Thursday, January 20, 2022

Mixed Media

The first time I really remember seeing a mixed family in a commercial was the Cheerios ad that caused so much unnecessary controversy back in 2014. The ad depicted a little biracial girl dumping a box of bland tasting regular Cheerios all over her Black father sleeping on the couch. She deluges him in oat circles because she heard that they stop heart disease, and also because what else is he supposed to do, eat them? The controversy was truly ridiculous with a number of people responding that the company was trying to push some agenda on the unwitting public, which turned out to be the truth. The General Mills company later admitted that they designed the ad to get people to eat more tasteless cereal. On the other hand, the idea that a food corporation was actively trying to sell the idea of interracial families or increase the number of mixed children in the population is ridiculous.

Personally, the main thing I took away from the ad was that General Mills apparently thought that my family was a demographic worth engaging with, a market worthy of their psychological sorcery. It was validating in the sense that, despite all the insidious salesmanship, the people behind that campaign decided that there were enough mixed families in the world to warrant spending the money on a high-profile commercial. For once, it felt as if my family was included in the national family picture.

That kind of representation in media has a great impact on the people represented, as well as the others. There's been a lot of talk lately about diversity of characterization in books, shows, and movies. Almost every time, the attempts at diversity are met with backlash from those who are used to seeing only themselves on their screens in places of prominence. I suppose that seeing a beloved character like Captain America or Ariel depicted in a race other than the original vision could be alarming, but what are you really losing? If your understanding of Captain America as the spirit of the country, the emblem of freedom and strength can only be depicted by a white man, then the problem is not literary purity or comic book allegiance. Similarly, if your understanding of fish people is limited to white folks, you're really starting get get into silly territory.

As parents of mixed children, we have some that are darker skinned and some so light that they could pass without half trying. For that reason, we have a variety of children's books on our bookshelves that give them positive images of not only themselves, but also their parents, their cousins, and all of their different classmates, regardless of their race. Just the other day, my two-year-old was reading Dream Big by Joyce Wan, which depicts all sorts of heroic women. Normally, she looks at all the girls in the book and we ask her which one is her sister, her mother, her niece, or her friend. This time, however, she had picked it up in the middle of playtime and was pointing at all the girls, repeating "This me, this me" for each one. I've seen other videos of kids getting excited over Black Panther or Maribel from Encanto, because, for the first time, they see themselves in the hero.

This is why I'm committed to writing about mixed families in my stories. For one thing, it's my reality, my life, and my art flows out of my experience. But on another level, I want to see my family out in the world, and I want other families like mine to see themselves as well. So whenever I start anything from a flash fiction to a novel, I begin with the presupposition that it will center a mixed family, with some parameters.

1) The story cannot be entirely centered on the fact that the family is mixed. The goal is to normalize the multiracial family, not to fetishize it. For me, this means that the multiracial nature of the family is just part of the fabric of the universe, not some aberration to the norm. If the main conflict for the character or the family is just existing as multiracial, then the story is "othering" the mixed family instead of normalizing it.

2) It might seem counterintuitive, but I try to show that the disparity in culture can be challenging, instead of insisting on sending the message that "we're all the same under the skin." Multiracial family life and mixed race marriage is not all about skin color, for sure. However, under that skin is a psychology built on cultural experiences that shape a person, and whenever two people from different cultures try to live together and create a family, there is inevitable conflict about "the way things are done." Everything from budgeting to parenting will have cultural underpinnings that may be different. It requires acknowledgement, discussion, compromise, and often enough humility to see that your way or your people's way is not necessarily the only, or the best, way to do things.

3) For this reason, those cultural differences and disagreements about the way things should be done can be a great source of conflict in the story, without necessarily taking center stage. Great stories have layers of conflict that interact with and complicate each other. So a story that centers a mixed family can have the main conflict of loss - losing a house, losing a loved one, losing a job - which is universal to all families, and doesn't make the multiracial nature of the family seem like a "problem" itself. Still, woven in that main conflict of loss can be the minor conflict of learning how different cultures deal with loss. A Brit with a stiff upper lip married to an Indian or Caribbean with a culture of public, cathartic grieving is a situation that will create some imbalance and conflict that would make the story more interesting. In addition, these differences can be a source of strength, once a character achieves a proper understanding of the partner's "way." If that Brit can learn to let some of those feelings out, they can connect with the rest of the family on a deeper level, as well as avoiding stress-related heart disease down the road. Conversely, if the public griever can learn that their love for the deceased is not measured by the grandiosity of their outward show of emotions, they can also unburden themselves of their own stress and anxiety, without abandoning their culture. This kind of growth and change is what characterization and story is all about.

Regardless of whether we make a commitments to writing about certain ethnicities or family structures, it's important that we always figure ourselves into our stories and art, so that others can see themselves reflected back to them in positive ways through whatever medium we choose. But as consumers and audience members, we have to support the growing diversity of characters and cultural settings, even when they aren't like us. For white folks, that means not complaining when we are not the center of every story, or when it seems as if the trend is moving away from us and people who look like us.

I mean, you didn't really think you were Captain America, did you?