No End in Sight for Endogamy

No End in Sight for Endogamy June 6, 2011

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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