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A Festival For Mixed-Race Storytellers — And Everyone Else, Too

Author Heidi Durrow gathers with festivalgoers to celebrate Mixed Remixed in 2015.
Courtesy of Mixed Remixed
Author Heidi Durrow gathers with festivalgoers to celebrate Mixed Remixed in 2015.

A couple weeks ago, about a thousand people gathered at a museum in Los Angeles for Mixed Remixed, a free two-day festival featuring events like a memoir writing workshop, a Loving Day Wine and Cheese reception, a screening of multiracial short films and a panel on biracial hair (moderated by Code Switch's own Karen Grigsby Bates!).

In the past, comedians Key and Peele have performed at the festival; this year, Taye Diggs, Willy Wilkinson and Natashia Deon took the stage. The performers and panelists, along with regular attendees, come together to celebrate the "mixed experience."

As a biracial woman, I was intrigued by this description, but curious to know what exactly it meant. After all, the question of what it means to be racially mixed has been a subject of controversy in this country for hundreds of years, and there's no consensus on what it means to have a mixed experience.

So I called up Heidi Durrow, who founded Mixed Remixed in 2014. We talked about the multiracial "family nod," hugging our white moms, and something she calls "mulatto fatigue." She also told me what the festival is about, why it's important, and who exactly it's for.

Durrow says she started the festival partly out of selfishness. She's Danish and African-American, and her 2011 novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, tells the story of a young Afro-Danish orphan who goes to live with her grandmother in a mostly black neighborhood. While Durrow was shopping the manuscript, a lot of publishers told her there was no demographic for "an Afro-Viking coming-of-age tale."

Eventually, of course, Durrow did find a publisher, and her book became a New York Times best-seller. But she knew lots of other multiracial folks are still struggling to be heard. So she decided to create a space to connect people who wanted to tell — and hear — these stories. The first festival was in 2014, and it's always held at the Japanese American National Museum.

It's important to note that this festival isn't just for people who consider themselves multiracial. Durrow says it's not about "mixed pride," and one of her biggest discouragements is when people ask if they're allowed at the festival even if they're not mixed-race.

"Our greatest goal is for people to recognize that the mixed experience is very much the American experience," says Durrow. "Mixed-race pride, I think, is a difficulty because I don't want to valorize whatever someone's idea is about that. We don't want to buy into ideas of white privilege or light-skinned privilege. What we want to say is, we really are all part of the same story, and we don't have to be ashamed or invisible or feel lonely in this experience. ... The festival is about having a space to say, 'I'm connected to this person who you don't even think I'm connected to.' "

This year's attendees included families of transracial adoption, the children of U.S. immigrants, a man who wanted to better understand the experience of his multiracial partner, folks who live in racially diverse neighborhoods, folks who don't. Durrow says that all of these people are part of the mixed experience.

"I feel like my mom gets to be as mixed as I do," Durrow says. When, say, visiting a black history museum with her white mother, she worries that some might see her mom as an intruder. In those moments, she says, "I always want to wrap my arms around my mom and make sure people know that she's not just 'some white lady.' She's connected to me. And that matters."

I was curious to know whether Durrow thinks there was anything about the mixed experience that people who identify as monoracial can't relate to. She tells me a story:

"I go to farmers markets all the time, and there are so many multiracial people at farmers markets. I don't know what the deal is, but mixed-race families seem to love farmers markets. And I'm always trying to look at people and give them the 'nod,' like, you know there's a black people nod? And I imagine that there's a mixed family 'nod.' But apparently the memo has not gone out, because when I see these couples with these kids who look just like me, they're not seeing that I'm the same as them, at all."

Durrow hopes Mixed Remixed is a place where diversity within families can be acknowledged in a positive way. As someone who grew up in a multiracial family, she says, it's still rare to be surrounded by people who understand that aspect of your experience. "We don't have a landscape that we belong in," Durrow says. "So I think that's why the festival is necessary. It gives us at least, for a couple of days, a landscape where we belong."

One consequence of that missing landscape, Durrow says, is that over time, some mixed-race folks end up connecting less and less with their mixed identity. She calls this idea "mulatto fatigue," because "it's really difficult to say all of who you are in a world that insists on single labels. It's exhausting." Even as an advocate of multiracial identity, Durrow says she gets tired of the backlash she gets writing about these issues.

But she says that the real problem is that multiracial people haven't shared a sense of collective consciousness — and the art and scholarship that come with it — as long as other identity groups. "This didn't just start in the 1960s with free love," Durrow says. " 'Mixedness' has been happening from the beginning of this country. I don't think people would grow out of it if they knew there was a space to talk about it."

For a growing number of people, Mixed Remixed is becoming that space. The festival has been around for only three years, but it has grown quite a bit. This year, there were more than twice as many attendees as in 2014.

She wants the organization to eventually be a resource for kids growing up in multiracial families, through mentoring and school programs. Multiracial people are the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S., and products and companies like Cheerios, Honey Maid and Old Navy are capitalizing on the growing visibility of racially mixed families. But, Durrow warns, "We can't just be a marketing demographic. We have to say something, so we have to have more storytellers in the future to tell these stories."

For more information on Mixed Remixed check out their website, and follow @mixedremixed on Twitter for photos from this year's event.

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Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.