Tag Archives: Washington Post

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.

Some ’70s Style Racial Candor from the Drunk on the Bus

(I dedicate this post to my dad, Mel Williamson, who would have celebrated his 89th birthday today.)

The Jeffersons,
1970s "Multiracial" TV

Yesterday, I was honored to be interviewed by Carol Morello, journalist for the Washington Post for an article entitled Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade.  Naturally, I spoke to Ms. Morello on the phone, during the after school hours while the usual mayhem was transpiring in my home–the little girls down the block ringing the doorbell looking for playmates, my own kids’ particular homework snafus.  I had to interrupt the interview no less than three times: once to give my daughter my cell phone so she could call a BFF for the homework; once to drop said daughter off at a Girl Scouts and once because my son–who had proudly informed his 3rd grade teacher that he understood long division and could therefore skip the lesson–discovered that he did not in fact have the foggiest grasp of long division and needed me to teach it to him so he could do his homework.  (Not that I remember how to do long division myself.)

In any case, I was a little distracted during the interview and rambled just a bit, though Ms. Morello was very patient.  There was one question, however, that I wish I’d had more time to mull over, which was how my children’s awareness of race differed from my own growing up.  (Remember, I grew up biracial in the 1970s; my children are “second-generation” biracial, growing up now.)  My answer to Ms. Morello was fine, but I spoke more about the differences between the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s vs. Montclair, New Jersey right now.  I stated that, in terms of the number of interracial families and the acceptance of such by the community, the difference is surprisingly minimal.  But having had some time to think about it, I have to say that I was much more aware of race than my children are for a number of reasons.

1) I had a fully black parent (Dad), who had grown up on the South Side of Chicago during the 1930s, at a time where things were not so comfortable racially.  Dad felt the need to arm me with information about race relations, so I would be prepared for racism when it found me (notwithstanding the fact that I took his warnings with a grain of salt, that his predictions never quite came to pass).

2) On second thought, our town and our time are actually quite different from the city and era in which I was raised.   In Montclair, diversity–integrated diversity–is everywhere.  In their public school, my children each have three or four fellow biracial classmates.  My husband and I have never been to a restaurant in town where we were the only interracial couple.  Everywhere you look are not only interracial families, but also adoptive families, families headed by same-sex parents, as well as transracially-adoptive families headed by same-sex parents.   So, anyone inclined to stare at the family who stands out would be out of luck here in Montclair.   Families who might stand out elsewhere blend right in.  Since most everyone is different, there is less pressure to discuss race with young children, except in the interest of embracing one’s identity.  When my kids were little, we talked about brown skin and kinky hair in relationship to our African Ancestry; we looked at photographs of great grandparents who arrived from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century.

Now we talk more about race; I answer their questions about black, white, Asian and being biracial; they talk about what they see and hear at school and in the newspaper.   But I am careful not to make my children anxious about race, not to make them fear that being black, or mixed will be held against them.   (I address this in a talk I’ve done called Speaking of Color.   See My Talks.)

3) The last the difference between my understanding of race then and my children’s now, has to do with our current culture’s increased tendency to protect children from hard topics.  I consider my own childhood pretty sheltered compared to some, but still I watched the news every night with my parents.  (They couldn’t get it on-line in those days as I do.)  I also watched adult sit-coms produced by Normal Lear, as did many of my friends.

All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times put race and racism out there with no apology.  In one episode of The Jeffersons, the word “honkey,” meaning white person, comes up about fifty times.  And talk about stereotypes; roughly half of what every black person says on these shows rhymes.  And it wasn’t just race that the Lear line-up was candid about.  Sexual innuendoes and booze were front and center too.  I think there was an entire episode of All-in-the Family, where Archie is locked in the basement getting soused.  Ned The Wino was my favorite character on Good Times.  Drunk was funny.  So was JJ, the most stereotypical African American character since Stepin Fetchit.  So was Archie Bunker, the reigning bigot of 1970s prime time.

Come to think of it, growing up in New York City in the post-deinstitutionalization, post-summer-of-love, Vietnam war era, the images from the Lear shows didn’t seem all that far-fetched.  (Except for Black people rhyming.)  By fifth grade–my daughter’s age–I took the city bus home from school.  There was always, always a drunk on the bus.  Sometimes it was a white drunk, sometimes a black drunk, sometimes a woman who yelled and screamed and scolded everyone who got on, sometimes a man who sat quietly, smelled and snored.  I traveled with friends, but most of them got off the bus before I did, so there was frequently a period each afternoon where I was alone on the bus with the driver, a handful of adult strangers and a drunk person.  (In those days, the concepts of mental illness and self-medication, substance abuse, and hallucinations were not on my radar.)  In person, I was afraid of drunk people because they were out of control, but they were always worth listening to for a laugh.

One in particular provided me with an early lesson on race.   He was tall, lean and black, of indeterminate age, though he had a wild tangle of yellow/grey hair.  When my friends and I got on the bus–showed our passes and found seats–he took a break from his monologue–or self-dialogue, to be accurate–to greet us:

“Helloooo, li’l ones!”  and began talking about how lazy kids were today, what smart mouths we all had, how different from his day when he would have gotten whupped for saying the kind of things we said.  Then he went off on graffiti, then he went off on dogs, and then we stopped trying to follow what he had to say.

By the time my friends had gotten off, the man had begun petitioning the bus driver to let him drive a while.

“I can really cut them corners!”  I thought this amusing, but a well-dressed woman apparently did not.  She muttered something under her breath as she exited the bus at her stop.

Insulted, the drunken man turned to me.

“You hear that? Lady call me a bum!  Humph!”  He straightened up, flipped the collar of what–in better days–might have been described as a trench coat.  “I ain’t no bum,” he directed this at the woman’s retreating image.  “Everybody know: bums is whiteWinos is black.  I am a W-I-N-O.  Wino.”

Having cleared up the confusion, the man nodded self-approvingly and promptly dropped off to sleep.