What Mildred Knew

Forty-one years ago today, the Supreme Court struck down a Virginia law preventing marriage between African Americans and whites. Every year on June 12, interracial couples across the country celebrate Loving Day, commemorating the ruling in Loving v. Virginia that made our unions lawful.

My husband is white; I am African American. Thankfully, we face none of the social and legal hurdles that Mildred and Richard Loving had to endure just to love each other. In fact, it takes the pointed looks of others to remind us of the difference in our skin tones. White people stare (and then usually try to pretend that they didn’t), Asian people stare, Hispanic people stare. But none stare more than my fellow blacks. To many African Americans, I’m a traitor to the race.

Black man/white woman couples are far more prevalent than unions such as mine. They make up 73 percent of all black-white relationships, according to the 2000 Census. For some black men, white women are the ultimate status symbol. Other black men say they prefer not to deal with the expectations of black women. And while many single black women bemoan biracial couples, complaining that white women «take the good ones,» the same women are usually the first to reject the idea of dating outside their race.

The stigma of white man/black woman relationships is rooted in the horrors of slavery, when white men raped and abused black women with impunity. After emancipation, Jim Crow laws and prejudice prevented black women from seeking recourse against white men who committed sexual crimes against them. The depth of this injustice has led many black parents to warn their daughters: Don’t come home with a white man. In the minds of these parents, doing so would be tantamount to rejecting the suffering of generations of black women.

Black sons similarly are taught an unjust history of ill-treatment for interest in white women. In 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was beaten, shot and dumped in a river with barbed wire wrapped around his neck — for allegedly whistling or saying «bye, baby» to a white woman. In the early 20th century in particular, black men were frequently targeted simply on the basis of such allegations by white women.

Black men have apparently managed to get over this shared history of injustice. Black women? Not so much. My own experience suggests that part of the reason is pressure that black men put on black women.

«Come back, sister!» two black men yelled when they saw me on a date with the man I later married.

«I don’t understand why you can’t find a black man,» a longtime friend said upon learning of my interracial relationship.

Worse was the dagger-like stare I endured once while at a restaurant with my husband and our baby daughter — not from an old, racist white person but a black man who was seated across a table from a white woman.

Fear of stigmatization by other blacks plays a role in black women’s hesitancy to date «out.» But some of my black female friends have also expressed discomfort with accepting the interest of white men.

«I liked him . . . but I couldn’t,» one friend said when a white co-worker asked her out. «I’d feel like I’d given up on black men or something.»

«Having sex would be . . . weird,» said another.

«I feel like . . . I’d be sacrificing something of my own racial identity,» said a third.

My own mother, who grew up in the days of segregation, used to speculate that in the heat of argument, my white man might utter a racial slur. «He might not say it,» she admitted when pressed. «But he might be thinking it. What woman wants that?»

So, for a black man, marrying a white woman is a status symbol, but for a black woman, marrying «out» means you’ve given up or are manifesting self-hate? Apparently, what is grain for the gander is poison for the goose, even though, according to the Census Bureau, in 2005 a full 70 percent of black women were single (with a large number of them presumably looking for black men) — while black men openly pursued women of a host of colors and ethnicities.

I muse on these things, but I’ve learned to move past them. I’m over judging all whites by the actions of some, today or in decades past. I’m over worrying about how people perceive my husband and me, whether it seems as though I’ve given up on black men, whether I’m some kind of traitor to my own blackness. (Though to all my single sisters out there: My husband has never called me the N-word, even in anger; he has required no sacrifices of my identity, racial or otherwise. He’s a compassionate, hardworking family man.)

Ultimately, it’s simple: You love who you love, if you’re lucky enough to find love.

As Mildred Loving knew, it’s not about black or white at all. Her case and our Loving Day celebrations (made all the more significant this year by her death last month) have little to do with love or life. Making a marriage work lies in all the things that make up life as a man and woman: paying bills, raising children, trying to keep the connection between you vibrant and alive. Color isn’t a part of that.

Karyn Langhorne Folan, a novelist and the author of Unfinished Business.