DiversifYA: Alex Brown

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Hey all! Meet Alex, the other half of our DiversifYA team! Alex is our Twitter genius and quiz master behind our Diversity Trivia. (So let’s all work on convincing we need many, many more of those trivia questions, okay?)

Alex is also one of the inaugural winners of SCBWI’s On-The-Verge Emerging Voices Award, created to foster the emergence of diverse voices in children’s books! So she’s generally very awesome.

After this launch week, we’ll announce the winners of our giveaways next week, and “resume” normal blogging starting Tuesday. Over the next couple of weeks, we have a lot of amazing interviews to come. And there’ll be even more–author interviews, publisher interviews, a wonderful three-part series on the development of an interview and being qualified to talk about diversity… Long story short, we have lots coming up, and we’re so happy you’ll join us for the ride!

1. How do you identify yourself?

I am half-Filipina and half-Caucasian–so, bi-racial. My Mom came to the United States in 1980 to become a nurse, met my Dad (who’s from Maine) a few years later, they got married, had a couple kids, and then separated. So I guess I could also identify as a child raised by a single parent, but that’s a subject for another day, right? ;D

It’s interesting, though, because being bi-racial kind of lumps me into the “ethnically ambiguous” or “vaguely Asian” categories. I’ve learned to laugh with it, and shrug it off at times, because that seems to be what people are comfortable with attributing to me. Though lately, people have thought I was full Caucasian, Native American, and Latina, so the answer to that question varies on who you ask.

I hadn’t really thought much about being bi-racial until I got to undergrad and became a psych major. That’s when I got really, really interested in how different aspects of a person’s identity can intersect (and oh, do they intersect!). The intersections of identity are also now where a good bit of my research interests are now!

2. What did it feel like growing up bi-racial?

I didn’t really start to identify as bi-racial until undergrad. Up until then, I’m not really sure what I thought of myself as, other than, well, me. While Mom is from the Philippines, my little brother and I were very much raised in the “American” culture. What I mean is that while a few things from Mom’s culture carried over (like the food! YUM!), quite a few things got left behind —like language. Although my Mom is fluent in Tagalog, one of the official languages of the Philippines, the most I can do in Tagalog is curse.

Although kid-Alex didn’t really ponder what it meant to be bi-racial too much, there were a couple key points that I remember. At some point in elementary school, we were learning about the Civil Rights movement and everything that came along with it —including integration. When I learned that inter-racial marriages used to be illegal I just— something inside me clicked. My parents were still together at that point, and I couldn’t fathom why they wouldn’t be allowed to marry each other just because they looked different. And then, of course, I got slightly panicky because, well, if my parents wouldn’t have been allowed to get married, then would I even have been born? As a kid, it totally threw me off to essentially have my existence invalidated during a history lesson.

Another thing I vividly remember is the distinct difference in appearance that my little brother and I had while growing up. Like I said before, I tend to default myself into the “ethnically ambiguous/vaguely Asian” categories, and when we were kids, my little brother looked more Caucasian than Asian —and I remember being so jealous. He wasn’t constantly getting berated with questions about his identity. He didn’t look different from the majority of his classmates. He had it easier, just because he could blend in better. Those were definitely little tinges of jealousy that I had, and something very interesting to look back on now (though now I’m happy to report that I’m perfectly fine with looking different J).

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

Biggest Challenge: Always being in-between groups. Remember when I said I loved looking at the intersections of identity? Well, I also love reading studies about bi/multiracial students in college, and how they adjust (YAY research!). That’s always been something interesting that I’ve found with bi/multiracial students in these studies–a lot of them just don’t feel like they fully belong to one group. Sometimes it can be hard to form an identity around something if you don’t feel very connected or invested in it. Or, if you don’t look a certain way, you risk getting rejected by one, or more, of the groups that you want to belong to. That’s this startling thing that not a lot of people realize–that, being bi-racial, we sometimes run the risk of getting rejected by groups we very much want to identify with because we aren’t ______ enough.

But I think that the “Biggest Challenge” is also one of the perks. Yes, it can be frustrating to get shot down by a group of peers, but it’s such a fascinating growth and learning process, even when it does suck. As difficult as floating around and not really having a “solid” identity can be, I think it allows us to go forth and create our own a lot quicker. And yes, some of that identity could still include our cultural heritages, even if we couldn’t get “in” the group. But there are so many other aspects to identity and I think that since we’ve lived in such an in-between area all of our lives, we’re more willing and ready to go along with that thought. I can be more than bi-racial. I can be a Star Wars fan, someone who breaks into song with friends in the middle of an Outback Steakhouse, I can be a grad student, I can be creative, and sarcastic, and so many other things.

So yeah. Biggest Challenge Cloud, meet Awesome Silver Lining Perk.

4. What do you wish people knew about being bi-racial?

That it’s totally okay to wonder what ethnicities I identify with. But there’s a way to go about it that won’t make me wince internally.

So, here’s how it goes. You’re meeting me, maybe for the first time, maybe for the tenth, and you just can’t stop trying to figure out “what I am”. So finally, after a decent break in the conversation, you waver for a moment, inhale, and quickly spout out, “No offense, but–what are you?”

It shall forever be known to me as the dreaded “What are you?” question.

This question, to me, represents all the negative things that come with being bi-racial. And I know everyone has different reactions to it, but for me, the way it’s phrased just makes me feel not like a person. By asking me “What are you?” it’s as if you’re taking away my personhood, if that makes any sense at all. Like, it’s not, “What is your ethnic identity,” or “What racial and ethnic groups do you identify with?” No. It’s “What are you?” –and it makes me feel like something less than human.

So, for me, the answer to that question is always 1) I’m a human being and 2) I’m bi-racial, and then they get the Mom is from the Philippines, Dad is from Maine talk.

Also, see above, where I ramble about the intersections of identity…

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

Hmmm, you know, I haven’t seen too many bi-racial clichés/stereotypes, but that might be because I haven’t happened across a lot of bi-racial protagonists. So can we please, please, please have more of these, so I can answer this question at some point in the future?

Since I’ve discussed race a bit, though, I’m just going to point out various racial stereotypes, like the “Inferior Minority Myth” and the “Model Minority Myth.” So, these myths. The “Inferior Minority Myth,” can be applied to African American students in classroom settings. The myth purports that African American students are less capable in the classroom than their peers. Then there’s the “Model Minority Myth,” which can be applied to Asian Americans in the classroom. With this myth, Asian Americans are the best and smartest students ever and will always excel. ALWAYS.

These myths/stereotypes have got to stop. Yes, there are smart Asians out there. But you know what? Intelligence isn’t dependent on the color of your skin. I’m just gonna go ahead and make the bold statement that the only thing dependent on the color of your skin is–the color of your skin. But I’m going to hold off on answering the rest, ‘cause it segues into my next answer…

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

So, back to the whole “the color of your skin doesn’t really matter” thing. I know, I know, that’s a loaded statement. It’s 2013, and people are still getting treated differently because of the color of their skin. I know. I don’t like it, but it’s there, it’s ugly, and without conscious efforts on everyone’s parts, it’s not going away anytime soon.

And that’s the problem with these stereotypes and clichés that get perpetuated over and over and over again. Everyone is diverse, and everyone is different. We all have different experiences, different passions, different things we want to devote our time to. My advice for writing diverse characters is to write characters that are as real as people you know. If you need to write an Asian American character, don’t just rely on “what you know,” and make them the smartest kid ever. I want to spend time with characters who take chances, make mistakes, and get messy because life is messy. Give me characters who are three dimensional, and don’t let something like the color of your character’s skin hold you back from writing someone who has wants, needs, hopes, and fears just like all your other characters. Because, as people, we all have those things.

I promise.

11 Responses to DiversifYA: Alex Brown

  1. Nice to put a face to the other half of this fabulous blog! :)

  2. It’s so interesting to read that you never really thought about yourself as bi-racial until later. I feel like we often don’t put ourselves in categories until other people force us to. That said it seems like there are definitely some unique challenges (and perks!) that come with being bi-racial and it is not something I have really seen addressed in YA at all and I do hope that’s changing :) Thanks so much for sharing this interview!

    • Ah, that category thing is so true! I definitely really didn’t start to think about what being “bi-racial” even meant until people started asking!

      And yesssssss, I would LOVE it if more YA novels addressed what it was like! Hopefully there’ll be more of these books in the future 😛

      Thanks for stopping by!!!

  3. Alex: I am sooooo excited to find this blog. I love what you’re doing. My YA dystopian romantic thriller has 2 narrators–one is a Caucasian girl and the other is a Filipino-Hawaiian guy. I’m white but love writing in his voice and hope I’ve done a good job. He’s based a bit on my husband, who is Filipino but was born and raised here. I also have a 9 yr old daughter and a 2 yr old son so I am very invested in the issue of bi-racial identity. Your post is really eloquent and so much of what my husband has experienced echoes the things you’ve said. He just posted an essay on FB last night about how he felt disconnected from his last name (Padua) for so long because he’s never been to the homeland of his parents. And most people think of Padua, Italy when they hear it. But then, after we had kids and named them for his parents, he finally felt less in limbo about his own name. Anyway, he’s a fantastic poet, essayist, and fiction writer. And even though he is full Filipino, folks in the very small conservative town where we live usually have no idea “what” he is. He gets “the look” all the time! Check out some of his posts at http://shenandoahbreakdown.wordpress.com. My YA novel has characters from just about every part of the world. It seems natural to me. Congrats on this new blog and I look forward to reading the posts!!

    • Hey Heather!

      Thanks for stopping by! Your book sounds awesome, and I’m quite glad to hear that one of your protags is bi-racial :) AND that you have characters from all over the world! Keep up the awesome work!

      I’m sure you’re doing a fantastic job with ALL of your characters! Don’t stress yourself out too much, ’cause we’re all diverse, and even within our own groups, no two people are alike! (And you already seem to have a bit of research done on what it means to be bi-racial, so I think you’ll create an awesome character who I’ll definitely root for!)

      :)

      I’ll definitely check out your husband’s posts —seems like we have a bit in common!

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

  4. I know that feeling of being in between cultures. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • It’s an interesting feeling, isn’t it? Most days I quite enjoy it, but some days it’s a bit of a struggle.

      Still, I like a good challenge ;D

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Thanks for launching this blog! I’m looking forward to learning from it. Alex, are there any books or articles you would recommend for learning more about intersections of identity?

  6. excellent post!