Once in a dry season I wrote an essay about my experiences with interracial dating that was published in the New York Times. To say the essay generated a little heat would be like saying certain Wall Street types took a little off the top. Although the vast majority of the 300-plus e-mails I received (not to mention the ones sent to the Times) expressed appreciation, support and even relief at an honest look at the issues I struggled to raise, a vocal and indignant minority did not appreciate my blunt exploration of how race can complicate relationships. Let's just say your faithful correspondent was called everything but a child of God.
These missives usually fell into one of three categories. First, there were people who misread a personal reflection as a proclamation on the viability of such unions in general, particularly their own. Second, white people who, while never having engaged in an interracial relationship themselves (or even, they sometimes admitted, had any real black friends), insisted that the very existence of interracial unions says something meaningful about the state of racial equality in America. I know people like this; they enjoy seeing one or two interracial couples in the neighborhood Starbucks. Makes them feel all cozy and tolerant inside. Third, and most ardent, were the folks who believed with a deep and passionate sincerity that love is colorblind and all-conquering. To them it completely justifies itself.
I was reminded of the particular view of the world that essay revealed last week as I interviewed Annette Gordon-Reed for the show I host, Basic Black, on WGBH in Boston. Gordon-Reed is the scholar and law professor who, with the publication of her 1997 book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy marshaled the historic evidence in support of the long-suspected, but vehemently-denied relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a woman he enslaved.
Gordon-Reed's first book powerfully and persuasively made the case for a decades-long relationship between Hemings and Jefferson. Still, some Jefferson biographers pooh-poohed the connection, until DNA evidence emerged linking Hemings' descendants to the Jefferson bloodline. Only then did they concede what had been before them all along. (Even now, with the publication this month of The Hemingses of Monticello, which expands her study of the owner/slave union, there are a few holdouts who deny his paternity.)
But these were questions largely settled more than a decade ago with the DNA evidence and publication of Gordon-Reed's last book. Once the truth was admitted, Gordon-Reed said, the conversation began to shift. Instead of: "Is it true?" people at readings began to ask, "Did he love her? Did Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings love one another?" It seemed the burning question to many Americans.
As if that made any difference at all.
We are, by and large, a soft and mushy people in America. Sentimental in a uniquely American way. We have not always been this way, but we are now; little wonder then that we tend toward a soft and mushy understanding of love. Movie after movie, song after song has taught us that love is a thing, a treasured thing, an emotion, a feeling one person somehow has for another, one that is mysterious and magically transformative.
In which case, it becomes critically important whether Jefferson loved Hemings or not. If he loved her then that love would somehow transform his legal ownership of both her and their children; it would change the contest of his proclamations on the inferiority of Africans, his passionate belief that black folks, once freed, should be shipped off to Africa, beyond "the reach of mixture." Ahem, lest they stain white American blood.
If Thomas Jefferson loved Sally Hemings, then her decision to return with him from France, where she was legally free and from which she could not have been compelled to leave, is more about her "feelings" than about her fear of starting anew in a foreign land and never seeing her enslaved family again. If Jefferson loved Hemings, then theirs becomes merely a personal story of forbidden love instead of the enduring and tragic story of how race was created, and manipulated, by people such as Thomas Jefferson himself. It becomes not the story of America, but just a simple tale about Sally and Tom.
But relationships are never solely about the two people involved. Each person carries into the mix a host of familial, cultural, religious and social bags, if not consciously, then subconsciously. For the white American man, this involves a powerful and double privilege, one very few can acknowledge, let alone take responsibility for.
Many white men have said to me, "I don't even think of myself as white!"—which, of course, is the privilege writ large. Not having to think of oneself in racial terms—never, ever, not even one teensy little bit—is a psychological advantage nearly equal to the very real social and economic ones which white men in America enjoy. To look at society and see yourself reflected—positively for the most part—everywhere is a sweet and affirming thing. Having one's way of being in the world, one's way of inhabiting society be not just "a way" but "the way"—the standard, the default—is a privilege with great heft. But to suggest as much to the average white American male is to risk being dismissed as whining or playing the old race card. Or just plain imagining things.
As the essayist and speaker Tim Wise puts it, don’t ask a fish to appreciate, or to acknowledge, water. "Even if fish could speak they would likely have no explanation for the element they swim in every minute of every day of their lives. Water simply is. Fish take it for granted."
I see the same confusion about privilege and the same belief that all you need is love in the students I teach, students who are, for the most part, white, suburban and well-to-do. They believe, bless their hearts, that racism and the inequality it creates, is an individual thing. They believe that if they are personally nice to any black person or Latino person, etc., who crosses their path, then the problem of racial inequality in America will be solved soon enough. It's a lovely notion and utterly ridiculous. Not to mention ironic as hell.
Ironic because the young people of today do, in fact, carry less baggage about race than the Americans of my generation and age. They are not baggage-free, nor are they colorblind, as many would like believe; still, there is no doubt they encounter the issue in a different way than their predecessors, and this is both exciting and heartening to see.
But that didn't happen because their grandparents went around smiling at black folks on the street car. It wasn't niceness that launched the Civil Rights Movement or passed Brown vs. Board of Education or the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act. It wasn't some kind of inactive, casual non-animosity that created a world in which my students could reasonably look around and believe that progress on racial inequity was not only possible but inevitable.
These young people are deeply well-intentioned and just as deeply in need of what sociologist C. Wright Mills called a sociological imagination—the ability to link individual experience with greater societal patterns and with the course of history. If they had that, they would know that personal niceness, no matter how pleasant it makes buying groceries at Trader Joe's, will not end inequality in juvenile justice or health care or housing or public education, or anything.
Niceness will not, for example, change the fact that black children—regardless of income—are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than the children of poor whites, even though the rate of serious rule infractions between the two groups is virtually identical (see Tim Wise). Nice mortgage lenders didn't stop black and Latino homeowners from being nearly twice as likely than whites to receive high-cost subprime mortgages at all levels of income. Kindly-smiling judges don't change the fact that although black Americans make up roughly 14 percent of monthly drug users, werepresent 37 percent of drug arrests, 53 percent of convictions and 67 percent of those imprisoned for drug offenses, according to The Sentencing Project. More-pleasant white doctors won't keep black babies from being 2.5 times more likely than white infants to die before their first birthday.
To quote Frederick Douglass: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. Never has and never will."
Can human relationships, of whatever variation, bypass color? Naturally. Relationships can bypass far more intractable things than the color of skin and the associated societal implications. It's pretty darn clear that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings bypassed the respective colors of their skins. Still, after Jefferson's death, says Gordon-Reed, government census-takers visited her in her Washington home to ask if she wanted to "go back" to Africa. Bypassing is not transcending or dismantling or even overcoming, it's just a sideways step. Bypassing something doesn't make it disappear.
Can love transcend race? Of course. Love is the most powerful force in the universe, capable not only of surmounting differences but of eliminating the inequities which seem sometimes to have become permanently attached. But to do so, love has to act. Love can't just declare itself, and then sit back with a goofy grin on its face, expecting the world to curve around. Love—real love—as bell hooks once wrote, should be a verb and not a noun, something we all do instead of something we just declare.
Love is wonderful. But, really, love needs to get up off of its lazy ass and do some work.
Kim McLarin is a regular contributor to The Root.