Under Jim Crow, the state of Florida regulated intermarriage with the following law: “All marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the fourth generation inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited.” The term “fourth generation inclusive” is a reference to the “one-drop” rule, whereby many southern states counted anyone who had one thirty-second African heritage as “black” (Jones 2000). One-drop laws policed the boundaries or borders of whiteness (e.g., whites only coffee shops, being forced to sit in the back of the bus), with any racial mixture effectively negating whiteness. Eugenicists proposed that selective procreation (and sterilization, with or without consent) could “refine” the human race by encouraging the birth of children with healthy and “beautiful” characteristics (Washington 2006). Eugenic ideals were informed by ethnocentric Anglo-Saxon standards, and persons deemed genetically “unfit for life” were frequently dark-skinned. A propaganda film entitled The Black Stork (1917), showcasing eugenic ideals, ends with a doctor’s euthanization of a multiracial infant, born of the union of a white slave owner and his black servant. Harry Laughlin, head of the Station for Experiment Evolution, expressed profound anxiety that “no two races had ever maintained their purity while living in as close proximity as U.S. blacks and whites did” (Washington 2006:193). Eugenicists contributed their vision of racial hygiene to the dogma of fundamentalists who preached the moral necessity of maintaining a separation of the races. Literal, concrete interpreters of religious text still refer to Biblical verses to support their “inside scoop” of God's intention to keep the races separate. Utilizing the concept of race, and upon “empirical” and religious bases, whites created an invidious hierarchy in which they occupied a position as a normative, “superior,” “unprefixed” people (Minnich 1990).
Because race remains a central organizing principle in U.S. society (Twine & Gallagher 2008), persons who cross the color line and become intimate are often viewed as unusual, problematic, or just plain deviant. And, of course, societies that essentialize race, maintaining it as a principle of sociocultural organization and meaning, will see interracial couples as weird, a blasphemy, or illegal. The notion of a “pure” white identity and the ideology of white supremacy have a paradoxical, synergistic relationship with interracial couples. The archaic, pejorative term for interracial coupling is miscegenation, derived from the Latin “miscere” (to mix) and the Indo-European “gen,” denoting “genus” or “race”. Defined as “mixture of different races”, the mere mention of miscegenation served as a clarion call for white supremacists everywhere, and precipitated the creation of anti-miscegenation laws, like the one in Florida, which were still operating in 16 states as recently as 1967. In the good old days, it was illegal for a white person to marry a black person in those states.
White supremacy, by characterizing miscegenation as a social scourge, is able to sustain or reproduce itself by presenting mixed couples as something that must be resisted and fought against. Sexton (2002) eloquently asserted that white supremacy works to produce miscegenation in the sense that “it articulates it, inscribes it—as its most precious renewable resource, as the necessary threat against which it continually constructs itself….it relies upon miscegenation to reproduce its social relations” (20). This is a reason why systemic, ecosystemic, and black feminist theoretical lenses can be so valuable to those of us in the helping professions: They help us to make visible, and understandable, these social histories, relations, and institutions, so that we may acknowledge, engage and challenge them in our clinical work.
Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.
Jones, T. (2000). Shades of brown: The law of skin color. Duke Law Journal, 49, 1487-1557.
Minnich, E. K. (1990). Transforming Knowledge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Washington, H.A. (2006). Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Anchor.