Upholding interracial marriage as proof that we have overcome racism reinforces the idea that racism is primarily about individual acts of prejudice, rather than about systemic (and collective) vulnerability to state violence.
BY LISA HOFMANN-KURODA
This year is the 50th anniversary of Loving vs. Virginia, the famous Supreme Court case that officially overturned state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. Predictably, this has been accompanied by a flurry of events, films, articles, and even songs celebrating this moment as a milestone in the history of America’s journey toward racial equality.
At a mixed race conference I recently attended, larger-than-life photographs of Richard and Mildred Loving, the white man and black woman whose relationship inspired the court case in 1965, adorned the walls. There and elsewhere, the Lovings were portrayed as “heroes” whose love valiantly overcame the racism of their time.
Just today, the New York Times proclaimed that interracial love was “saving America.”
Statistics show that interracial marriages in the U.S. are on the rise, and this undoubtedly reflects a shift in attitudes toward race in the American population overall. However, there are several reasons why using interracial marriage as proof of racial progress in our society is not only misleading, but harmful.
First, state recognition of partnership often functions as a superficial symbol of progress, obscuring deeper issues of violence and inequality for the most marginalized members of a community. For example, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, many heralded this as proof that queer people had finally been accepted into mainstream society.
But even after the legalization of gay marriage, trans women of color, particularly Black trans women, continue to be murdered at disproportional rates relative to the rest of the queer community. Queer and trans youth experience higher rates of homelessness than their peers, trans people, and trans women of color in particular, struggle to obtain basic health care, and undocumented LGBT people, particularly trans people, face disproportionately high rates of abuse in detention centers.
It’s clear that legalizing gay marriage has done very little to address any of these issues, which are central to the continued oppression of queer people in our society. Similarly, legalizing interracial marriage has not substantially lowered social barriers for people of color in the United States. If anything, racial inequality and segregation have substantially worsened simultaneous with the rise of interracial marriage.
Second, upholding interracial marriage as proof that we have overcome racism reinforces the idea that racism is primarily about individual acts of prejudice, rather than about systemic (and collective) vulnerability to state violence. Ending racism is not just about changing the way that individual people think and feel; it’s about dismantling a police system that uses disproportionate amounts of violence against Black people, abolishing a prison-industrial complex that houses more inmates (primarily Black and Brown people) than any other country in the world, and ending a historical legacy that continues to build its wealth on centuries of stolen land and labor from Black and Indigenous people.
Interracial marriage will not on its own solve any of these issues.
Third, narratives around interracial marriage necessarily center certain kinds of interracial relationships – those involving a white person – while obscuring others: namely, interracial marriages between different groups of people of color. Historically in the U.S., different racial groups married each other for very different reasons, and under very different circumstances, and it’s important to keep those distinctions in mind when we talk about interraciality.
Related: STOP WEAPONZING BIRACIAL CHILDREN
For example, interracial unions between Indigenous people and Black people historically took place within the context of genocide and slavery. Runaway slaves formed independent enclaves called maroon societies alongside Indigenous people. Meanwhile, interracial unions between Chinese laborers (typically men) and Black women often occurred due to immigration laws, which limited the number of Chinese women who could immigrate to the U.S. The history of these relationships contain important and radical legacies for people of color who sometimes intermarried with each other as a means of survival.
Most notably, “inter-racial” was legally defined for most of U.S. history as a marital relationship between a white person and a black person, and later, between a white person and any person legally considered non-white (a definition that shifted over time). This means that anti-miscegenation laws were not so much about outlawing all interracial relationships as such. After all, there has historically been plenty of racial mixing between Black people and Indigenous people, as well as between Black people and Asian immigrants. Rather, the goal of outlawing interracial marriage was explicitly aimed at protecting the “purity of the white race.”
It makes sense, then, why narratives of interracial marriage that center a white person and a person of color would continue to dominate current discussions of interraciality. It is because historically, it has mattered little to white people whether or not different groups of people of color intermarried with each other–except when it posed a threat to the hegemony of whiteness.
By continuing to center stories of white people marrying people of color in our narratives around interracial marriage, we are celebrating and upholding marriage between white people and people of color as brave, triumphant, or ground-breaking, while erasing the histories of non-white interracial couples, which were equally if not more radical–albeit for very different reasons–because they were often based on strategies of survival.
Finally, far from overcoming racism, interracial marriage (or any kind of interracial relationship) can in fact perpetuate racism, either through fetishization and/or anti-Blackness. If the horrifying statistics generated by contemporary dating websites such as OkCupid are any indication, we know that the prospect of interracial marriage does not bode especially well for Black women or Asian men. For example, 82% of non-black men on OkCupid show some bias against black women. Within the gay male community as well, racism continues to be a huge problem.
The recent blockbuster hit film, Get Out, provides a much needed perspective on the darker sides of interracial relationships–particularly between white women and Black men. It is notable that this film, which highlights the violence that has historically come out of relationships between white women and Black men, would debut on the 50th anniversary of Loving v Virginia. The coincidence points to a deep contradiction in the American psyche about the possibilities and limitations of interraciality and miscegenation overall.
This is not an argument against interracial marriage as such. No one deserves to have their love unfairly policed, of course. However, it is a call to critically examine the history of interracial marriage, and to recognize that it is not inherently good or bad, progressive or regressive. It is a call to recognize that loving each other across racial difference will not in itself dismantle the system of racial capitalism that continues to oppress us.
Author Bio: Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda is a queer, mixed-race writer, teacher and political organizer living between Berkeley, California, and Tokyo, Japan. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC Berkeley. In her writing and activism, she thinks broadly about queer alternatives to institutionalized forms of belonging.