Love Myths, Assimilation, and the Importance of Seeing Race as Structure

The day-to-day lives of interracial couples involve a myriad of issues besides race. The women and men in this study contended with challenges large and small: adjusting to a new job, managing a long commute, helping a son with grade-school math, planning a wedding, feeding dinner to a two-year-old, trying to get pregnant, finding standing room on the subway, and creating time to be together. So I was not surprised when some interracial partners told me that the racial difference between them was not a major concern.

Yet, as a researcher, I also recognize that our contemporary ideologies about race and romance de-emphasize the significance of race and racism. The practice of avoiding discussions about race or diminishing its importance by insisting that “we are all just people” who share an equal and common humanity reflects what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “abstract liberalism,” a key component of colorblind racism.13 Abstract liberalism enables individuals to de-emphasize their membership in racial groups whose members share a common social location or material interests, and instead to see interracial intimacy as a coincidence of skin color, a partnership between two people who “happen to be” of different races. The popular notion that love and romance exist in an emotional space beyond the realm of rational cognition typically affirms the serendipity of romantic love. In recent decades, sociologists have identified cultural and gendered patterns in how Americans think about romantic love and intimacy.14 Popular “love myths” characterize love and desire as at once “natural and supernatural,” situated within “the mysterious realm of romance, where all that occurs is deemed to stand apart from and often to be arrayed against social convention.”15 Rachel Moran conceptualizes this perspective as one of “romantic individualism,” a vantage point from which love can be not only blind, but colorblind as well.16 This framework emphasizes that categories like race, ethnicity, class, and religion cannot tell us either how or whom to love.17 In the popular imagination, love has the potential for bringing about radical social transformation, because it is believed to supersede group differences and render them trivial. These two discourses—abstract liberalism and romantic individualism—share a common thread. From both perspectives, romantic love is a great equalizer that rises above the supposed banalities of color and class.

Some of these popular ideas about love mesh easily with assimilation theory. Classical assimilation theorists considered interracial intimacy a measure of the social distance between racial groups and an important site of structural and cultural assimilation. They expected that only through such cross-cutting unions could individuals from ethnic groups become sufficiently enmeshed in White American communities that they would lose all traces of what made them distinctive.18 Intermarriage with Whites was interpreted as a clear signal that minority group members had adopted the language and customs of the dominant White population and had been economically and politically absorbed into mainstream society.19 This theory was modeled on the experiences of European immigrants from countries such as Germany, Ireland, and Italy. It never adequately captured the racial- ized realities of African Americans, or of Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino immigrants. A trajectory of gradual absorption was not a viable option for groups who were visually coded as indelibly different and inferior.20 The benign absorption of racial minorities is untenable in the presence of the kind of intensive, systemic racism that exists in the United States.

Despite the discrediting of classical assimilation theories, the idea that the “mixing” of Blacks and Whites will bring the two groups closer together and dissolve racial differences continues to hold great symbolic power. This is true even though the one-drop rule (the racial classification system in which a person with any African ancestry is considered “Black”) has never blurred, let alone broken, the color line. It has simply positioned children of Black and White parents as Black. Only now, when multiracialism and hybridity have come to be seen as potentially transformative, are Black/White couples cast as part of an intimate “vanguard” who “work on narrowing the divisions between groups in America, one couple at a time.”21 From this perspective, the differences that separate social groups geographically, politically, and culturally are expected to erode and eventually disappear in the context of long-term, stable, romantic relationships.

It is a curious idea that in a world where racial conflicts are widespread, romantic love can be assumed to create an intimate sphere in which racial differences do not matter. Social scientists have long demonstrated that equal status is not a prerequisite for marriage, nor does marriage itself have an equalizing function.22 For example, we know that heterosexual marriage does not neutralize status differences between women and men. Some of the same assumptions that have traditionally segregated men and women in particular labor markets also organize the division of housework inside the home.23 Within most heterosexual marriages, women still perform more housework and have primary responsibility for childcare, whether or not they also hold a full-time job.24 These and similar findings suggest that social inequalities that exist in our broader society also shape intimate relationships.

My perspective on race is markedly different from popular imaginings of love and romance and from the predictions of classic assimilation models. White supremacy in the United States is not primarily a set of malicious attitudes or misunderstandings. It is a social system. For centuries, Whites have structured social institutions—education, law, housing, criminal justice, employment—to benefit Whites. Racism is therefore not primarily a problem of prejudice, although this may be what is easiest to see. As a system, it involves both institutional inequalities and patterns of ideas—or ideologies—that justify or naturalize these inequalities. Making this distinction is important because how we define racism shapes how we think about interracial intimacy. When social scientists (and others) understand racism entirely as racial prejudice, as a collection of resilient, negative generalizations, then intimacy seems to promise a way to neutralize racial differences. Contact theory is based on this very premise: It proposes that anti-Black racism has its basis in ignorant, faulty generalizations and that social intimacy corrects erroneous stereotypes, conferring acceptance and equality.25 But if we recognize racism as a social system, one that shapes not only individual attitudes and perceptions but also how people are materially rewarded or disadvantaged within social institutions, we are left with many more difficult questions. How do White and Black partners maintain intimate relationships when they do not share equal levels of racial power and privilege? Can familiarity, empathy, and intimacy erode racial differences within interracial couples? Do interracial relationships have the potential to change broader dynamics between Whites and Blacks? This study explores these questions by asking how people establish and maintain bonds of trust, love, and communication across systems of stratification.

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