Cultural taboos resist change Stereotypes, negative attitudes remain entrenched, especially when black men couple with white women

Monday, March 07, 2005 388-8549

Winchell Elementary School Principal Vickie Winfield was sipping her morning coffee and reading the newspaper last December in her Kalamazoo home when an article about a celebrity took her breath away.

Movie actor Taye Diggs, a black man, received death threats concerning his interracial marriage to Broadway star Idina Menzel, a white woman and winner of last year's Tony Award for best actress in a musical.

The letters threatened the castration of Diggs if he didn't end his marriage. It also threatened death for Mensel and the bombing of New York's Gershwin Theatre, where Menzel was performing in the musical "Wicked."

Winfield's outrage gave way to sadness, then concern and frustration.

Like Diggs and Menzel, Winfield has an interracial relationship. She is white. Her husband, Clyde, is black.

In January, news services reported that the FBI and police departments in New York, Los Angeles, Ohio and Connecticut have been investigating as many as 80 threatening letters sent to prominent interracial couples, all black men and white women. The targets include Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife and Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor and his wife.

"In my job as an elementary school principal, I am constantly talking about respecting one another, caring for one another, and yet you pick up the newspaper, turn on the TV and you're hit in your face again that people are not able to accept this," Winfield said of the union of a black man and white woman.

"We can put people on the moon, create computers, fly to different parts of the world in a few hours and people are still stuck in a 1960s mentality concerning relationships."

Attitudes toward interracial relationships in general may have changed -- 4 percent of Americans approved of such relationships in a 1958 Gallup poll, while 70 percent approved in a 2003 Gallup poll -- but among those people still struggling to accept marriages between the wide variety of races and cultures in America, unions between black men and white women remain the unions hardest to accept, experts say.

Advertisers such as the Gap, Old Navy, Hewlett-Packard and Benneton may display a multicultural world in magazines, "but when it comes to reality, an interracial relationship is an issue, and it's especially an issue for black men and white women," said Yvette Walker, editor of the online magazine New People.

Negative attitudes toward such relationships range from those of white men such as Shawn Walker, chief operating officer of the white-supremacy group National Alliance, who sees the unions as the destruction of gene pools, to those of black women who denounce the unions for depleting the supply of available black men.

John Johnson, 31, an administrative worker and writer in Atlanta, often felt like he was "on stage" whenever he went out with his white girlfriend because of the hateful stares they received from black women. It led him to write the book "It Ain't All Good: Why Black Men Should Not Date White Women" (African American Images, $14.95, 2004).

Winfield wonders how much people have really changed.

"We love to vacation in Florida, and we were there one spring break," Winfield said about her and her husband. "We went into a restaurant and one couple looked at us and couldn't finish their meal. They had to leave because they were repulsed.

"That was 20 years ago. I hope it wouldn't happen today, but I believe it could. Why do people hold onto those old racial stereotypes? What is it about seeing people of different ethnic groups that people find so noticeable, so hard to deal with?"

Blacks and blondes

Negative attitudes about the unions of black men and white women persist in part because of negative stereotypes in popular culture, depictions of these relationships as deeply flawed, strange or doomed.

Last year saw a black president of the United States involved in a relationship with his personal physician, a white female, on the Fox TV show "24." Differences in racial backgrounds weren't the challenge here. But the relationship was depicted as flawed and doomed because the female doctor couldn't handle the limelight or high-level dirty politics. She left the president.

Rapper Flavor Flav was coupled with B-movie actress Brigitte Nielsen on VH1's "Surreal Life," a show designed for shock value.

"When you look at that show, what do you see?" online editor Walker asked. "Do you see a white woman and a black man, or do you see a 6-foot-tall blonde and then this very caricaturish man who happens to be black? Do you see them as a traditional interracial couple or a couple made from Hollywood?"

Walker says the most negative portrayals of interracial couples are seen on daytime talk shows such as those hosted by Jerry Springer, Larry Elders, Montel Williams and Maury Povitch. The shows commonly present people in a negative light, and the poor images of the interracial couples among them feed the negative stereotypes that already exist, Walker said.

Those pop-culture stereotypes are rooted in Americans' psyches, the legacy of centuries of enslavement of blacks by whites. The stereotypes, especially that of the hypersexual and aggressive black male and the virtuous, pure white female, are a result of social engineering by slave owners of old. They desired a society that would condone slavery, so they created images that would dehumanize blacks and exalt whites, says Rajen Persaud, author of "Why Black Men Love White Women: An Explicit Excursion In Sexual Politics" (D&R Publishing, $24.95).

The stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in the minds of Americans that they are practically instinctual now, he said. "You've got a white boxer and a black boxer. Who you going to bet on?" Persaud asked rhetorically, referring to the stereotype of strong, aggressive black men.

Studs and trophy wives

Negative attitudes toward black men and white women in relationships with each other are also often based on the belief that the relationships exist for reasons other than honorable ones -- lust instead of love, curiosity instead of adoration, status instead of mutual interests.

Intermarriage rates suggest "it is more than random coupling, random pairing," author Johnson says.

No other racial group in America has a gender ratio as disparate as the one in the black population -- there are 1.7 million more black women than men -- yet U.S. census figures from 2000 showed black men were 2.8 times more likely to intermarry with another race than black women.

In 2002, according to census data, marriages of black men to white women were 2.4 times as common as marriages of white men to black women.

Persaud says one may never get real answers to the causes behind the couplings from the couples because "everybody lies."

Few talk about physical attraction, sex or accidental pregnancies as reasons, as other couples might, he said.

"Ask a black guy why he is married to a white woman and he'll say, 'Love at first sight' or 'Color doesn't matter to me,'" Persaud said.

Kalamazoo librarian Judy Powell, who is white, says she was attracted to her husband of 29 years, Ladd Dawkins, in part because he is black.

"I honestly think there is an attraction between black men and white women and I think it is an outgrowth of history," Powell said. "We are still in recovery from slavery, like post - traumatic stress disorder.

"Culture has held up a blond white woman as the ideal of beauty, and subconsciously that is what men think they want. And black men want what all men want. You think you're doing this from free will, but I'm not so sure that's always the case."

Terence Barnes, chef of the downtown Kalamazoo restaurant Old Burdick's, who is black, said he fell in love with his wife of three years, Sharley, who is white, after it was apparent she was attracted to his personality rather than his possessions. The marriage is Barnes' second. His first wife was black.

"I came out of a divorce," Barnes said. "I had to accumulate a lot of basic things. Some of our sisters don't accept a man who is not doing well. Sharley was not this way. She accepted me and the little bit I had. I discovered she liked me for me."

The positive reaction their marriage received from Sharley's family doubly surprised and encouraged Barnes, he said.

"I met my wife's family and they were cool. Cool!" Barnes said. "And we're talking a large family -- 14 kids. You'd expect with that large of a family that you would get a variety of reactions, but I've never heard anything derogatory about blacks from them. They're not that type of people."

In contrast, Johnson, of Atlanta, said he ended a serious relationship with a white woman after he began to consider what the consequences of marriage with the woman would be for the rest of his life.

He had one of three options if he married her, he said: to limit his interactions with the black community because of the disdain the black community has for interracial relationships; to participate with the black community to the same degree he always had, but with a white wife, and emotionally injure the black women around him; or participate with the black community without his wife, which would be problematic.

"So, it was either lose, lose, lose," Johnson said.

Outside the struggle

Black women in general are growing increasingly vocal about their disapproval of black men with white women, Johnson said. But he would not fault a black woman for having a hostile, visceral reaction at seeing a black man and white woman together, he said, "because it is just not fair" that white women are considered the general symbol of beauty while there is a surplus of single black women who are just as beautiful.

Jillian Lindsey, a biracial woman from Battle Creek who has a black father and white mother, said she understands why some black women are saddened by black men who do not select partners who have suffered the same racial discrimination, who share the same history of oppression.

Yet Lindsey also said that as she grew up, it was empowering for her to see "a white face that loved me and a black face that loved me."

"Race didn't faze me," she said.

The struggle Americans have in accepting the unions of black men and white women may be part of the natural order of things, the permutations of a society of immigrants grappling with the needs and contributions of all, said artist David Alt of Dallas, who is white and draws the "It Figures" comic strip that is part of the online magazine New People.

Alt compares the struggle to England's experience with serfs. Before being freed in the 1400s, serfs were a sellable commodity, owned by landowners. After being freed, serfs lived under great stigma. It took 400 years for serfs to be fully integrated and accepted in English society, Alt said.

"When you come from so much inequality, from slavery days, it takes a while for a society to mend itself," Alt said. "It says people are slow to change."

Winfield, however, is impatient for change. She doesn't know what she heard as a child that made her think more openly about race than other members of her family. She doesn't fully know why the heart of another reached across the racial gap and touched hers. But she's glad that it did.

Why won't so many others allow the same to happen to them? Winfield asked.

"I really don't get it," she said. "I don't understand why we can't look at each other as humankind, rather than putting everybody into a bracket as some ethnicity. I didn't understand it as a child, and here I am as a middle-aged woman and I still don't get it."

© 2005 Kalamazoo. Used with permission

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