I spoke with Durrow about her life and career and how she discovered her passion for connecting with people over shared multiracial experiences.
Listen to “Other: Mixed Race in America” for more stories about multicultural life in the United States.
Durrow’s answers have been edited for clarity and length.
I feel like you are the godmother of mixed-race identity in the U.S. in a lot of ways.
Trademark! For me, it’s very much a very important piece to keep a continuum of stories going. In my own experience, finding Nella Larsen, who is also African American and Danish, a very famous Harlem Renaissance writer, was really important, and she became kind of my literary mother and gave me the courage to write about the things that I wanted to write about, because she had done it 80 years before I tried.
Nella Larsen is a really strong presence in a lot of the interviews I’ve done, actually, for a lot of women who are mixed race and just learning the vocabulary of their own identities as mixed people.
So I think about this a lot in terms of where I fit into the world in which we have black and white. It’s confusing oftentimes still for me, at age 47.
Can you share a story about a time when you felt caught in between your identities?
[My mother] came to New York City, which was a little bit overwhelming to her, but there was an exhibition there that I thought was really important for us to see while she was visiting. It was at the New-York Historical Society, and it was the exhibition of lynching photographs.
So these photographs had actually been postcards that people would buy at lynchings and then write home, like “Dear Auntie Gertie, was just at this lynching today. It was fantastic.” And they were these grisly, gruesome pictures of men who had been hung, sometimes burned or castrated, just horrible, horrible photos. But it was really important for us to see this.
We decided to walk through the exhibition, which was just one large room individually. It was just a lot to digest, to process, to look at the photos and then read the story behind what had happened. And we just needed to do that individually. So I kind of hurried through the room and read the stories and looked at the pictures and I thought maybe I’d do another pass around, but I wasn’t sure because I felt so much emotion looking at these pictures.
I remember when I finished, I looked around the room for my mom, and she’s not always very comfortable in crowds, so I called out to her, and I said “mor,” which is “mom” in Danish.
She heard me before she saw me, so she turned around and as she turned around, she bumped into this African American woman, and stepped on her foot.
I think everything kind of went into slow motion for me at that point, and it felt like the world was gonna end because flames seemed to rise up out of this African American woman. She seemed so angry and what I was imagining was that she was thinking “How’s this white woman gonna disrespect me in this way?”
I knew in that moment I had to help my mom. So I rushed over to hug her, and I put my body between the African American woman and my mom, and I turned to look at this woman and I kind of gave her this nod, which was “This white lady is good. She’s one of us.”
I don’t know if my mom was clued into what was happening in that moment, all the racial overtones. But we were in this room with all of these horrible, violent photographs of black men, many of them had been lynched because they had looked at or eyeballed or violated, supposedly violated, a white woman. And my mom, the “white woman,” had been disrespectful of this African American woman by stepping on her foot.
I hugged my mom because I wanted her to know that I was hers, I was a white woman’s daughter, but I looked at the African American woman so that she would know that I was aligned with her pain, too.
This is kind of the difficulty that I’m surprised I still find myself in after all these years, walking this line of knowing who I am, most of the time being comfortable in my own skin, desperately wanting to have a connection to all of who I am, African American women and white women at the same time, without negating the difficult rivers that have happened between these two groups of people who are all my people.
I feel my heartbeat racing right now just thinking about that day. And maybe the woman never thought about it again and maybe my mom never thought about it again, but for me it was a really painful and indelible moment in my life.
Did you ever talk to your mom about that moment?
No. I never did.
It’s hard to talk about these things. It feels like when you bring up race, and even though I write about race and I talk about race all the time, it feels like unless the setting and the mood is right, if the relationship is set up correctly, it feels like you can blow up families this way.
One year, I actually passed out postcards for the [Mixed Remixed] festival at a farmers market to multiracial families. But they couldn’t see that I was offering them a space. Many people rejected the offer or the idea out of hand because it introduced race into their family relationship. It seemed like they were worried that then something would happen to that familial bond if they talked about it or acknowledged it, or accepted this difference that I was recognizing in them. Also, it’s very strange to me when I see multiracial families and they don’t see, like, that their curly headed kid with light eyes might look like me one day. There’s a big disconnect between that, which I still puzzle over all the time.
When did you begin writing and thinking about mixed-race issues in a public way?
I wanted to be Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor. I wanted to be a writer in that vein. When I graduated from college, I finally allowed myself to read about Nella Larsen — I went to the New York Public Library, and they had the first editions of her two books on the shelves, which I regret now not having stolen. I read the books in two days.
And that’s when I really realized that it’s okay for me to write about this very specific identity I have of being African American and Danish. This specificity would lead itself to universality at some point. But more than that, it gave me the courage to write more about it. So that was kind of the beginning.
I kept getting pushback on this for a long, long time. I remember in law school, I wanted to write a paper about biracial identity and affirmative action. And the professor was like, “What are you talking about, biracial identity? What is that?”
So I kept trying to find ways to write about this subject, and obviously what I wanted to do most was to write a novel, which I finally got published after, again, years of pushback from people who said there is no market for a story about a half-black, half-Danish girl. “It’s too specific. There’s no demographic that wants to read that.”
I really like what you said about the specificity will lead to universality. I feel like that’s something I’ve been thinking about so much making this podcast. I think that in these small details, there’s a truth about how everybody experiences these things.
I think that’s totally right. At the time it came out, no one was really sure how this was going to go over. It was 2010, and my very first book reading as a published novelist was in Vermont. I did this event where they invite four or five debut writers to come and read, and I was the first writer to go up, and it’s January in Vermont, but 300 people have shown up and it’s like a sold-out house.
I remember going up to the podium and I was actually shaking, and I thought, “Let me take a breath and just chill for a second and look at the audience, and then I’ll start to read.” And I took my breath and I looked out at the audience and my first thought was “Oh my God, these are all white people. They are never going to get this.”
But I did the reading, and then afterwards, the book sold out!
They were taking orders for more copies and probably half a dozen of these quote unquote “white people” said to me things like “My sister is half Latina,” or one woman said “My sister just married a man who lived in Africa and she’s having a baby!” There was an older couple, they said, “Our grandchildren are biracial!” and they were very proud.
Suddenly it just exploded my mind, because I thought, “This is exactly what I wanted to have happen.” I want everyone to “come out,” I guess. To explain how they’re connected to difference. It was just a really magnificent moment, and it was a great reminder to me that we can’t tell who people love or who they’re connected with just by looking at them. But it’s through the stories, it’s through the interactions that we get that. So that’s my mission now, to elicit those stories from as many people as possible.