I am biracial and let’s pretend that I’m the protagonist in your novel. I may have conflicts with my identity to overcome at the end of the climax. My perspective on life and the world around me will be influenced by belonging to two different groups of people. Other characters and the setting itself may be responding to my duality. Your character may learn the lesson that every mixed kid learns in childhood: You do not label yourself–society does.
I’m going to tell you about a real event that happened to me to demonstrate the role society plays on the identities of biracial people:
One time when I was a teenager, my dad and I got stopped by Canadian immigration when we entered the country for a skiing trip. We were escorted to a secure part of the airport where they had to double-check our passports. They called my Filipina mother, who was in New York, to confirm that I was actually his child. My dad and I cracked jokes while we waited and reminisced about all of the other times this has happened. This was business as usual for us.
After the call with my mother, the immigration officers promptly returned with our (valid) passports and told us we were free to go. They apologized for delaying our trip and Dad reassured them that ten minutes of our time could save somebody else’s life down the road.
My dad is Ashkenazi Jewish, white-passing, and had children somewhat later in life. I am half-Filipino and look the part, with tan skin and a slightly curved shape to my eyes. The subtle facial features I share with my dad are buried underneath my dominant Filipino traits. When people look at us together, they often do not think we are related. When I was a child, many assumed I was kidnapped and that caused incidents similar to the Canadian immigration stop.
When writing a biracial character, you would need to be aware of how your character’s appearance would be perceived in the society that they live in. Because of my darker skin, I am coded as more Filipino. People don’t know that I am Jewish unless I disclose it. However, anyone with Filipino heritage can take one look at me and see that I am mixed.
Deviating from my given label could result in anything from a side eye to accusations of appropriating my own culture. I’ve met other biracial people who have had similar experiences like a white passing Indigenous person I know who did not want to tell anyone they were biracial because they feared scrutiny and backlash.
Society sustains itself by putting people in boxes; when you are biracial, society says you cannot fit into two boxes at once, you must choose one to be accepted. Biracial people internalize this concept and often feel like they have to choose one identity over the other. This concept has a direct impact on what conflicts your character faces. Your biracial character very well may be faced with the same conflict, having to choose one group over the other, or have an interaction that highlights their “otherness.” They may also be dealing with internal conflicts if they don’t feel like they belong to any of their racial or ethnic identities.
To exemplify the complexities of coding on biracial people, consider a real conversation I had with a fellow Jew. My friend was blond-haired, blue-eyed, and did not look the way a Jew would in the media. She told me that most people didn’t know that she was Jewish until she mentioned something about temple or Hebrew school. After that, she was subjected to antisemetic bullying and threats. The hate was instantly switched on and never turned off as soon as she “exposed” herself as a Jew.
“What kinds of antisemetic things have you experienced?” She asked me.
I admitted that I didn’t experience antisemitism directly in the way that others who “look Jewish” would. Because people perceived me as only Filipino, the racial discrimination that I experienced was due to being a brown Southeast Asian in a majority white community.
The hard truth I was forced to accept early on in my life is that Filipinos don’t see me as fully Filipino and the World doesn’t see me as Jewish. I cannot change the “Unspecified Asian” label society has put on me. I cannot change the questions I get if I go to temple. I will never know what it’s like to not have to prove to the authorities that I am a part of my own family. The only thing I can do is choose to identify in a way that works for me.
When writing a biracial character, consider these questions:
Does the character identify with a particular race? Do they identify with both equally? This can be influenced by what culture they are more exposed to.
Which group does society label them with? Does it conflict with the character’s perception of themselves? Is this related to the character’s appearance?
How is the character treated by society due to being biracial?
If the character acts against their prescribed label, what are the consequences of that?
If their perception of themselves differs from the way others see them, how does that impact their thought and behavior?
No matter how your character identifies, the experience of being biracial is largely universal: society chooses a label for them, no matter how they see themselves. It’s up to you to write this duality authentically even if it isn’t a major plot point.
Bio: Nathaniel Glanzman has sensitivity read for both private clients and “Big Five” publishers since 2018. When unsure of what to do in a social situation, he asks the other person what their favorite part about space is. You can request Nathaniel as a sensitivity reader for your project on the Writing Diversely Directory.