Attitudes shifting toward interracial relationships

Tuesday, March 08, 2005 388-8546

For all the people who feel compelled to stare, here's what it's like to be in an interracial marriage:

We work. We play. We sleep. We eat. We go to church, concerts, movies. We fight about putting the toilet seat down and washing the dishes. We kiss and make up. We pay bills, take care of elderly parents, visit friends. And we care for our children, who, yes, are exceptionally beautiful.

That's the boring, day-to-day routine.

Interracial families look different, but the lives we live are the same as those of most other families.

The number of interracial married couples in America is on the rise -- growing from 2.2 percent of all married couples in 1992 to 2.9 percent in 2002, according to the U.S. census.

In his memoir "The Color of Water" (1997, Riverhead Books) -- this year's Reading Together selection for Kalamazoo County -- James McBride explores his life growing up in an impoverished family with 12 children and the life of his mother, who grew up the daughter of a Jewish rabbi but abandoned that life when she married a black man.

McBride was trying to come to terms with his race and his place in the world, where race is often the first measure and sometimes the only measure people take of you.

"As a boy," he wrote, "I often found Mommy's ease among black people surprising. Most white folks I knew seemed to have a great fear of blacks."

When my husband, Bill Wood, and I began dating, my father was angry and disappointed. I had dated a black man before and my father had threatened to physically harm that man -- something my sister told me in a tearful phone call.

Where or when the change took place I'm not certain, but surely there was a change. My father walked me down the aisle at my wedding, wearing a bow tie my husband selected for him. He lives next door to us, where he moved so he could dote on my children, his youngest grandchildren -- little brown-skinned girls who will on alternate days tell you they are "Chinese like my grandpa" or happily declare, "I'm honey brown!"

We are the face of an increasingly multiracial America.

Interracial married couples made up about 1.46 million, or 2.6 percent, of the almost 56.5 million married couples in the United States in 2000, according to the U.S. census, and 165,000, or 4.3 percent, of the more than 3.8 million unmarried couples.

In Michigan, the percentages were much higher: Couples of different races made up 4.1 percent of marriages and 9.7 percent of unmarried-partner households.

A big jump in interracial marriage nationwide occurred from 1970 to 1980, when the percentage rose from 0.7 to 2.0 percent.

Cornell University sociology professor David Harris, formerly of the University of Michigan, said the rate of intermarriage among people 30 and younger is much higher than it is for the general population, probably more than 7 percent.

A University of Michigan study done after the 1990 U.S. census (but not updated since then) found 8 percent of black men between the ages 25 and 34 married outside their race, compared with less than 2 percent in the 1940s and '50s. For white men in the same age range, about 4 percent married outside of their race compared to 1 percent in the '40s and '50s.

About 4 percent of black women between the ages of 25 and 34 married outside their race in 1990 compared to 1 percent in the 1940s and '50s, while among white women of the same ages 3 percent married interracially in 1990 compared to less than 1 percent in the '40s and '50s.

Changing attitudes

While some of the increase can be attributed to relaxation of immigration laws in the 1960s and to the voiding of antimiscegenation laws by the Supreme Court in 1967, most of the increase simply reflects the ever-changing nature of society, Harris said.

"It was going to happen because things were changing in the country," Harris said. "You've seen us become more liberal in terms of racial matters. You've had schools desegregating and social situations desegregating, and so there have been more opportunities for young people to bump into each other."

But Jason Fields, of the U.S. Census Bureau, said tracking interracial couples became more complicated following the 2000 census -- the first time people were allowed to identify themselves as more than one race.

"If one multiracial person marries another multiracial person, is that an interracial marriage? We're not making that designation," Fields said.

Western Michigan University sociology professor Douglas Davidson, who teaches a course on race relations, said many young people simply do not believe that racism exerts much power over their lives.

"Over the years, some of the belief in real hard-core, stereotypical racist thinking has declined," Davidson said, referring to people 30 years old and younger. "Also, there is a post-1960s civil rights generation who is pretty convinced racism is no longer a factor in their lives. They are more open to interracial dating and interracial relationships."

Among 18- to 30-year-olds in the United States, according to a 2001 study by Harris, Asian women have the highest percentage of those who marry outside their race (32.3 percent), followed by Asian men (21.1), Latino men (19.0) and women (18.9), black men (10.7) and women (4.8) and white women (4.2) and men (4.1). The percentages are considerably higher in each case for those who choose unmarried partners outside their race. (Latino is used as a racial category in Harris' study, while it is not in the census figures in this story.)

Interracial marriages are most likely to happen in large urban centers, with high rates of intermarriage found along both coasts and in large Midwestern cities in the Great Lakes region. The exception is Hawaii, which far and away has the most intermarriage in the nation. The lowest rates of intermarriage are found in the deep South and the Great Plains, Harris said.

As the numbers of interracial marriages and biracial children increase, there is always the risk of backlash from others in the culture, but Davidson doubts that will happen.

"More and more people are going to have to say, 'I have a person of color in my family,'" Davidson said. "I expect that what we will see is that those who are really opposed to interracial marriage and biracial children -- but are hiding that opposition right now -- may become more vocal and overt in their opposition.

"Then it will look like this period of people circling up the old racial wagon train, but," he paused and said with a smile in his voice, "at that point I think it will be too late."

Changed laws

How far things have come is easy to see when you look at U.S. laws. According to the book "Interracial Intimacies," by Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy, antimiscegenation laws prohibiting sex and then marriage between blacks and whites were on the books as far back as the 1600s.

The enactment of such laws most likely stemmed from issues of slavery and the views of slave owners that Africans were "less than fully human and certainly less intelligent," Davidson said.

"When you characterize people as property, as animals, then to have sex with them is sort of like having sex with one of your cows, and that became the real big taboo," he said. "That has become part of our cultural belief system -- that blacks are not equal in any sense, to marry them in many ways is to marry down."

Michigan enacted an antimiscegenation law in 1838 and repealed the law by 1883, according to the Library of Michigan State Law Library. By 1913, when Wyoming became the last state to impose antimiscegenation laws, 41 others had already enacted such laws. Only Alaska, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and Wisconsin never enacted antimiscegenation laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court, through the case of Loving vs. Virginia, rendered the laws unenforceable in 1967. More than a dozen states had repealed those laws in the 15 years preceding Loving.

In November 2000, Alabama became the last state to remove the laws from its constitution, although 40 percent of the electorate voted to retain the prohibition.

Personal stories

But numbers and laws do not tell the whole story. The stories of interracial couples reflect life in a society that struggles with the cultural legacy imprinted by slavery.

Jim and Marianne Houston, who now live in Portage, had been married only four days in 1968 when they were confronted with the reality that race would play in their lives. Jim was working on an Air Force base and Marianne was left with the duty of house-hunting in their new community of Tacoma, Wash.

She called one landlord who was pleased at the possibility of renting to a new teacher, but then he asked, "You aren't black, are you?"

No, she told him, but my husband is. The landlord withdrew his offer of the house, saying he couldn't rent to them "because the neighbors would never allow it."

"I was in shock. I stood in the telephone booth and cried," she said. "I wondered: Is this even legal?"

Even if blatant racism rarely confronts interracial couples today, there are still the curious stares.

The Rev. Zawdie Abiade, Kalamazoo district superintendent of the United Methodist Church, said when people stare at him and his wife, Nancy -- he's black, she's white -- he walks over to the person, puts his hand out and says, "'I noticed you looking at me and my family. I'd like to introduce myself.' I use it as an opportunity to invite them to our church. You can complain and be bitter or, as the saying goes, when you have lemons you can make lemonade."

It is not just by intermarrying, but by being totally transparent with their lives, that interracial couples can affect society, said Abiade, who is writing a book about interracial marriage.

"You have to give people the room to ask their questions, whether they're racist or not," Abiade said. "I regard it as an opportunity to educate people."

How big an impact?

Interracial marriage is a growing reality for American culture, but there is some question as to whether it indicates a major shift in race relations.

Tina M. Harris, a University of Georgia associate professor of sociology, said she's not sure it does.

In her research for her doctoral dissertation in 1995, she found that race played a role in dating strategies. Many blacks and whites admitted they would not date interracially because it would affect their chances for mobility in the workplace and because relatives would disapprove.

"I honestly don't think things are more accepting," Tina Harris said. "People want to say we're more accepting and we're heading in that direction. But while some of these people perceive it as acceptable to live in these relationships, they have not even established a friendship with a person of color."

Harris' reservations are supported by Charles Gallagher, a Georgia State University in Atlanta sociology professor whose research shows that about 80 percent of whites live in neighborhoods in which more than 95 percent of their neighbors also are white.

"If you look around, our cities and our suburbs are still segregated," Gallagher said. "The civil rights movement would have suggested that by this time we'd all be sitting around breaking bread together."

Davidson said it might be hard to determine how big an impact interracial marriages are having on race relations as a whole, but if even a few personal relationships are changed, that ultimately can result in societal change.

"I've met people who clearly are very much into their biracial children, and grandparents on both sides who are into it," Davidson said. "Families are increasingly accepting of it. That is a very positive direction. At one point in time, if someone had a biracial child, it had to be identified with the parent of color and that side of the family. Now I'm seeing more of both families accepting the reality that 'there's interracial marriage and I have a biracial grandchild.'

"In the long run it's probably going to be healthy and necessary if we're ever going to heal ourselves from the kind of damage that has been done to blacks and whites and others as a consequence of racism. I think it will bring us closer as a society and closer as people and as human beings."

Kalamazoo Public Schools teacher Scott Hunsinger, who is white and married to another KPS teacher, Rebecca Hunsinger, who is white and Filipino, said they never think about race in their relationship.

"We both kind of like that song by Pete Seeger that goes, 'Soon, Mama, this whole world is going to be all mixed up,'" he said.

Scott Hunsinger said he can't help but feel interracial marriage and relationships are good for humanity on many levels -- not the least of which is at the level of the heart.

"I believe in true love," Scott said. "I feel for any couple where there are limits that are spoken or unspoken. You might be sitting right next to the right person, but you'll never find them because they'd never look for their soul mate outside of their race. They never find that true love."

In my own family, my mother, who is Chinese and divorced from my Chinese father, is planning to marry a white man. My sister is married to a Jewish man. I have a cousin who has a biracial child.

One set of my twin daughters' godparents are a white and Hispanic couple. My daughters' principal, who is white, is married to a black man like Daddy. And my daughters have Chinese relatives who are as much fun as their black relatives.

Their world is filled with a rainbow-hued collection of people who protect them and love them -- and that is as much a reality as the reality of racism and prejudice.

© 2005 Kalamazoo. Used with permission

Copyright 2005 Michigan Live. All Rights Reserved.