therefore we should share and learn from each other. And what better way to do this than by discussing and sharing stories?

    I also am bi-racial with a Costa Rican Mom, and White American Dad; I regularly have mini-arguments with my dad about his views and share many sassy *looks* with my Mom; and as a girl with Costa Rican heritage where other Latinos in my area are mostly Mexican, I also feel like I can’t identify with the people around me. Mexico and Costa Rica have some shared heritage for sure, but our cuisine, for example- QUITE DIFFERENT.

    Courtney Milan’s and Alyssa Cole’s wonderful works have helped me in ways it would take a novel for me to express and I really, really look forward to reading Jackie Lau. You guys make me have hope, because romance isn’t at the exclusion of race, or religion, or family, or education, or health, or wealth, or pets (cats vs. dogs, anyone?). Love is about seeing it all in your partner(s) and doing what you can to bring their world into yours and yours into theirs.

  10. ket says:

    To add a slightly shallow comment to this great discussion, can I also thank you, Jackie, for bringing this hot cover into the world? 🙂 Yay ice cream! 😉

    (Thanks, from a white child of immigrants who grew up in the US with a funny name, funny food, and funny customs, but no visual difference from the first colonists…)

  11. MsCellanie says:

    Thanks for this essay –
    I really related to this sentence:

    Sometimes I’ll see a situation described as something all Asian Canadians or Asian Americans can relate to, and when I can’t relate to it, I’ll feel like there’s something wrong with me.

    I’m a POC (not Asian Canadian), and in a lot of ways, when I read books that have experiences that I’m supposed to be able to relate to – but don’t, it’s really distancing or distracting or unsettling or something (I don’t know what the right word is). I end up finding it “easier” to read Regencies or Victorians or something that’s so removed from me, I can focus on the parts that are universal (you know, the love & HEA part) rather than what is wrong with me (or the author – sometimes it’s the author).

    I’m glad there are more and more #ownvoices authors writing and being thoughtful in how they write so that more people can see more of themselves in the books we read and so that, as readers, we can increase our understanding of what a “valid” experience is.

  12. Darlynne says:

    This article is outstanding and eye-opening. Thank you for every word.

  13. Eilis Flynn says:

    Yes, THIS. I’m biracial – Japanese mother and white father – but whites look at me and think I’m all Asian. This annoys me – and in fact, when they play the “What are you?” game, I have my fun answering. Being diverse in a white world has had its challenges.

  14. Taylor says:

    Thank you for this! Another biracial (White father, East Indian mother) person here. With an added twist of looking vaguely Hispanic, and constantly having to put people at ease when they don’t know what box to put me in. And yes, a lifetime’s worth of being told by one side of the family that I look like the other side.

  15. LMC says:

    Thank you, Jackie! I really enjoy your work. I am third generation Asian and am very familiar with the “Where are you from?” questions and even my daughter has to field questions of why she doesn’t speak Chinese.

    Yes, I appreciate how true the Asians beats feel in your books, but I also appreciate the subjects you tackle (mental illness, childless by choice) and just characters I really like. Thanks!

  16. Katie says:

    I’m also Asian/White (American). The idea of being neither resonates for me, too. But honestly, the thing in this post that most reminded me of my life? Being asked “What are you?” That has happened less and less as I’ve gotten older, presumably because by the time the people around me reached high school and college they figured out it was rude. It was usually followed at once by “Do you speak Chinese?” (No).

    I’m also third generation and didn’t grow up geographically close to my Asian family members, so I don’t feel much of a connection to Chinese culture. Also, the area I grew up in was very White, and there wasn’t much exposure to anything but relatively conservative White people. There was a post about diversity in writing on Jennifer Crusie’s blog a while ago, and there was a comment from an Asian person that really struck me as reflecting my life. It was basically: It was like a white person’s life but with more annoying questions. Because of the way race in America has worked during my lifetime, that’s what my experience was. It probably would have been drastically different if the non-White part of my equation was Black or Hispanic, for example, but that was how it was for me.

  17. Berry says:

    Thanks for this essay, you really articulated precisely what bothers me about how biracial people are depicted in fiction. Especially not having POC friends/family or any connection to their POC culture. When some of the romances I read do include some acknowledgment of a biracial characters race, they usually only focus on internalized racism and feeling not-white enough, as if that’s all White authors can imagine a person’s response to being biracial could be. I’ve read a couple of series like that recently and it’s made me frustrated and sad.

    Some of these issues are common to POC characters in general, there’s just the added ickiness of feeling that mixed-race folks are more palatable to white audiences.

    Anyway, I loved Not Another Family Wedding, especially the extended family in the book, and can’t wait to check out Ice Cream Lover.

  18. Jo says:

    Hi Jackie. Firstly, I’m sorry to say that this is the first time I have come across your name in relation to romance books and I’m going to stalk your Goodreads page once I’ve finished this!

    Anyway, here is my addition to the conversation and apologies in advance for the length and how off topic it goes.

    I am also mixed-race(UK terminology!)of a Nigerian father who came here in the ’60s and an English mother and although I’ve read some books with biracial characters (mainly female), most seem to have the whole tragic mulatto trope or something approaching it which has always annoyed me, because that is not what my experience was. I’ve never read a story about someone with MY experiences and feelings and certainly none that have resonated with me in any way.

    I was born in London in (gulp) 1971 and although there weren’t many of ‘me’ back then, I did live in a very multi-cultural (AKA impoverished!) area of the city and went to very mixed school including an all girls Catholic secondary school so never really felt out of place, even though I was the only mixed person of any kind I can remember apart from my sisters during most of my childhood. TBH, despite whatever reaction I got from people around me, I have never felt ‘neither’, always ‘both’ and have always represented myself that way even before doing so was optional in terms of boxes on forms. I always ticked both options for black and white since as far back as I can remember and refuse to be labelled in any way I don’t think is authentic by anyone, no matter who they are. They will identify me (to my face anyway) as I want, which is as per my biology and not per their opinion. I refute any erasure of my whiteness, despite or perhaps because of what I look like, just as much as I refute any erasure of my blackness.

    But given how I was raised – a different story for another day – I always felt a disconnect to my Nigerian heritage as I was never taught the language, never met any Nigerian friends or family, was never taught the customs or even met any other kids of Nigerian parents outside of school. The only connection I had was via some foods at home and a lot of it was never really to my liking. Also, a lot of how I felt was as a direct result to the very difficult relationship I had with my dad. I suppose in many ways I’ve always felt like there was a battle of two halves going on inside me, because I do have very dual natures. But does this have anything to do with my heritage? Who knows. I’m also a Leo/Virgo cusp baby so it could be that too lol!

    However, and this is a BIG one, whereas I have never felt that pressure from others necessarily to claim a side (I choose BOTH), I was often treated badly or bullied because of it. In the US I suppose I look similar to many other much lighter skinned black people who are DOS, but here in the UK where the history is different and back in the 70’s/80’s when there were much less of us than now, I was quite obviously mixed or at some times ambiguous* and this is what has caused ‘issues’ for other people around me. I’m sad to say that I suffered the most abuse, and yes it was abuse, for YEARS from black people, both those I knew and those I didn’t. I hate so much to admit that and give fuel to any discussion against the prevalence of racism in current times, but it is what it is. Now I’m older, I understand that this reaction was (is) primarily because of the issues that stem from the US (via places like Jamaica and other Caribbean countries that the majority of black people in the UK come from) regarding those who look closer to whiteness. I don’t condone it, but understand it’s learned attitudes and behaviour that is partly due to generational trauma. But, I also think that this proximity to whiteness, or exoticness is probably what made my experiences different to many of my peers who are ‘full’ black when we were growing up.

    Thinking back, the first person I met (and became good friends with) that had my same background (both biracial black/white and specifically English mum, Nigerian dad) was when I was 20/21. He was a fair bit darker in skin tone than me and was brought up in an area with just a small percentage of non-white people and so had a totally different experience than I did. However, his friend group was SOLID and I was welcomed in too. But further on down the line, I can also now see, as you talk about, that some of the white people I was friends with over the years may well have considered me less of a ‘threat’ to them than someone who again was ‘all’ black. And for many people, I am/was the sole POC of any kind in their social group, the accidental token.

    *When I was at school and had friends who were Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Turkish, Greek Cypriot, Indian, Sri Lankan and others, the ‘what are you’ came up all the time from people I didn’t know, who sometimes would just stop me in the street. My answer would change daily depending on who I was with, but quite often was just ‘human’ with eyebrows raised when I was fed up of it. And ‘where are you from’ gets answered by London(then) and my uni city (now) as that’s where I’ve spent most of my life and where I feel most comfortable, given how frantic London is. If people want to know more, then I make them ask the exact question with the answer being I’m from here with a Nigerian father and English mother. Even now some people just can’t get their heads around the results of the UK, or more pointedly England, colonising half the planet and what it means to have a commonwealth of different countries from continents all over the world which is why so many of those people come over here – many by invitation of the UK government. And as I said above, I’ll only ever identify how I want and I encourage anyone who is of any kind of mixed heritage to the same. It’s up to us to choose our own labels and boxes not anyone else.

    Anyway, all of that (sorry it’s so much) to say I’m glad that we have a different type of biracial identity story out there, I’ll add it to my TBR once I’ve stalked your page. Maybe one day I’ll think about writing something myself, but the pesky bit about writing a book you want to be published is that you need to sit down and write it lol!

  19. Jewel Donovan says:

    Also biracial (Chinese/White), and ugh the “What ARE you?!” is one of the most irritating questions ever. Or the number of men who think calling me exotic is a compliment.

  20. Jewel Donovan says:

    Oh or the comments when I’m with my white father.

    “Who is this?”
    “My daughter.”
    “But she’s Chinese!”
    “Yes, so is my wife!”


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