Racism Charges: The Interracial Marriage Response

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In the Blac(k)ademic discussion on Tawana Brawley (see my post on that if you didn't read it already), one interesting question came up. The rest of the discussion reminded me eerily of several others I've had on other matters. What is it that many anti-ID people, the racists Kinists at Little Geneva, many radical leftists on race and gender, and some of the hyper-fundamentalists who comment at WorldMag have in common that leads to this same result?

Anyway, this post isn't about the unwillingness to treat your intellectual opposition respectfully and fairly. It's about an interesting question raised by one of the people on that thread. She wondered why it is that white men who marry black women get very upset when they're called racists and often mention that their wife is black in response to charges of racism. She says white women in interracial marriages never think to refer to their marriage as evidence that they're not racist. I have not idea if this generalization is true (though I do find it deeply ironic that I wasn't allowed to make any statements about any tendencies even about small groups of black people I've known -- see the exact statement below -- without being called racist, but she can make all sorts of generalizations about white men married to black women, not to mention all the references to white oppressors overall in that conversation). But suppose the generalization is true, and white men are more likely to say this sort of thing in response to the racism charge than white women would in similar circumstances. As I thought about it, I thought there might be an explanation for this fact if indeed she's correct (which I have no idea about) that it's a fact. At least I might have some explanation in my own case. What follows is a development of a part of a comment I left there.

I can say what motivates me to see my marriage as demonstrative of my not being a racist. I've always been concerned about race issues, and I've never thought there could possibly be anything wrong with interracial marriage. I think this is something true of most white men, particularly those in my generation. But having an attitude of acceptance toward interracial marriage as not immoral is a far cry from being willing to be in one yourself. Many people don't think there's anything wrong with eating dirt or participating in gay sex, but they wouldn't participate in it themselves. They don't think it's morally admirable. On the other end of the spectrum, many people think there's nothing wrong with sacrificing your life to save others. Indeed it's admirable. But it might be difficult to bring themselves to do it when the opportunity presents itself. Thinking there's nothing wrong with marrying interracially is consistent with not seeing anything good about it, and it's consistent with seeing it as good but not something one wants to do because of the difficulty. So thinking something is morally ok or even morally admirable is not the same thing as being willing to do it. The difference between not disapproving of interracial marriage and actually being willing to do it plays a big role in what follows, because I think there is something that makes it difficult for most white men, at least in the case of marrying a black woman. (I happen to think this is less true of marrying other groups, at least for many white men, and I think this is pretty much entirely due to evil forces in society, but those forces are there, and these forces affect people in ways that they're not largely responsible for.)

I've always had friends from different racial groups, but I didn't culturally connect with black people as easily. I don't really go for hip-hop, and I don't like sports, and those were the two biggest passions of most of my black acquaintances in college (but not all). So it rarely reached friendship. But that wasn't a result of any animosity toward them, and it wasn't even because I didn't want to connect with anyone who was black. I just didn't have anything in common with enough of the black people I knew that we never connected. I still had a great desire to pursue racial harmony. I just didn't have close friends who were black, and I personally have enough trouble moving from acquaintance to friend without a lot of time spent with someone, and that tends to happen less without a lot in common. So the psychological facts about my own limitations combined with what happened to be true about different interests and different circles of friends, and I didn't have a lot of black friends in college. But when I met Sam, and we did have several things in common that were very important to us, and we did have quite a few friends in common, we began to spend a lot of time together, first in groups and eventually by ourselves. We had a lot of friends in common, but we began to appreciate each other, as generally happens in romantic relationships.

But that doesn't mean there wasn't anything to struggle with. There was never a time when I didn't find my wife beautiful, but I've been inundated all my life with the standards of beauty that are promoted endlessly by the media in our day. I think most men have to overcome some of that to marry anyone who doesn't exacty fit those standards, completely apart from race. Race adds a few more wrinkles. Standards of beauty in our media-driven society do not treat my wife's skin color as ideal. It's not that whiteness is the standard. It's not, at least not anymore. The standard is now the spectrum between tanned or dark-skinned white women (or perhaps certain shades of Latino skin) and very light-skinned black or mixed race women (e.g. Halle Berry). I had to overcome some of that as it became clear to me that I wanted to marry a black woman. One particular sort of expectation that I had to overcome was an expectation (one that I was expected to assume by society that involuntarily takes hold unconsciously) that my wife would look more like me in terms of skin color and that my kids would also look like more like me than at the time I thought would be likely. I think most people have that desire, and in our case ironically it seems so far to have been more fulfilled in my case than Sam's, at least with respect to skin color. But that was a deep struggle I had to go through to seek to overcome conditioning that I didn't like in myself.

This is a fairly significant struggle, and I think a greater one in general for men than women given that men are more affected by advertizing about standards of women's beauty than women are about standards of male attractiveness. Given that, it seems to me that my being married to a black woman is very strong evidence that I'm not a racist. Given that virtually all white men who would consider marrying a black woman have this sort of thing to overcome, I'd be very surprised to find any white man married to a black woman who is a racist unless his motivations for getting married were nothing like the usual ones. The reason, I think, that it's so common from men is because men have more to overcome to get to that point. Only someone who has no idea what a white man has to move through to bring himself to marry a black woman could possibly suggest that being married to a black woman is not a sign of not being a racist. But then I don't expect anyone to be able to know this except a white man who is married to a black woman, in exactly the same way that I don't expect anyone could know what it's like to give birth except women who have given birth. Some kinds of knowlege can come only through having experienced something.

The commenter who asked me this question most certainly is in no position to know what it's like to overcome some of the residual effects of racism on white men in our society today. So I can't really hold her responsible for her ignorance. Her ignorance is something she can't overcome, and that's true by the very nature of things. But I do think I can hold her responsible for her unwillingness to consider that she's in a condition of ignorance about such things. At a feminist site, I'd expect people to be familiar with the recent feminist arguments that women are in a special position to know certain truths that men can never know. These philosophers will thus call women epistemically privileged, which means men are epistemically challenged with respect to those truths. The same point works in reverse.

10 Comments

Well, Jeremy, I can't speak for all white women married to men of other races, but in my own case I would certainly laugh at anyone who accused me of being racist and I would point out that my husband is Korean in his language, passport, and mindset. I mean, why wouldn't I point out that fact?

Most people say my son looks 100% Korean, and people do ask me how I adopted him! That was hard for me to adjust to at first. And, I do still notice that my husband isn't, well, white. I do notice his race, and he does mine. Perhaps that is so hardwired in some of us that it is almost impossible to totally turn it off. Even if we can recondition ourselves not to react based on a person's race.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about this topic. Blessings!

Hey Jeremy~

"Thinking there's nothing wrong with marrying interracially is consistent with not seeing anything good about it, and it's consistent with seeing it as good but not something one wants to do because of the difficulty."

~Can you expand on this concept for me?

Hannah: I wouldn't say that it's hard-wired, more like soft-wiring that's hard to overcome. (It might not even be good to overcome it fully anyway, but that's not the issue I'm dealing with here.)

Noralil: That's a pretty complicated sentence. Let me try to put it more simply. Someone can think it's not morally wrong to intermarry. They can do that while thinking intermarriage is bad in another sense (maybe disgusting but not immoral). Alternatively, they could do it while thinking it's very good but so difficult that they wouldn't want to do it. What I'm saying is that not being morally opposed to it doesn't tell you they would be willing to do it. They might still be unable or unwilling to do it, and that could be because they still have a low view of it in some non-moral sense, or it might be that they have a very high view of it but couldn't bring themselves to do such a noble thing because of its difficulties. I hope that helps clarify.

When I married my first wife (Chicana) I simply loved her - and knew going in that this wasn't going to be easy. It wasn't

One reason I might react to being called a racist parallels a conversation you and I had a while back: mostly I have been called a racist by white folk and not people of color; and I have interacted with black, brown, etc folk all of my life. Most white folks who would call me a racist have no idea about what racism truly is.

I have experienced racism as it applied to my wife; and myself as her husband. I know what it is, and isn't, to a large degree because it is not an intellectual exercise, or a learned concept, but an experience nearly every day of my 11 year marriage. I had to fight racism not to defend my wife; but to defend myself.

I take people of color very seriously when they tell me I am sterotyping them - it is much harder to take white folks defending black folk as seriously.

yeah, as i was reading that whole conversation, i kept thinkin that you're better than me. I woulda been tempted to start the STSS (set them suckers straight) committee up in there. but i usually don't fool with that kinda thing over the internet. for me, at least, it's much more fun in person.

this is good stuff, though. definitely an angle i hadn't really thought about before. especially re: the standards of beauty aspect.

Another thought:

Isn't this all sort of connected to the "Total Depravity" theory of racism: members of the dominant race "have" to be racist - if you say you are not racist the truth is not in you.

And, of course, the non-dominant races cannot be racist - because they are not in "power".

How could you, a white guy, think to say you are not a racist? We all are :-)

Actually, I do think all members of the dominant group have the sort of racism that is more accurately referred to as residual racism. But then I think those who aren't in the dominant group have that too. In that sense, everyone is a racist. But when you just call someone a racist without qualification, that's not what it means. That was the problem with the people in that conversation. They don't understand the linguistic facts about calling someone a racist.

We all tend to be ethnocentric; and in a society that propagates serious stereotypes about almost anybody for almost any physical feature - there is certainly some degree of "racism" in everybody.

However, to make this kind of "my kind is of course best" and "black folks are like THAT" thinking into RACISM really misses the point of what racism is; and of course makes everyone on the planet a racist. A term that applies to everyone really has no meaning.

I've read the comment here and I'm still wondering to myself, although I know or think I know what racism is, and I have looked it up and read about it, but I'd still like to hear from anyone who is interested in sharing their thoughts. To you...what is racism?

Also I have something that is puzzling me. Everyone and I mean everyone I have talked to about this claims it is a racist behavior. I disagree. In Tangipahoa parish in Louisiana, which is very close to New Orleans where I live, a Justice of the Peace has refused to marry an interracial couple, the man being black and his fiancee being white. His claim is that he is concerned for the children of these types of marriages because in his experience they do not do well, and also he says in his experience the marriages do not last. He also says he marries black couples in his own home, he marries white couples as well. What he does is he refers the interracial couples to another justice of the peace to have them do the marriage, which seems an odd behavior for a racist. Wouldn't he be totally against them getting married AT ALL rather than referring to another justice of the Peace? But anyway, now it is true that interracial marriage is not an easy venture and I'm sure there is evidence that interracial marriage is harder in our society than same race marriages, so if the Justice of the Peace's real reason for denying the interracial couple marriage is like he says a concern for the children, is this racist? Now we don't even know that they will have children. Maybe they will decide against kids, maybe they will not be together long enough to have children, maybe their work schedules will be too hectic to consider kids, or maybe one of them will be unable to have kids for a multitude of medical reasons. Certainly what this Justice of the Peace is doing is illegal and he says that he knew it was illegal, so he is aware of that aspect. I just find it awfully convenient that he should be called racist while he refers the interracial couples to another justice of the peace who does the interracial marriages and from what was said in the CNN article on this topic, it may be that this JP is the only JP who is refuerracial marriages.

Does anyone agree with me that what is going on is illegal but is not quite racist. I have a real problem with what this JP is doing, even with referral to another JP, but what he does isn't racist. I believe it falls short of meeting the burden, but it certainly is something, but I'm not sure what to call it, but I just don't see it as racist.

I'd love to hear any comments on this issue, it's really interesting to live in Louisiana, which has tons of problems to see that just when ya tought it waz safe ta go back inta da bayou, sumtin else comes up an gits ya.

Peace my friends

I recommend you read my wife's post on that case.

It's extremely hard for me to imagine someone doing and saying what this man has done and said if he's not a racist. Whenever anyone begins a sentence with, "I'm not a racist, but..." it's usually a good sign that the person is a racist and is trying to find an excuse for it. Someone who is genuinely not a racist is almost never going to start a sentence that way. They'll distinguish between a racist act and a non-racist act, and they'll explain why one is racist and the other not. But if they're not a racist, they'll not feel the need to have to justify to themselves that they're not.

As for the kind of discrimination this fellow is engaging in, you're right that it has no huge effect if all he's doing is handing off people to another justice of the peace. But it's not the effect that makes it racist. It's the intent. Take his official excuse. He somehow really seems to believe not only that interracial marriages are harder than intraracial marriages and that mixed race kids are going to have a harder life than single-race kids but a much stronger thesis. He seems to think that interracial marriages are so ridiculously hard that he can't in good conscience marry two people of different races and that mixed race kids will have such a ridiculously poor quality of life that he can't in good conscience marry their parents and thus allow them to have the one environment that will provide for them the most stability -- a nuclear family with two parents living at home with them.

I have extreme skepticism about the claim that interracial marriages are even marginally harder, at least intrinsically (and that's what matters for an absolute prohibition even if some particular cases might be very hard). I have even more skepticism of the claim that it's intrinsically a worse life for someone who is mixed race. My kids don't seem to notice, and their classmates don't either. So it must be that this guy's resistance, to justify as strong opposition as it generates, is much more strongly against the very idea of race-mixing, as if it's somehow a crime against nature, but he's trying to put a better face on it to make himself feel like he's not really a racist. What he's doing isn't anything close to rational unless he's working with some obviously false premise, and adopting such a premise seems strange unless he's hiding behind it to make himself feel better about something he knows is wrong.

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