Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"I'm Not Black"

I grew up saying, "I'm not black."
I always said it with a wink. That sort of joking sincerity where you understood what I was saying.

For instance:

I competed in "Poetry Interpretation" competitions in High School. Trust me, it's nothing like it sounds. You take a piece of poetry (not haiku, or rhyming poetry if you wanted to win) and perform it. You hold a tiny, regulation size, black binder in your hand and you have up to seven minutes to perform for a judge in a room full of your competitors, and maybe a small audience.

We (the Prose and Poetry teams) had workshops every summer to find, cut, and rehearse new pieces for the following school year.

Our coach (my theatre director) and another gentleman found a piece that would be "perfect" for me. It was about an African American kid who grew up listening to his father's jazz music outside an old nightclub...

There was more to it, but honestly I can't remember the piece to tell you about it. I stopped reading when it started talking about jazz.

I know nothing about jazz, or african american culture.

I read the piece, turned to my theatre director, and the man who actually selected and cut the piece just for me...and I said, "I'm not black."

My theatre director laughed. The gentlemen who cut and helped us rehearse simply gaped at me as if I had just claimed to be a descendent of the kings who dwell on the dark side of the moon. To him what I said was that level of ridiculous.


Cut to present day.


I am an advocate of diversity in literature. Specifically Young Adult (YA) and Middle Grade (MG) literature. I grew up seeing the first brown Disney princess (Jasmine) and I was in my early twenties before I saw the first black Disney princess (Tiana).
I strongly believe that people (children, teens, adults, men, women, etc.) would benefit from "seeing themselves" in the books they read.

I'm going to be ugly though.

I'm going to probably make people mad.

Worst of all - I am going to be completely forthright with you...


I advocate diversity not for myself, but for the people who lack the ability to imagine themselves any other way.

A white, red-headed, young girl with a fish tail didn't make me want to be any less of a mermaid.

A white boy with glasses, green eyes, and a forehead scar didn't make me want to be any less of a wizard.

The color of my hero's skin has never made me feel less-than, or like I couldn't be what they were. Maybe my mother gifted me with a healthy amount of self-esteem to go with my imagination. Who's to say?

Color has never mattered to me, and in my heart of hearts it still doesn't.......and I wish it didn't for you.


It's hard for me to gather my thoughts.

This post was brought about by the recent articles and reviews asserting that Rainbow Rowell's novel Eleanor & Park has racist undertones. In case you were unaware the titular "Park" is a young boy who is half-Korean.

I caught a tweet maybe two weeks ago that linked an article stating that much, and I wrote it off. Shooed it away like the inconsequential fly that I thought it was. It turned out to be Not So Inconsequential.

Yesterday evening scrolling through my Tumblr I found this blog post, entitled: "Cognitive Dissonance" by Mike Jung.

He loved ELEANOR & PARK. He's Korean himself, and his kids are half-Korean. Upon first reading the novel he loved it because it so brilliantly captured himself at that age; a young boy who culturally felt as if he didn't belong.


He saw himself. Mike Jung saw himself in the character of Park.


But then a small group of people made him question his own feelings toward the book. I’ll agree with someone I respect; there are sound criticisms out there. As a result Mr. Jung "didn't love it any less", but found himself "deeply troubled" by it.

Racism is an ugly thing. We all know that. It breeds ignorance, and hatred.

Rainbow Rowell set out to do a thing in making Park half-Korean. She made it a point to put a person of color in her story, and wrote it hoping that somewhere in the Great Out There a person of color would see themselves. She achieved her goal with Mike Jung, but then people who apparently cannot abide someone taking a step in the right direction sullied that achievement.


I'm disgusted.


We cry out for diversity. "Give us black/asian/hispanic/middle-eastern/native-american characters!" "Give us LGBTQ characters!"

Someone does, and Park isn't a poorly drawn stereotype. He's a kid who happens to be half-Korean, but he also loves The Beatles and comic books.

More importantly it's The Beatles and the comic books that he shares with Eleanor. No one in the book gives two, runny shits about Park's genetic/cultural heritage.

And some people might say that's a bad thing.

Here's the deal: if it doesn't matter to Park (or to Eleanor) that he's Half-Korean, why does it matter to you?

If it doesn't matter to me that I am half-black, why does it matter to you?

I’ll say this to those who ardently believe that Eleanor & Park is a racist work:

In finding racism where there is none, speaking out against this imagined racism, and placing a dunce cap on the author you have alienated those who you claim to be fighting for.

It’s like calling out the Huxtables for not being black enough. It’s admonishing the cast of Sex and the City for not addressing issues of white-privilege. It's Witch-Hunting. We all know how Witch-Hunting goes; people see what they want to see. They become sheep bleating at shadows while the wolf sneaks up behind them.

I wonder if Mike Jung had written Eleanor & Park if it would be heralded as racist. Would all the advocacy groups become livid and outspoken about how aspects of Park’s culture are factually inaccurate, or how the portrayal of him as half-Korean is invalid?

Perhaps Mike Jung would come back and say “I wrote from my personal experience. Park knows what I know. I see a lot of myself in Park.”

I think that would shut everyone up.

Rainbow Rowell doesn’t have that ability. She made a choice to be an advocate, to give us a Hero of a different color – which we all can agree we need for one reason or another – and there are people out there trying to kick her in the teeth for it.

They made someone who identified with Park, a Korean man who saw himself in Park feel troubled by his experience. They invalidated good feelings, good intentions, and positive results because for some reason they couldn’t find anything else to bitch about.

It makes me very angry.


I ignored the article at first because it the feeling I got from the book. But seeing a light be darkened because of someone else’s maliciousness really gets under my skin. If you want to read Eleanor and Park and see racism – fine. But I think we both know that’s not the author’s intent, and certainly not what comes across to 99.9% of readers. Congratulations, you’ve achieved another minority status. We’ll mail your badge to you.


People are people.

Black is not a verb. Korean is not a verb. White is not a verb.

Color is not a verb.

Nor is it an identity; at least not in a healthy mind.

There is no "too black", or "too white", or "being asian" or "being egyptian"

People are people.

I am creative. I am intelligent. I am ambitious. I can be kind. Each of those adjectives has other connotations. You can surmise intelligence by simply noting creativity; you can infer compassion from the word Kind. You can glean goal-oriented, and future-minded from ambitious.

What can you get from Black? What can you get from Asian? What can you get from Colombian?

(I have an answer! Dance moves, Math skills, and good coffee, respectively. But I’m being crass…)

By reducing me to a color, by reducing me to culture (that I may or may not be a part of), by reducing me...

...Reducing me...

You are Reducing Me.

You have REDUCED Park. You have taken something away, by drawing attention to an issue that is a non-issue; you have made it less-than in your attempt to make yourself feel like you're making a difference, or fighting an injustice. Despite the MULTITUDE of injustices out there you have focused on the ONE thing that ISN'T an issue, and have done a disservice to everyone. Worst of all I believe you’re attempting to make an enemy of a friend.
Park is a teenager in the 80's. As a teenager in an interracial household were you aware of the history of both of your cultures, or was one more dominant? If you weren't did you know the entire ins-and-outs of your own culture's history as a teenager? White people did you know all about white privilege and fight against it at 15? (If so - did you have any friends?)
Park's father was a dominant (and positive) force in his life. His father is white. If Park "Isn't Korean enough" or if his mother "wasn't Korean enough" isn't that like real life? Doesn't one culture take a backseat to the other in a relationship? How you spend holidays, and who with, and what you eat for dinner. If there's not a committee involved it usually ends up with one person deferring or pleasing the other.
Does casual racism not abound? Is it not a real thing? or did Rainbow Rowell include it because she's secretly a casual racist?
An author builds a world, builds characters, and contemporary authors are masters of building characters that are true to life. Artistic Integrity, if you will.
I could sum it all up by that all the things that a few people are outraged at are simply things that lend the book gravity, and reality.
And you've maligned the artist.
Shame on you.


I have a character. Her name is Eden. She's like me, half-black and half-white, her culture, her beliefs, her (former) home-life somewhat reflect that of my own. I may be called to the carpet because some may say she is "too white", and to that I'll say:

"Everything she does is black because she is black. Everything she does is white because she is white. She is all of these things, but most importantly she's broken - that's where the story begins, you see..."

Or maybe I'll be cheekier:

"Well it is a YA Fantasy. In my world people's personalities aren't defined by what color their skin is."


I hate even talking about race.

I feel like I'll be maligned or swept to the side because of my "People are People" views.

I hate talking about race because the instant a person of color talks about race that's all they become - they become a color.

Which defeats the entire purpose doesn't it?

I am more than a color.

My characters are more than colors.

All characters are more than colors.

We are all more than color.


That is why I'm not black...I won't admit it until you truly understand that I am more than that.


  1. I think I love you. Thanks for writing this. :)

  2. My thoughts exactly, not on the book since unfortunately I haven't read it, but on the issue of "color". I don't need to look like a character to understand them. So thank you for being more eloquent about it than I am. :D

  3. YES. THIS. (As someone who regularly sticks her neck out there, damned be the consequences!)

  4. Wow, thank you for writing this (and Mel for leading me here). Forgive my long response.

    I loved Eleanor and Park. I've now read all the articles worrying over its use of race (thank you for the links) and I still love Eleanor and Park. Also though, I appreciate the articles and their authors.

    There was a year when it seemed to me that a memoir of a Chinese American woman was released every other month (perhaps it's just that I was living in SF at the time, and for the first time, came across these books). I read every one of these books. I sought them out. I devoured them. I loved every one.

    And yet, a not-small part of me -- of Chinese American, female me -- resented each one of these books. With each one, that not-small part of me shouted, "Wrong! Not true!"

    It was natural that after a lifetime of rarely encountering any Chinese Americans in books, I wanted to identify with those I finally found. In fact, I so SO much wanted to identify that I experienced the differences between their and my lives as lies or betrayals.

    The truth of course is that those memoirists got it right about their own lives. My life may have been different from theirs, but the differences didn't make either my life or theirs less true or less authentic. I had to realize this.

    So I get where Wendy Xu and the authors of the other critiques are coming from. And I really appreciate their having this conversation. I very much agree with the push for more conscious and more varied and simply more portrayals of Asian Americans (and all other under-represented people) in books.

    Still, I love Eleanor and Park, and I agree with you.

    Park, including his insecurities, read as true to me (meaning I could imagine it, not that it was representative). So did Eleanor's sense of Park's and his mom's Asian-ness, including her fascination with his eyes and skin (which are unique in their town) and with his mom's delicate smallness (come on! this girl is bullied for her largeness). I could and did imagine these. Perhaps an Asian American writer would have written them differently (and we should get going writing our books then, if we aren't already), but that difference doesn't detract from Rainbow Rowell's version.

    I feel your anger too, and the accompanying worry that the critiques are counterproductive.
    Indeed, why would we ask that minority characters, besides being resonant, must also be representative or exemplary portrayals of their group? Why would we *want* such a limiting thing?

    You are black whether or not you like jazz. I am Chinese whether or not I like Bruce Lee (I do, and I don't wish to pretend I don't just because someone is watching/reading). And so, Park is a half-Korean Omahan even if he is short, even if his Korean mom has an accent, and even if his white dad was a soldier.

    For me... I've come to welcome talk about race. In the end, I'm grateful to Rainbow Rowell for Park's Asian-ness, as well as, grateful to these voices for their critiques. Thank you too for raising your voice.

  5. Thank you. As a half-Asian who loved E&P, thank you. As an advocate of diversity in YA, thank you. As a reader, thank you. As a writer, thank you.

    I plan to blog about E&P and the backlash as well, and I'm so glad to see I'm not the only one speaking out in support of Rainbow and her wonderful book.