Love in Black & White : The Last Racial Taboo

<i> Sylvester Monroe is a writer for Time magazine's Los Angeles bureau. </i>

LAST JULY, AFTER Liz Farnsworth became engaged to Richard Cooper, 40, a University of San Francisco admissions officer, she called her mother in Minnesota. At 35, Liz hadn’t worried about getting her parents’ approval in years, but as she dialed their number, she became more and more nervous. And with good reason. Her mother’s reaction to the news was something short of jubilation. “She was pretty sad,” Liz recalls. Her mother told her, point blank, that she felt Liz was making a mistake. Liz’s father wouldn’t even come to the phone.

It took the Farnsworths several days to come to terms with the fact that their white daughter was going to marry a black man. But after a few parent-daughter phone conversations in which the topic of weddings was studiously avoided, Liz’s mother finally popped the question: What kind of bridal gown was Liz planning to wear?

To Liz, it was a sign of acceptance, if not approval. “I think she finally realized that it was really going to happen.” Liz could continue planning her January wedding, with one less weight on her heart. But she still has a recurring nightmare that the wedding pictures will show her walking down an aisle that is also a line of demarcation: blacks on one side, whites on the other.

No one said breaking a social taboo would be easy. Despite the combined efforts of the civil-rights movement and the sexual revolution, intimate relationships between blacks and whites are still considered unacceptable--or shocking or disgusting--by many people in this country. In many ways, Liz and Richard’s trials are just beginning. Fortunately for them, the road they have chosen is no longer unmarked or untrod. In the short time since 1967, when “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” hit American movie screens and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws barring interracial marriage (then on the books in 16 states), interracial relationships have increased dramatically in number and visibility. In many major American cities, especially on the West Coast, it is not unusual to see almost as many interracial couples as intra-racial ones.


According to the Census Bureau, the cumulative number of interracial marriages has tripled from 310,000 in 1970 to 956,000 in 1988, accounting for almost 2% of marriages in the United States. While Japanese, Chinese and Native Americans in the United States marry outside their race at rates of between 40% and 70%, nationally only 3.6% of black males marry non-blacks. For black women, the rate is still lower, just 1.2%. And the interracial marriage rate for whites is less than 1%. These statistics reflect a country where social barriers and segregation affect blacks more than any other ethnic or racial group. While intercultural relationships of all kinds can bring about the disapproval of family, friends and society, black-white couples bear the brunt of this racism.

Still, during the past two decades, black-white marriages have more than tripled from 65,000 in 1970 to 218,000 in 1988. They are most common in Western states, where 16% of all black men and 4% of black women are married to non-blacks, according to a recent study by the UCLA psychology department and Afro-American Studies Center. Black interracial marriages accounted for 20% to 25% of all interracial marriages in the region.

Numbers and percentages aside, black-white relationships are visibly increasing, even in the commercial mass media, hardly the vanguard of social change. This season, “True Colors,” a comedy about a black man who marries a white woman and forms an interracial “Brady Bunch,” debuted on Fox Television. In the second episode of “True Colors,” the couple were shown together in bed. “That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago,” says a Fox producer. On Lifetime cable’s “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” the title character’s boyfriend, and the father of her unborn child, is black. And next year, Michelle Pfeiffer will star in “Love Field,” a movie in which she portrays a woman who falls in love with a black man. Hollywood has come a long way since the late 1960s, when Petula Clark created a furor by touching Harry Belafonte’s arm during a television special.

Unfortunately, the new images of harmony radiating from our TV sets are not always reflected in the real world, where societal approval of biracial marriages has not spread nearly as fast as the practice. “It’s clear that interracial, intercultural marriages are on the rise,” says Nancy Brown, a co-founder and president of Multiracial Americans of Southern California, a 3-year old, Los Angeles-based family support group. “It is fairly common, and it’s here to stay. It’s not a fad or a trend.” At the same time, she says, “Black-white relationships still remain the ultimate taboo.”


At a time when racism seems to be gaining strength rather than waning, many people are profoundly uncomfortable, even outraged, when blacks and whites unite in the ultimate forms of human intimacy--marriage, sex and having a family. And the expression of their outrage often takes chillingly familiar forms. The set of “True Colors” is rumored to be under guard because of racist death threats. Last October, all hell broke loose when Cable Guide, the monthly cable listings magazine that is distributed to about 12 million subscribers nationwide, put on its cover a photo of a shirtless Willie Gault, the black Los Angeles Raiders wide receiver, clutching a football in one arm and the leg of white actress Jamie Lee Curtis in the other.

Editor Jay Gissen was flooded with more than 1,000 hate letters and thousands more phone calls from subscribers, most of them white, furious at seeing the black man and the white woman in a sexually suggestive pose. “I didn’t do this cover to be provocative,” Gissen says. “I was completely taken by surprise at the number of calls and letters, the intensity of the anger and the meanness of them.” One caller said: “You’re going to make my daughter think it’s OK to date a black man.” Another, the mayor of a small town in Massachusetts, threatened to cancel his subscription.

“Why should physical contact between a black person and a white person be so astounding?” asks Gissen. “If Willie had more clothes on and they were giving each other a high five, we wouldn’t have gotten so many letters.”

THERE IS NO DOUBT that, even as we head into the 21st Century, intimate contact between black men and white women is considered especially threatening. Such irrational fear reflects remnants of a peculiarly American historical stereotype of black men as oversexed, physically threatening beasts bent on ravishing white girls and women. At one time, in the South, a black man or boy could be lynched for just looking at a white woman. Many were. In Mississippi in 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy, was shot and dumped in a river for whistling at a white woman. Today, for many whites, every black man, from Willie Gault to Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, is a potential Willie Horton, the Massachusetts convict who raped a white woman while on a prison furlough and became the symbol of liberal criminal-coddling during the 1988 presidential campaign. Social myth tells us a black woman who dates a white man is moving into a better, safer world, but a white woman who dates a black man is in all probability being sexually brutalized.


Pascal Giacomini, a 37-year-old French artist and sculptor, is aware of that distinction in his marriage to Haitian Carine Fabius, 34, who runs a Haitian-art gallery from their West Hollywood home.

“If a white man gets a black lady, he’s considered lucky because it’s exotic,” says Giacomini, who has been married to Fabius for two years. “It’s socially much more acceptable if the lady is black. People say, ‘Wow, what a beautiful girl! She’s black, but so what.’ But the other way, the reaction is, ‘What is she doing with that black guy?’ Nobody feels threatened by the woman. (The perception is that) it’s the black man who is going to rape the white girl, not the black woman who is going to rape the white man.”

“During my upbringing in Atlanta, it was not uncommon for a white man to talk about his ‘Sweet Georgia Brown,’ ” says Alex J. Norman, 59, a black associate professor in the Graduate School of Social Welfare at UCLA, who’s been married to Margie Norman, 54, a white UCLA dental school administrator and free-lance writer, for 15 years. “When I was in graduate school at Atlanta University, (black) girls from AU were dating (white) guys from Georgia Tech, but the reverse was not allowed.”

While Alex was dating Margie, for example, a white man told her that she had ruined her chances of ever marrying a white man because she was somehow tainted. It was the not the first time Alex had heard such things. The stereotype of black men as sexually insatiable and over-endowed is well known. During a military tour of duty in Japan in the early 1950s, Alex recalls, white American GIs told Japanese women that black men had tails. “That was the way white men were ‘protecting’ Japanese women from us,” he says. “It’s insecurity and fear of competition. It’s a protective device, because black men are no more sexually powerful than anybody else, although there are some black men who like to perpetuate the myth.”


DESPITE THE LABYRINTH of lies and misconceptions that surround relationships between black men and white women, they are four times more common than those between white men and black women. And this difference has created an ever-widening rift between black men and black women. Markita Cooper, for example, looks forward to her brother Richard’s wedding to Liz Farnsworth, but she finds herself torn by her loyalty to him, her genuine fondness for his fiancee and her own acute feelings of rejection and cultural alienation. “Generally, I came to terms with interracial dating a long time ago,” says the 33-year-old San Francisco attorney, who, in fact, dated whites when she was in law school. “I decided people should be able to love or like whomever they want to. But I’ve always felt that for black men and white women, there was something more political to it, like there was some status to having European-looking women.

“The unsettling part is that in my personal, one-to-one relationship with Liz, I like her,” Cooper says. “There’s nothing about her I dislike. But there’s part of me that wishes my brother could have found someone who looks like me.”

Among minorities, black women are the most conservative in their attitudes toward interracial marriage, according to a 1989 UCLA survey of marital attitudes among Southern Californians. M. Belinda Tucker, acting director of the Afro-American Studies Center, and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, vice chancellor and dean of graduate programs, found that when blacks, Asians, Latinos and whites were asked, “Would you marry someone of another race?” black women and white women were the most likely to answer no. Black men, however, were the most likely to answer yes. “The males in general have far more positive attitudes and are far more accepting of interracial marriage,” says Mitchell-Kernan, whose white husband of 22 years, Keith Kernan, is also a professor at UCLA.

The reasons are complex. The researchers found that, in general, women are more likely to select a mate on the basis of ambition and earning standards; men are more likely to choose a mate for her appearance, and black women are found wanting because they do not meet the currently universally valued European standard of beauty. As the study puts it, “Earnings potential as a standard of mate selection is simply more colorblind than is physical attractiveness, which, in American society, continues to display a Eurocentric bias.” The study concluded that marital options have diminished for black women: “If current patterns prevail, 30% of the black women born in the 1950s will not marry.”


Black women, traditionally the primary caretakers of the family, often see interracial marriage as a threat to the race, according to black psychologist Gwen Goldsby Grant. They want to marry black men and create economically stable black families, Grant says. Some black women who date white men do so, they say, because they can’t find black men who are economically stable and /or willing to marry.

Black-white relationships are a hot and frequent topic among the 850,000 readers of Essence, a black women’s magazine. During the past five years, four of the 10 articles that received the greatest reader response concerned biracial relationships. “It’s the kind of controversial issue on which everyone has an opinion they feel strongly about, and everyone wants their opinion heard,” says editor Stephanie Stokes Oliver.

A letter in the magazine’s “Between Us” health column last month addressed the common complaint that successful black men are turning their backs on black women. “I am one of many pretty, educated and lonely black women,” the woman wrote. “My last three mates have left me for white women. After all our struggles, why do black men still prefer white women?”

Grant, who writes the column, responded: “African-American men who reject black women and exclusively prefer white women have been indoctrinated to believe that the white woman is the epitome of beauty and sensuality. Black men date white women for many other reasons,” Grant continued, “some of which are rooted in negative stereotypes regarding sisters. Some brothers say they date white women because black women are too domineering, sexually inhibited, materialistic and lacking in sophistication.”


Cheryl Lindsey, a 28-year-old Los Angeles marketing representative for a car-rental firm, agrees. “It’s hard not to generalize, but in conversations with black men, they think that black women are hard on them,” she says. “It’s true I expect a lot, but I give a lot in return. The black woman is now raised to be more independent and to take the initiative, and that’s intimidating. So, white women are a little easier.”

Practically every black man in America has felt the razor-edged sting of an old putdown by black women that goes: “The first thing a black man does when he gets a little success is buy a Cadillac. The second thing he does is get a white woman to put in it.” The stereotype endures: On their latest album, “Fear of a Black Planet,” Public Enemy sings pointedly about a black “Mr. Successful” who “only wants blue eyes and blond hair.” “There’s a big perception that (for black men) the American Dream is not just a house and a car but also ‘the Man’s’ woman,” Oliver says.

Feeling the pinch of a well-publicized national shortage of educated, financially stable single black men, single black women more than ever disapprove of black men who date or marry white women. “Black women are saying, ‘I am college educated. I’ve got a nice job. I want a man to meet me at the pass so we can ride off in the sunset. And he’s riding off with a blonde,’ ” Grant says. “It’s a personal affront even if you don’t know the guy.”

“I have single black women friends who spend a lot of time on their own,” says Markita Cooper, “and we are all smart, attractive and bright. Even though, intellectually, I don’t have a problem with (black men dating whites), I wince when I see it because I don’t see any black men, or any white men for that matter, knocking down my door,” she says. “It seems that everybody wants somebody other than us. It sounds so stupid, but yes, on some level I feel rejected.”


WITH SUCH RESENTMENT and hostility emanating from so many sources, it’s not surprising that a common denominator of interracial relationships is secrecy. Sharon Richardson, 35, and her husband, Richard, 29, met at a Pomona aluminum treating plant where he now is the plant manager and she was a clerk. She grew close to his parents and sister, but fearful of her middle-class, conservative family’s reaction, they kept their relationship a secret, putting off marriage plans and living together, under the guise of just being friends, for four years. They finally made it official last year, in a wedding attended only by their two best friends, another biracial couple. Once the Richardsons worked up the courage to tell Sharon’s parents, it was more than a year before the couples began visiting each other’s homes. Having a black son-in-law “was a thing they never thought would happen to them, and they didn’t know how to deal with it,” Sharon says.

Her younger sister, however, still hasn’t accepted it. “It probably has a lot to do with her daughters,” Sharon says. “She doesn’t want them thinking that’s (marrying outside one’s race) the right thing to do.”

The Richardsons say that early in their relationship, its clandestine nature brought them closer, uniting them in a “you-and-me-against-the-world” attitude. But many interracial couples say that societal censure, whether condemnation from family or disapproving stares from strangers, is a constant strain.

“Most of the problems tend to come from outside (the relationships),” says Nancy Brown of Multiracial Americans of Southern California, whose husband, Roosevelt, is black. “They (the relationships) are filled with other people’s perceptions that these types of relationships are negative and cannot succeed. For black people, it can be seen as a betrayal of one’s people--if a person of color is dating or marrying someone who is Caucasian, they’re doing it to raise their status. For whites, the stereotype is that ‘she (or he) wasn’t good enough for anyone in his or her race.’ To even consider marrying someone of another race makes people wonder what’s wrong with you. It’s just seen as a step down.”


Liz Farnsworth and Richard Cooper had to deal with these issues when they told her parents of their engagement. Richard’s own middle-class upbringing, posh prep school education and Harvard College degree helped to ease much of the parental anxiety, which was as much about class as race.

Liz’s mother fretted over her daughter’s leaving the secure (and white) surroundings of suburban Minneapolis, where she has spent most of her life, and the possibility of her living in a black neighborhood in San Francisco. “He’s a very nice man,” Mary Jean Farnsworth says of her future son-in-law. “But I would prefer that he were white, as I’m sure Richard’s parents would prefer that Liz were black.”

Mary Jean’s perception of blacks comes from largely negative media reports of increasing racial tensions in major cities around the country. “I think it’s worse now than ever,” she says, “and the reason why is some of these characters are in gangs. I suppose there are a lot of white ones, too, but I am just afraid of gangs.”

“Naturally, at first you have to get used to the idea,” Liz’s father, Gaylord, says. “I don’t think society is any more accepting of interracial marriage, and I’m not sure whose fault it is, the whites or the blacks. I guess we just don’t trust each other, and isn’t it a shame after all these years?”


Liz understands her parents’ reservations. “Their main concern is: ‘Are we going to have the strength to put up with all the stuff we are going to have to put up with?’ ” she says. It was also a primary consideration at Richard’s parents’ home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where Liz was warmly embraced and the marriage heartily blessed. “My feelings are very mixed,” says Richard’s mother, Carolyn, a recently retired school administrator. “I am very fond of Liz. I think she has the ability to overcome any of the encounters she may have. But my real concern is if she will be able to take as many as may occur.” During a 22-year marriage she describes as “reasonably comfortable and happy,” Claudia Mitchell-Kernan and her husband, Keith, have heard and experienced most of the encounters Richard’s mother fears. Claudia still recalls walking with Keith on a street in Berkeley in the early 1960s and being stopped by a black Muslim, who said: “Sister, do you know who you are with?”

A few years later, on their way from Berkeley to Harvard in 1969, the couple was detained in a Chicago department store when security guards thought they were behaving suspiciously. The Kernans filed a lawsuit charging harassment and false arrest and eventually reached a settlement with the store. Cambridge wasn’t any better. Within a week of arriving to take up their new teaching positions at Harvard, the manager of a women’s clothing store in Harvard Square refused to allow Claudia to open a charge account after it had been offered by a store clerk. Humiliated, Claudia ran out of the store in tears. Keith rushed in and got into a shouting match with the manager, who called the police.

Yet the most disturbing incidents, Claudia and Keith agree, have involved negative attitudes from young people, especially black students. Recently, a group of black students at UCLA printed snide remarks about Claudia’s choice of mate in the black student newspaper, NOMMO. While attacking the integrity of another black faculty member, the student barb concluded: “And we could have some things to say about Claudia Mitchell-Kernan. But who knows if she can take a joke, since she is married to one?” More angry than hurt, especially by the fact that the students signed the comments with the pseudonyms “Sue Me” and “Lily White,” she decided simply to ignore it.

Sometimes the heckling is impossible to ignore. Shira Maguen, a 17-year-old white senior at Westlake School in West Hollywood, was walking down the street in Venice with a black friend, and a white man walked up to him and said, “Why don’t you stick to someone your own color?” Maguen, who has dated blacks and Asians, was not entirely surprised. “I was sort of expecting it,” she says, “because it’s like from the time you’re young, you’re taught that you’re going to marry someone like you. I would not have a problem marrying somebody of a different race, if the person were right. But the adults in my life wouldn’t be as willing to accept that.”


Many disapproving parents and friends of interracial couples claim that they only have the pairs’ best interests at heart. “It’s not that I’m prejudiced,” they say. “It’s just that marriage is hard enough without borrowing trouble.” That is certainly true, and no one knows it better than the couple. No one enters an interracial relationship thinking that it will make life easier.

“My feeling has always been that interracial marriage is not for everybody,” says author Shelby Steele, who is married to a white woman. Steele, an English professor at San Jose State University, is the author of “The Content of Our Character,” a best-selling collection of essays on race in which he argues that many blacks use race as an excuse for underachievement. “It’s nothing that anybody can reasonably advocate or denounce. But you have to have a sense of yourself that you are secure in. I’ve always had an attitude that this is one thing I would let go through other people’s nervous systems, not mine. But if you are the kind of person forever attentive to what other people think about you, it’s going to be more difficult.”

“The looks I get are absolutely incredible,” says Alex Norman. “It used to be the looks I would get from white men. Now it’s looks of hostility from black women.”

Sometimes it’s more than looks. Recently, when Norman was asked to speak before a Los Angeles group of black women at a Martin Luther King Day breakfast next January, one member of the group declared: “Oh, no, not Alex Norman. He is married to a white woman.” The objection was overruled.


The racism is not always so overt. Interracial couples can sometimes feel invisible. “We walk into a restaurant, and the hostess looks at me and says, ‘Table for one?’ ” says a white Pasadena woman who lives with a black man. “As if she couldn’t conceive of us being a couple.”

Reactions from well-meaning liberals can be just as annoying. “My sister thinks it’s the coolest thing that I’m dating a black man,” she adds. “She thinks we’re special, and seems to think that each and every thing that happens to us can only be explained in racial terms, which is pretty insulting.”

Despite all the obstacles and day-to-day pressures, according to the UCLA study, interracial marriages, many of which are second marriages, have a high success rate, a testimony perhaps to the amount of thought and commitment it takes to form and maintain such a relationship. Perhaps the most difficult thing interracial couples face is the fact that people often see them as something other than people who love each other. No one wants to be a walking, talking political statement, no matter what the response. Interracial couples, like any other couples, simply make certain choices because they love each other.

“I always used to think white guys were the most boring men on the planet, and here I am married to one,” Carine Fabius says. “I don’t know how it happened. I met this guy and he treated me nice, and I didn’t have to support him. He was kind and loving and supportive, and the color of his skin didn’t matter. To have a whole race of people put pressure on men and women who marry outside their race is really screwed. It’s not selling out. It’s not anything. It’s just following your heart.”


WHEN Richard Walden and Rosanne Katon-Walden were married seven years ago, Richard, who is Jewish, wanted to move into a nice black neighborhood, where he thought their future children would fare better. But when they went with Richard’s parents to look at a house in Baldwin Hills, three black men came out of a neighboring home, folded their arms across their chests and stood watching them with unwelcoming glares that said to Rosanne, “Don’t move this white guy on our block.”

Richard, a 43-year-old civil-rights lawyer with extensive credentials in the black community, wanted to stay anyway. He’s not a stranger to racism: As a child, a cross was burned on the lawn of his family’s Culver City home. “They’ll get used to me,” he said. Rosanne, 36, thought not. “I said I didn’t need this tension.” They moved to a multiracial mid-Wilshire neighborhood instead.

For many interracial couples, choosing where to live is the most important decision they can make. Most tend to gravitate toward integrated middle-class neighborhoods, where, presumably, educated, liberal neighbors will be more accepting. Many will even relocate to cities known for their live-and-let-live attitudes, even if it means moving across the country. According to Mitchell-Kernan and Tucker’s UCLA study, in cities with high interracial marriage rates, such as Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis and Los Angeles, most interracial couples are from elsewhere, usually the Northeast and North Central regions of the country.

“Movement away from home base removes some of the pressure,” says Mitchell-Kernan. “When you’re at your home base, the strength of social control is highest, the (influence of) people you grew up with, your family. There’s a whole range of negative feedback you can get, whereas if you’re living in California and call your mother in Chicago and say, ‘I’m getting married,’ all she can do is fly out and smile.”


Claudia and Keith’s own experience fits the pattern of her research. She is from Gary, Ind. Her husband is from a small town in northern Wisconsin. They met and married while they were graduate students at Berkeley. Except for their brief stint teaching at Harvard University, the couple has found California academia a comfortable haven during their 26 years together. “My preference is that I live on the West Coast, either around Seattle or between San Francisco and San Diego,” Keith says.

Dwayne and Kirene Walker have found that location makes a world of difference. The Walkers, who were married in Denver in 1986 after meeting in Orange County, moved to Seattle almost two years ago when Dwayne, a product manager for a software company, took a job there. Dwayne, 29, is black and grew up in Compton. Kirene, 31, is Latino and was raised in Kansas before moving to Orange County. Though they never had any serious race-related problems in Southern California, both say they were always aware of people’s stares and glares. In Seattle, they never give it much thought, especially since interracial couples seem more the rule than the exception. In at least two nightclubs they frequent, they say, 95% of the black men are usually with non-black women. “I feel very comfortable in Seattle,” Kirene says.

There is no doubt that money plays a key role in interracial relationships. It costs money to have options, to relocate, to pick and choose among neighborhoods. “Money can’t buy love,” Kirene says, “but in an interracial relationship, it helps. If we were poor, we would have more of a problem.” It is not surprising that, statistically, the lower a person’s socio-economic status, the less likely a person is to marry outside of his race.

Recently, a white student at UCLA came to Keith Kernan for counsel about his relationship with another student, who is black. The student said they were having trouble with their parents, and seeing that Keith and Claudia appeared happy together, he asked Keith’s advice.


“My advice was to be prepared for some hassles and some constraints on your life style,” the professor told the student. “My feeling is if you love somebody, to hell with what other people think,” he says. “But you have to have the resources to be able to avoid the hassles.”

For couples like Keith and Claudia, avoiding hassles means being able to choose where they live and working in liberal university settings. But even in a friendly environment, Dwayne Walker says, he is vaguely uneasy about society’s discomfort with his marriage. “I don’t talk about it,” he says, “and no one has to say anything. I just feel it. And deep down, it bothers me a lot. Just because a black man has fallen in love and married someone outside the race doesn’t mean he has abandoned the race. You don’t stop being black just because you marry someone who isn’t.”

In this society, no one is taught to be prepared for a life in an interracial relationship, so no matter how ideal the situation, there are still moments of insecurity, confusion and isolation. One of Liz Farnsworth’s first race-based “encounters” came at a surprise retirement party for Richard’s mother at his parents’ home. When Liz walked into the party, she was completely unprepared for the sharp pangs of isolation she instantly felt by being the only white person present. “That was very overwhelming to me,” she recalls. “I’ve never been in a room where I was the only white person. I hadn’t even thought about it. No one looked like me, not even my daughter (an Indian baby she adopted last year), and that was very shocking. I just wanted to back away out of the door.”

Her fiancee is accustomed to such situations, having attended predominantly white schools. But he expects to have to cope with another kind of isolation. “I’m going to give up a certain amount of credibility in the black community, and that’s going to hurt,” Richard says. “I’m not going to be judged for who I am, but for who I am with. But if you are in love with someone, then you have to do it. The price is in the eyes of the beholder. If you want something bad enough, no matter what it is, and in this case the prize is love, then you’ll pay the price for it.”


WHAT ABOUT the children?” is always one of the first questions concerned relatives and friends ask. To ensure that people would recognize their daughter as a person of color, Rosanne and Richard named her Jamaica Kate, after Rosanne’s native country and Richard’s mother. Still, when Jamaica Walden was born 6 years ago, her skin was very light, so light that no one would believe she was Rosanne’s child. “That isn’t your baby, is it?” asked a woman at the hospital. There was even some hesitancy at home. “My husband’s family was a little more ready to have a black baby than my family was to have a white baby,” she recalls.

Though Jamaica has grown to look more like her mother, the family has been accosted on the street about her racial makeup. When Jamaica was almost 4, a man in a grocery store on the Upper West Side of New York called the little girl a “half-white bitch.” Jamaica turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, what’s his problem?”

Racial identity is a hurdle many people cannot overcome. “I don’t want to marry out of my race because I want to have a black child,” says Cheryl Lindsey, who admits that a former relationship with a white man was one of the most comfortable, nonstressful relationships she’s had. “The child is very important, and (in interracial marriages) they don’t know if they are black or white. They are really confused.”

That confusion may abate if interracial marriages continue to increase. As the nation moves closer to a so-called “browning of America” through immigration and intermarriage of different races and nationalities, multiracial children will be the norm and the sheer number of interracial marriages will in all likelihood reduce the prejudice against them. The growth of organizations such as the 200-member Multiracial Americans of Southern California, one of 50 such support groups for multiracial people nationally, suggests that interracial marriage is here to stay.


“It’s like an equation,” says founder Nancy Brown. “Interracial marriage that works equals multiracial children at ease with their mixed identity, which equals more people in the world who can deal with this diversity.”

Pascal Giacomini isn’t so optimistic. “I don’t see black people’s condition improving, and the economics are going to get in the middle, between blacks and others, and that’s going to create a trench between whites and blacks.”

Rosanne Katon-Walden, an actress and stand-up comedian, uses humor about her multiracial family to bridge the gap. In one of her comedy routines, she gives a fictionalized account of how she met her husband: “I met my husband when he registered me to vote,” she says. “He was part of Temple Beth Israel’s Youth Volunteer Corps, whose mandate was to penetrate the inner-city ghettos of America and give the people political voice, and get laid. This political penetration resulted in 350-odd dinner dates, 14 marriages, five brown babies and a white Black Muslim named Isadora X.”

“Sometimes it will take the audience a few minutes to get going because nobody wants to talk about race,” she says. “But my act is about the culture clash and just how funny it is. I like it because it’s dangerous humor. And the one thing about dangerous humor is when you get it right, you laugh and you learn.”