Two Notes On Being In An Interracial Marriage
by Rev. John Kenyon
I was amazed to find this website where for the first time I could listen to conversations and read perspective on a subject which I have been ruminating on in relative isolation for far too many years. What follows will no doubt sound like an old story to many of you, but I offer it in the spirit of adding my voice to a cause which I am convinced needs to be heard now more than ever, and heard in order to help fend off archaic errors that still define much of our global view of the human race.
Nearly thirty years ago while attending a white, conservative evangelical church, I found myself involved in my first debate over racially mixed marriages. The year was 1970, the location a suburban town in northern Jew Jersey, Hillsdale to be precise, where the police harassed anyone riding a motorcycle (they stopped me without probable cause on my little Yamaha 250 and warned me to tell all my biker friends to stay out of town!), harassed anyone with long hair who paused to rest in the public park (they rousted me out of it when my hair was barely over the tips of my ears), and I must assume likewise kept the town clean of any ‘non-whites’, because in the three years I lived there I never saw a black person in town. I do not recall anyone other than whites owning homes, walking the streets, or coming to our church. The fact of who ruled the community and how they ruled only left the option of proceeding in a court of law to remedy those offenses, which I did not do.
The debate over interracial marriages erupted one Sunday evening during the youth group at our church, Hillsdale Bible Church. I started it. Bored with a sleepy discussion over a New Testament text concerning marriage, a corporate mood I found impious even then, I felt the need to introduce some energy into the hour. I asked, “If we should marry only within the Christian faith, what in God’s name prevents interracial marriages?” The argument quickly escalated into a frenetic stand against interracial marriages, latent with slavery, Jim Crow and apartheid. Yet, my opponents in the debate were not consciously advocating trade in human flesh, legalization of segregation, nor were they spewing hatred, at least at the emotional level. All they wanted was a long and peaceful life filled with their small town pride where they paid their police to enforce their white Judeo-Christian values regardless of due process of law. They were the good, white, church going folk, most of them quite likeable as individuals.
Among the reasons they gave for opposing interracial marriage that evening, the most passionate, deeply felt sentiment was alarm for the offspring of interracial unions. This is significant. The children, heaven forbid, would be racially mixed, they pointed out. I have spent the better part of the last thirty years sounding the depth of this sentiment in order to summarize it clearly and concisely in a way that does justice to the complexity of it. Though I am probably slow in coming to a conclusion, I believe that their attitude was much more protective of their white identity than it was anti-anything. They expressed sadness and compassion for the unfortunate condition of the mixed race children so forcefully that the debate never addressed why it caused them such alarm. My argument that multiracial children were human beings made in the image of God, therefore equally the object of God’s love and mercy and therefore entitled to the full benefits of the Christian community struck them as irrelevant to the conviction that it would be a far, far better world not to have to deal with mixed race children, and a far, far worse one should the population of mixed race children constitute a growth curve on planet earth.
When we finished that discussion, the youth group leader closed in prayer and we all went to the evening service to worship God. The youth leader resigned soon afterwards, claiming the group had become too hectic, and went back to just selling Cadillacs. In the coming years I became more and more convinced of the obvious–that their attitude was typical of conservative white folk nationwide, not idiosyncratic to this little town in northern New Jersey, or to the Christians in white churches in most white communities, and that it would not be voluntarily laid aside for any reason.
That conversation took place many years before I met and married an ‘African-American’ woman, and years before I even considered the possibility that I might ever commit such a breach of whiteness. Times changed, even more when my wife and I soon had three ‘mixed raced’ children to present to the white Christian community. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, the demise of legalized segregation and the liberal social rhetoric had permeated our national consciousness. That silenced the white-only rhetoric within the conservative, evangelical community. I did not, nor do I now, attribute that silence to a close scrutiny of and commitment to the gospels among them. If that were so we would have the freedom to talk about it in a confessional/redemptive spirit of truth and love—once we found our tongues. If that were so the white evangelical community would be confessing their tacit support for the principalities and powers of segregation prior to and including the past thirty years, which they will not do, because in their minds they are not racists, because in their minds they do not hate, because in their minds they are merely circling the wagon around their own kind on the way to heaven, and because in their minds they will not stop to think about it. ‘White guilt’ is for southern whites, or fit for those who forthrightly advocated racism. As I have said elsewhere, their social conscience was not piqued until the 1980’s, with the early signs of the breakdown of the white family unit. This leaves them feeling like victims who would never be hateful towards anyone, and that permits them to credit the antichrist incarnate in secular humanists and liberals for attacking their Judeo-Christian American values.
Nonetheless, as one half of an interracial marriage with children, rather than suffer from their silence while among them, I confess a relief at meeting with it, though it is occasionally spiced with a strained, overt tolerance and condescension. And the silence crackles with curiosity, double takes, and palpable self-consciousness over our family. None among them would dare appear racists or even meddlesome in their attention to us, but the grapevine carries the disapproval of many back to our ears. Yet, when the silence is broken, as it is on very rare occasion, we hear such remarks as, “We have no racial problem in America. I see blacks playing sports on television. I even sat next to one at a basketball game last week.” This drives my wife straight up a tree, while I see it as an attempt to establish rapport with us.
The conservative code of silence is more easily breached by the now socially acceptable ejaculation, “Your children are so beautiful!” Our children are beautiful. Curiously enough, some conservative whites have been adamant over how they find interracial children more beautiful than others. I can’t explain that one. But whatever else might be made of this, I mean to point out the centrality of children in the issue, and the inversion from when it is was in vogue among white Christians to publicly lament interracial children to this somewhat different state of affairs, but only so long as the children are not their offspring.
More delightful in this exchange is the fact that each of our children is lighter in complexion than the previous child, the third most notably ‘white’. And no, I do not know genetics well enough to answer this most frequent of all unspoken questions, to wit, how can such a white baby have such a black mother? But I will say that many a white person we have encountered has been shaken to their roots over what might lurk in their family tree, and many a black person has been inspired over what might appear in their family’s future. That saying so will offend many cannot be helped. Racism is insidious; something my wife and I confront everyday within our marriage.
By way of contrast, the white liberal/reformed Christian circles in which we have moved have their own complexities. On the one hand, many perceive us heroes, as one small step in the historical process moving towards utopia, or the kingdom of God come to earth. On the other hand, white liberals do not bring up the topic of our interracial status because they consider it beneath their dignity as a people who have overcome racism within their inner circle. The art of being a white liberal means to act as if encountering our family is no different than chewing gum or supporting a strike. Ironically, neither my wife nor I began our relationship out of a Christian vision of the egalitarian society. We met. We became interested in one another. The racial wall had cracked. Yet we just wanted to be John and Rhea, married with children. The changing national conscience made it easier to work at it, but there was no liberal superego leading us to subordinate our individual interests to the greater interest of the community, state, nation or the globe.
All the same, I do not mind being a symbol of racial harmony. We enjoyed being the token interracial couple at a Presbyterian Church (USA) national conference center in Stony Point, NY, where we lived and worked from 1991 to 1994 while I finished seminary. As a couple we gave off the message, “You see! We really can all get along!” Rodney King did not get beat up in vain, but the Stony Point Police still tailed my wife whenever they saw her driving alone through town. Beneath that benevolent message of racial harmony, however, I had a much healthier message for our community and society at large. It went, “Who I marry is none of your business.” I could shout that message from the mountain top, but in those circles it gets lost in the din of the movement towards the egalitarian society. So let me say it again. Whether you express your approval or disapproval of our marriage only makes you a meddlesome bore. Mind your own business. From a blatantly biblical perspective, we face only the proscription of marrying outside the faith. Theologies that ratify racial criteria for husband and wife have quite properly been exposed as heresy, but exposed as well in the biblical drama is our love of heresy. In the case of white conservatives expressing the heresy in public has been forced underground. In the case of liberals, I fear their heroes will be the fascists of the next century.
On the surface I feel less social pressure among white conservative Christians who have been shamed into silence over interracial marriages than among white liberal Christians who want us to know that we’re really ok with them. Shame, however shallow, brings one within the range of God’s grace, while heroics do not normally get much biblical attention. It is just that the conservative shame does not go much further than silence, for they still desire to remain as white as possible for as long as possible. And the white liberal attitude creates the tension between having somewhere to belong socially and the intrusion of their approbation and obligation to be a symbol where it does not belong. Putting the emotional discomfort zone aside, however, give me the liberal/reformed social milieu.
Ironically, the problem of belonging to a community is somewhat the same among the minority communities in which we move. To them, I am the only white person in the family. They do not expect our kids to find acceptance outside of their camp; thus, they believe we should teach them of their oppressed status in this world and to consider themselves one of the minorities. In a word, however, the foundation upon which the ‘white’ and ‘black’ identity has been forged does not apply to our children, and if it applies more than less to my wife and me as individuals, it does not apply to us a married couple. So we have learned to live with a certain degree of anomie whither-so-ever we go. Based on this, if I can offer advice to anyone considering an interracial relationship, it is to do it for strictly personal reasons, be prepared to weather a storm, and be wary of the social planners.
More important, realize that racism is really much, much bigger than you think. Prior to meeting my wife I never considered myself a racist. I felt quite free from it by virtue of the arguments for racial equality that I made and believed. Too boot, I actively opposed racial discrimination and cast my vote for those who promised to fight it. At the time, however, I had never lived next door to any of “them”, though I went to public school with some of “them” and worked with some of “them.” The color of one’s skin, I held, made no difference to God, therefore not to me, either. Nor should it make a difference to anyone else. Then, not too deeply into our marriage, my wife and I had a serious fight. It destroyed the illusion that we were nothing more than “John and Rhea,” for our marriage was indeed, in part, a microcosm of the nation’s racial tensions.
I choose the term “fight” purposely, for it was not the kind of disagreement wrought by the different lenses through which we often saw the race thing. It was not the kind of argument where I held that Rodney King should never have tried to flee arrest verses my wife who felt the police were so guilty of systematic brutality that Rodney was acting in self-defense. It was not the kind of argument where I held that the violence after the verdict was appropriately called a riot verses my wife who felt the term “uprising” the better one. Disagreements of this kind only made our relationship more interesting. By ‘fight’ I mean it was one of those infernos beginning over something petty that tapped into volcanic issues, where on the field of battle betwixt husband and wife appeared the ancient desire to escalate things into a war of total destruction, a jihad, and by any means necessary. I can say with perfect confidence that had my wife been white I would have been limited to confessing such grotesque sins that I had, say, insulted the size of her nose or her posterior, and that had I been black she would have been limited to confessing such grotesques that she had, say, merely insulted my manhood and family tree. And had I been black then when the “N” word was locked, loaded and fired at her it would not have landed with such force. And had she been white she would never have had in her repertoire of unfair weapons epithets like “cracker” and “honkie”. So lest the reader imagine that we were immune from expressing two hundred years of animosity towards one another’s race of origin when in mortal combat, be not misled. I am not proud of these moments. We were merely married.
Or we were merely inter-racially married. The battle was enhanced by my reasonable insistence that she harbored racial prejudice against white folk, countered by her position that racism was a matter of power politics and historical fact only. How could black folk say or do anything racist when they were the oppressed? And on it went. One time we were driving happily along to somewhere and from out of nowhere I began humming, “Mammy. Mammy. I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles. My Mammy”, and was formally charged, convicted and punished for a gross racial insult originally committed by Al Jolsen. She could insinuate that white men couldn’t jump, white women libbers were whiney wimps, and white folk had no rhythm, all statements that were merely shrewd observations about the oppressor, at worst satire necessary for the emotional and psychological survival of the oppressed. Our egalitarian marriage was not at all safe from precisely who we were as twentieth century Americans conditioned by our times.
Some of the stuff we faced was merely cross-cultural learning…I think. When ‘we’ were pregnant for the first time we shared several meaningful discussions over how meaningless it was to want our baby to be a specific color. I mentioned that I expected our child would be black, an expectation rebuffed by a lecture on genetics to the effect that the child had a twenty-five percent chance of being black, a twenty-five percent chance of being white, and a fifty percent chance of being one of the shades in between. That led to the challenge of defining ‘black’ and ‘white’.
More to the point was whether I would prefer a lighter shade or she would prefer a darker shade. Of course, it really did not make any difference to either of us. It didn’t. It really didn’t. It would be a human being, our baby, created in God’s image, and we would love it. But when after hours of labor the crown of our first baby’s head began to peek through the birth canal I was braced in anticipation for the far more difficult labor of comforting then presenting a black baby to my wife with assurances that I was wholly ecstatic. What color would it be? What color would it be? The fact that I am not at all attracted to the aesthetics any newborn baby made this particularly challenging. Then when our daughter popped out light skinned I was immediately concerned whether she would be welcomed into her mother’s arms as warmly and affectionately as if she had been black. The same happened with the next two. Now my wife has had three opportunities to prove that color makes no difference when it comes to our children. My own convictions remain untested. Then there was the business of satisfying the curiosity of the in-laws over our children’s color without them letting on that the color question was on their minds, too, and without us letting on that we knew it.
One of them finally just came right out saying, “O.k. I have to ask. I know I shouldn’t. But what color is it?”
At the heart of this stupid business is the not so stupid issue of how our children are accepted by the family and community. I am quite prepared to reinforce my children’s self esteem by teaching them to smell out a racist wearing sheep’s clothing, and by surrounding them with as many neo-conservatives and regressive liberals as possible (meaning those individuals who can appreciate them as individuals).
One real ambiguity in this endeavor is the well-known, painfully obvious lack of precision in defining racial categories. One day soon my children will face government-mandated forms on which they will be asked to check a box identifying their racial heritage. Will they check Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American? There is also the category called “Other.” Of course, for the well being of our great nation our government has declined to define these terms, leaving us awash in racial myths, stereotypes and unexamined assumptions. If my children have one drop of ‘black blood’ in them are they supposed to check Black? If it means qualifying for grants and special privileges, I would urge them to do so. The fact is, my eldest daughter could check ‘Hispanic’ and never be challenged on the face of it. My second daughter and my son could check ‘White’ and never be challenged, but there goes preferential treatment. Yet, all three could check ‘Black’, produce Mommy to prove it, and send the bureaucrats into a frenzy when a “white” person got something set aside for minorities. Oh, what a tangled web we weave when we set out to untangle the web we have woven.
Copyright © 2003 Rev. John Kenyon. All rights reserved.
A note about the frequently expressed “concern” for the children expressed by those who are opposed to official “interracial marriages.” The hypocrisy of this attitude is exposed by the anti-miscegenation laws of the pre Loving v. Virginia era, which tried to force mixed whites and mulattoes into UNOFFICIAL and UNRECOGNIZED interracial marriages with blacks by outlawing their marriages with other whites.
The most “confused” people I ever met are those black-identified folks descended from intermarriages between blacks and mixed whites and mulattoes legally forced into the “black” fold. They hysterically scream that the entire family is “black” when it is really multiracial. They scream that blond, blue-eyed grandma wasn’t really WHITE but just a lighter variety of “black.”
5/6/2004 9:02:45 PM