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Article of interest: Why Civil Rights Organizations Ignore Interracial Couples

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  • Jen Chau
    Thought members of this listserv would be interested in this article! People’s lurid fascination with interracial sex is a major impediment to meaningful
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 1, 2005
      Thought members of this listserv would be interested in this article!


      People’s lurid fascination with interracial sex is a major impediment to meaningful discussions about interracial relationships. It also explains why the rights of interracial couples have never really been taken seriously as a civil rights issue. On the 50th anniversary of Emmett Till’s death, Carmen Van Kerckhove asks: How can you divorce interracial relationships from civil rights when tensions surrounding these relationships lie at the heart of some of the worst atrocities in American history committed against blacks?


      Why Civil Rights Organizations Ignore Interracial Couples
      By Carmen Van Kerckhove
      August 2005

      I was invited to speak at a conference on race relations earlier this year. During one of the breaks between sessions, I wandered out into the main hall to stretch my legs. One of the attendees approached me and struck up a conversation about the weather, the conference, the food at the convention center—just your typical, run-of-the-mill, polite small talk.

      My nametag identified me as one of the featured speakers at the conference, so he asked me on what topic I would be speaking. I told him that I was there to present a workshop on interracial relationships. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, his whole demeanor changed. He started leering and smirking, and then asked in a low, suggestive tone, “Is this based on personal experience?”

      Actually my workshop was all about debunking myths and ripping apart stereotypes. But the minute he heard me say the word “interracial,” all he could think about was sex. The fact that I was there to talk about interracial relationships could only mean that I myself was sexually available and that I’d be up for a miscegenational roll in the hay—with him.

      The point of my story is that people’s lurid fascination with interracial sex is a major impediment to meaningful discussions about interracial relationships. It also explains why the rights of interracial couples have never really been taken seriously as a civil rights issue. The sexual implications are so pervasive that interracial relationships are seen as instances of license or personal indulgence, rather than expressions of equality and freedom.

      Why No One Will Fight for Interracial Couples

      In the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights organizations like the NAACP made it clear that they opposed antimiscegenation laws, but they never aggressively pursued getting those laws overturned.

      Why not? Randall Kennedy offers an explanation in his book Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption: “Some champions of African American advancement also felt that any active challenge to antimiscegenation laws would be seen as a manifestation of blacks’ supposed desire not only to be equal to whites but also to be intimate with them, or even to become white themselves—suppositions that have long galled many African Americans. In fact, substantial numbers of blacks have always been hostile to interracial marriage, viewing black participants in such matches as racial defectors.”

      Many organizations also feared that active opposition to antimiscegenation laws would shine an unwelcome spotlight on the sex lives of their own leaders, many of whom were in interracial marriages and thus, vulnerable to embarrassing accusations of racial self-hatred.

      This was not an irrational fear. In fact, as Kennedy outlines in his book, many black leaders during this period suffered setbacks to their careers as a result of their interracial liaisons. When Walter White, the black secretary of the NAACP, divorced his black wife in 1949 and married a white woman, an influential newspaper called for his resignation. He managed to keep his job, but he lost a great deal of clout in the organization as a result of this incident. Julius Lester wrote the bestseller Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama in 1968, but blacks felt that his marriage to a white woman invalidated his contributions to their struggle. Only a fool would regard Lester as a trustworthy leader, wrote one black woman in a letter to the editor of Ebony. After all, he could not even “crawl out of bed” with whites.

      To avoid the inevitable accusations that they were encouraging people to engage in interracial marriage (and, by association, interracial sex), civil rights organizations—with the exception of the ACLU—chose not to fight antimiscegenation laws and instead, focused on achieving racial justice in other areas like education and voting.

      Representations of Interracial Couples Do Not Help the Cause

      The stigma surrounding the rights of interracial couples lingers to this day. Anniversaries of civil rights wins like Brown v. Board of Education are celebrated with gusto each year. But the Loving v. Virginia case of 1967, which struck down all antimiscegenation laws in the United States, is never recognized as a civil rights milestone on par with Brown.

      Can you name a single prominent interracial couple worth looking up to? Probably not. The movement to repeal antimiscegenation laws never produced any charismatic, inspiring leaders who could articulate the issues within the context of civil rights. Instead, what comes to mind when the public thinks of interracial couples are those fetishistic images of black skin on white skin that are so ubiquitous in the media.

      (It’s worth noting that unfortunately, even people engaged in writing or activism around interracial relationships choose to perpetuate these sexualized images. The Loving Day Project—started by a biracial man—throws a party to celebrate the Loving v. Virginia decision every year on June 12. The centerpiece of the Project’s marketing campaign is a 30-second streaming video of a very dark-skinned, dreadlocked black man tongue-kissing his fair-skinned, blonde, white girlfriend. Even the cover of Randall Kennedy’s book features a sepia-toned extreme close-up of the noses and mouths of a black man and white woman, their lips just barely brushing against each other.)

      Dating and Marrying Interracially Is A Civil Right

      How can you divorce interracial relationships from civil rights when tensions surrounding these relationships lie at the heart of some of the worst atrocities committed against blacks in American history?

      It was so common for white slave owners to rape their female slaves that they had to invent the one-drop rule to ensure that their mixed race offspring couldn’t lay claim to their property. Thousands of black men were tortured and lynched for alleged offenses against white women. Emmett Till was beaten beyond recognition, shot in the head, and thrown in the river with a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. What had Till done to make his white attackers so angry? He whistled at one of their wives.

      The right of consenting adults to sleep with, live with, or marry whomever they want, regardless of race or ethnicity, is a fundamental civil right. The Loving v. Virginia decision may not have changed this country overnight, but the repeal of antimiscegenation laws made discrimination against interracial couples illegal and thus, less socially acceptable. As a side-effect, the number of atrocities like the ones described above gradually declined.

      Why It’s Important to Continue to Fight for the Rights of Interracial Couples

      Of course, we’re not exactly living in a utopia today. It’s still common for interracial couples to face threats and intimidation. This January, the FBI launched an investigation to determine who was behind a hate mail campaign targeting prominent black men with white wives, including actor Taye Diggs, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and football player Jason Taylor. Over the past 7 months, interracial couples in Michigan, Texas, Illinois, Tennessee, North Carolina, and even New York have found burning crosses planted in their front yards.

      Did the NAACP speak up on behalf of these couples? Did Reverend Al Sharpton declare that such racially-motivated persecution would not be tolerated? Sadly, no. They didn’t want to get their hands dirty in any situation involving even the slightest hint of interracial sex.

      It’s time for civil rights leaders to get over their fears of miscegenation. Whether they like it or not, communities of color are becoming increasingly diverse due to interracial relationships and the mixed race children resulting from these couples. Civil rights groups can’t condemn a cross-burning on the lawn of a black family as a hate crime while remaining silent when the same thing happens to an interracial family. Interracial couples deserve equal protection under the law.

      About the Author
      Carmen Van Kerckhove is a public speaker, writer and community organizer who has lectured and written extensively about mixed race identity and interracial relationships. She is Co-Director of New Demographic, a consultancy that offers workshops on issues related to mixed identity and interracial relationships. In 2004 she co-founded Mixed Media Watch, an organization that tracks representations of mixed race people and families in the media. Carmen sits on the planning committee of Swirl, Inc., a national non-profit organization that serves the mixed heritage community.
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