8 Books That Explore What It Means to Be Biracial
Memoir, poetry, and fiction about searching for identity and feeling caught in between
I didn’t read a book with a biracial protagonist until I was in my 20s. I had lived that long feeling out of place in a country where race was so closely connected to culture, community and belonging. I never considered someone else might feel the same. That first book brought me so much comfort I decided to seek out more that explored feeling like an other.
The more you dig into what it means to be of more than one race, the more complexities, perspectives, and inconsistencies you see. Some people whose parents are different races or ethnicities don’t even see themselves as biracial or multicultural. Others consider “mixed” to be their primary racial identity, more than either of their parents’ races.
What these books have in common is that they strive to approach identity as something beyond skin color. It’s a perspective I find many mixed individuals reach for—but at the same time, we know there’s a part of identity that will always linked to race.
So I keep reading these books, the ones that explore the day to day and philosophical experiences of being more than one race. I do it for the comfort in shared otherness but also to see what makes us just like everyone else. Here are some of the books I’ve encountered when looking for biracial voices. These books all show a different view of racial identity and identity itself in all its messy and undefined glory.
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother by James McBride
In James McBride’s memoir he documents his upbringing as a biracial child on the East Coast and his mother’s personal history—from a young Jewish immigrant to a runaway teenager to raising twelve biracial children. Both of their journeys to finding a place in the world are interwoven as if you’re sitting at the kitchen table with them as they recount it. The Color of Water is a reminder that though race, religion, and upbringing are important, you can’t let them consume you but rather let them guide you to your identity.
Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña
This young adult novel follows a teenage boy in what feels like a modern-day The Sandlot—because the main character is a baseball enthusiast, but also because the book clearly has heart from the beginning. De la Peña adds in a heavy dose of dealing with immigration laws and teenage insecurities, but it’s leavened with kids just being goofy. Moving back and forth between the Mexican and white sides of his life Danny explores his sense of self and growing up separated from his father who’s recently been deported.
Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural edited and introduction by Claudine C. O’Hearn
If you’ve ever wondered what questions mixed people ask themselves, read the introduction to this book. O’Hearn gives you a SparkNotes version of a life spent with one foot in two (or more) places. Sometimes neither footing feels stable. Through a collection of essays from various multicultural people like Julia Alvarez and Malcolm Gladwell, Half and Half explores the questions they’re asked, the questions they still have, and whether we can redefine racial identity.
Caucasia by Danzy Senna
This novel taught me the word “miscegenation”: a sexual relationship between people from different racial groups. That’s how Birdie’s life starts off, with a white mother and a black father both steeped in the complexities of activism and black power in Boston during the mid ‘70s. As her family and life split into pieces Senna explores conflicting ideologies of race, raising mixed children when you’re not mixed yourself, and the struggle to find a connection to black culture when you’re white passing.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
When teenage Lydia is found dead, her Chinese American family starts to fall apart. As secrets are revealed and the family of four try to understand each other the reader rotates through each family member’s point of view. With each character you piece together what their life is like as a mixed family living in small-town Ohio in the ‘70s.
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Boys II Men, childhood shenanigans, and street fighter lay side by side with apartheid in this memoir by Daily Show host Trevor Noah. From the title on, he paints a vivid picture of growing up biracial in South Africa when sexual relations between black and white people was illegal.
Pride by Ibi Zoboi
Every niche of literature is sure to have a Pride and Prejudice retelling, and here’s the one for mixed-race girls. Pride features a family of Dominican and Haitian girls living in modern day Bushwick. It has all the romance of the classic original, but also features a subplot where Zuri (the Elizabeth Bennett analogue) works to stop the gentrification of her neighborhood from erasing the culture of her family and community.
Mixed Feelings by Avan Jogia
An upcoming collection of poetry and stories, Mixed Feelings is the result of Avan Jorgia asking himself and other writers “what does it mean to be mixed?” Mixed Feelings is a peek into several perspectives of being multicultural and the possibility that we’re much more similar than we are different.