Interracial Couples Building Their Own Support Networks

May 29, 1994|By TRACI A. JOHNSON

Two days after my first visit to my husband's family home in predominantly-white Granite, a Baltimore County enclave, one of his neighbors shared with him the observation that dating a black girl would not be easy.

He knew marrying me might be even more difficult, but he did anyway, and on Nov. 20, 1992, we became a statistic.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, black-white couples make up 246,000 of the nation's 61,500,000 marriages -- about 4 out of every 1,000 couples in America.

And while the country remains polarized by race issues, interracial couples have more than tripled in the past three decades. The total number of interracial couples in the country -- not just black and white -- has increased from 310,000 in 1970 to 1,161,000, according to a population survey taken in March 1992.

There are numerous reasons for the growth of cross-cultural marriages, but the most accurate explanations may be simplest: Times have changed -- even if racist attitudes have not -- and with the changes have come the opportunity for the races to mix and melt in various social, academic and employment environments.

And once people of different cultural backgrounds find a common ground on which to build a lasting relationship, they have the support of groups that are cropping up all over the country to give interracial couples and their families an environment in which they don't have to apologize or explain their relationships.

"Interracial people and families are assaulted with all sorts of rude and inappropriate questions from people who feel that there's nothing wrong with asking," said Rhonda Bell, the membership chairwoman for the Biracial Family Network (BFN) in Chicago. "They feel they have a right to invade your privacy."

The BFN is an affiliate of Association of MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA), a national confederation of interracial and multi-cultural groups that helps encourage interracial couples and their families to be proud of their relationships and their heritage.

Larry and I never joined any groups where interracial couples exchange war stories or share experiences, and frankly, we never discussed joining one. We always figured our relationship was simply our business, of little concern to others, and rather normal aside from the race thing.

We discovered just how interested other people were in our relationship when we participated in an interracial relationships panel four years ago at the University of Maryland College Park.

Their ignorance of interracial couples was to be expected, but what really upset me was that they thought they knew us. They sincerely believed they could categorize our relationship as easily and with as little thought as they did our races.

I was informed that I would "lose myself" by dating a white man who didn't understand "the black experience," meaning the slavery, oppression and discrimination I also never endured. Considering that up to the point I started dating Larry, much of my black experience evolved from proud black parents, jump rope rhymes and Prince videos, there was very little to understand.

If these detractors were concerned that whites cannot appreciate the rich African American heritage, they'd be surprised to hear that Larry's knowledge of and interest in some areas of "black culture," such as jazz, blues and Negro League baseball, far surpasses mine. I'm not proud of my ignorance, but he's teaching me.

They also believed that Larry could not "feel" the pain and suffering my people felt as a result of slavery and the fight for civil rights. But I submit that I cannot "feel" it either, since I was not a part of it.

We both, however, are capable of understanding the evil perpetrated against blacks through the brutality of slavery and the discrimination my people faced -- and still face -- as the struggle for equal rights continues. If you have a heart and a mind, you can understand.

Larry and I handled ourselves well on the panel, but some of the other couples participating seemed to lose their poker faces and not only conceded the hand, but forfeited the entire game to those who would question and condemn their relationship.

They could have used a group like AMEA.

"The object is to integrate a person's psyche, not to segregate it," said Ramona Douglass, a vice president and founding member of AMEA. "What we are trying to do is give people a sense of wholeness."

It is that sense of wholeness I would love to guarantee for my child, the offspring of a black woman and a white man whose love may have conquered all but the sadistic fascination society has with labeling its members.

I can take the fact the society will continue to wonder why couples like Larry and me exist, but I am petrified that my child will be asked "What are you?" and expected to answer the question as if the obvious answer isn't "a human being."

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