A new American tribe

Intermarriage & the racial divide

President Bill Clinton has urged Americans to talk with their families and friends about race relations. I took him up on that offer one recent summer afternoon at a pizza restaurant in Queens, New York.

“We outnumber them,” I told my wife and two children as I looked around the place. My voice suggested surprise. I think it was the first time it’s happened in a public place. “We,” in our case, means interracial families. “Them” is everyone else. I looked around that restaurant and saw a couple with a cute interracial baby, a European man gazing into the eyes of a beautiful woman who appeared to be from India, and other couples composed of mixed hues and shades.

My pale visage, my wife’s darker visage, and those of our two teen-age children, which fall somewhere in between, were just another part of the scene. We have become part of a quiet revolution that is no longer so quiet. Two decades ago when my wife and I married, the worried looks of some were apparent. “What about the children?” was a regular question we faced, forcing us to contemplate the specter of producing offspring who would never fit comfortably anywhere.

Now American society has produced a revolution with huge consequences about our age-old bugaboo of race relations. While the media are full of tales of bigotry and bickering, of Minister Farrakhan preaching race separatism, of radio talk-show hosts competing for the booby prize of who can be the most ethnically insensitive, of crosses burning and swastikas displayed on the lawns and houses of suburban neighborhoods, there is something else happening. Those of different races have proceeded to fall in love and produce what has become a new American tribe.

It’s become almost chic. Interracial celebrities such as Tiger Woods, Halle Berry, and Mariah Carey are lionized for their talents and, important in this superficial culture, physical beauty. The meaning of Tiger Woods’s ascendancy in golf has been well-documented, particularly his coining of the word “Cablinasian” to describe his Caucasian, African-American, Native American, and Asian heritage. But he’s not the only sign in popular culture. New York Yankees’ rookie-of-the-year shortstop Derek Jeter-who grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and is the son of a black man and white woman-is written about in glowing terms as a symbol that the 1996 world champs have shed their stuffy, nearly-all white image and have been truly embraced by all of their city’s ethnic mosaic.

Biracial organizations are seeking to have the status of mixed children formally included in the U.S. Census. Just two decades ago there were some 500,000 biracial children in the United States; today there are nearly four times as many. These children, of course, will grow up and raise their own children. And they will bring their own special perspective to the question of race.

Watching my own children is an amazing lesson in how the stereotypes can be demolished. They go where they want to go, largely unimpeded by fears that someone will make a racial slight against them. Academically and socially, they appear unintimidated.

It’s not that they are bereft of racial consciousness. My daughter is now considering colleges and she’s made it clear that she would not be comfortable in a nearly all-white environment after experiencing four years in a racially-mixed Manhattan high school. My son tells me that when he walks through a nearby all-white neighborhood with his Asian friend they sometimes are the objects of derision among some youthful know-nothings. Yet what is amazing about them is that my children are living embodiments that in the future the black/white divide is not going to mean what it does now. One reason, besides intermarriage, is the growing number of immigrants. For example, many of my daughter’s friends are of Filipino ancestry. She fits right in, often attending Filipino social events. It is just one ethnic group in the mix of life in Queens these days. What does this portend for race relations? How do Filipinos view America’s racial divide? And how do Dominicans, Pakistanis, Colombians, and other newcomers view our traditional black/white racial split?

I submit that in the future, race relations in the United States will be different: less of a black-and-white issue, with many more shades of gray. The combination of intermarriage and immigration from racially-mixed cultures is going to change America, even more so than it already has. Pat Buchanan and others have posed the specter that the culture may not be able to survive such inclusiveness, particularly regarding immigration. I would argue the opposite: Intermarriage and immigration are perhaps the best solution to this country’s historic racial divide, stirring quietly behind the scenes, breaking out only when a Tiger Woods or some other multi-racial celebrity garners the limelight.

If the president’s dialogue is to mean anything, it will have to include these dimensions of modern American life and avoid getting stuck in tired old perspectives which don’t have the meaning they once did. When “we” outnumber “them” on a quiet afternoon at a restaurant in Queens, something has changed. It’s about time we celebrated it, instead of simply feeding more social angst.

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 
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Peter Feuerherd is a freelance writer in New York.

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