Intimate interracial relationships have long been considered indicative of the social distance between groups, a barometer for gauging race relations. Social distance describes the feelings of similarity and closeness, or dissimilarity and rejection, that members of a group have toward members of some other group (Bogardus 1947; Simmel 1909). Increasing rates of interracial and interethnic marriage—from about 7 percent in 1980 to 15 percent in 2010 (Pew Research 2012)—are therefore indicative of improved race relations. Still, rates of interracial marriage remain much lower than would exist if race were irrelevant to partner choice.
Given the relative scarcity of interracial relationships, sociologists have long sought to explain why they happen. That is, how and why do some couples overcome the substantial barriers to such unions?
One strain of research argues that interracial marriages represent a form of “race-status exchange” in which the white partner leverages his or her “higher” racial status to attract a minority partner with higher education or income (as compared to the white partner’s education and income: Feliciano, Robnett, and Komaie 2009; Fu 2001; Gullickson 2006; Gullickson and Fu 2010; Hou and Myles 2013; Kalmijn 1993; Kalmijn 2010; Qian 1997). This is generally conceived of as a gendered exchange in which white women achieve upward mobility by marrying socioeconomically-advantaged minority men. In a recent variation, minority women are thought to exchange beauty and sexual access for white men’s income (Sassler and Joyner 2011). If these exchanges occur, the resulting unions might undermine racial boundaries by uniting an interracial couple and generating mixed-race children, but they would also reinforce racial inequality by affirming that minority status is undesirable—presumably, the white partner would not accept a minority suitor unless tempted by the promise of upward socioeconomic mobility or easy sex. In addition, such exchanges would reaffirm gender inequality in marriage by ensuring women’s economic dependence on their higher-earning husbands.
Engaging in race-status exchange means that both partners perceive whiteness as better and more desirable—which implies at least some degree of internalized racism. Yet it seems intuitive that it is the least racist individuals who would be most likely to enter interracial unions. Indeed, politically conservative individuals (including minorities) express the strongest preference for white partners (Eastwick et al. 2009). In general, interracial daters are less traditional and more politically and culturally progressive (Fitzpatrick, Sharp, and Reifman 2009; Herman and Campbell 2012; Yancey 2002). In fact, much of the evidence seemingly in support of race-status exchange theory may actually result from miss-specified statistical models (Rosenfeld 2005).
Just as researchers’ assumption that women trade beauty for men’s socioeconomic status may have led to erroneous findings that seemed to support the “trophy wife” stereotype (McClintock 2014), researchers’ tendency to problematize interracial relationships may have generated a misleading focus on race-status exchange. In fact, interracial couples (like other couples) tend toward similarity in socioeconomic status (e.g., they have similar levels of education: Rosenfeld 2005). While I do not deny that social exchange may be a factor in romantic relationships, I think it is time that researchers reconsider the assumptions underlying their theoretical explanations. Do interracial couples really believe that the white partner married “down” in racial status? Or might they believe that in racial equality? Are minority women trading beauty and sexual access for white men’s race and income? Or might the white men also be good-looking? And might not women want sex too?
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