In the most recent census results, it was clear that interracial couples are a burgeoning phenomenon in the U.S., continuing to contribute to the diversity of society. Among opposite-sex married couples, one in 10 (5.4 million couples) are interracial, representing an increase of 28% since 2000. In addition, the most recent census reported that 18% of heterosexual and 21% of gay and lesbian unmarried couples were of different races. Considering the salience of skin color in society, it is surprising that so little research and training has been devoted to race, and, more specifically, to interracial couples. Recognizing this gap, my research explores how interracial couples view themselves and the social forces that implicitly and explicitly influence partners’ perceptions and experiences. What is curious is how interracial couples are, and are not, a “big deal.”
For example, a regular reader of my blog at Psychology Today posted a comment entitled “What? My Wife is White?” George wrote, “My spouse is white and I am black. I never really think about it until I read articles like this or see characters on screen portrayed in an interracial relationship.” George echoes an important theme of my book Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy, that many interracial couples do not think about race and their differences in color and power and privilege until larger social systems, their extended families, communities, and larger society, do something or say something that raises this difference as an issue.
The partners themselves espouse a stance of colorblindness, like George, who then goes on to say, “As for the in-laws and others, they had to overcome their fears, ignorance, and exposure to something that truly did not expect or see in the world in which they were raised.” This highlights that while many interracial couples state that race is not an issue for them, it is for other people: in-laws, persons in service professions (valets, hosts at restaurants, etc.), and strangers in public situations. At the same time, occasionally a blog reader will post a comment entitled “Zzzzz”, indicating their apparent lack of interest in the blog’s theme (which begs the question of why they were visiting the blog in the first place; but in web parlance, let’s not feed the trolls). Interracial couples? No big deal, right? Racism? Does that still exist?
In an attempt to reality test, I googled “interracial couples in the news” to see what I’d find from the simplest, most cursory search of the internet. I wasn’t fishing for incidents or attacks; I just inserted those five key words in the search engine. Some highlights from the first page of 1,710,000 results are as follows: “Interracial couple attacked outside Queens bar”; “Interracial couple receives racist note on Atlanta valet ticket”; “Kentucky church bans interracial couples”; “Iowa cops investigate hate crime after couple’s house burns”; “Interracial couple discriminated against in Tennessee”; and “High school teacher suspended after comment to interracial couple”.
From these news stories, not limited to southern states, it’s safe to say that interracial couples across the country do not always feel safe. I believe that there is more work to be done in the area of race, race relations, and racism in the US. I believe that interracial couples, in embodying racial border crossings in their movement through public spaces together, are a lightning rod for negative attention in our society; they are targets of reactivity from people who consciously and unconsciously “fragment” or break apart interracial couples so that white bodies do not move through space with black bodies due to implicit and explicit racial attitudes, and prejudice. I think we have room to improve, and I’d like to discuss which interracial couples seem to be targets for rage, and theorize why.
Interracial couples are still a lightning rod for negative attention in U.S. society, I believe, because partners in these relationships embody racial border crossings in their movement through public spaces together. By associating with one another, traveling together, and by touching and kissing one another, they defy notions of racial purity and the principle of homogamy (the idea that happy couples must come from similar backgrounds, culturally or racially). Interracial couples are targets of reactivity from people who consciously and unconsciously fragment interracial couples, and multiracial families, so that bodies with different pigmentation do not move through space together. But which interracial couples seem to be targets for rage?
Back in 2013, the breakfast cereal Cheerios had an advertisement that featured a black man, a white woman, and a biracial daughter. The black man and white woman were not seen together in the same room in the commercial, and yet, the outrage over being forced to see the mere suggestion of a multiracial family was so intense that Cheerios had to disable comments on YouTube due to flurry of racist comments.
In contrast, quite a few brands over the past several years have produced commercials that feature black women with white men, but these have not caused near the stir of the Cheerios ad. Did you see the Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercial where a white man and black woman make out on the elevator going up to their apartment, and touch and kiss as they prepare (and consume, with quite a bit of gusto) dinner together? What a good-looking, and happily cavorting, couple they made. And it didn’t seem to upset anybody. We see a rising number of commercials, and television shows, with black women-white men couples. So, why does seeing a black man with a white woman raise such rancor, but not the other combination?
From the time of the silent film Birth of a Nation (1915), small and big screens have depicted black male sexuality as dangerous threat to the chastity of white women everywhere. White males may engage in romantic relationships with women of color in television and film, but rarely if ever do we see men of color in intimate relationships with white women. Scandal features the interracial pairing of Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and President “Fitz” Grant (Tony Goldwyn) and audiences aren’t complaining so much about their hooking up; the only issue some viewers had is with the President’s infidelity.
So, what’s this really about? Perhaps (white) audiences see white men as interracial adventurers or colonists, going where no white man has gone before, and who can blame them? Perhaps audiences construct them as “white knights” saving black damsels from the distress of finding, or being with, a black partner. The irony is that the white male-black female couples are far less common than the black male-white female couples, according to the U.S. Census. Black men get together with white women far more frequently in our society, but this is not represented on our TV sets at home. Maybe folks just aren’t ready to face the facts: That black men do date and marry white women, and while the walls and foundation haven’t collapsed and crumbled as a result, the interracial revolution still will not be televised.
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Kyle D. Killian, Ph.D., LMFT is a licensed couple and family therapist and clinical supervisor. He is the author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press. Connect with him at academia.edu (click), or via Linkedin at Kyle Killian.
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