Written By: Marna Clowney-Robinson, Karen Downing, Darlene Nichols and Helen Look
The expression of social and cultural identities matter to people in a myriad of ways—seeing one’s self-reflected on campuses, in schools and communities matters (Gaetano, 2015; Laffer, 2017; P., Mindy, 2019). This fact is important to libraries of all types as we think about library collections, services and staff. We know from research and from phenomena all around us that when people see themselves positively reflected in film, books, social media, news, music, theater, that those cultural memory institutions grow in their perceived relevance and significance to their communities (Downing, 2009; Tillson, 2011).
Take as an example, Marley Dias’ #1000blackgirlbooks movement. Marley was only ten years old when she launched her movement to donate books to girls of African descent that featured African American female protagonists because not one of her required school readings featured Black girls as main characters (Grassroots Community Foundation, 2019). The We Need More Diverse Books movement has raised awareness and in recent years the number of published diverse books has increased substantially. 28% of the children’s books published in 2018 had main characters who were Asian American, Black, Latinx, and American Indian/First Nation yet only 50% of the children’s books about African Americans are written by people of that background (Cooperative Children’s Book Center, 2019). The numbers for mixed race identities in children’s books are not tracked but they are presumably an even smaller percentage.
Similar to Marley’s pressing need to see herself reflected in literature, the authors remember growing up biracial without any reflection of ourselves in books, media or our communities. In fact, during the 60s and 70s, race-mixing was a highly taboo topic, and we remember believing we were anomalies among humans—isolated and alone in our thoughts of how we were experiencing the world.
Not only was claiming a mixed-race identity largely taboo; there was a strong bias against mixed-race people who were often both pitied and shunned. It was still illegal to marry interracially in many states, and an anti-miscegenistic view of race-mixing dominated written discourse about the “tragic mulatto” and other similar tropes (Mafe, 2013 among many others). It was not until Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case of 1967 that ruled anti-miscegenation laws at the state level unconstitutional that Americans could freely marry across race in all fifty states (although Alabama kept their anti-miscegenation law on the books until 2000).
Although the so-called tragedy of interracial relationships had shown up in media representations in previous decades, more positive representations appeared on TV and in movies in the 1960’s and beyond. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) addressed the controversial topic head-on. In 1975, the TV show “The Jeffersons” introduced a strong interracial couple and their adult daughter as regular characters for weekly television viewers. In 1991 Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” prompted a new round of conversation and controversy about interracial relationships. And the years following it brought many, many more movies and television series featuring interracial couples and multiracial people into production. The growth of reality tv programming increased representation that was more representative American culture. In recent decades, this is a population that has blossomed, begun claiming a new identity, and demanding change in perception and policy. This is a population that pushed for change to the Census Bureau’s previous requirement to “pick one race” on the Census form to allow the option to choose more than one and fully represent their identity. It is a population that no longer tolerates the disdain and dismissal experienced by earlier generations. There is pride in and consciousness of their multiple heritages for many mixed race Americans and they/we expect inclusion in all American institutions such as libraries.
This is hard to imagine today when 17 percent of all marriages in the U.S. are between people of two different “races” (Pew, 2017), and 3.1 percent of the population identify as “two or more races” (almost 10 million). “Overall, the total U.S. population increased by 9.7 percent since 2000, however, many multiple-race groups increased by 50 percent or more” (U.S. Census, 2012). President Obama, Meghan Markle, and many other mixed-race individuals are helping with awareness of interracial issues.
The mixed race population is growing, even while our neighborhoods and schools are resegregating across the country. This multifaceted group of mixed-race people are already in your library communities (just look at a census map of “two or more races” to see the composition of your community), and they will be increasing. Taking deliberate action to insure your collections, programming and staff are culturally aware and are able to collect and program in ways that reflect this population is a giant step forward to making your library more relevant to your community.
Cooperative Children’s Books Center. (2019). Publishing Statistics on Children’s Books about People of Color and First/Native Nations and by People of Color and First/Native Nations Authors and Illustrators. Access from: https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp
Downing, K., Nichols, D., & Webster, K. (eds). (2005). Multiracial America: A Resource Guide on the History and Literature of Interracial Issues. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Gaetano, S. (2015). Seeing yourself in literature. Accessed from: https://www.hbook.com/2015/08/blogs/out-of-the-box/seeing-yourself-in-literature/
Grassroots Community Foundation. (2019). 1000 Black Girl Books Resource Guide. Accessed on May 20, 2019 from: https://grassrootscommunityfoundation.org/1000-black-girl-books-resource-guide/
Laffer, A. (2017). Representing me: seeing yourself on the page. Accessed from: https://bookriot.com/2017/02/25/representing-seeing-page/
Mafe, D.A. (2013). Mixed race stereotypes in South African and American literature: coloring outside the (black and white) lines. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
P., Mindy. (2019). Diverse books: seeing yourself in literature. Accessed from: https://buckslib.org/diverse-books-seeing-yourself-in-literature/
Pew Research Center. (2017). Intermarriage in the U.S. 50 Years After Loving v. Virginia Accessed from: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2017/05/18/intermarriage-in-the-u-s-50-years-after-loving-v-virginia
United States Census Bureau. (2012). 2010 Census Shows Multiple-Race Population Grew Faster Than Single-Race Population. Accessed from: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/race/cb12-182.html