Most people have been in a situation where they have faced discrimination in one way or another — some from a very early age. Many of us survive these encounters, but it's the determined few who overcome these frustrating experiences and turn them into resolve builders and game changers.
It took time for Jonathan R. Miller to triumph, but he did. He struggled with being biracial as an adolescent before coming to terms with his identity as an adult. His mother, white, grew up in a small town in North Dakota and his African American father was raised in Chicago’s south side. Miller's childhood experience growing up in Los Alamos, New Mexico fueled his creativity.
Today, the 39-year-old literary fiction author writes e-book thrillers that include multicultural or biracial characters and themes. It's his personal knowledge of racial tension that pushes his stories.
“Growing up, it always seemed like there was something wrong with being mixed,” Miller told The Huffington Post Canada in a recent interview.
His first book, "Three Cent" takes a candid look at a future society where racial mixing is mandatory. In his latest offering, "Delivery," the protagonist, Ambojeem -- a biracial Somali immigrant and single father -- struggles to find a safe place to raise his daughter before finally settling in Minneapolis and a world of violence and intrigue.
"The character wasn't going to be biracial at first, but after a while I came to like the idea of this man trying to navigate two different aspects of the "outsider" status," Miller said.
Growing up, Miller was privy to an unusual and uncomfortable 'insider's look' into how others perceived race.
"Because my brother and I are both very light-skinned, people we met, friends we made just assumed we were white,'' Miller, now based in San Fransisco, said of his life in the United States, in an interview with the Mercury News. "I often heard things I wish I hadn't."
“Hearing people talk negatively about black people in front of me created a lot of distrust,” Miller said.
But while “being biracial was creating challenges for him” growing up, Miller was also developing character traits that, he believes, helped him learn from an early age how to positively handle difficult situations related to race and ethnicity.
And although Miller grew up stateside, the lessons he learned are easily relevant for many Canadians -- in our multicultural, multireligious multiethnic landscape with more mixed marriages and kids of mixed heritage than ever, self-identifying and understanding how you 'fit in' can be a complicated matter.
Taking time to reflect and prepare for others' questions can be helpful, and Miller share ways young people of all backgrounds can address struggles with discrimination and negative stereotypes.
1. Bullying— Even teens with the same identity — be it racial or gender — can be guilty of bullying and discrimination. Ontario's Ministry of Education defines bullying as "a form of repeated, persistent, and aggressive behaviour directed at an individual or individuals that is intended to cause (or should be known to cause) fear and distress and/or harm to another person's body, feelings, self-esteem, or reputation."
Social media can be a platform for bullying to continue even after school is out. 2. Cyber bullying occurs when young people take malicious actions online. through chat rooms, email, social sites and instant messaging.
3. Have a stock answer to the question, 'What are you?' -- "You don't need to go into full confessional mode, but have fun with it, if that helps. Or be perfectly honest," Miller said.
You don't have to talk about all the nuances of your family tree every time you're asked about your background, Miller said. That can be exhausting. Find something that works for you personally.
4. Have a REAL answer to the question, "What are you?" -- "I like the word 'mixed' because it's a messy word, and in my experience growing-up mixed is exactly that," Miller said.
He suggests that it's important to allow yourself to truly wrestle with questions of identity in environments you consider safe.
5. A friend to confide in -- If you are struggling with your identity, you don't have to tell the whole world, but confide in a friend that you trust. Having someone to confide in is important.
"If you can, find someone who you can talk to about your most honest, ever-evolving, often-messy answer to the question, "What am I?" Miller said.
6. If you can't speak, write -- "Maybe you don't have anyone trustworthy to talk to honestly about your experiences. Write about them. It helped me, sometimes, to get those out," Miller said.
It may not make a lot of sense initially and it might feel uncomfortably personal, but write. Keep a journal, write short stories and rename the characters, try your hand at poetry -- whatever feels best.
7. Let your identity be an open question -- "You are likely being told at different times, more or less, to hurry up and get off the fence, pick a side and get on with it," Miller said.
It's not necessarily a bad thing to be unsure of who you are, even if your peers seem to have their acts together, he said. Teenage years are discovery years.
Miller also quoted author Rainer Maria Rilke: " 'Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. ...live in the question.' That's good advice. Difficult to follow, but good."
8. Embrace the chameleon -- When it comes to mixed heritage, "you don't have to be 'both' or 'other' or 'all of the above' all of the time. Sometimes the only way to figure out what you are is to choose one thing and be it for a while," Miller said.
Explore how it feels to fully embrace a single aspect of your identity, for short period of time, he suggested. See "what stick and what slides off." It's all about learning.
9. Don't be afraid to abandon labels altogether -- "I can't tell you how many multi-racial people I've met who have chosen a single race or ignored race entirely and been perfectly content with the decision. A biracial friend of mine used to tell me, 'I'm black and white, yes, but I'm black. Period,' " Miller said.
He said he knows many people have chosen to identify with only one aspect of their multi-background, while others have embraced the blend.
10. Get involved in life -- Find creative ways to occupy your time, Miller said. Join a group or do an activity (with others) where you are empowered to be who you are, instead of having to act how others think you need to be in order to fit in.
11. Be proud of who you are -- Take pride in your ethnic (culture, colour or religion) heritage. You have no control over your heritage, and you can't change that fact that this is who you are. So embrace it and learn as much as you can.
"You may feel like it would be an insult to your heritage to embrace one aspect of yourself above the others, but trust me, it wouldn't be. This is important: it is not your job to uphold, with perfect equity and grace, all of the elements that went into your making," Miller said.
12. Have a ready defense against the 'identity police' -- "Often they're the 'gatekeepers' that decide whether you're 'in' or 'out.' But what you can do is have a ready answer for the 'charges' they level against you. Whether you use humour, earnestness, or self-righteous anger, it helps to have your defense lined up and ready," Miller said.
Sometimes people think all the "members" of their cultural or ethnic community must behave, dress and think a certain way. But as an individual, you can do whatever you want and find your own identity.
Have you found a creative way of fighting prejudice and discrimination? Let us know in the comments below.