The Complexities of Writing About Race and Identity
In this intimate Q&A, three authors discuss how they’re changing the narratives about people of color
This conversation has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
ZORA: T. Kira, your book, “Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls,” isn’t just about race. It’s about loss, addiction, sexuality and sexual violence, gender, power, and so many other issues. But I want to focus on race here for a minute.
Growing up in Boca Raton, Florida, your friends called you “Kinky Chinky.” Your mother, Lokilani, cursed in Chinese. Your grandmother visited from Hawaii. Your mixed-race heritage wasn’t a secret, but nor was it explicitly acknowledged or discussed in your family. People wondered if you were “a mutt from China, or Cuba, or Mexico, or Samoa. Nobody can be sure.” Did your parents ever talk to you frankly about race?
T. Kira Madden: My parents were just: “This is the way it is. We don’t see color.” They were kind of oblivious about that. I was raised in a predominantly White, privileged community. There were no other people who looked like me. My best friend was Black and she was the only Black girl in school. I was the only Asian girl. We would often sort of practice racial slurs with each other as preparation for when other people said those things to us.
We didn’t have any understanding of race. I think about race in a similar way that I think about sexuality and being gay. It’s something that was always there, but I didn’t understand the shadowing of those aspects of my identity. In school when people would say, “You don’t even look that Asian.” That was the biggest compliment. It was like, Okay. I fit in.
My best friend was the only Black girl in school. I was the only Asian girl. We would often sort of practice racial slurs with each other as preparation for when other people said those things to us.
Nishta, as the title of your book “Brown, White, Black” describes, you’re Brown, the child of Indian immigrants, your wife Jill is White, and your son, Shiv, who is adopted, is Black.* You talk about the discomfort in always having to explain who you are and where you come from to strangers and acquaintances.
Nishta Mehra: Yeah, growing up in Memphis, it was a very Black and White city. As a Brown person, nobody knew what to do with me or what category I belonged in. And now my wife is White, from a blue-collar family in Shreveport, Louisiana. So we have a lot going on. Just the other day, somebody asked if I was Jill’s daughter. It was like, “Okay, yes, there’s some age difference.” But it’s just interesting the moves people will make to make something fit inside the categories they have in their head.
I understand that it’s a human need to categorize things, but the question I always want to ask is, “Why does it matter?” Most of the time, it’s not necessary. You’re out in public. You’re grocery shopping. Why do people feel so compelled to know who is in front of them and how these people are connected? What is that desire about?
Sarah, your book “When I Was White” is heartbreaking. Your family insisted that you were White like them, despite the fact that you were clearly brown-skinned and darker your brothers. At 27, when you were a graduate student studying Russian literature at Princeton University, you finally confronted your mother and began to pry the truth out of her about your biological father.
Sarah Valentine: Yes, the further I got from my family the more I realized that people interacting with me assumed I was mixed-race. Or at the very least, non-White. It was so different from the way I’d grown up where there was no recognition that I was any different. It was a very concerted effort to not see that part of me. Looking back, it felt like it was a very conscientious violence on their part, even though they didn’t realize what they were doing.
What T. Kira and Nishta said about having to constantly explain themselves, that resonated with me a lot. I was constantly asked where I was from growing up in a very White, small suburb outside of Pittsburgh. The question was framed as “What is your nationality?” Or even “Where is your accent from?” I grew up in Pennsylvania. There was no accent. But that exoticism would be put on me. And I did feel like it was my responsibility to explain to people, but I didn’t have an explanation for my ethnicity. My parents were Irish and Italian so that’s what I said I was. In college, I started to feel like, “Okay, I need to sort this out.” A professor really prompted me, indirectly, to get this straight and to not only believe what my parents told me.
I understand that it’s a human need to categorize things, but the question I always want to ask is, “Why does it matter?”
I was especially struck by your mother’s racism. She secretly removed “Black” things from your room: rap tapes; a red, yellow, and green Rasta hat; a Michael Jordan T-shirt “that looked too urban for her tastes.” And the comment she made about fried chicken and watermelon was shocking. Her standard summation of race was that it “just affects so few people.” What do you think she would say about current demographic shifts and the explosion of multiracial babies and young people that we’re currently seeing? Have you been able to have that conversation with her at all?
Sarah Valentine: No. [Laughs.] That’s the short answer. It’s been about 15 years since we’ve had that first conversation… and I don’t think either of my parents have a concept of what being biracial actually is. That’s a conversation we’ve never had. It frankly seems beyond them. When we have talked about this, my mother would say, “You’re more White because you grew up with us.” She’d say, “You’re White because you come from me.” I couldn’t wrap my head around that.
The concept of adoption is a part of all of these stories. T. Kira, you found your sister as an adult and discovered that she’d been adopted by a White family. How has adoption unfolded and impacted in each of your lives: in your view of yourselves and your families?
T. Kira Madden: I’m still very much trying to figure it out. It’s really all I can think about right now because it’s all new for me. I found my sister two years ago and I found my brother six months ago.
After the book came out?
T. Kira Madden: Yeah. He grew up believing that he was Spanish. He was adopted in Miami. It wasn’t until I found him that he said, “What am I?” I said, “You’re Hawaiian and Chinese and Jewish.” He’s a rap artist with a Spanish name. So it’s been this really strange experience for the past six months of having to explain to him what it means to be Hawaiian and what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be Jewish. Also, I’m in a relationship and getting married in a few months. So, of course, the conversation about children comes up… about adopting and having a donor. What does it all mean? [Laughs] I don’t know.
Sarah Valentine: The assumption that I was adopted was something that was always present in my mind. My two younger brothers, who are White, were always put on the spot and asked, “Is your sister adopted?” Again, because there was this very strong taboo about talking about race in our family, their answer was “No.” Later, my parents said, “It’s like you were adopted.” And I was like, “No. It’s a little too late to put this narrative on our family. It felt like they were trying to dodge the issue of what exactly our family dynamic has been. If they had wanted to explain it that way — that essentially my dad adopted me when I was growing up but that my biological father was Black — I could have accepted that. But their approach was just never, ever to speak of it.
Nishta Mehra: Shiv has always known how we came to be a family… and religious practices are a big part of our lives. But I wonder if someday, outside the context of this family, is it going to be really weird… like when people ask why she has the name that she has. These are things that are authentically hers but how is that going to intersect with her own sense of Black identity?
You made sure that Shiv learned to speak Hindi, in part because you weren’t taught the language and not speaking it was painful to you and made you feel like you weren’t “Indian enough.” I think you asked a key question which is: In passing down this heritage to Shiv, will these experiences help to “expand our collective imagination about what Black life can look like?” Or will they be an impediment to her, keeping her from belonging? I don’t know if that’s a question that we can answer right now.
Sarah Valentine: Right now, my partner is White and Filipino. He’s from the Bay Area and in California, mixed children are everywhere. It’s been heartening to see that. Where it’s normalized. A child can look different from their parents and there isn’t such a need to question it.
Right. For me, having lived in New York for many years, and now Miami, and being born and raised in Los Angeles, all of these things are just taken for granted.
Sarah Valentine: So much depends on context. My mixed-race identity is perceived very differently depending on where I am or who I’m with. If I’m in a predominantly White area, I’m Black. If I’m in a predominantly Black area, I’m mixed. Everything else in between depends on who’s seeing me.
T. Kira Madden: I think that’s such a beautiful answer. I think that can happen not only where we’re raised, or where we live, but even on a daily basis. We’re always having to find our grounding. There’s this town in North Carolina. It’s where my mother and I ran away for a while when my father was abusive. There was this one billboard in the town for a college. It had an Asian woman at the computer, and going through town, everyone would ask my mother if she was the woman on the billboard.
She looked completely different! But that was their only context for seeing an Asian woman.
Nishta Mehra: I don’t want to take away from the difficulty of this kind of identity formation… But I also just love that it’s messing things up for all of us.
Sarah Valentine: I like that too.
*Shiv has since changed his preferred gender pronoun to “she.”