UC Santa Barbara professor Reginald Daniel had white ancestors, but his parents identified as monoracial Black Americans. Still, Daniel claimed a mixed-race heritage, and challenged the notion that claiming mixed-race ancestry would dilute the struggle for Black liberation. (Illustration by Kelly Ma/KQED)
Reginald Daniel was a UC Santa Barbara professor who taught the longest-running college course on multiracial identity in the U.S., helping hundreds of students grapple with their own family histories and broader concepts of racial identity.
He also was a person who, from a young age, butted heads with his own family over questions of race. Born to a Black family in the segregated South, he posed tough questions about his heritage, which included white ancestors. Those questions made his family deeply uncomfortable.
But Daniel never stopped asking them — his curiosity defined him until his sudden death last fall, just after KQED’s Marisa Lagos and Sasha Khokha spoke with him for The California Report Magazine’s series "Mixed! Stories of Mixed-Race Californians."
UCSB professor Paul Spickard was a close friend of Daniel’s, and co-editor with him on the Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies. Spickard believes that Daniel will be remembered as one of the great racial theorists of his time.
“When intellectual historians write the history of racial thinking in the last quarter of the 20th century, in the first quarter of the 21st, there are certain names that are going to appear near the top of the heap … Reg [Daniel] is one of those,” Spickard said.
That’s because Daniel was willing to “think outside of the made-up, racist categories” that dominated racial theory, Spickard said — categories used to “justify slavery and colonialism” and which ended up separating people even more deeply.
“He's the person who gave us the permission to think about multiplicity, about fluidity, about contingency, about race as a performance, not necessarily as something that is in your genes,” Spickard said.
Kip Fulbeck, another UCSB colleague of Daniel’s and an artist who has centered mixed-race identity in his work, said Daniel was a “tour de force in the early multiracial movement” of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“We were talking about this stuff before anyone else was really dealing with it,” Fulbeck said. “It wasn't so much we were doing this to be activists. We were doing this to just, to have a home, to have a community.”
Fulbeck recalled that Daniel, who could be a bit of a hermit, also lit up in front of a classroom.
“He had this amazing ability to captivate a room,” Fulbeck said. “He was just such a vibrant and charismatic lecturer, so passionate about what he was doing and always so poised.”
Daniel brought that enthusiasm and joy to his work until he died suddenly in November 2022. Here are excerpts from his interview with Khokha and Lagos, edited for clarity and brevity.
On how his family discussed race
They didn't talk about it at all, which was really kind of fascinating. [In] Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up, we couldn’t sit at the counters at Woolworths, we had to stand. So I remember very clear memories of those [things]. And you grew up with a certain sense of anxiety about appropriate behavior and what things could happen if you crossed the line unwittingly and didn't know.
All of [my] grandparents are themselves the offspring of what we would consider to be interracial unions. Two of them were not marriages. The other ones were. So there was a sense, I think, a shame about that. That ancestry and the privileges that often come at that time, particularly among African Americans, about being lighter skinned. So there was a great deal of silence about it. But for me, I was just looking at the world around me and saw a lot of things that nobody wanted to talk about. But then when I began to realize that it's much more complicated, that my family was really very saddened about it, and they were really uncomfortable with me asking questions about our background and why we look the way we look.
On his identity as multiracial or mixed
I was an outlier throughout my entire life to identify as mixed — and my family was not happy about it. I identify as a multiracial person, although I'm open to people using the term mixed race or racially mixed, just depending on the context. And I let people know that my multiracial identity is grounded in the African diaspora because of being part Black, and that I'm engaged in the struggles of Black people as well as a broader anti-racist struggle because of it.
[When I was in first grade] Crayola came out with a tan and a flesh color. And I had always thought of myself as tan. That was the color that I always thought I was. The only way I could get my skin color was when we had paints because I could mix brown and white paint. So I just had a sense of myself as being tan and tan as a mixture of brown and white.
[My family tried] to explain, “No, it's not about color, it's about ancestry.” But if we have all these other ancestries, why does African ancestry override all of them? And they couldn't answer that. Other than “because.” And for me, that wasn't good enough. So they thought there was something wrong with me. Perceptually. They thought I had a — I don't want to call it a mental disability, but that's kind of the way they made it feel. As if I was out of touch with reality and they needed to get me back in touch with it.
On the challenges of being Black and mixed
[Some Black people] feel it's a sense of betrayal to the Black struggle. But I'm saying, can't you be in the Black struggle and be multiracial, too? Is there a problem with that? Why is that a contradiction?
The assumption is that a monoracial identity is the only trajectory to be engaged in the struggles of Black people. Some of that is also based on history because historically, multiracial-identified people have used their identity as an attempt to achieve white adjacency. So this is not coming out of a vacuum, and I think there are people, in fact, who may still embrace a multiracial identity as an attempt to become closer to whiteness.
It's hard and it's going to take a long time because our society is functioning the way it is in terms of the rightness of whiteness, so to speak. But [as] more people are willing to step out, be engaged in anti-racist work, be engaged in the struggles of other communities of color, while also identifying as multiracial, people will begin to see more examples of the fact that people can say they're multiracial and not be against the struggle.
If I walked into a room [where people were grouped based on their ethnic identity] and I was supposed to choose a box, I would just sit in the middle of the room. I wouldn't go to any of the boxes. If they had a clearly designated place for mixed people, I wouldn't even have to think, “Oh my God, I wonder if I should go there. What if I should go to the Black group? I wonder what they will think about me?”
It's just always been very natural for me to think of myself as being an in-betweener or a liminal man that fits in and in between spaces. I have always been a mixed person. I wouldn't know how to think of myself otherwise. And I'm not planning on changing. You're asking me not to be myself. How do I do that?
On being mixed in California
When I first came here, it was very clear to me that this sort of in-betweenness of the Latino population provided some sort of leverage for people who are also in between in other kinds of ways. Everybody is also creating new identities in California. That's the state's purpose. If you want to be different and be new, come out to California. And it's no surprise that here we have the largest number of multiracial people in the nation, here in California. Hawaii has a higher percentage because it's such a smaller state. But California is higher than the national average. And so the multiracial movement originated in California.
On the evolution of his college course 'Betwixt and Between'
When I first started teaching it back in 1989, I was terrified of walking into the classroom because I didn't know if people would understand what I was talking about. I used comparisons like broco- flower, which is broccoli and cauliflower, cockapoo, mermaid. There are all these entities in our world that we're familiar with that are hybrid. I don't do that anymore.
At that point, this topic was just beginning to become part of the public discourse. Some people were terrified when I first taught the course, that there were going to be riots or something like that. And exactly the opposite happened. A lot of students were looking for an opportunity to talk about this. I would say the demographics have changed over the years and that there are more and more people in the classes who actually do identify as biracial, multiracial or mixed, whatever term they use.
So when you're dealing with ambiguity, the desire is to resolve that ambiguity by putting the person in a binary or a dichotomous framework. And multiracial people actually don't fit in that. And so it's troubling that people can't locate you racially, partially so they can know how to treat you, and where they place you in the racial hierarchy.
Because they have a lifeblood interest in keeping that system intact. That makes the world very clear, and it keeps their location in the hierarchy very, very safe. And anything that challenges that is a threat to their existence, which they've come to believe in for so long.
On a younger generation embracing their mixed identity
The younger generation is growing up in a very different kind of world. It's already unfolding. They're exposed to much more diversity in their daily lives, not just racial, but gender, sexuality, all kinds of things.
These children are growing up not only in a more diverse world, a world that doesn't have the kinds of delineations that many of us have grown up in. But they're also just dismissing many of them. And they're saying, "Well, [those categories] are just not relevant for me. I don't know why they're there in the first place, but they're not helping me move forward in life. So why should I even acknowledge it, let alone reproduce them?"
On talking to kids about racial identity
I think parents should be very open to discussing the history, the family history, the children's backgrounds and how things happened — what it means to have slave ancestry or Native American ancestry, or whatever other ancestry, do not hide it.
Children will learn to navigate the identities with which they're most comfortable. None of them are “better” than the other, although some of them come with more social privileges. I always say in my classes the lighter skin, the whiter the collar, and I think that's pretty accurate. It's really important for kids to know that there is racial privilege that not all groups benefit from it, and that if you have a white background, you need to understand the history. I mean, everybody, white kids, even themselves, need to understand the privileges that come to white people, even if they don't desire them just because of whiteness. [It’s] not about feeling guilty about being white, but understanding that there are advantages to that. And if you have that, maybe you should use them to be engaged in anti-racist work.
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