Not Jungle Fever

In London, a few years ago

I mentioned in my last post that I’d been interviewed by the Washington Post’s Carol Morello for her article entitled:  Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade.  In the article, Ms. Morello graciously included a link to this blog, which led to the highest traffic day it has had since its inception in December.  Checking my stats, I discovered people were not just finding me through the Washington Post article, they were also hitting my blog via other blogs and online publications that were buzzing about the article.   Checking these sites out, I found myself exploring some unexpected turf, including a site that horrified me: a virulently white supremacist site which I will spare my followers by not linking.  Some of the comments, reacting to Morella’s article were along the lines of: how could any self-respecting white person allow themselves to get involved with one of those?  (I paraphrase.)  Suffice it to say I didn’t stay long, though some of the heinously stereotyped caricatures of African Americans stayed with me for a while.

Since that time, I’ve been meaning to do another post on interracial marriage, thinking about why it works when it works, and why, when it fails, race isn’t always to blame.  Here goes:

Not Jungle Fever

 Why does it bother me so much when high profile interracial couples like Heidi Klum and Seal, or Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren break up?  Why do I want run out there and explain to the media: this kind of thing happens with mono-racial couples too!?  This wasn’t about race!?    These highly visible couples were supposed to be poster children for mixed marriages, publicly validating my personal history, thumbing their hue-blended noses at the skeptics and naysayers, the racial separatists who suggest there is something lewd and unsavory about interracial pairings.

The good news is that interracial marriage is more prevalent than ever, that these couples divorce at a rate barely higher than same-race couples.  There’s even a biracial president sitting in the Oval Office, dispelling the insidious myth that mixed couples’ progeny are lower-functioning than others.  Yet, interracial couples still face insensitive questions, sometimes outright hostility, even parental rejection.  Marriage is hard enough; why make it harder?

The irony is that the burden of outside opinion is often the hardest part.  All mixed marriages, especially black and white ones—which draw by far the most press, the most ire—exist in both a public and private sphere; all have to contend with an often unappreciative world outside their home.  Even the strongest such couples—those for whom commonalities outweigh differences—still bear the weight of other people’s prejudices.  But public perception is only part of the story.  What naysayers don’t see is that an interracial couple’s private unity can be its greatest strength.

As a clinical social worker and couples therapist, I have seen many interracial couples.  The happiest share a beautiful sense of partnership—truly a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  What I have learned, professionally and personally, is that the most successful of these couples have each other’s backs in the face of public stares and criticisms.  In private, the partners’ blend of two selves, two worlds, unifies their home.

As followers of this blog know, I’m the daughter of a black father and a white, Jewish mother.  Though my maternal grandmother was not the least bit religious—despite running a kosher restaurant—she sat shiva for my mother when my parents married.  It was 1950 and interracial marriage was still illegal in thirty states, though not Illinois.

“It can’t last,” my grandmother’s friends consoled her.  “These marriages never do.”

But the day my father breathed his last, after forty-five years of marriage, my mother was at his bedside, his hand in hers.   My parents weren’t an anomaly.  When I was growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my parents’ large community of friends included many other intermarried blacks and whites whose marriages worked and lasted.  As a child, I was unaware that there was anything unusual about this.  Later, when I learned the stereotypes and taboos around race-mixing, I was shocked at how removed they were from my own experience.

In Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, the romance between a black, married architect and a white office temp elicits rage and resentment from family and friends of both partners.  It’s the race difference, not the adultery, which brings on the most vehement censure.  I saw the film with my parents when it was first released; they’d been married forty-one years at the time.  As I sat between them—our three contrasting skin tones visible in the not-yet-darkened theater—I looked around, wondering if people thought we were trying to make a statement.

I remember being outraged by the film’s suggestion that black and white partners were drawn to one another solely for the thrill of breaking taboos.   In fact, Lee was just showing one specific example, making as much a point about gender politics and class as he was about race.  I doubt I’d have taken it so personally if there had been other films portraying black and white relationships in a positive, normalizing light.

Fast-forward twenty years: I’m a psychotherapist, specializing—not surprisingly—in multiracial families and couples, in a strong interracial marriage of my own, with two beautiful second-generation biracial children.  In Montclair, New Jersey, the town where we live (which Interrace Magazine named the Best Town in America for Interracial Families in 2002), our kind of family is so common, we’re boring.  People who give us an extra once-over do so with approval or, in the case of other interracial families, camaraderie.  This town, as I noted in the last post, is also full of multiracial adoptive families, interfaith families, and families headed by same-sex parents.  Many of us moved here to raise our children in a place where they were nothing unusual.  (A typical Montclair moment was the time my daughter came home from preschool and asked how many mommies she had.  When I told her I was it, she said it wasn’t fair; her friends Sophia and Jacob had two mommies each!)

But even if we’re “normal” here, in public our family inspires speculation.  Did our parents approve of our union?  Do Jon and I have struggles at home over our differences?  Do we clash over parenting values?  We know that our racial disparity is what people see—not the fact that my mother’s ancestry is the same as my husband’s.  Like us or not, we’re making a statement just by being us.  The public eye is just part of what you live with as an interracial couple; even if you’re not Heidi Klum and Seal.  Some black and white marriages crack under this pressure; I have seen many split up—some, regrettably in line with the stereotypes.  But many have succeeded, ultimately achieving the stable, loving comfort that makes a good marriage last through the decades.   Interracial couples do require a special kind of care, sensitivity and knowhow, an acknowledgement and ownership of the potential challenges that can arise.  But when commonalities outweigh differences, when there is a good social support network–which may mean family, though not necessarily–when both members of the couple share values about childrearing, the role of religion and other big-ticket items, the odds are well in a mixed couple’s favor.

22 responses to “Not Jungle Fever

  1. Cool blog title and I really like your picture. Congrats on the Wash Post interview too! I found what you wrote really interesting also 🙂 Have a good weekend.

  2. Great post, Lisa. I assume you’re writing a book about this very important issue? I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, I’m off to read the Washington Post article.
    By the way, I’m sorry you came across that horrible web site. But, as you put yourself out there, you’re going to see more and more of these crazies. I know that when I’ve written about divorce for the Huffington Post, no matter what I say, no matter how diplomatic I am, there are angry people out there who leave angry, bitter comments. At first it really bothered me, but then I stopped reading them.

    • Thanks, Monica. I’ve actually been waiting for the ‘crazies’ to show up and comment on my blog. So far they’ve just clicked and gone. I’m prepared though!
      Re: Writing a book on this stuff, I have begun a proposal, but let it sit in my documents for a while. Focusing on fiction until the passion for such a major commitment takes hold. This blog is helping me get there though!

  3. Oh my goodness I can’t believe that hideous comment about ‘one of those’ in this day and age, shocking and disgusting.

    • Thanks, Gilly. Yes, this country has a small (very small I hope), angry underbelly that grows more bitter the more things change. These are the same people who believe they “lost” their country when Obama got elected.

  4. I grew up in the north but my family was from the South. We moved there because of Dad’s job. Where we lived, there were very few blacks. They seemed invisible.

    We visited my grandparents in the summer, coming south to the land of cotton and tobacco fields. This was in the ’50s and ’60’s. I was quite young – about four – when I began to notice how badly the blacks were treated in the south. It was an amazing experience, flip-flopping between our home in the north where there were very few of them (and I can’t speak for their experience – it may have been bad and I just never knew) to the south, where they worked on my grandfather’s farm and as help in my grandparents’ house. I remember the stinking bathroom behind the garage and the mason jars they used for water glasses sitting by the spigot outside. I remember watching them pick tobacco in the fields, their hands covered in the burning tobacco juice.

    I know this is a bit off-topic with regard to your post, but as a child I couldn’t help but wonder why God couldn’t just put everyone in a pot and stir. I still think that, except that it might mean a loss of history and heritage and culture that should be preserved.

    Good post.

    • Eloise, thank you for this beautiful and detailed comment. I love stories like these, memories of our childhood awareness and wonderings about race. I don’t find the last paragraph off topic at all actually, I share both thoughts, the wish for sameness, but also the wish to celebrate difference.

  5. Stephen Rifkin

    Fine blog, Lisa. You are drawing a widening audience of readers who are inspired by your writing on this important subject. Sadly, you tapped into some of the race hatred out there as well. We can only hope for a better and saner world for Zoe and Theo, a concern we share, and I like to think your writing is helping to make it better. I love the photo!

  6. Stephen Rifkin

    Fine blog, Lisa. Your personal story is reaching an ever growing audience of readers who share your concerns. I find it interesting and illuminating to read their comments as well. That one of them was a neo-Nazi is very disturbing though. How could anyone look at the photo of your sweet family and say awful things, whatever they were! Let’s hope that the haters are greatly outnumbered. Wilma

    • Thanks Wilma, actually the “hater” didn’t leave a comment; I just traced a click back to that site. However, I am sure the followers of that site would define my family in a way other than sweet, sadly. I do think they’re outnumbered though.

  7. I am white and I have biracial grandchildren. I think it says something very positive that my (white) daughter wasn’t really aware that in marrying (black) Steve she might be subject to racial discrimination and slurs. Another daughter married Jay (Filipino) . Both Steve and Jay are Canadians, as we are. I am aware that our three biracial grandchildren may face issues I never had to deal with when growing up and that scares me a bit. History doesn’t indicate that we will ever get along as one people, respectful of our differences and embracing them but at least within our small family we are doing just that and are richer for it.

  8. Great post Lisa!! I love your posts. i was writing something about racism but i didn’t post it yet. I wrote it and thought about you. I’m not proud to say i was raised in a racist society.

  9. It is the person that we fall in love with, not their skin color. I can’t believe that it still matters today. I am sorry that you have experienced negativity about this… stay strong!

  10. Lisa, this is such a beautiful post and so well written. It boggles my mind that in this day and age, people can still be so prejudiced against interracial marriage. It’s sad that while so much has changed over the decades, some things just don’t. A good friend of mine made a comment the other day (after NC struck down gay marriage) that 30 years ago, she would not have been able to marry her African American husband. Sadly civil rights have a long way to go in this country – not only for interracial marriage, but also gay marriage. But having wonderful people like you write about your experiences is testimony of what good things do come.

  11. Thanks, Leah. I do think things are moving in the right direction though. Very happy about Obama’s statement this week. I am happy for your friend too!

  12. Lisa, I must say your words almost brought me to tears. I am in an interracial relationship and it’s hard, especially because the part of Clifton I live in, I always feel like the only person of color here, I’m always getting stares people look at my son then look at me like I kidnapped him or something and I find myself becoming angry at these onlookers. Is that wrong to feel the way I do? I must say I shop at whole foods in Montclair and I love that town it’s like little New York so diverse and rich in culture. I only wish I could afford to live there lol. Hopefully one day when I’m done with school.

    • Erica, your anger is absolutely understandable. It is so frustrating that two towns that share a border can have such different responses. I would argue though that Montclair is easier than New York these days, having lived and parented in both. Shop here, bring your son to parks here, and in the meantime, hold your head high. The onlookers are the ones with issues to work out.

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