I had been in Washington one day, walking down Maryland Avenue Northeast with John, when a carfull of young black men drove slowly toward us. Suddenly the men made sucking sounds and hand gestures and yelled out versions of "Hey, bitch, what you doing with that white boy?" and "Hey, bitch, you better leave him alone."
Farther down a street a teen-aged black boy bicycled past us, a disbelieving look on his face. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself," he finally said.
To complete the day, that evening a well-dressed black man in Georgetown waited until John took my hand as we left the restaurant before deciding to yell out a phone number to me, adding, "You can call me whenever you need me, baby."
These are some of the humiliations a black woman faces in Washington if her -- shall we say "special friend"? -- is white.That's only part of the anguished faced by the increasing number of interracial couples, particularly black-white couples, and most of all couples where the woman is the black partner. The world seems determined to make you feel threatened, angry, defensive, ashamed, lonely, even freakish.
John and I have been struggling with this for about a year and a half now, starting shortly after we met in the summer of 1979 at a bank where we both worked in New York City. We talk about it often. People make you talk about it. They force you to think twice about what neighborhoods to walk in or avoid, what cities to visit, what social gatherings to attend.
But chiefly they force you to think about whether you should keep seeing each other, even if just to prove a point, or whether to make life simpler again by going back to a neatly segregated life, back to "your own kind." Hardly anybody -- family, friends, strangers -- makes that decision very easy for you.
the family dificulties have been the most painful part of the decision we've made. That struggle between liberal upbringing and racial realities that made "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" so touching is the kind of thing that cause misery for interracial couples in the real world. Out here, scarcely anybody is rooting for you. The two families seem to hope you are just going through a "phase," or that you can be intimidated, ostracized or manipulated into giving each other up.
I met John's parents in August, at their home in an affluent Connecticut suburb. They served us tea, we chatted about trivialities, shook hands all around, smiled. Later in the week, John received letters from both Mom and Dad; while they liked me ("Just a lovely girl, it's nothing personal," they said), they couldn't take the idea of my being black. "I couldn't help but have this sinking feeling," wrote Mom. "If I asked myself whether I could accept a black person into the family," wrote Dad, "I'm not sure the answer would be yes . . ."
John was crushed when he received the letters -- embarrassed, ashamed, disillusioned, just plain hurt.
On the other hand, my parents like John for his gentleness and warmth, espcially after he downed two plates of my mother's special home cooking at a family dinner at Christmas. Having a good appetite apparently is a sure sign of one's capacity for love in a blue-collar family from Brooklyn like mine. But that doesn't mean my family trusts him. My mother never talks about John unless I bring up the subject, and then she timidly asks, "Does he still like you?" She seems astonished that he hasn't rejected me by now.
Of course my parents are grossly offended -- and worried -- by his parents' reaction to me. "You know," sniffed my mother, "some people see a white person and see a pig." The worst reaction came from my brother, who ranted about honkies for two days when he saw John's picture last summer. The mildest thing he said was, "If you walk down the aisle with a white boy you can forget you have a brother." Since then he has calmed down a bit, but even a show of civility took him a year.
Compared with the parents of some other racially mixed couples, however, our families were eminently reasonable. A white male friend of ours took his black girlfriend home to meet the family, and although they had been together for three years, his grandmother actually thought an offer of $25 would make him stop seeing her. She even upped the bargain to $100.
A white women friend of mine named Lena took her black fiance to meet her family before they were married a year ago, and her father announced that he'd never accept the marriage. He considered his future son-in-law genetically inferior, he said, and told him to his face that their children would "look like gorillas." Yes, that is what he said.
Lena's parents even took their campaign to the church, attempting to persuade Lena's pastor to refuse to perform the ceremony. The pastor would not listen. But members of the parents' church did write anonymous hate letters to the couple, one of which was signed, "The Voice of Your Conscience."
When families don't support you, you turn to friends, but there again John and I have often been disappointed. One of the more poignant experiences for both us, I think, came last fall when John attended the first reunion of his former Wharton School classmates with my picture in tow. "Some said things like, 'John, that's embarrassing, why are you doing this?' People looked at me as if I was crazy," he told me later, shaken by the experience.
"I had dated Oriental women, but that was perfectly acceptable. This was looked upon as being one step too far," he said. Had our relationship been purely sexual, his friends had said, they certainly would not have minded; what offended them was the seriousness of it, that it was genuine, that there was a committment. It was very much the picture I have of 14th Street, where black men chat amicably with black prostitutes moments after they climb out of a customer's car. The relationship is okay as long as the men are white, the money is good and the relationship purely sexual.
What hurt John most at his reunion, however, were the expressions of amusement from his supposedly sophisticated Ivy League friends. "People said, 'Oh, John, you've got to let me tell so-and-so. He'll get such a kick out of it." And afterwards they warned him about consequences to his banking career, something which I have to admit has given me a few moments to worry in my own college and professional life as well.
To be honest, I have been reluctant at times to let people know about John except in the vaguest way. I remember when I was still at Harvard, some of the "brothers" in the dorm, chiefly men from Africa, had gotten a little committee together when they noticed my frequent visitor; they were going to "confront" me with what I was doing. My roommates persuaded the vigilantes against that, but one brother did keep me from getting out of a dorm elevator for 15 minutes, telling me he was "going to teach me a lesson." I have feared since then that my politics, my commitments, my career and ultimately my whole personality might be similarly affected.
Unfortunately, I have been proved at least partly right. There are people who will see John with me and never look at me the same way again.This past summer I mentioned John to a co-worker at The Washington Post, a man for whom racial tolerance evidently is not the highest of virtues. I was worried that he would condemn me, but to show his open-mindedness he said, "Yeah, I think I understand now; I know the sisters get lonely sometimes." Another friend on the staff said that while he liked John and me, he couldn't help but "wince" at the thought of us together.
Perhaps most galling of all, though, have been the strangers. Like the black guard at the Smithsonian who looked down at our locked fingers and pretended not to hear my request for directions. Or the black Metro employee whose lips changed from a smile to a disgusted curl when he saw John reach for my hand. The stares never stop, nor the yelling on the street in predominately black neighborhoods. In one cute display of reverse discrimination, a black waiter tried to refuse us service in a black-run restaurant, during one of John's weekly visits from his home in Manhattan.
Of course, whites bother us, too; a drunken white man once shrilly demanded to know what John was doing with that "nigger," meaning me. I have also noticed passing white males leering at me, evidently assuming that I must be a prostitute if my proper, preppy friend would have anthing to do with me.
John and I naturally get angry. We alternate between fantasies about punching people out and grabbing them by the lapels so we can explain that we're really not so bad. We don't do either, though, because we know that we have a choice among getting killed, maimed or arrested -- and that we wouldn't change anyone's mind anyway. We protect ourselves be socializing often with people like us, other interracial couples in Washington and New York.
Our crowd even has its own little jokes and code words. I lived in Mather House at Harvard, as did another interracial couple, two graduate students who were about to marry. Two of my four other roommates also had dated interracially. One of the more artistic roommates made up a T-shirt logo for all of us: salt and pepper shakers on a white or black background, emblazoned with MMS -- for Mather Miscegenation Society.
We still call ourselves club members, and when we see other interracial couples on the street, we pretend to hand out newsletters and membership cards. cJohn sometimes waves at them. "Hello, club members!" he says, "Having any meetings this week?" When white people stare a little too hard, he sometimes starts humming a loud, "We Shall Overcome." We tell each other that we'll raise pandas instead of children.
But the jokes are only a palliative, for we still have to make real, and not very funny, decisions. We make a joke of our "tolerance map" of racially hospitable places, but we seek them out in earnest. We have found, for example, that mixed neighborhoods like Adams-Morgan in Washington are good, because the amalgam of blacks, whites and Hispanics tends to conceal us. Cities with gay communities, like San Francisco, tend to be more relaxed. We hear that Seattle and other cities with small, stable, middle-income black populations also are good. But we've found that New York is the best, because in New York you could walk down the street with a fishnet on and no one would notice.
One might think that John and I are extreme people, to behave and think this way, but we are not. Neither of us has made a career out of interracial dating; neither of us has a particular yen for other races besides our own. I think we are typical people who have been brought together by proximity, affection, chemistry and like minds. Indeed, there are more and more people like us.
The incidence of black-white marriage has surged since 1960, when only 50,000 such unions were recorded in this country. The earlier low incidence should not be surprising, since black-white marriages were specifically proscribed in 18 states until the Supreme Court struck down such laws in 1967. But by 1977, according to the Census Bureau, black-white marriages had climbed to almost 125,000.
Behind those lifeless statistics are many other torn people, catching varying degrees of hell from both whites and blacks.
As a black, it has always been impossible for me to comprehend white reaction to blacks, past and present. The revulsion, the unspeakable inhumanity, the astounding hypocrisy are beyond the capacity of my mind to understand. Was it Thurgood Marshall who said that the door to equality has been shut, but the door to the bedroom has always been open? If I cannot understand it, though, I do know that the racial hatred and fear are still there, regardless of the lofty rhetoric in this country.
Blacks I do understand better. Many blacks who still cringe from a history of slavery and, in some cities today, from years of semi-colonial rule, view the out-marrying black as a traitor who consorts with the enemy. The legacy of the South, the traditional violence of black-white relationships, has made even the suggestion of interracial relations a dangerous notion, conjuring up images of innocent, disemboweled black boys swinging from trees for the protection of pure white womanhood.
Only last summer and fall, these notions were reinforced by shooting deaths of black men who were ambushed while jogging or shopping with their white spouses or girlfriends.
"The white man, he won't let us near their woman, they kill you for that," said a security guard at an apartment building I used to live in, explaining why he disliked John so much. "So they should stay away from our women. They used to use our women like dogs, and we couldn't do nothing about it. I can't see how you could go near one of them."
Among black women, the sight of black men and white women can whip up equal feelings or rage and rejection. In part, this is because there are simply not as many available black men for black women as there are white men for white women. That problem is only compounded by the higher incidence of black men dating white women. At my college black women used to say, not even half jokingly, that if you put any dozen black men in a room, you would find that six are "steppers" -- or "play in the snow," or are "color struck," or have "white fever," or any other descriptions of what they considered the malady of seeking out white women. More than a few black men, in fact, have used this factor to pressure black women into sexual submissiveness. One man in my college class used to repeat a jingle he invented about this: From September to January, the sisters say "No," So from February to June, We play in the snow.
There is no doubt that black men have been doing more of the intermarrying than black women. In 1960, the first year such information was tabulated, the marriages were split almost evenly between black husband-white wife combinations (25,000) and black wife-white husband couples (26,000). In 1970, 41,000 black men married whites, while only 24,000 black women married whites. By 1977, 75 percent of those marriages took place between a black husband and white wife.
One of my Harvard professors considered this trend just more evidence of the special oppression women suffer, especially during periods of intense racial and ethnic revival. While black men were screaming about black militance from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, more of them were dating or marrying whites. Black women, meanwhile, were sticking more to the tribe -- and when some of them did date whites, they faced the kind of anger from black men that I encountered at college.
Nor is there any doubt that black women encounter more pressures against dating or marrying nonblacks. As the Harvard Encyclopdia of American Ethnic Groups notes, marriages by black women to white men are "increasingly subject to condemnation by the black community." That, in part, accounts for the higher divorce rates in such marriages than in unions betwen black men and white women, though any interracial marriage surely suffers from community opposition.
Specifically, between 1960 and 1970 nearly 90 percent of homogenously white marriages survived, 78 percent of homogenously black marriages, 63.4 percent of marriages between a black husband and white wife -- and only 46.7 percent of marriages between a black wife and white husband.
John and I could have told the social scientists who gather those numbers a thing or two. We know what tribal loyalty means. We know what it is to belong, and we know what it is to be rejected. We know some of the awful consequences of tolerance, the furies unleashed by those of us who practice what others preach.
We do not want to be seen as a social phenomenon, nor as a solution to the "race problem." Like most members of the old (in his case) or new (in my case) middle class, we simply want to be left alone to follow our individual decisions, with all the usual pains and conflicts.
So John and I have made our decisions. Wisely or not, I have resolved not to wait around for the black prince to come, and John has resolved not to let conformism rule him. We are determined not to be forced either apart or together for the sake of others. We intend to be individuals, to be defined by ourselves, not be the rest of the world. You may try to keep making us outcasts if you like. But that, we think, will be more a comment on you than on us.