Help Wanted: Race Jargon For Kid/YA Books

Is my protagonist a ...
  • Person of color?
  • Asian-American?
  • Asian (no hyphen) American?
  • Brown?
  • South Asian American?
  • Bengali-American?
  • Desi?
  • Non-white?
  • A minority?
  • Multicultural?

(WHAT THE HECK AM I? Who cares? Most of North America.)

Please help: How do you define yourself by race in America today and why?


Solvang Sherrie said…
Ha! I was puzzling over this as I made some edits today because I describe my character as having a perpetual tan so everybody just thought he was outside all the time. But that's how I would describe myself. I never call myself a race because I'm mixed. When I fill out forms, I check most of the boxes because they apply. So what's the answer, Mitali? Tell me!!
Mitali Perkins said…
Isn't it a crazy world where one of your primary descriptors has to be "mixed"?

My own self-labeling differs depending on my context. Sometimes I'm "Indian," sometimes "Bengali," sometimes "Asian American," sometimes nothing.

Wish we lived in a world where I could just say "I'm human, baby. How about you?" But I wouldn't want to lose the spice of ethnicity, either.

It's a quandary.
Becky Levine said…
I just realized the other day that I'll be putting a mixed-potential-marriage into my 1912 WIP. Something that had been simmering turned into an active choice. Because it's 1912 and because it would very much be an issue at that time, I think I'm going to be able to manage it right out in dialogue--where one friend asks another what she thinks the parents will do/say about...X.

But this is only possible because the nationality/religon was so MUCH of a "problem" back then that it is an impact on the story. I hate having to figure out whether/how to deal with all this when it's part of who the character is, and we want that known, but it's not a focal point, in and of itself, in a scene. Sheesh. :)
Sayantani said…
I think that each of those labels might work depending on context - In a group of other Indians, I'm often Bengali, but in a group of white Americans, I'm a 'person of color' - and then all the derivations in between. I choose to say Asian-American because I'm consciously announcing my alliance with others of Asian heritage however externally imposed/arbitrary that category is originally. ie. I think sometimes we make purposeful choices to ally with others for sociopolitical reasons, for reasons of solidarity and community that may not be based on anything 'internal' (like language, culture, country of origin) -- but even still I find those alliances really nourishing and important. Of course I also went to Brown University - so a lot of us POC at Brown often called ourselves "browns from Brown"... :) With my kids (who are Bengali-German), the one point I STICK to is that they're not 1/2 anything - they are Bengali AND German AND American AND whatever else. I hate the idea that someone's identity can get reduced to halves! (identity is like love to me, it can't be divided!)
eluper said…
I always wondered if a blond-haired blue-eyed guy from Johannesburg could call himself African American. And I suppose if you're from Israel, you could classify yourself as Middle Eastern.

I have a little bit of a whole bunch of different nationalities in me including English, Russian, Polish, Romanian, and a few other minor things. When it finally comes out that I am also Jewish, it's like that's the answer they were looking for, like I've been stuck in that category.

Jewish isn't even a nationality or a race! Ugh.

It is sad to me that we have to have this discussion at all.
Best retort ever: "I'm human, baby! How 'bout you?" :-)
tanita davis said…
I was actually asked this by someone who was trying to be more open and helpful with her blog and present multicultural book choices to her readers who were seeking them. She asked me if she should describe the characters by color or something else.

I suggested she just put them in a list and leave it at that. Because really? We're going to get caught up, with something like that, in degrees of multiculturalism... and frankly, we have enough problems.

I have rejected the food meme - nobody in any of my books has chocolatey skin -- but it's tricky sometimes to bring it up, even. It has to be germane to the text, so I try to keep racial things to throwaway lines when a person is in a mirror, or dealing with their very thick curly hair, etc. etc. -- because it matters little to our human story, most of the time, who we are -- to ourselves, at least.

I define myself as African American, and refer to myself as black, except when I'm trying really hard to be PC. ;) I think of my Indian girlfriends as South Asian unless we're being informal, and then they're the Desi Grrlz.

Worse: imagine my sister, who is Cambodian American... and adopted into an African American family. I think the word we're after is multicultural.
Mordena said…
A British friend tells me her college professor keeps referring to "African Americans" when he's talking about black Brits -- apparently he's adopted the term without thinking it through. :)
Doret said…
A protagonist or person doesn't have to be just one thing. There can be overlap.

Though I never use Non-white.

For me Black and African American are interchangeable. I use African American when I want to get PC proper with it.

A person's race is an important part of their make up, it should be defined.

I like discussions like this, there's nothing wrong with trying to get racial descriptives right.

I have two pet peeves related to this.

1. When non- Black authors describe their characters as African American.

It's too census formal. To me it says the author isn't used to interacting with Black people on a regular bases.

2. When people say they don't see color when they read.
Jacquie said…
I always look to my daughter and her friends when I’m writing about kids of various races and cultures. We live in a very multicultural community (in Canada) with a high percentage of people from China, Taiwan, the Philippians, and Indian, so it seems natural that my characters should reflect that cultural mix. When my daughter and her friends were in elementary school, race didn’t seem to be an issue (the kids talked about coming from different countries, but not so much about race). Now that they are in high school, there seems to be more racial identification. Everyone is assumed to be Canadian, so that seems to go without saying, but the kids whose families are from China or Taiwan refer to themselves as “Asian,” the kids whose families came from the Philippians seem to refer to themselves as Philippine or Philippino, rather than Asian, and kids whose families came from India refer to themselves as “Brown” (I’m not sure of the others). My daughter’s ancestry is French, Italian, English, Scottish, Ukrainian and Latvian. Our extended family also includes African ancestry (via Haiti) and Indian ancestry (via Fiji). As a family, we don’t really identify with any one of these ancestral countries (though we try to celebrate or recognize all of them in some way), nor do we identify with the terms “Caucasian” or “White” (though maybe “Caucasian” feels better than being associated with the color or lack of color, “white”), and my nieces and nephews who are “mixed race” don’t seem to identify with one side more than the other (though people who don’t know them sometimes feel the need to categorize them). We also have several friends who are Caucasian and have adopted children from China. Those kids are growing up with different issues of identity.

This may seem simplistic, but what I always taught my daughter and what I try to do in my writing is to see a person first (ie. a girl who has curly black hair, a girl who has orange hair, a boy who uses a wheelchair, etc. instead of a Black girl, a Redhead, a Disabled person, etc.).

It is good to hear what other people have to share on this topic.
I say Asian when I'm talking about our culture in general. I say "I'm Chinese" when I'm making a race joke (about my cheapness or crazy Tiger mother or piano playing or...) I say American when I'm contrasting myself from the FOBs or actual Asians in Asia. I rarely say Asian-American b/c hyphenates are always kind of inherently white-centric, but I'll use it if I'm trying to talk about Asians and As-Ams in one sentence and I need to differentiate.
Akilah said…
I'm black. My daughter is African-American. It has more to do with how we were raised than anything. As in, I was raised in a predominately black setting; she's been around mostly white people (who she calls Caucasian) most of her life.

Doret said African American sounds too census formal, but my daughter and her friends have been taught to say it that way, so it doesn't sound inauthentic to me when non-black authors refer to black characters that way.
Billy Lorne said…
Akilah just made me think of something. Racial identifiers would also rely heavily on POV of character(s); settings, and real life experience (or darn good research). For instance, in the Bronx (NYC) where I was born and raised, I'm white, not Irish-American and certainly not Anglo. Black folk are black, not African-American. If I'm going to write a gritty street scene, I'll stay true to life as possible, without being offensive. So it's "the white boys down the block...the black girls in class...the Puerto Rican/Cuban/Dominican dudes on 145th Street." Interestingly, the the kids I knew growing up whose parents were from India referred to themselves as East Indians. I know, this stuff gets complicated. I'm getting a headache!
aquafortis said…
Hi Mitali! I can't believe I'm just now finding this post. I'm so behind on blog reading.

I typed out this whole long thing and then Blogger had an error, so suffice it to say this:

I love that people are becoming more aware of the diversity of terminology, and that the discussion is much more visible now. The thing that frustrates me about it, though, is that now I'm never sure what to call people for fear of offending or being inaccurate. :)