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.
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.
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.