A couple of weeks ago I picked up the newspaper and found an Associated Press article with the latest statistics on interracial relationships. Maybe you read it too? The article gives all the latest numbers on who is marrying who, citing the rise in interracial relationships as evidence that race relations are improving in the United States.
It definitely makes me happy to see that the numbers are on the rise. More interracial marriages and multiracial families mean more opportunities to break down racial barriers. And as much as we can say “race doesn’t matter,” I find it affirming to see other relationships like mine and especially to see other multiracial families. It’s human nature look for reflections of ourselves in the world around us, seeking reassurance that we aren’t totally different from everyone else and that we aren’t alone.
But here are the numbers that really stood out to me. The article reported that “About 83 percent of Americans say it is ‘all right for blacks and whites to date each other’” and “about 63 percent of those surveyed said it ‘would be fine’ if a family member were to marry outside their own race.” These numbers are cited as a evidence of how far we’ve come, but they are also an indication of just how far we still have to go. Flip it around and we’ve still got 17% of Americans who don’t think it is okay for blacks and whites to date, and 37% of Americans – thirty seven percent, that is almost 4 in 10 – who wouldn’t be alright with a loved one marrying someone from another race. Even the difference in those two numbers – 17% vs. 37% – is telling. What that difference says to me is:“It might be okay if black and white people date, as long as it doesn’t happen in my family.” That’s a clear measure of how far we still have to go.
A couple of days before reading the AP article I had watched “The Loving Story” on HBO. It was a documentary about the 1960’s court case Loving vs. Virginia, in which an interracial couple took the state of Virginia all the way to the Supreme Court to fight for their right to live together as husband and wife. I tend to watch stories like that with interest but an element of distance. I recognize the injustice and discrimination involved, but it seems long ago and disconnected from my personal life. I have never had to defend my relationship in any significant way or experienced the intensity of emotion that must come with that. My day-to-day experience is not hampered in any obvious way by others’ feelings about interracial marriage. At worst, there may be the occasional “look,” but nothing more than that, and I’m pretty able to tune that out. In a sense, we’ve been able to develop a bubble. I sort of forget that our experience is not necessarily the way the world works or even an accurate representation of the attitudes around us.
Then I am reminded that 17% of Americans would say we shouldn’t be together and, were I their daughter, 37% wouldn’t want me bringing home Hubby as my potential spouse. I remember that the Ku Klux Klan has an active presence within 30 miles of my home and there is in fact a club right in town exclusively for white men. I remember things I have heard behind closed doors or when people assumed that as a white woman I must be married to a white man and said things to me they would not have said otherwise. Is it wrong to be thankful that these things seem to fly under my radar most days?
I know exactly when the fire will light under me, when the limits of acceptance for interracial relationships will fill me with anger and hurt and melancholy, when those statistics will have life breathed into them. It will be the day that one of my beautiful boys falls for someone of another race and is told, “My parents don’t want me to date you because you’re black.” Or, worse, “My parents said I can’t date you because you’re black.” There is a decent chance that day will come. I’ve seen in happen. My heart will break. It will cut me to the deepest parts of my soul to see my child rejected on the basis of his race, denied relationship – that thing so fundamental to our existence – because of his heritage. It won’t matter how smart, how funny, how caring, how responsible, how passionate, how curious, how EVERYTHING he is. Just that he is black.
Sometimes I look at our neighbors, friends, and coworkers, and I wonder, Which of you will get upset when your child brings home a girlfriend or boyfriend in 10 years and you see that they are black? These are good people who have never made racist comments to Hubby and me, who laugh at our kids’ antics and tell us how smart and how cute they are. But when push comes to shove and it is their own child, who is going to come through and who will fall short? Who will be in that 37%?
I admittedly spend way too much time in my head, and so I have imagined what these neighbors/friends/coworkers might tell themselves if the situation arises: Well, Ellie’s kids are different. We know them. We don’t know this other black kid. He’s…well…black. How can I be sure of him? I’d rather my daughter date a nice white boy, so I know what to expect. And somewhere across town, someone could be having the same thought about my son, the unknown black kid that their white daughter just brought home: He might be a nice kid, but I don’t know him and I’m not okay with this. She should just date a nice white boy. If I share this story with my friends, my neighbors, they will say how unfortunate it is, how unfair, because they know Zippy and Bee. But would they respond any differently, were it their child bringing home an unknown black classmate? Or would discomfort and fear settle in?
Perhaps I sound cynical, suspicious, negative. I swear I’m not. I am hopeful that 99% of our friends will not disappoint us. If anything I tend to be overly optimistic in my day-to-day life, almost always assuming the best of people. That’s probably why hearing that a large minority of people still disagree with interracial relationships surprises and upsets me. It’s like a slap in the face, reminding me of harsh realities outside of my little bubble.
The numbers are moving in the right direction, a reassurance that things have improved and will most likely continue to get better. Younger people tend to be more positive about interracial relationships and each generation seems to move us one step closer to where we need to be – a world where relationships are made on the basis of values, compatibility, and love, rather than whose race matches who. We just still have a long way to go.
Photos, in order, are my wedding photo, and “the last edition” by Hunter Powell via Creative Commons (some rights reserved).