By Danny R. Johnson
WASHINGTON–Hostile stares and epithets were the least of their problems when Edmond and Jeannie Kahn first dated. Twice the couples–he a white Jew, she a Black Baptist–were arrested simply for walking the streets of Baltimore arm in arm.
When they wed in 1957, Maryland law barred interracial marriages, so the ceremony was held in New York City. Although Jeannie had converted by then, the only rabbi who would agree to officiate denied them a huppah and the traditional breaking of glass. As law students at Yale in the 1960s, the couple lived in a basement because no landlord would rent them a flat.
In 1963, the Kahns moved to Washington, D.C., where they raised two sons, Reuben and Jonathan. By 1971, as co-deans of a prestigious school of law located on the East Coast, the high profile couple had received so many death threats that they needed bodyguards.
The boys’ mixed ancestry caused near riots at their public school. One principal said they “brought a dark force to the school” and called for their expulsion.
Now the generational wheel has turned. In 1989, young Reuben married Marna, a white Lutheran from rural Pine Grove, Pennsylvania. Although both a rabbi and a minister officiated, none of Marna’s relatives, except her mother, attended the wedding. Her father fumed, “I can’t believe you expect me to accept a Black person, and a Jewish one at that!” However, with the birth in 1992 of their son Aaron, Marna’s family softened considerably.
The number of interracial marriages registered by the United States Census Bureau has continued to steadily increase since the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia, but also continues representing an absolute minority among the total number of marriages being recorded. According to the 1993 Census, 310,000 interracial marriages were registered by 1970, 651,000 by 1980 and 1,161,000 by 1992, accounting for 0.7%, 1.3% and 2.2% of the total marriage numbers during those years, respectively. With the introduction of the “mixed-race” category, the 2000 Census showed interracial marriage to be somewhat further widespread, accounting for 2,669,558 such marriages, or 4.9% of the total. These statistics do not take into account the mixing of ancestries within the same “race”; e.g. a marriage involving Indian and Japanese ancestries would not be classified as interracial due to the Census regarding both as the same category. Likewise, since Hispanic is not a race but an ethnicity, Hispanic marriages with non-Hispanics are not registered as interracial if both partners are of the same race (i.e. a Black Hispanic marrying a non-Hispanic Black partner).
Intermarriage, of course, is as old as the Bible. Nevertheless, during the past two decades, America has produced the greatest variety of hybrid households in the history of the world. As ever-increasing numbers of couple’s crash through racial, ethnic and religious barriers to invent a life together, Americans are being forced to rethink and redefine themselves. For all the divisive talk of cultural separatism and resurgent ethnic pride, never before has a society struggled so hard to fuse such a jumble of traditions, beliefs and values.
The huddled masses have already given way to the muddled masses. “Marriage is the main assimilator,” says Karen Stephenson, an anthropologist at UCLA. “If you really want to affect change, it’s through marriage and child rearing.” This is not assimilation in the Eurocentric sense of the word: one nation, under white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant rule, divided, with liberty and justice for some.
Rather it is an extended hyphenation. If, say, the daughter of Japanese and Filipino parents marries the son of German and Irish immigrants, together they may beget a Japanese-Filipino-German-Irish-Buddhist-Catholic-American child.
“Assimilation never really happens,” says Stephenson. “Over time you get a bunch of little assimilations.”
The profusion of couples breaching once impregnable barriers of color, ethnicity and faith is startling. Over a period of roughly two decades, the number of interracial marriages in the U.S. has escalated from 310,000 to more than 2.1 million; 82% of those polled in 2008 by Time Magazine know married couples who are of different races. The incidence of births of mixed-race babies has multiplied 26 times as fast as that of any other group. Among Jews, the number marrying out of their faith has shot up from 10% to 52% since 1960. Among Japanese Americans, 65% marry people who have no Japanese heritage; Native Americans have nudged that number to 70%. In both groups, the incidence of children sired by mixed couples exceeds that number to 70%. In both groups, the incidence of children sired by mixed couples exceeds the number born into uni-ethnic homes.
Some critics fret that all this criss-crossing will damage society’s essential “American” core. By this, they usually mean a confluence of attitudes, values and assumptions that drive Americans’ centuries-old quest for a better life. What they fail to acknowledge is that legal, educational and economic changes continuously alter the priorities within that same set of social variables.
A few generations back, religion, race and custom superseded all other considerations. When Kathleen Vaughn and Atul Gawadene, both 27, married last year, however, they based their vision of a shared future on a different set of common values: an upper-middle-class upbringing in tight-knit families, a Stanford education and a love of intellectual pursuits.
Unlike many other mixed couples, Gawadene, an Indian American, and Kathleen, a white Episcopalian of old Southern stock, have always enjoyed a warm reception from both sets of parents. Still, when Kathleen first visited the Gawadene in Ohio, not every one of their friends was ready to celebrate. “One Indian family didn’t want to come because they were concerned about their children being influenced,” Kathleen says. Their wedding in Virginia was a harmonious blend of two cultures: although Kathleen wore a white gown and her minister officiated, the ceremony included readings from both Hindu and Christian texts.
Tortured solutions to mixed-marriage ceremonies are common. Weddings, like funerals, are a time when family resentments, disappointments and expectations bubble to the surface. The tugging and tussling over matters that may seem frivolous set the stage for a couple’s lifelong quest to create an environment that will be welcoming to both families, yet uniquely their own.
Accommodation and compromise only begin at the altar. The qualities that attracted Dan Kalmanson, an Anglo of European extraction, to Yilva Martinez in a Miami reggae club–her Spanish accent, exotic style of dance and playfulness–had a more challenging echo in their married life. After they wed in 1998, Ignacio, Yilva’s then eight-year-old son by a previous marriage, moved from Venezuela to join the couple. Dan, 33, spoke no Spanish, the boy no English. The couple decided to compel Ignacio to speak English. He caught on so fast that his Spanish soon degenerated. Says Yilva: “We have literally forced him to learn Spanish again.”
For Yilva, 35, the struggle is not just to preserve her native tongue; she also wants to suffuse her home, which has grown with the addition of Kristen, 3, with the Latin ethic that values family above all else. “Here, you live to work. There, we work to live,” she says. “In Venezuela we take a two-hour lunch break; we don’t cram in a hamburger at MacDonald’s.”
Children also force mixed couples to confront hard decisions about religion. Blance Speiser, 43, was certain that Mark, 40, would yield if she wanted to raise their two kids Christian, but she also knew that her Jewish husband would never attend church with the family or participate in holiday celebrations. After much soul searching, she opted for a Jewish upbringing. “I knew it would be O.K. as long as the children had some belief,” she says. “I didn’t want a mishmash.” Although Blance remains comfortable with that decision and has grown accustomed to attending synagogue with her family, she admits that it pricks when Brad, 7, says, “Mommy, I wish you were Jewish.” Other couples expose their families to both religions, and then leave the choice to the kids.
When it comes to racial identity, many couples feel that a child should never have to “choose” between parents. The 1990 U.S. Census form, with its “Black,” “White” and “Other” boxes, particularly grated. ” `Other’ is not acceptable, pure and simple,” says Nancy Brown, 40. “It is psychologically damaging to force somebody to choose one identity when physiologically and biologically they are more than one.” Nancy, who is white, thinks the 2000 Census form was correct to have listed a “mixed-race” box for her two daughters; her Black husband Roosevelt, 44, argues that there should be no race box at all. Both agree that people should be able to celebrate all parts of their heritage without conflict.
“It’s like an equation,” says Nancy, who is president of an interracial family support group. “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.”
The world still has much to learn about living with diversity. “What people say, what people do and what they say they do are three entirely different things,” says anthropologist Stephenson. “We are walking contradictions.”
Kyoung-Hi Song, 37, was born in Korea but lived much of her youth abroad as her father was posted from one United Nations assignment to the next. Despite that cosmopolitan upbringing, her parents balked when Kyoung-Hi married Robert Dickson, a WASP from Connecticut. They boycotted the 2005 wedding, and have not contacted their daughter since.
Intolerance need not be that blatant to inflict wounds. If Tony Jefferson, 34, and Marion Sakuda Flores, 28, have a child, that hypothetical Japanese-Filipino-German-Irish-Buddhist-Catholic-American will become flesh and blood. In their one year of marriage, Tony says, “I’ve heard friends say stupid stuff about Asians right in front of Marion. It is real hypocritical because a lot of them have Mexican or Black girlfriends or wives.”
Sometimes the more subtle the rejection, the sharper the sting,” says Sandy Mills, 29, the daughter of Black and Native American parents, who is married to Dave Grosz, a white European immigrant: “I know that people are tolerating me, not accepting me.”
Such pain is evidence that America has yet to harvest the full rewards of its founding principles. The land of immigrants may be giving way to a land of hyphenations, but the hyphen still divides even as it compounds. Those who intermarry have perhaps the strongest sense of what it will take to return America to an unhyphenated whole. “Its American culture that we all share,” says Mills. “We should capitalize on that.” Perhaps her two Native American-Black-white-Hungarian-French-Catholic-Jewish-American children will lead the way.
Danny R. Johnson is a Freelance Journalist based in Washington, D.C.