I knew a few things about life back then. They were:
- When you’re a girl, there is nothing worse than being ugly. Therefore, it’s a top proirity to be pretty.
- You should always be yourself, unless yourself doesn’t fit in, in which case you should stuff yourself down and reshape yourself to conform so you won’t be alone.
- You should be ashamed about what makes you different, because it’s the root cause of all your problems.
I now know that none of these are true. But when I was eight, nine, ten, twelve, or fifteen, they were. And for many children today, they still are.
As a mestiza in a non-diverse southern community, I had the weighty sense that I was not-pretty, and my ethnic background didn’t allow me to conform. So I stuffed it down and was ashamed of it. My eyes, my complexion, my hair color, my nose, my stubby eyelashes — they were all vile to me. I believed, like many girls before me, that being pretty meant blonde hair and blue eyes. I wanted to be like Dionna, a girl who went to my school. Her hair sat in soft blonde ringlets. She always wore fashionable headbands and cute dresses. Her eyes were round and blue. Everyone wanted to be around her. Even her name was beautifully sophisticated. Dionna.
Meanwhile, my eyes slanted just enough to be traitorous. They were dark. And I had no adorable headbands or cute dresses. Also, my hair was coarse.
I used to think: If I have to be Asian, why can’t I at least have Chinese hair?
It’s embarrassing to admit that. But it’s true.
I read a lot. Judy Blume spoke directly to me. Her books were my thoughts come to life. But there were missing pieces. Her characters were mostly white middle-class Yankees. I was a whitish Asian in the working class who was being raised in the deep South, even though neither of my parents were Southerners.
So what was I?
A co-worker recommended a book to me many years ago. It was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. It’s unfortunate that Toni Morrison is the only African American author that many White people can name, but it’s fortunate that I was given the book.
On the surface, I had little in common with Pecola. She was a Black girl growing up in Ohio after the Great Depression. She suffered from horrific abuse. Her family struggled to get by in a society where Whiteness was goodness. My family’s lack of money was an inconvenience. Pecola’s poverty was oppressive. Pecola was told, again and again, that she was ugly. This fueled her one greatest wish: To have blue eyes.
I thought about the times I stared at my own eyes in the mirror and wished they would turn blue. The nights I went to sleep and prayed that I would wake up looking “more American.” How I took it as a compliment when someone said, “Oh, I just thought you were White.”
As readers, we relate to most characters on an empathic level. But I related to Pecola in a more meaningful way. I was a whitish-Asianish girl with food on the table and she was a poor Black girl in the years after the Great Depression, but she managed to reach across the divide of time, fiction, race, age, economics, and social status to say: I know we are very different, but in some ways, we are the same.
Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day. Make sure you celebrate it. Remember why #WeNeedDiverseBooks.