A recent trip to the U.S. really brought home the bi-racial dating issue to me. On our last three voyages to the U.S., Ana and I've noticed quite a few bi-racial couples, but always and without exception white women with black men. On this trip, we had a 24 hour layover in Atlanta and went out to see the city. Returning via MARTA to the airport after a long day, I leaned up against Ana, laying my head on her shoulder and closing my eyes. 10 minutes later, when I opened them again, the entire car was scowling at us.
It freaked Ana out more than me, to be sure. And what really freaked her out was the fact that all the passengers were black: "It was as if I was betraying the race," she said. "And yet I never see those kind of looks directed against black men - white women couples. What, because I'm a woman I can't sleep outside the race? Is that the deal here?"
Ironically enough, I'd just bought a library's worth of books about miscegenation, black women and interracial relationships in the U.S., so I've been reading up on this topic. Furthermore, Ana's recent line of research at USP ("What is it about Brazilian women?") touches on this point as does my on-going work with prostitutes and clients on Copacabana.
To put it simply, many authors have noted that one of the main differences between the Brazilian and American flavors of race relations is that heterochromatic relationships have traditionally encountered more (though far from total) acceptance in Brazil. This has led many Brazilians to conclude that Brazil is "less racist than the U.S". Meanwhile, Americans - and especially Black Americans - often feel that Brazilian tolerance of heterochromatic sex and marriage is, in fact, an expression of deepset and unchallenged white supremacist values. One can easily see these positions illustrated when one looks at both countries' literature, cinema and T.V. programing. Regarding sex between white men and black women, almost every single pop source I've ever seen in the U.S. situates these in a context of rape or extreme sexual exploitation. Meanwhile, Brazilian pop sources generally understand the same thing to be an expression of love which radically transcends the social limitations imposed by racism.
My view of the subject has yet to jell, but I feel I know enough to conclusively reject both the common American and Brazilian views regarding sex between black women/white men to be so much myth-making bullshit. Obviously, unequal power relations in both countries during and after slavery created massive opportunities for sexual exploitation and violence and just as obviously, the history of sexual and affective relations between black women and white men cannot be reduced to an unending sequence of rape and prostitution.
I`ve just finished reading J.W. Cash`s The Mind of the South (1940) and have found his views on the south's "rape complex" to be very illuminating and I can't help but wonder if this doesn't somehow play into current American views on sex between black women and white men. Basically, Cash takes a look at the claims and counterclaims regarding supposed black rape of white women in the south (remember that he was writing in 1940). While basically believing that such rapes were very few in number, Cash artfully sidesteps the whole issue by focusing on another point entirely. According to Cash, though "the actual danger [of black on white rape] was small, it was nevertheless the most natural thing in the world for the [white] South to see it as very great, to believe in it, fully and in all honesty, as a menace requiring the most desperate measures if it was to be held off". This because, again according to Cash, the idea of virginal, pure, white southern womanhood was central to the notion of southern identity and "with this in view, it is obvious that the assault on the South would be felt as, in some true sense, an assault on her also."
We strike back to the fact that this Southern woman's place in the Southern mind proceeded primarily from the natural tendency of the great basic pattern of pride in superiority of race to center upon her as the perpetuator of that superiority in legitimate line, and attached itself precisely, and before everything else, to her enormous remoteness from the males of the inferior group, to the absolute taboo on any sexual approach to her by the Negro.... If it was given to the black to advance at all, who could say (once more the logic of the doctrine of his inherent inferiority would not hold) that he would not one day advance the whole way and lay claim to complete equality, including, specifically, the ever crucial right of marriage?
What the Southerners felt, therefore, was that any assertion of any kind on the part of the Negro constituted in a perfectly real manner an attack on the Southern woman. What they saw, more or less consciously, in the condition of Reconstruction was a passage for her as degrading, in their view, as rape itself. And a condition, moreover, which logic or no logic, they infallibly thought of as being as absolutely forced upon her as rape, and hence a condition for which the term "rape" stood as truly as for the de facto deed. (Cash, 1940: 116)Now, what I'm wondering is if something like this isn't what's currently operating in the U.S. today when we turn to black women and white men dating.
I do not wish to claim that Black American notions of peoplehood are simply a rerun (or a photo negative) of Southern White notions of the same: there are obviously many differences. However, it seems to me that there are certain general continuities between the two which might usefully illustrate the topic at hand. First and foremost, Black Americans' notions of identity are generally American concepts and by this I mean that Black Americans have not escaped from belief in blood, heritage and purity which have traditionally informed American notions of self and Other. More importantly, it seems to me that Black Americans have deeply imbibed from the well of American belief in exceptionalism and manifest destiny.
In short, like their Southern White cousins, Black Americans have a tendency to see themselves as a people marked by an essentially homogenous past and set of experiences which transcend class, region and even history. Furthermore, this sense of "peopleness" is characterized by a belief in the blood transmission of said identity. Finally, like Americans in general, Black Americans tend to believe that, as a people, they have a special relationship to God or Destiny - that they are a chosen people, in other words.
(I should take a moment here to point out the obvious: I am speaking in generalizing terms here, creating ideal types which might help us to discuss large-scale social phenomena. I am most emphatically not saying that everyone of such and such a type or nationality or whatever behaves in such and sort a way. I'm talking here about patterns and trends, not determinist laws. What I think we can say is that when you see a theme repeated a gazillion times in T.V. sitcoms, paperback romances, or on Oprah, one can say that it's a theme that has a certain impact on a given society, whether or not every single individual within said society agrees with it.)
Given all this, it seems to me that one of the things that makes black women's relationships with white men a relatively taboo subject in the U.S. is this abiding belief in Woman as the Mother of the Race, a belief whose ultimate matrix is precisely that southern enobling of womanhood as the centerpoint of racial identity that Cash talks about. Now, as far as this goes, this isn't such a peculiar thing: many anthropologists, after all, have pointed out that women are understood to be the "womb of the people" the world over. However, it seems to me that what gives this question a particular vehemence in the U.S. is the generalized American belief in themselves as an expansionist people with a particular covenant with God. In this sort of situation, marrying or dating outside of one's race can never be seen as a personal choice, but as an act which materially decreases the possibility that God's People will finally encounter salvation through the creation of heaven on Earth.