How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

'They have a language I don’t know but I understand': On growing up mixed-race

Photo by Jeff Latimer/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Just as the last three decades have brought more mixed-race and mixed-ethnicity marriages, they’ve also brought a growing number of multiracial, multiethnic Americans. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of multiracial children in the U.S. grew by almost 50 percent. In a country where the president was himself born to an interracial couple, being a child of mixed race longer makes one as "different" as it once did, at least not as a general rule.

Still, adults who grew up in multiracial families have unique stories, some more difficult to tell than others. Some of these stories will be shared this coming weekend in Los Angeles at the fifth annual Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, held at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo. The festival, which highlights the work of mixed-race writers, filmmakers and others, was founded in 2008 by author Heidi Durrow and actor Fanshen Cox, both of whom grew up in multiracial families.

Here's brief excerpt from Durrow's debut novel, “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky,” published in 2010 by Algonquin Books. The novel draws on Durrow's experience as the child of a black American military serviceman and a white Danish immigrant. In the novel, the 11-year-old protagonist, Rachel, goes to live with her black grandmother – her fictional father’s mother – after her mother ("Mor") and brother die tragically.

In her new school, in a black neighborhood of Portland, Rachel learns a few things about being both black and white, and how to cope with other children’s reaction to her:

I am light-skinned-ed. That’s what the other kids say. And I talk white. I think new things when they say this. There are a lot of important things I didn’t know about. I think Mor didn’t know either. They tell me it is bad to have ashy knees. They say stay out of the rain so my hair doesn’t go back. They say white people don’t use washrags, and I realize now, at Grandma’s, I do.

They have a language I don’t know but I understand.

I learn that black people don’t have blue eyes. I learn that I am black. I have blue eyes. I put all these fact into the new girl.

And I am getting better at covering up the middle parts.


I'll publish more this week on the upcoming festival, where I'll be speaking on a panel Sunday afternoon, along with author Susan Straight, author and actress Dianne Farr, filmmaker Eli Steele and blogger Jason Sperber.
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