No End in Sight for Endogamy

Where the red women at?

In the Tmes’ “Modern Love” series, Diane Farr relates how her relationship with a Korean-American man taught her that “stick to your own kind,” as a parental injunction, is alive and well, at least when it comes to marriage:

That may seem just as random and hurtful as “they will never accept you” had sounded to me over breakfast. But at least I knew the context of my mother’s racism. As a first-generation American, my mother had grown up in various Irish and Italian neighborhoods throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, and the people she judged were from the bordering areas, where the population was generally poorer, less educated and less able to assimilate than her foreign-born parents had been back then, in the 1950s. It was people from these groups whom she regularly saw beating up her grandfather over groceries.

What I soon found out was that my friends of all colors, faiths and traditions had had a similar talking-to from their parents. Despite having been in this country for generations longer than mine, their parents, too, had been told there was a right and an “over my dead body” choice for love.

I continued asking questions: “And how much did your parents’ initial disapproval impact your decision to marry? And does it persist or affect your relationship now?”
By phone, over dinner and through e-mail, people’s honest responses started flooding in.

“I have to marry Jewish or I’m cut off,” my Jewish friend said.

“Cut off from what exactly?” I wondered aloud, knowing he had plenty of money of his own.

“Their love and support,” he answered.

“For my father, black was out of the question,” said my olive-skinned Persian friend with a wave of her hand, as if she were trying to push away the very idea of it.
Another friend of mixed Indian and German descent said, “I’m a half-breed, so my parents were fine with any race, but they preferred — really told me — not to marry an American.”

“While you were being raised in America?” I said, aghast.

She giggled at the ridiculousness of the statement, but nodded her head yes nonetheless.

“Well, I was only told that I couldn’t marry a Japanese man,” a Korean-American friend wrote by e-mail. “My parents would be disappointed if I brought home a white guy, but they’d eventually be fine with whomever, unless he was Japanese.”

What shocked me was less my peers’ admissions of their parents’ restrictions than their willingness to abide by them. Over the years, my mother and I had many heated discussions about her boundaries for love.

Obviously, someone’s losing his allowance, because the 2010 census revealed that 2.9% of Americans, or 9 million people, identified themselves as belonging to more than one race. Common sense suggests the actual number is much higher, that many mixed-race people simply check off whichever race they identify more strongly with.

A 2005 Cornell study found that interracial relationships have increased tenfold since the 1960s, but also notes that they tend to be more common among younger people. Although researcher Kara Joyner puts this down to a progessive weakening of taboos, I wonder, having read Farr’s account, whether some of the people surveyed might not be following some form of the rule, “Play with whomever you like, but marry one of us.” In other words, when they’re young, they’ll date anyone; when they’re older and ready to settle down, they choose from the approved group.

I suppose I’m lucky in that my parents never put me under any such restrictions — either explicitly or implicitly.They’d have been hypocrites to do so, since, by early 1970s standards, their own Jew-gentile union was pretty daring. Portnoy’s Complaint was being trashed in the pages of Commentary; Bridget Loves Bernie was on the air; Woody Allen had just left Louise Lasser for Diane Keaton. Edgy people, my folks were.

Oddly enough, their parents didn’t give them any grief. My mother’s held their peace because they were dead. My dad’s parents had seen him go through two marriages already; they had no outraged propriety left in them. But they seem to have had a progressive streak, too. One of my dad’s cousins had a baby by Errol Garner, the pianist. Most of the family disowned her, but my grandparents, for some reason, kept her in their lives. The child grew up Jewish, was bar mitzvah at 13, moved to Atlanta, and from what I understand, did very well for himself in banking. The catch is, he had to pass for white. But his kids, and their kids, a couple of whom showed up for my grandfather’s funeral, are proudly multiracial.

Thus given the green light, I went forth into the world rather charmed by the idea of marrying outside my race. My own race was — or, if you insist, my own two were — familiar and boring to me. Alexander Portnoy once bragged about discovering America through his romantic adventuring; I was more ambitious. I wanted to discover the world. When I got serious about a Mexican-American girl, it thrilled me to imagine that one day our son might inherit exotic talents like tricking out vintage cars and beating the hell out of people.

I never quite understood the imperative to endogamy until it was explained to me by, oddly enough, an African American girl I happened to be dating. When she was at Howard, someone — maybe a professor, maybe a friend, maybe the basic tone of the place — convinced her she owed it to history to marry another African American. She was not normally an ideologue, and she was the furthest thing in the world from a herd animal; she could keep you up half the night listing the buppie customs she thought ridiculous. She certainly didn’t dislike white people or find them unattractive. Marrying within the race was simply an obligation she was placing on herself — a committment to a higher good, like a lifetime of service. I couldn’t empathize, but I did respect it.

I should add, it made my life easier. I did like her, but I wasn’t really into her, if you know what I mean. By invoking her self-imposed racial restriction, I was able to keep some emotional distance without hurting her feelings.

I’m curious to hear frmo my readers on this one. Did your parents, or your spouse’s parents, ever say to marry one of us, but not one of them? Did you comply? If you rebelled, did they learn to live with it?

Getting back to Farr’s piece, it’s nice to know that some Asian guys are hooking up with European-American girls. God knows we’ve been rustling their herds long enough; fairness demands the numbers be evened. And if that sounds like precious liberal sentimentality, remember the saying: Bros before broad-minded white chicks.

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  • Chris K

    My pale-skinned mother is English/German, and Catholic, and my father is Greek/German, and Protestant (and pretty dark-skinned). I lucked out with a nice medium skin tone, and once in a while, I realize that some would consider me to be “mixed race”.
    I find myself preferring darker-haired men, (say, Pierce Brosnan), but I married an Irish/English/Slovakian. My boys look like me (dark curls, huge brown eyes) and my girls took after my husband (blue eyes, pale skin). My middle daughter is very Irish-looking, and is determined to marry an Asian, having fallen in love with all things Japanese (blame Pokemon). It never occurred to me to tell her to pick/block someone based on race. I am really hoping for her what I really hope for everyone – that they married for WHO the other person was, and not WHAT.
    I told her what I was writing, and what you said about people being told to marry within their “group”.
    She said, “People still do that?”

  • Chris K

    My mother did say not to marry my husband, but not, obviously, because of his race, but for the fact that she thought he was dim. My sister married a genious from India, and my parents were thrilled. The cultural differences were unavoidable, but considered “fun” by my dazzled parents. Fifteen years later, and the genious turned out to be talented at being a jerk, and my husband was smart (and generous) enough to figure out how my dad could continue getting to work after losing his driver’s license after a seizure. It meant passing up a promotion/relocation, but today my dad has his pension.
    What parents have in common is that they want what’s best for their kids. They differ on how to achieve that.

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  • DWiss

    Interesting topic.

    I’m an American mutt, roughly Irish and German, so race and heritage never amounted much in my dating days. I married a similar mutt, but a little more of the eastern European variety. All is well.

    What has emerged for me as a far more important point of spousal discernment is faith. We have many friends whose marriages combine different religions. Most have chosen the PC course of providing their children “a little bit of both”. My own Catholic kids envy their friends who get both Hanukkah AND Christmas. The envy isn’t for the double dip of spirituality (there isn’t even a single dip, really), it’s for the avalanche of goodies.

    My observation is that in attempting to give kids something of two different traditions, they actually get none. No mitzvahs, no confirmations, no eucharist, no baptism. (But they do get lots of free time on the weekends.) On the rare occasion that I see a young person strong in his/her faith I want to hug the parents. My view is that ethnic differences can often be worked out. But religious differences leave the kids in a spiritually dangerous vacuum.

  • Fresh Iced Tea

    Back in the ’70s, my father warned me that if I married a black man I would no longer be welcome in his house. This was so out of character for him; he taught me growing up that all people have dignity and deserve respect, and modeled that counsel in his own life.

    Years later I found out that he had quarreled with his brother whose son had gotten his girlfriend pregnant (dad didn’t know at the time.) My father had inquired about the bride’s waist measurement after the wedding – this caused my uncle to hurl a stream of abuse toward him mostly consisting of just-wait-until-your-girls-shack-up-with-n*****s- and-start-popping-out-little… (fill in the details yourself.)

    That explained a lot, but my father never did express regret for his warning. It was pretty much a moot point – no great beauty here – but it set up housekeeping in a corner of my mind and has never really left.

    In college I was asked out by a really great black guy – I liked him as a friend so much, and he was interested in seeing if our friendship could progress to the next level. But I just couldn’t even give it a chance. He was disappointed and the friendship was never the same.

    It’s now years later – my 24 year old son has shown a marked preference for dating black women. And I’m not going to say anything to him about it.

  • Max Lindenman

    That’s an interesting point, DWiss. It can get even more complicated that that, tough. Imagine if both parents profess the same beliefs, but vary in their degree of commitment to them. That must send a mixed message of its own.

  • DWiss

    Max, that’s my life, bro! Complicated it is. Either my wife or I appear very eccentric to our children. I don’t want to know which it is.

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  • http://joyfulpapist.wordpress.com JoyfulPapist

    I went out with a Catholic boy. My parents (one Anglican one agnostic), my grandparents, and my friends were horrified. So were his. It wasn’t just religion; it was class – my family had clambered up into the middle class two generations earlier; his was still in the process of doing so.

    My father offered me a world trip if I’d call off the wedding. Years later, it occurred to me that my indignant refusal was silly; I could have accepted the tickets then met my beloved in Kathmandhu. Lost opportunities, huh?

    We celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary this year.

    Our differences have been a great strength. Because we couldn’t ignore them, they haven’t come as a surprise to us, and we’ve been able to work through them and both grow as people.

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  • http://www.jameswlewis.com/blog/wordpress/my-work/ James W. Lewis

    My mother never really tried to restrict my dating by race, but I know she wants me to marry someone who looks like her. I think we’re in a time where interracial dating isn’t as big a deal as thirty or even twenty years ago, but we still have a long way to go. Just going out on a date with someone of another race can give you the label “sellout,” which, I think, is unfair.

  • jkm

    I dated an African American coworker in the early 70s, and was dumbfounded when my mother tried to forbid it. My parents were New Deal Democrats and Kennedy liberals who broke with their dearest Boston friends over the integration of Roxbury HS (my parents for, my godmother on the rock-throwing frontlines against) and wept at MLK’s murder. My mother told me I’d have to leave her house if I persisted, and so I left–but only for one day, until she and my father came home from work and read the note I left telling them that I was only acting on the values they had so courageously imparted to me. The relationship didn’t last long, and ended after we went to a party in South Central Los Angeles and he told me, mid-dance, “It’s true! White people have no rhythm.”

    My mother also told me not to take a job working for the Church, because I’d never find a husband. I got around that by marrying a priest (duly laicized in time for the wedding, I will add).

    My Irish-German son is married to the Best Daughter-in-Law in the World, who is referred to as the tallest, palest member of her enormous and loving Filipino family.

    I had thought endogamy wasn’t even a consideration anymore until last week when one HS alum friend’s comment that she didn’t want her son to settle for anything less than a Good Catholic Girl generated a reaction among a solid but diverse group of women friends equivalent to pitching a grenade. So I am sending them this post.

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