Valentine’s Day essay: On Loving and Interracial Marriage: When Race Isn’t the Only Difference

Our story is not the Loving story. It is a tale of interracial love and marriage – like the story that is beautifully and poignantly represented in the Jeff Nichols film Loving –and yet, it’s so very different. Assuming a certain level of historical accuracy in the movie, Richard and Mildred Loving (portrayed respectively by Joel Edgerton and Oscar-nominated actress Ruth Negga) were relatively similar in terms of background, including aspects of class, region, and language. The only thing that separated them was race. This is not to minimize the huge significance of racial difference, particularly in the 1950s South, but only to emphasize that in terms of other aspects of their identity, they were actually quite compatible with each other. One of the main messages I took away from the movie was the gulf between the huge significance of race from a legal and social perspective, and its insignificance in the daily life of the Lovings. This story was not about a couple who set out to challenge a racist law, or even to take a stand on racial equality, at least not at first; rather it was about a man and woman in love, trying to do what was best for their family.

I am a white American woman married to a black Cuban man, and we have a mixed-race son. Despite the surface similarities between our story and that of the Lovings, especially as seen from the outside, I have always perceived our biggest divisions as related not to race, but rather to culture and class. Of course, our story began 50 years after the Lovings’ did. Although our country and world are still grappling with the effects of over 500 years of white supremacy and domination over non-whites all over the globe – I want to be clear that I vehemently reject the notion of a “post-racial” America in the wake of President Obama’s two terms as president – things are not the same as they were in the 1950s. Black men are no longer lynched for looking “the wrong way” at a white woman, as Emmett Till was. Legal racial segregation is no longer a reality, even if de facto social, educational, and residential segregation are all still major factors affecting the wealth gap between blacks and whites.

Add in the fact that my family and I live in the ultra-progressive and racially diverse city of Oakland, CA, where our interracial, intercultural, bilingual family isn’t that extraordinary. We’re not alone and we don’t get strange looks on the street. Our son has a diverse group of friends, many of whose parents are also in interracial, intercultural, and/or same-sex marriages. This is not to say that race doesn’t matter – it’s just that there are other differences that present greater interpersonal challenges for me and my husband, namely culturally-specific expectations with regards to gender roles, child-rearing, and ways of dealing with conflict.

Interracial relationships between Americans and Cubans – and, for that matter, between Americans and most people from “third-world” nations – are wrought with so many complexities in addition to racial difference. Particularly in the Latin American context, U.S. imperialism and interference loom large, and this is multiplied a thousand times over when speaking about U.S.-Cuba relations. Occasionally when my husband and I fight, he invokes the anti-imperialist rhetoric that Fidel Castro inculcated in all Cubans during his 47-year reign, painting me as a domineering American imposing my desires onto a weaker victim. Sometimes our racial difference is alluded to, but more present in his mind seem to be the class divisions – poor Cuban vs. “rich” American. While he tends to focus on our class differences, I am often triggered by his assumptions about gender roles and heteronormativity, an issue that can be particularly contentious when it comes to raising a boy. Basically, I live in a bubbling cauldron of identity politics…

In the best moments, we stare at the beautiful product of our union and feel proud of bringing this amazing bilingual boy into the world. When I was pregnant, my Tutu (that’s “grandmother” in Hawaiian – my grandparents were refugees from Nazi Germany and first settled in Hawaii upon arrival to the United States) said that she couldn’t wait to meet her “coffee with milk” great-grandchild. She felt that my husband and I were changing the world simply by the fact of our union. It’s a beautiful sentiment that I appreciate, even though I know that interracial babies can’t solve racism or put an end to the enormous privilege white people enjoy in this country (read Lauren Michele Jackson’s excellent piece).

Nevertheless, I can’t help but juxtapose Tutu’s perspective with a particular scene in Loving, where the couple’s lawyers reveal to them that the primary argument being used by the state of Virginia to uphold its anti-miscegenation law is to prevent the birth of mixed-race children, considered “bastards” and genetically flawed. In contrast to this ideology, we proudly teach our son that he is mulato, the Spanish word for someone of mixed-race heritage. While the term “mulatto” is still thought of as a derogatory term in the United States – see Mat Johnson’s essay reclaiming the term – in Cuba and Latin America, it is a neutral term, an official racial categorization, and devoid of value judgment.

In fact, all over Latin America racial mixture has not only been officially recognized since the nineteenth century, but is in fact the bedrock of nationalist ideologies: most nations identify themselves as mixed-race populaces. In this respect, and due largely to the legacy of the “one-drop” rule and Jim Crow laws, the United States is at least a century behind Latin America in its recognition of mixed race ancestry. The black-white binary and continued belief in some circles that race is a biological fact has led to widespread stereotypes painting mixed-race people as walking identity crises. And yet, this way of conceiving of racial mixture is unique to the United States (and perhaps South Africa); miscegenation is so much more normalized outside of the United States and Europe.

Our son is getting an early education in the reality of cultural difference – we teach him in ways we are often not aware of, about the good and the bad: the love and laughter despite all the differences, and the fights and misunderstandings that mostly arise because of distinct expectations. However, one thing he will never have is a racial identity crisis.

 

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