In her book “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky,” Heidi Durrow writes from a very personal perspective. She is the daughter of a white Danish mother and an African-American father. She recalls that her family didn’t really talk about race or racial identity.
“In my own family, I grew up without any knowledge of what race was until I was 11. I do have to say I kind of liked it that way. But there was a harsh reality at age 11 when finally we moved to the United States and people said, ‘Oh my gosh, are you black or are you white?’ And I had never considered that before. You lose a lot if you’re silent about these very difficult issues, I think. If you start off early talking about them, it makes it easier.”
As an adult, Durrow has spent a great deal of time talking and thinking about issues of self-identity.
“I am obsessed with the ideas around identity, and in particular, the idea that we get labeled very young and we kind of forge our identities either by working with that label or against it. So, you’re labeled as clumsy as a kid, or jock, or beautiful, or smart, and is that really the person you’re going to be going forward ultimately? I had those same struggles growing up of trying to figure out what did I want to be as opposed to what people saw me as.”
When Durrow speaks to audiences about what she calls the “mixed experience,” she hopes to make people think beyond their usual paradigms about race, and how they themselves fit into the “mixed experience.” She recalls talking to a woman recently after an event in Indiana.
“A young white woman, blonde hair, blue eyes came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I go to all these events about cultural diversity. I get it, but I don’t feel like I’m connected to it. But when you spoke today and you said it’s not about who my father or mother is or my blood quantum of ethnicity, but it has to do with the stories that make up my life, I was the only white kid in foster care. Sometimes I was the only person who spoke English in the families I lived with. That’s the mixed experience, isn’t it? I’m a part of that.’ I said, ‘Yes! You’ve got it!’”
She challenges her audiences to think about identity, and for some people, she says it can be a liberating process to contemplate these issues. Durrow recalls another speaking engagement with a largely Caucasian audience where her discussion of the “mixed experience” was especially well received because after her speech, they talked to her about their own families and loved ones.
“Probably half a dozen of these ‘white people’ say to me, ‘My granddaughter is biracial’ or ‘My half sister is half Latina.’ It felt like they felt unburdened in some way. They were frustrated by the fact that you could just look at them and not know who they loved and who they’re connected to and who they cherish in the world. I think in a way, that’s a good thing.”
During her visit to Missouri State University, Durrow will talk specifically about identity issues that girls and women face, a theme that’s prevalent in her book.
“I wanted to write a book about the ways in which young women determine their own value as opposed to letting other people determining it for them. You know, it’s difficult to grow up in this age. I remember growing up in the 1980’s where there was a premium put on being beautiful, that somehow that gave you more worth in the world. And now, I’m so worried because young women have to be sexy and they’re 13 or 12. They don’t get to be kids. They don’t get to explore what has the most meaning to them in the world.”
You can hear Heidi Durrow speak at Missouri State University Monday night starting at 7 in the Plaster Student Union Theater. The event is free and open to the public.