How Well Do We Handle Multiracial Characters in YA?

As with other traits such as gender, orientation, nationality, class, and ability, race is often debated over its prevalence in young adult literature. Whitewashing is a common accusation with book covers, especially with that one incident a few years back.

On the other hand, I notice that there's a good biracial (or multiracial, or polyracial) presence in YA, but it doesn't come without its hitches.

Issue books.

For example, I've read at least three YA books over the years that have biracial diversity as a main theme. Although the other two titles elude me, the one I recall is called The Latte Rebellion. Along with racial themes, it also deals with the pressure of college in an effective way.

On the other hand, compared with more ethnic books, biraciality gets swept under the covers as an issue. As with any other discrimination, it's out there, but compared with the big ones, it doesn't come up as often. It helps that it seems many celebrities are of mixed race, and with a spectrum of ethnicities involved, sometimes someone who is practically Caucasian versus someone biracial can look like siblings.

Instead, it mostly manifests in the mainstream as "futuristic racial".

"Futuristic Racial" characters.

"Futuristic racial" is my personal term for characters who come from mixed or ambiguous racial heritage due to a futuristic setting.

This is plausible, and maybe even inevitable. With more and more couples crossing ethnic lines and having biracial and multiracial children, it's unlikely that modern categories will be around for long.

All it takes is one world-changing event, which happens quite often in fiction, for race to be a radically different concept.

I took the concept of "futuristic racial" characters in account when writing my NaNoWriMo project, Road. Most of the cast is described as having varying shades of skin, eye color, and hair color, with mixed facial features implied.

Examples of "futuristic characters" in YA

I think the most known example might be Katniss and Gale from The Hunger Games, since they have olive skin and gray eyes. However, this isn't brushed on upon, so they're debatable cases. Still, this did spark some debate during casting for the movie.

A more clear-cut example is Elder, and everyone besides Amy, in Across the Universe by Beth Revis. Elder's explicitly described as having a mix of features, and it's used as a plot point and a sharp contrast against Amy's Caucasian features.

Another examples includes Day from Legend by Marie Lu (half-Mongolian), Ky from Matched by Ally Condie (described as having olive skin), Nailer from Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (dark skin, blue eyes), and so on.

Does this say anything about YA as a whole?

While Caucasian characters as both protagonists and love interests are still the majority--at the moment anyways--at least from my perspective, it seems like biracial or multiracial characters might have more representation in the mainstream than minority characters like African- or Asian-Americans.

This is far from a scientific representation, but the examples I brought up are good-sized players in the scene. I mean, there's Katniss, the main protagonist of The Hunger Games, with the next major non-white character being Jacob from Twilight, whose just the secondary love interest.

Now, who's the most popular African American character in YA? Or even an Asian character? Or Hispanic?

...In order to find one in prime protagonist status, we have to depart from the Big Three of YA and go into more subjective standards. But among the Big Three, it's definitely Rue.

Good old Rue, gone too soon.

And plus, it's the future, so she could be considered futuristic racial.

Maybe it's Leo from The Lost Hero, even though that spin-off series can be considered MG, and he's the non-primary co-protagonist.

My point is, I'm moving goalposts in order to fit this criteria.

My theory about this

It might be that, at least by market standards, biracial or ambiguously racial characters are considered more accepted with protagonist status than distinct minority characters.

This statement is easily disputed, but I stand with it for the moment. It's not as much of a problem than the more fundamental ones (like the "white pretty girl on the cover" norm), but it's worth pointing out.

Maybe it's because publishers prefer protagonists that don't carry racial baggage? Now, that presumption raises a lot of question, because the nature of fiction allows stories to zone out a character's heritage if it isn't relevant to the plot, and this has been done a million times. Also, Caucasians can also have very ethnic lives.

Maybe it's just the universal bias that affects American culture. I recall reading an article on Entertainment Weekly stating that at one time, the only non-white protagonist on Fox (or maybe even broadcast television) was Cleveland from The Cleveland Show. And he's animated. And voiced by a white actor.

On the other hand, biracial characters aren't as prevalent on television than in YA, so I suggest you throw in your two cents. Do you think there's a bias existing with biracial characters compared with other minorities?

Let's shift gears before it gets messy. 

Bryan Time

Throughout middle school, the majority of the protagonists I perceived in my mind were Caucasian boys. This is most reflected by Justin of my shameful fan fiction Kira is Justice and Kevin of the abandoned Ashwood Landing, both explicitly white and Hollywood homely (although Kevin is half-Irish, with the middle name Eoin).

Within the last year, that's changing. The protagonist of Road was race lifted from being white to being futuristic racial. 

Bryan of Manifestation Files turned from being a light-haired Caucasian to being half-Filipino.

The initial imaginings I had of him was that he was fiery, and his appearance reflected that. Over time though, my mental image of him shifted to someone tall, dark and snarky. Black hair, dark clothes, folded arms and a  frown.

He's from the dreamy boy or bad boy personas that many YA love interests are, since he's too slim, and he's more like the typical anime high schooler that isn't hot-headed. I want him to cast a different vibe. He's not brooding or swoonful. He's pragmatic, but stands for his ideals, and for others.

At this point, I played with the whole biracial aspect of him. I thought of him being half-Italian--and then not describing his race at all, as a way of teasing with the audience. More and more though, it became obvious I wouldn't be able to keep up that kind of ploy.

Come last Labor Day, I saw a Filipino teenager and thought "I wonder what it would be like if Bryan was half-Filipino?"

Boom. Now I'm telling it to you.

(On a side note, Bryan's mom and dad swapped races, but this was more for personal reasons. I'll talk about this more in detail once I'm more comfortable with the matter.)

Ironically, this means that he's more ethnic than co-protagonist Finn, a British exchange student. Although in general, Bryan doesn't have a sense of heritage, and I'm pushing his extended family into the background.

What was the point of that story?

Well, this is a post about biracial characters, and...

Point is, I'm writing one. Since I'm already writing a protagonist that's male, I might as well write him the way that feels most natural.

YOUR TURN: What do you think of biracial or multiracial characters in general? Are you writing one? What do you think of the "futuristic racial" concept?