Although interracial relationships and related issues receive much attention today, they’ve taken place in America since colonial times. In fact, America’s first “mulatto” child was born in 1620. When slavery of blacks became institutionalized in the U.S., however, anti-miscegenation laws surfaced which barred such unions, thereby stigmatizing them.
Considering that anti-miscegenation laws remained on the books until the latter half of the 20th century, it’s no wonder that stigma continues to enshrine interracial unions. Are you involved in such a relationship or contemplating entering one? Then, read the tips below designed to help mixed couples navigate a society which isn’t always kind.
Interracial Relationships and Violence
A major reason interracial relationships continue to carry stigma is their association with violence. Although in early America, whites and Native Americans, Native Americans and blacks and blacks and whites openly procreated with one another, the introduction of institutionalized slavery changed the nature of such relationships entirely. The raping of African American women by plantation owners and other powerful whites during this period have cast an ugly shadow on relationships between black women and white men. On the flipside, African American men who so much as looked at a white women could be killed, and brutally so.
Author Mildred D. Taylor describes the fear that interracial relationships invoked in the black community in the Depression Era South in Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981), a historical novel based on her family’s real-life experiences. When protagonist Cassie Logan’s cousin visits from the North to announce that he’s taken a white wife, the entire Logan family is aghast.
“Cousin Bud had separated himself from the rest of us…for white people were part of another world, distant strangers who ruled our lives and were better left alone,” Cassie thinks. “When they entered our lives, they were to be treated courteously, but with aloofness, and sent away as quickly as possible. Besides for a black man to even look at a white woman was dangerous.”
This was no understatement, as the case of Emmett Till proves. While visiting Mississippi in 1955, the Chicago teen was murdered by a pair of white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till’s murder sparked international outcry and motivated Americans of all races to join the Civil Rights Movement.
The Fight for Interracial Marriage
Just three years after Emmett Till’s horrific murder, Virginians Mildred Jeter, an African American, married Richard Loving, a white man, in the District of Columbia. After returning to Virginia the Lovings were arrested for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation laws but told the one-year prison sentence given to them would be dropped if they left Virginia and did not return as a couple for 25 years. But the Lovings violated this condition, returning to Virginia as a couple to visit family. When authorities discovered them, they were again arrested. This time they appealed the charges against them until their case made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In addition to calling marriage a basic civil right, the Court stated, “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”
During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, not only did laws change regarding interracial marriage but public views did as well. That the public was slowly embracing interracial unions is evidenced by the theatrical release of a 1967 film based entirely on an imminent interracial marriage, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” To boot, by this time, the fight for civil rights had grown very integrated. Whites and blacks often fought for racial justice side-by-side, allowing interracial romance to bloom. In Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self (2001), Rebecca Walker, daughter of African American novelist Alice Walker and Jewish lawyer Mel Leventhal, described the ethos that impelled her activist parents to marry.
“When they meet…my parents are idealists, they are social activists…they believe in the power of organized people working for change,” Walker wrote. “In 1967, when my parents break all the rules and marry against laws that say they can’t, they say that an individual should not be bound to the wishes of their family, race, state, or country. They say that love is the tie that binds, and not blood.”
Interracial Relationships and Rebellion
When civil rights activists married, they not only challenged laws but sometimes their own families. Even someone who dates interracially today runs the risk of incurring the disapproval of friends and family. Such opposition to interracial relationships has been documented in American literature for centuries. Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona (1884) is a case in point. In it, a woman named Señora Moreno objects to her adoptive daughter Ramona’s impending marriage to a Temecula Indian man named Alessandro.
“You marry an Indian?” Señora Moreno exclaims. “Never! Are you mad? I will never permit it.”
What’s astonishing about Señora Moreno’s objection is that Ramona is half-Indian herself. Still, Señora Moreno believes that Ramona is superior to a full-blooded Indian. Always an obedient girl, Ramona rebels for the first time when she chooses to marry Alessandro. She tells Señora Moreno that forbidding her to marry him is useless. “The whole world cannot keep me from marrying Alessandro. I love him…,” she declares.