I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a New York nabe that is often mistakenly identified as a bougie, all-white enclave in the midst of an otherwise racially diverse borough. While the bougie thing is probably dead on (I did pay $3.00 for a small cup of organic, French-pressed java the other day), contrary to folklore, I stand by my belief that the Slope is actually one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in all of New York City. It’s not just that families of different races and persuasions co-exist harmoniously in the same array of blocks, but that many of our neighborhood families are within themselves multi-ethnic.
Park Slope is a somewhat affluent neighborhood (sorry to bring the property value down, guys), the type of place where people of varying ethnic backgrounds are socio-economically aligned. It makes sense, then, that so many interracial couples live in the Slope, because according to Ohio State professor of sociology, Zhenchao Qian, “when it comes to marriage, ethnic and racial boundaries are being crossed, especially among men and women with college education.”
Specifically, Qian found that “marriages between African Americans and whites increased rapidly between 1980 and 2008, outpacing the rate of unions between whites and other ethnic and racial groups, including Latinos, Asian Americans and American Indians.” However, “the total number of marriages between blacks and whites continues to be much smaller than those between whites and other racial and ethnic groups.” That’s because “for many years, highly educated Hispanics and Asian Americans have been more likely than their less educated counterparts to marry whites.” Qian says, “that was never true for blacks.”
“It used to be that race trumped everything, including education, when it came to marriage between blacks and whites,” Qian notes. “But that is changing. For the first time, we found that highly educated blacks and whites were more likely to intermarry. That is very significant and is another sign that racial boundaries are blurring.”
Qian’s research doesn’t reveal if these interracial relationships tend to involve more black men or black women. But a controversial new book titled Is Marriage for White People? would indicate that more often than not, interracial relationships tend to be between black men and white women — a complaint among some black female celebrities like Jill Scott, whose 2010 opinion piece in Essence on the way black men dating white women makes her “wince” was so controversial it was still fodder for the ladies of The View a year later. As Mediaite pointed out, the renewed interest in Scott’s article came about when she was invited to perform at the White House this Spring — along with rapper Common — who has also spoken out against interracial relationships. Right-wing politicians were trying to paint the Obamas as Black Extremists who keep the company of Black Racists — an interesting insinuation, especially considering that — as we all know — the President himself is both black and white, the product of an interracial relationship.
Ralph Richard Banks, author of the aforementioned book on marriage, concludes that single black women need to “be willing to marry outside the race” if they wish to marry at all. (It’s worth mentioning that Banks is a black man married to a black woman, so it’s not as if he’s advocating dating outside of one’s race because that’s what worked for him.) According to Banks, “black women lead the most racially segregated intimate lives of any Americans.” As Alice Short of the LA Times notes, Banks cites a shortage of suitable black male partners for educated black women, resulting from “the incarceration of black men, and disparities in education and income between African American women and men.” Black women “vastly” outnumber black men in college — and outperform them on campus, Banks reveals, adding, “During the past three decades, the earnings of black female college graduates have increased more than four times as much as the earnings of their black male counterparts.”
Banks, Jill Scott and Common all note in their discussions on the subject of interracial dating that the legacy of slavery is a specter hovering perilously in the background that makes people question whether or not interracial dating is fair. Scott writes:
My position is that for women of color, this very common “wince” has solely to do with the African story in America. When our people were enslaved, “Massa” placed his Caucasian woman on a pedestal. She was spoiled, revered and angelic, while the Black slave woman was overworked, beaten, raped and farmed out like cattle to be mated. She was nothing and neither was our Black man. As slavery died for the greater good of America, and the movement for equality sputtered to life, the White woman was on the cover of every American magazine. She was the dazzling jewel on every movie screen, the glory of every commercial and television show. She was unequivocally the standard of beauty for this country, firmly unattainable to anyone not of her race. We daughters of the dust were seen as ugly, nappy mammies, good for day work and unwanted children, while our men were thought to be thieving, sex-hungry animals with limited brain capacity. We reflect on this awful past and recall that if a Black man even looked at a White woman, he would have been lynched, beaten, jailed or shot to death. In the midst of this, Black women and Black men struggled together, mourned together, starved together, braved the hoses and vicious police dogs and died untimely on southern back roads together. These harsh truths lead to what we really feel when we see a seemingly together brother with a Caucasian woman and their children.
Banks says black women don’t want to date white men because they’re afraid of “being seen as an exotic adventure,” something I think anyone in an interracial relationship worries about. No one wants to be fetishized as “other,” everyone wants to be loved for who they are. The idea that people can’t appreciate each other as being different without turning that into some kind of kink is sad, but I understand why that notion still prevails. Even though 86% of Americans approve of interracial marriage according to Gallup, seeing multi-racial couples is still unsettling or confusing or — best case scenario — curious to most people born before 1990. “Why?,” people wonder. “Why are they together? What is that relationship about?” I know, because I’ve thought it myself on a few occasions. And because I’ve seen people look at me the same way. For the past two months, I’ve been seeing someone (I know, right? Like more than once!) and he’s black. The first time we went on a lengthy stroll together in Brooklyn, I could feel people’s thoughts as they looked us up and down while we were holding hands. “Another black man with a white woman,” some glared. Or, “Of course she’s dating a black dude, look at her ass.” (Seriously, it’s worth a look.) I was surprised to find out that some people aren’t afraid to vocalize their disdain about seeing a mixed-race couple together. Once when my man-friend and I were walking down the street, an elderly black woman eyed us and said, “Mmmm-hmmm,” shaking her head “knowingly.”
So what is it that this woman thought she knew? That the man I was with only likes white girls? That I only like black guys? That our relationship is based on the desire for some kind of forbidden love, some dark, ancient tribal lust, some turn-on fueled by objectification? Why is it okay to insinuate that there’s any motive at all at play in an interracial relationship outside of the same motives that fuel other romantic relationships? (Those being a desire for companionship, love and someone to eat nachos with, of course.)
My friend Abbi Crutchfield and her husband Luke Thayer are both comedians. She’s black, he’s white. (I say Abbi’s black, though in reality Abbi, like President Obama, is the child of a relationship between a white woman and a black man. For the sake of ease, her skin is black, and therefore so is she. More on that in the next paragraph.) Abbi jokes, “I worry about how I’ll feel if my kids don’t look like me. Like when I’m pushing them in a stroller I’ll feel the need to wear a shirt that says, ‘Not the nanny!’” It’s not that Abbi’s hung up about having bi-racial kids, but that she knows other people might be hung up about it.
But Banks asserts that as interracial relationships grow and result in more generations of mixed-race babies, those children will rewrite the rules of racial identity. There’s a great post up on Jezebel today about exactly that. Titled, My Son Thinks I’m White, light-skinned, mixed-race blogger Lauren McBride writes, “No matter what complex cultural theory or reality I present [my son] with, as a child it is all just skin deep to him, and there is no convincing him otherwise.” We could talk for days about race, the ways in which it provides people with a much-needed sense of history, culture and identity, and the ways in which holding onto those separate identities can drive us apart. But for the most part, I agree with McBride’s son, that race is a social construct, that skin color is just skin color, and that eventually skin color will be seen more like hair color — something that makes you cute because it makes you you but is ultimately irrelevant.
I love being alive and raising a child in a time when the concept of a “post-racial America” exists, and I love all of the comedians and thinkers I know who grapple with that idea. It’s true that while race-relations in America have come so far, we have so far yet to go. We’ll achieve enlightenment someday, but in the meantime, let yourself chuckle at this: a few weeks ago, when my man-friend decided he was game to meet my daughter, the three of us went to a nearby pier to fly kites. I noticed there were people taking kayaks out into the harbor, and a recreation group was offering rides for free, so we decided to go. As the three of us were hopping into the kayak, the man helping us in told my daughter to “hold onto Dad,” which was hilarious, not only because “Dad” and I had only been dating for about a month (gulp!), but because “Dad” is pretty dark brown and my daughter is pale-pink light. And yet, to the middle-aged white man helping three city-dwellers fumble their way into an oddly-shaped boat, we must have seemed enough like a family for him to throw it out there. Here’s to more hilarious assumptions like that.