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.