“Your ancestors want you to be happy”: marriage, exogamy, and rejecting the fetishization of the past

Feministe has a guest post today from “Cindy”: Diversity in Dating. An undergrad at UCONN and a Chinese-American woman who has a history of dating white guys, Cindy reflects on the rise in interracial marriages. As Cindy notes, the fetishizing of the “other” is alive and well (see the website for the recent J.G. Davies book “I Got the Fever: Love, What’s Race Got to Do with It?”), as is the enduring opposition, 44 years after Loving v. Virginia to what was once known as miscegenation.

Unlike Cindy, I never had much of a racial type. I’ve dated women from almost every race, body type, height, religious affiliation, and sexual orientation. (My second wife came out as a lesbian after our divorce, which was a shock to no one except for me. Love blinded my normally acute gaydar.) When I was single, I described my type as Potter Stewart (probably apocryphally) said of pornography: I can’t define it, but I sure do know it when I see it.

My first wife was half Chinese, half Filipina. (My first mother-in-law was born in L.A. to Cantonese immigrants, my first father-in-law was a native son of Manila.) Much like Cindy, my first wife grew up in a largely white environment, and preferred dating white guys. When we started dating at Berkeley in 1987, I heard the derisive term “yellow fever” for the first time. Many folks assumed that I was the stereotypical nerdy white dude who longed for a pretty, submissive “China doll.” It wasn’t an accurate slur, as I had no particular interest in Asian women. But I remember the hostile stares she and I sometimes got when we’d walk through San Francisco’s Chinatown — or stop in small (then) all-white towns in the Central Valley.

My second wife (the one who ended up with women) and my third wife (the Pentecostal psychotherapist) were both white, as WASPy as could be, from pioneer California families like my mother’s. Similar cultural backgrounds were no guarantor of compatibility, as I quickly discovered. (My first marriage had foundered because of my multiple addictions, and not because of any problem around our different cultural backgrounds. But I’d briefly told myself otherwise, until two more divorces thoroughly disabused me of that notion.)

My fourth wife and I have been married nearly six years and we’ve lived together for more than eight. She’s mixed race; born to a Colombian mother of mixed African, Spanish, and indigenous heritage and a Croatian-American father from Montana. Eira’s first language was castellano; raised by a single mom, she is more her mother’s daughter than her father’s. My wife “passes” for white but, not surprisingly, black people see her as black. When she tells white people that she’s 1/4 Nigerian, they look astonished; “Oh, I can’t see it”, they say. Most African-Americans see it instantly and don’t have to ask. When we’re in black neighborhoods of L.A., we’re marked as an interracial couple — but everywhere else, we’re not.

My daughter Heloise “looks” white. In the hateful language of Jim Crow and the one-drop rule, her one-eighth African ancestry would make her an “octoroon,” That might not seem like much, but it’s worth remembering another octoroon: Homer Plessy, whose unsuccessful lawsuit to desegregate Louisiana’s train cars led to the infamous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. Plessy wasn’t “white enough” for a New Orleans train conductor, and if this were another era, neither would my daughter. That’s a history worth remembering, and one I will (in time) pass on to our daughter.

Heloise goes to the Kabbalah Children’s Academy for preschool, where the language of instruction is bilingual: English and Hebrew. (She already calls her parents “abba” and “ima”.) At home, we speak to her in English and Spanish; my mastery of the latter is far from certain but it’s good enough to speak to her. As I’ve written before, we want to raise her aware of but at the same time unburdened by the struggles of her ancestors. Heloise will know that her great-great-grandmother (on my side) perished in Auschwitz and that some of her maternal ancestors were indigenous Colombians whose culture was all but annihilated. But these will be facts of interest only. They are part of a story she should know, but a story that asks nothing of her save to be remembered.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly virtuous about interracial marriage. It’s neither harder nor easier than marrying someone from one’s same background (and more than almost anyone else, I’m in a position to know.) What I do believe is that people should raise their children free from an obligation to carry on a particular language or heritage or faith by choosing a partner from within a certain community. There’s a thin line between honoring and fetishizing the past; too great an obsession with continuity quickly becomes the latter.

Defenders of endogamous marriage worry that assimilation will mean the loss of something unique and precious. But they imagine that the past was static, which it never was. Faith practices constantly evolve, as do languages; people are always migrating. Even within “closed” communities, each generation adds something — and forgets something. Were it not so, there would be no dynamism, no innovation, no transformation, no growth.

I like having family pictures on the walls. My generation of cousins have been busy intermarrying: I’ve got relatives who are East Indian, Costa Rican, Argentine, and Chinese; I’ve got blood relations who are Catholics, Buddhists, Mormons, Jews, Wiccans, Anglicans and atheists. When Heloise looks at the pictures of her extended family on both sides, what she sees looks like the United Nations general assembly.

I like walking around the house with my daughter in my arms, looking at the photos and identifying the relatives. (She’s especially fond of a picture of a picture of one of my paternal great-great-grandfathers, a regimental doctor in the Austro-Hungarian army in the years before World War One. Old Rudolf has a very fine mustache.) I always name the names, because I want her to learn them. But I add something else, every time:

“Do you know, my darling girl, all these people are your ancestors. Do you know what they want? They want you to be happy. Never forget that, Heloise, they want you to be happy.”

We repay our debts to the past not by living as our ancestors did, but by living joyfully. I don’t know what calling my daughter will hear, who or how she will love, or to whom she will pray (if she prays at all.) I just want her to be happy and kind. That’s all, and that’s everything.

And I’m deeply certain that my daughter’s ancestors — who came from four continents, who were black as night and pale as could be, who prayed to many different gods, who now all know what lies on the other side of death — want nothing more than for this little descendent of theirs to know joy.

There is no other obligation.

A similar post here.

10 thoughts on ““Your ancestors want you to be happy”: marriage, exogamy, and rejecting the fetishization of the past

  1. Re: When I was single, I described my type as Potter Stewart (probably apocryphally) said of pornography: I can’t define it, but I sure do know it when I see it.

    It’s not apocryphal, though it’s slightly misquoted. Since I despise pornography, I’ve read the decision (mostly in order that I can get annoyed at how dumb it was), and what he actually said was ‘As for hard-core pornography, I shall not attempt today to define it. Suffice it to say I know it when I see it, and this is not that.”

    Re: What I do believe is that people should raise their children free from an obligation to carry on a particular language or heritage or faith by choosing a partner from within a certain community.

    Faith, too? I can hardly agree with that. I believe that my faith is _true_, so of course I want my future children to confess it. One can’t (or shouldn’t) force one’s children or put undue pressure on them to embrace a particular faith, but one should certainly hope for it. It is simply not the case that Christianity is just another option for a religion that one can choose, along with Buddhism, Wicca, Judaism, Islam, and others. If Christianity is true, then by definition those religions which disagree with it are, at the very least, less true, and by choosing one of them you’re choosing to defect from truth. If Christianity isn’t true, in its essence, then it’s a lie and a sham and we should all abandon it as soon as possible, tear down the churches, and convert them into soup kitchens.

  2. Re your last paragraph, Hector; it’s somewhat surprising that you can articulate that that clearly and yet haven’t gotten to ‘and so classic Christianity is a sham and a fraud and whoever and whatever Jesus was, said, and taught, the Christian church as we know it in the west clearly has nothing to do with the Jewish hippie mystic Jeshua bin Joseph.’

  3. Hugo,

    As someone who is in an interacial relationship, I cannot help but cringe when the topic of “fetishizing the other” is brought up, and I cannot help but wonder: why must it be brought up every time interracial dating is discussed?

    One of the posters on Feministe pointed out that when you are in an interracial relationship often the relationship itself comes to be viewed as “public property” in a way that other relationships are not. Initially I wanted to disagree (I live in San Francisco and interacial relationships are really not commented on among my friends and aquaintances), but when I read the old lip-service to fetishism, I could not help but begin to agree.

    In the fall out of the DSK case and then the Casey Anthony verdict, commentors here and at Feministe pointed out that there is an unfair reflection, where women are concerned, from individuals who may or may not have acted inappropriately onto women in general. “A woman may have lied about a rape” becomes “women lie about rape.”

    I cannot help but feel like something similar is happening with interracial dating. By feeling obliged to pay lip service to fetishism, a writer like Cindy is being forced to defend herself and to argue that “people fetishize but I do not.” Yet when inraracial dating is discussed, the norm seems to be “individuals fetishize, people do not.” This means the actions of a few are being allowed to reflect onto a group that by and large does not deserve public scrutiny.

    I am with my significant other because of who she is, not where she is from; but, like Cindy, I often feel as though I must defend myself from accusations of fetishism.

  4. Hector, thanks for the clarification about the Stewart remark.

    Mike, if you click the link for the “Fever” book, it’s pretty obvious that fetishization is alive and well. It’s something we need to tackle — but it’s not something we need to be defensive about. Most people who date outside their race are no more fetishizing the Other than are people who date within their race.

    I will say that when I was married to my first wife (who was Asian) I was regularly accused of having the “yellow fever fetish”. When I started dating my fourth wife, no one said anything about having a black fetish. There’s a particular stigma about white dudes who date Asian women that doesn’t seem present for white guys who date other races.

  5. I didn’t know that Heloise was being exposed to three languages — that’s indescribably cool. I’m jealous on my son’s behalf! Neither of us know enough of a foreign language to be comfortable speaking to him in it — although Joseph (who is, IMS, only a month older than Heloise), calls us “Imma” and “Abba”. If there was a bilingual daycare near us, I’d be tempted to send him, but so far as I know there isn’t (and he loves his current school, so now I probably wouldn’t change anyway).

  6. Btw, have you ever blogged about your interest in Kabbalah? If so, I missed it; could you post a link? (As an atheist Jew, I’m interested in a religious Christian’s interest in, and take on, the matter…)

  7. Hugo – I wonder if it’s so much a ‘stigma’ as a reaction to the common fetishization of Asian women, particularly Japanese women, so the assumption is that the reason a white guy dates an Asian woman is that he’s into that. In some groups that’s not a stigma at all – it’s seen as hitting the guy lottery, as it were. Hell, there are plenty of ‘nerd’ sites that sell T-shirts that say “Looking for a Japanese girlfriend”.

  8. I’m going to echo Mike a bit here- I really have a problem with the usage of the word “fetishizing” here. I am fully in agreement with you on the harmfulness of racist stereotyping in the realm of sexuality and relationships- or in any other realm, for that matter. But I think that to assume that “fetishism” is the driving factor behind it, as seems to be the norm in many circles, is a mistake on a number of levels. It makes assumptions about how one’s sexuality determines one’s morality which I think are incredibly problematic, it provides a convenient excuse for stigmatizing interracial couples for those who are inclined to do so, and furthermore, I think it misidentifies what the problem actually is.

    Take, for example, the kind of men who are usually dubbed “Asian fetishists”- guys who think Asian women are exotic, subservient and demure, and pursue them for those reasons. Now, that is obviously all kinds of racist, sexist, and dehumanizing, and it should be opposed. And I think that in order to best oppose it, it’s important to understand what the ultimate root of it is- is it that these guys hold fucked-up ideas about Asian women, or that they’re particularly sexually attracted to them? Obviously the two things end up fusing together in the minds of the creeps, but which one comes first? And does one inevitably lead to the other? Suppose that one day, one of those guys got some enlightenment and realized that Asian women are actual people, not exotic sex objects, and that the “submissive sex kitten” stereotype is a load of vile malarky that causes a lot of harm to Asian women- what happens to his sexuality, then? Would he still be especially attracted to Asian women? It probably would depend on the person, but if he wasn’t- doesn’t that indicate that his fetish was really for submissiveness and that this was coupled with racist beliefs, not a fetish for Asian-ness per se? And if he did still have an erotic inclination towards Asian women, but didn’t believe the stereotypes any more and treated them as people, didn’t objectify them, etc, is it still a “fetish”, and more importantly, is it still a problem? And if so, why?

    I haven’t seen these questions asked very often, and I think they’re important. When it comes to the kind of people who sexually pursue certain groups (whether it’s Asian women, or black men, or Latinas, or whoever else) based on a racist stereotype, the problem as I see it isn’t that they have a “fetish” (and I suspect that in truth, most people who do this kind of thing are not actually fetishists by the strict definition of the word, or even most looser ones)- the problem is that that they believe in racist stereotypes, and act on that belief. I think that placing the focus of the blame for the behavior of people like that on “fetishism” both in a weird way gives the creeps a pass (as it essentially assumes that they aren’t capable of *not* being racist in this way- unless one believes that sexuality is a matter of choice and can be changed with sufficient mental effort, which both goes against a lot of evidence and buys into the same sort of assumptions about sexuality that the religious right does), and also does lots of collateral damage in terms of how interracial couples are perceived in general.

    (And to mythago- yes, there is a real stigma in many circles, and that it is often a reaction to some genuinely disgusting and hurtful racist/sexist stereotyping does not make it somehow right or justified. It does not just hurt white men- I recall reading a blog post from an Asian woman talking about how sick she was of dealing with people who not only automatically assumed that her white boyfriend was only interested in her because of a “fetish”, but seemed to think that disparaging her relationship to her face was therefore perfectly fine and justified and in fact was some sort of anti-racist activism. And on a personal level, that particular stigma has hurt me pretty terribly, though right now I am not up for going into details. It’s partially for this reason- the way it furthers stigmas like these- that I think the “fetish” narrative of what makes creeps tick needs to die, and that instead the focus is best put on racist/sexist beliefs, not on what sexually excites a person.)

  9. Interesting post and responses. As a black female who has date interracially, I dind my biggest opposition from immediate family members who also cling to the “fetish” argument. Only their angst goes deeper. Born in the Midwest and raised in the deep South, I’m constantly reminded of the Civil Rights Movement and injustices to African Americans. When a white man dates a black women, people assume he’s experimenting, and when a black woman dates a black man, she’s seen as betraying her race & siding with the enemy. I think this is why bw/wm couples are decreasing in this region. Even now, as I embark on a relationship with a German man, I must constantly remind people that he wasn’t a slave owner, and that yes, sex is part of a relationship (eventually), but it shouldn’t be the first place people’s minds go when they see an interracial couple. That’s a whole other blog topic (sexualizing the women in interracial couples) for another time.

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