DiversifYA: Paula Chase-Hyman


PaulaToday, I’m honored to welcome Paula Chase-Hyman to the blog! Paula–“Jane of all trades, queen of none”–is the author of the Del Rio Bay series, a multi-culti clique book series. How fantastic does that sound?

Paula’s also co-founder of The Brown Bookshelf, a fantastic blog that has been spotlighting African American voices in children’s literature for many, many years. If it’s not on your diversity radar yet, it totally should be.

You can find out more Paula and her books here and tweet her here, and you can find The Brown Bookshelf here and here.

1. How do you identify yourself?
African American.

2. What did it feel like growing up being African American?

Looking back, I feel like I grew up in a very interesting time. I was in elementary school in the 70’s and still recall being called a nigger by a classmate when I was in the 3rd grade. Imagine that, 3rd graders spewing hateful words. But I was a teenager in the 80’s and can truly say that, for the most part, race played very little part in how I viewed the world when it came to forming friendships and definitely when it came to what pop culture I consumed from music to books. My parents taught me that being Black in American society was definitely going to have its struggles, but they raised me to focus on values and treating others the way I wanted to be treated, so race truly became secondary.

I recall experiences that helped balance the reality of being Black in a White-dominated society like wanting to be able to wear my hair “out” like my White girl friends and the culture shock of realizing I couldn’t and why. Differences in hair texture seems like a silly thing, but when you’re a kid and your friends wear their hair down and your hair always has to be in braids or pig tails, it’s a big deal. It’s a small experience that helped bring the world into better focus about differences. And, later, I learned it’s simply one of those cultural experiences most suburban African American girls go through as I have two daughters and both went through the exact same experience many moons later after my own.

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

The primary challenge attached to being Black in America, is having to still, in modern times, remind people that my race doesn’t define me. There seems to be something about having an actual skin tone that makes it not only easy but almost alright for a person to start assuming things about you. The struggle to constantly remind folks that they can’t determine what I’ll eat, wear, watch on TV, listen to on the radio or read simply because of my skin color. Certainly no more than they can determine any of those things based on me being a woman. I’m continually frustrated that low-hanging fruit marketing is still the go-to tactic commercially and that intelligent people buy into it evidenced by interactions like someone being surprised when a Black person “speaks well.” With reality TV portraying everything from Bering Sea fishermen to Preachers, you’d think that people would get that TV portrayals are going to be one-sided for the most part…yet, it seems like there’s still plenty of folks who think the one or two portrayals of African Americans equals ALL Black people are like those characters or those TV images.

A quirk of being Black in America is the duality of your lifestyle. There is a part of you that is mainstream and gets exactly what is required to stay competitive in the rat race and then there’s a part of you that’s rooted, deep in what would be traditionally African American culture. It’s something that shapes how we raise our kids, how we handle situations and generally how we cope. It’s also mostly intangible. But the most obvious example is language. Maybe it’s a secret to some and will come as a surprise, but I definitely interact differently with my White friends vs. my Black. Not hugely different, subtly. Most African Americans understand that if we relax our dialect around our White peers we’ll be viewed as unintelligent. So if a mic were in my house, they’d hear a more relaxed and casual dialect than they’d ever hear me use in public, certainly way more relaxed than I’d use professionally. It’s like wearing two different hats. But it’s such a natural part of being Black that you can slip in and out of it with ease.

4. What do you wish people knew about being African American?

That culturally, we’ve always had to be two-faced and likely always will. No matter how much African Americans assimilate based on their income and “class,” there are simply some cultural norms that will always differ from those of other races and the “mainstream.” I want these cultural norms recognized and respected in fiction. I can’t be told how a Black person does or doesn’t talk, would or wouldn’t act – only what I believe MY characters would do in a given situation. I always showcase the duality in my characters because it’s simply the way of life for a vast majority of Black people.

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

That all African Americans are from and are familiar with inner city life. Even the use of the word “urban” has come to connote Black/African American. It’s something the mainstream outlets do to make it easier to categorize African American viewers. It reduces Black people to one single experience, one that applies only to a portion. So when an African American in a book/movie/TV show is portrayed outside of that realm either people are amazed that someone isn’t from that environment or worse, we’re accused of our character not being realistic because they’re not from the inner city. The fact that this still happens in 2013 frustrates me. But shows like Scandal give me hope because they tell the story of a lead African American character who doesn’t have to wear their race on their sleeve.

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

Make the characters true to their environment. There is no way for me to portray a typical Black person because there is no such thing. But I’m able to portray what African Americans experience in a variety of scenarios, based on that character’s upbringing and environment. Showcase the cultural norms and quirks that person may exhibit because of their upbringing and I think you’ll achieve an accurate portrayal.

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