DiversifYA: Adrianne Russell

AdrianneToday, Adrianne Russell joins us on the DiversifYA blog! Adrianne writes YA fiction, tweets, and blogs at The Writers Republic. She also maintains Cabinet of Curiosities, a blog dedicated to nonprofit issues and museum geekitude. Adrianne has some amazing thoughts to share with us about diversity–not just in this interview but in her own blog post too, so make sure you read both!

1. How do you identify yourself?

Of all the lenses through which I could view myself (black, female, United States citizen, plus size, writer, college graduate, sister, daughter, spouse) there’s not one in particular that truly encapsulates everything about me and that’s a good thing. I used to work really hard at dispelling myths and stereotypes and trying to change others’ minds about who and what they thought I was. Now I’ve reached that awesome stage where I realize that a person’s bigotry, fear, misunderstanding, and racism is their own cross to bear, not mine. But if I had to check a box on a census, I’m black although my family’s racial heritage is a hodge podge: white, black, Native American, and probably a few more things I’m not even aware of. That’s probably why I’m more comfortable describing myself as black instead of African-American. There’s an assumption that every black person in the U.S. is descended from African slaves but we know that’s not true. So until I can figure out where I’m from, I’m happy to call myself black.

2. What did it feel like growing up being black?

I grew up the second of four children. My father started making a large salary and became well-known in our community when I was around three years old and our lives changed drastically. Although we were well-off, my parents never let us forget that we were extremely fortunate. My father always said, “It’s my money, not yours” and the idea that everyone has to make their own way in life has always stuck with me. While the achievements and influence of others can definitely open doors, you still have to put in work and be prepared for opportunity.

My first school was amazingly diverse and I credit it for my lifelong desire to learn about other cultures, seek out new experiences, and get along with just about anybody. In junior high, I transferred to a school where I was one of three black girls in my grade and the only one in the “honors” track, so we didn’t have any classes together. The other black girls were constantly compared to me, so of course they weren’t my biggest fans. It was a struggle. I wasn’t used to being the only “fly in the buttermilk,” as my grandmother would say. Because of my family’s economic status, I experienced a lot of things that other kids didn’t and that set me apart. Plus I was never sure if people wanted to be friends with me or because of who I was related to or what they thought I could do for them. Adults often praised me for being “articulate” and “high-achieving” while my peers derided me for acting/sounding “too black” or “too white.” I never understood how I could be both. It was confusing. Thankfully, by the the time I got to high school, I stopped caring about that and decided that being me was enough and everyone else would just have to deal. But overall, my childhood was amazing and I didn’t spend every waking moment thinking about my race, despite what books/TV/movies would have you think.

3. What are the biggest challenges? Conversely, what are the quirks/perks?

One of the biggest challenges is the otherness. Your skin color isn’t something you can take off or put on. Depending on where you live, you could go an entire day without seeing anyone who looks like you. Negative assumptions are made of you based solely on how you look. Everything you do represents “the race”, good or bad (but it better be good or else), and you’re taught from an early age that you have to try twice as hard to be considered half as good. Your life can sometimes feel sharply divided between “us” (black people) and “them” (anyone who isn’t black but mostly white people), and you become a pro at altering the way you look, act, and speak in order to deal with racial and gender bias, a psyche-shattering transformation that authors Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden examined in their book “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America.” But all of those challenges have made me resilient as hell, so that’s a perk.

4. What do you wish people knew about being black?

My experience as a black person is just that–my experience. There’s no such thing as “the black vote”, or “the black lifestyle” or any other nonsensical global attribute. We’re people with the same wants, needs, and desires as anyone else. We just happen to be identified under a common racial descriptor. So be careful about assuming anything about us.

5. What are the biggest cliches/stereotypes you’ve seen?

We’re all the same. We think alike, we look alike, and we speak alike. We all know each other. Every family is broken, every black man is in jail or an absentee father, and we’re all on welfare. We’re all great dancers, know how to sing, and are religious. We all grew up in destitute neighborhoods, only listen to hip-hop, and we’re all Democrats. We only eat soul food, we all talk loud, and we don’t know how to swim.

BONUS: What is your advice for writers writing diverse characters?

Don’t be afraid to write outside of your experience. That fear only leads to even fewer diverse representations. As I wrote in a recent blog post, do your research, write authentically and honestly, and know that you’re going to make mistakes. Learn about other cultures and travel. Demolish your comfort zones. One of my huge pet peeves is that we’ve been conditioned as readers and writers to assume that the default ethnicity for characters is white, so be mindful of your biases and when they come into play, especially if you’re writing characters as people of color.

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