Drawing comics with characters of diverse races is a fraught task. From the earliest political cartoons up through last year's controversial depiction of Serena Williams by Australian artist Mark Knight, comics have a long history of exaggerating physical features in the service of racist stereotypes.
Even for the most well-meaning cartoonists, it's supremely difficult to make race visible without reinscribing such stereotypes. How can you use comics' visual shorthand to indicate that someone is African American or Asian without caricaturing their race? And for that matter, how do you draw white people without subtly implying that whiteness is the default?
NPR editor Malaka Gharib's answer to the problem neatly encapsulates her whole approach to life in her high-spirited graphical memoir, I Was Their American Dream. Gharib's mother is from the Philippines, and her father is from Egypt, so Gharib grows up in California with an extended Filipino American family and visits Egypt every summer. She attends an astonishingly diverse high school where she meets Taiwanese Americans, Pakistani Americans, Indian Americans, Mexican Americans, Iranian Americans and a Filipino German American. "At ... Cerritos High," she explains, "the most important question you could ask was, 'What are you?' "
Gharib is so used to mixed-race people that when she finds herself in a sea of white kids at her upstate New York college (which she chooses because it's "just five hours from the city by car"), she has trouble telling them apart. Later, surrounded by whites in the working world, she gloms on to any brown-skinned colleague who crosses her path. "David Hong! ... Are you Korean? I went to high school with a lot of Koreans!" she exclaims to a new coworker. "Or maybe you're Chinese. Hong can be a Chinese name, too. Do you have a Korean name? Annyeonghaseyo! I love K-Pop."
But even as she makes light of herself, Gharib's wisdom about the power and limits of racial identity is evident in the way she draws. Most of the time, Gharib just doesn't bother to draw race at all. The aforementioned Korean American coworker looks more or less like the white people Gharib works with. A page depicting a bunch of kids from her high school shows all different facial characteristics and hairstyles, with either pink or white skin, but these qualities don't really map onto stereotypes of what people of Middle Eastern, Asian or Latino heritage are supposed to look like. Gharib's approach to drawing race becomes particularly ironic when she recalls her yearning to meet people like she had seen on the TV show Felicity. "What I really wanted ... was to meet real-life white people. And Cerritos had hardly any!" she writes. A few pages later, the white kids she meets in college are drawn just like the mixed-race people back home.
Not that Gharib thinks everyone's all alike — quite the opposite. She is particularly cutting toward white college classmates who say, "I don't see color." What the young Gharib learns over the course of the book is that it is not color but culture that makes a person. "I thought brown people in America grew up like me — in little immigrant communities," she writes. "In Washington, DC, I got to meet people of color from different parts of the country. It helped me see the problem with the question, 'What are you?' "
Gharib fills her book with the things that do matter: the beliefs, values, food, music and experiences that make an Egyptian Filipino American who she is. She writes of her mother's hard, unstinting work at two jobs to send Gharib to private school and college, of her father's insistence that she visit Egypt so she would be in touch with that part of her heritage, of the closeness and demands of a sprawling Filipino American family, of the stares you get if you're a girl skateboarding down a street in Cairo. And she writes about food. Who knew a can of sardines in tomato sauce could ever mean so much? Even Gharib didn't, until she went away to her mostly white college.
That's one thing that, Gharib believes, does unite most mixed-race people: They've had the experience of feeling alienated from white-dominated culture. Gharib takes a lighthearted approach toward this universal fact, even creating "Microaggressions Bingo." Squares including "Do you need rice with that?" and "Do you speak Egyptian?" illustrate her tempered rage against clueless whites.
But that anger, expressed through numerous reminiscences, doesn't come out in her art. She draws white people to look more or less like everybody else — which is to say, like people.
Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.