Interracial relationships in the post-'Loving v. Virginia' age
Are interracial relationships inherently weird, or do we make them that way? While the majority of relationships and marriages are same race, those couples that cross racial lines are viewed as doing something quite radical.
Even the most dull activities: grocery shopping, going out to dinner, even walking down the street can become unintended social statements. Mixed race relationships are so politicized, that it’s difficult to imagine them as commonplace and normal.
This month, HBO premieres <em>"The Loving Story":http://www.hbo.com/#/documentaries/the-loving-story/video/preview.html/eNrjcmbO0CzLTEnNd8xLzKksyUx2zs8rSa0oUc-PSYEJBSSmp-ol5qYy5zMXsjGyMXIyMrJJJ5aW5BfkJFbalhSVpgIAXbkXOA, a documentary film that chronicles the lives of Richard and Mildred Loving, the plaintiffs in a 1967 Supreme Court case that challenged Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage.
WATCH MSNBC COVERAGE OF THE LOVINGS’ CASE:
[MSNBCMSN video=”http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32545640″ w=”592″ h=”346″ launch_id=”46384312^10^183550″ id=”msnbc5a1e9a”]
Richard was a white man and Mildred was a black woman. Neither of them believed themselves as civil rights icons or visionaries. They just wanted to be married and live quietly in rural Virginia, and this ordinariness makes the film so compelling.
Their everyday occurrences are fascinating to us simply because she is black and he is white, which contradicts our sense of what is normal. Just like popular culture’s current fascination with remarkable people doing entirely unremarkable things (“Stars — they’re just like Us”), the documentary sidesteps the culture wars to show an average family being themselves. Seeing inside their private world says so much more than abstract theories of justice — it shows them literally as a Loving family.
Our law and social practice has viewed interracial intimacy as immoral, illegal, or at the least, threatening to delicacies of decency. As early as Thomas Jefferson and as recently as John McCain and Harold Ford, interracial sex has been the reliable trump card for questioning character. Until 1956, the film industry’s Hays Code set censorship standards, forbidding “indecent” depictions of interracial relations. Old racial habits die hard, however. Jungle Fever came out over twenty years ago, and yet cinema has not progressed much farther beyond Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? It’s not even possible in fantasy: superheroes can break concrete, soar the heavens, and toss whales with their hands, but Hancock’s eternal lovers Will Smith and Charlize Theron can’t even kiss on screen.
Even in a multicultural nation where we have a multiracial president, stories of intermixture continue to titillate and fascinate. Every interracial couple today has been asked “how did you meet?” which they know is really code for “why are you together?” In its renowned Sunday Wedding section, the New York Times still reports on interracial marriages as unique aberrations. In the pages of U.S. and People magazine, the gossip mill vivaciously turns at the prospect of various American sweethearts “canoodling” with black artists.
In theory, race should not be a barrier when it comes to choosing a partner in this day and age. But in practice, people act differently. Strong presumptions of dating and marrying within the same-race continue to exist. Interracial intimacy — and the bedroom politics that accompanies it — is still the fetishized grey elephant in the room. We assume the world’s Heidi Klum’s will fall back on Euro hedge funders named Klaus and Piers. We predict (and some hope) that the Seals of the world exclusively date and marry black women. Even when we try and want to ignore the influence of race, it deeply pervades our perceptions and expectations of intimate relationships.
Are we at the stage yet where we can see relationships for what they are instead of for what they represent? All families cook dinner, clean house, and entertain their children — all ordinary tasks that are entirely familiar to all. It’s entirely shortsighted to proclaim colorblindness and pretend that differences don’t exist. But for those people in or contemplating interracial relationships, could that be an entirely ordinary and unremarkable decision? When will the time come when we can see that interracial families are just like us?
Kevin Noble Maillard is a law professor at Syracuse University and the editor of the forthcoming book, Loving v. Virginia in a Post-Racial World (Cambridge). Follow Kevin on Twitter at @noblemaillard