Earlier this month was the 50th anniversary of the Loving v Virginia US Supreme Court decision that struck down laws against interracial marriage in the United States. While this landmark decision didn’t affect most couples in this country, it ended up being very important to me. I’m from the south and I’ve been in an interracial relationship for almost 20 years and married for 16 of them.
Both my wife and I were small children when the Supreme Court handed down this decision, so obviously we don’t remember it. Even if we were old enough to understand it, I doubt it would have registered for us. At that time we would have been far more interested in cartoons and sugary breakfast cereal to pay it any attention. Even at that time I don’t know how much it resonated in our country because marrying across racial lines was still extremely rare.
Nonetheless, this anniversary has been on my mind a lot the last few weeks. I’ve been thinking about the things I’ve learned from being a goofy white guy married to a beautiful African-American woman, things I might not have known otherwise. So here are some of the things I’ve discovered over the past 20 years:
EVERYONE is Prejudiced
This was the first lesson I learned when my wife and I started dating. I have prejudices, so does my wife, her family and friends, mine, waiters, coworkers, store clerks, people walking down the street. Now that isn’t as bad as it sounds. Basically, we all have stereotypes in our heads about people different from us. In the absence of knowledge that challenge those stereotypes, we accept them as truth. For the most part these misguided beliefs are fairly benign, but they are always there.
But the reason couples date is to learn about one another. As that occurs we see each other as the individuals we all are. Eventually we all realize that all while people may have characteristics of their race, people are all unique and cannot be classified neatly into distinct groups. In the end, the darkness of stereotypes cannot survive the illumination of knowledge.
There is going to be SOMEONE You Know Who Doesn’t Approve
Being older and born in a time when people expressed their racist beliefs openly, both my wife and I knew there were going to be family and friends who would not approve of our relationship. But over time most of these people eventually came around as they made the same discovery process we did as a couple. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. While my wife and I came to terms with our prejudices, some people won’t. That’s life. No one can control what other people think, and we don’t try.
In today’s tense racial divide, people are hesitant of even acknowledging topics that hint of race for fear of inciting a debate. I am convinced that is the wrong way to handle racial disputes. We need to deal with them openly. Gone are the shows and movies of the 60’s and 70’s (Flip Wilson Show, Shaft) where we could discuss or even joke about race without everyone getting offended. Without an outlet the pressure cooker around race relations in this country is only getting more heated and divisive.
Strangers are Going to Treat You a LITTLE Different
For the most part we have always been treated very cordially and with respect. When we were dating and out in public we were quick to recognize the subtle stares and glares of other people. But over the years it seems like that has subsided or we just quit paying attention.
One thing we have noticed is that people are less likely to make assumptions for an interracial couple. A lot of times when my wife and I are out for dinner, our wait staff will ask, “Is this one check or two?”. However other couples sitting around us won’t get asked that same question.
None of these things really bother us in any way. I think that in today’s hypersensitive racial environment, we need to recognize that we may all be equal, but we are not the same. Unique and different should be celebrated.
There ARE Going to be Differences
My wife and I are in the same age group, born and raised in the same state, educated to the same level and are from the same socio-economic class. But with all those similarities, there are many differences between us. These differences are typically cultural. Her family’s life experiences shaped things about her. When she was growing up, there were only certain places they could live, stores her parents could shop at, beaches they could frequent, churches they could attend. The only limits for my family were based on what we could afford. In my family, “The Man” indicated people in positions of power. For my wife’s family, it meant “white people”.
We have had fundamental differences of opinion on a variety of subjects during our relationship. We have argued about religion, politics, society, and family dynamics. I don’t think that is different from any other married couple. What is significant here is that even though we grew up pretty much the samr, we were not divided by class, but by society’s beliefs based on our skin color. The key to our longevity as a couple is that we understand that the underlying reasons for our perspectives are based on those divisions.
But in the end…
It’s the SAME as any Other Human Being
Over time we have discovered that we have far more things in common than not. The only difference between us and same-race couples is that it is not easy to relate to each other’s life experiences. But as in any relationship, open communication, trust and commitment are the foundations of a successful relationship, and those attributes are independent of race.
An interracial relationship is probably no different in other parts of the world than dating someone from another country. The only thing that makes it unusual in the US are the very beliefs and policies that the Loving v Virginia decision struck down. Jim Crow laws and segregation were accepted laws in parts of this country in the not-so-distant past. I don’t know if the Lovings knew what they were doing by challenging the law against interracial marriage. But in the end the trials and tribulations they suffered helped make my family possible.
So Mildred and Richard Loving: thank you.