Conceptualizing Racework

The approach I take in this book differs from other research on interracial intimacy. In analyzing interracial narratives, I have tried to understand not only the social context in which lesbian, gay, and heterosexual interracial partners live their lives, but also how these partners go about sustaining intimacy across systems of stratification (White supremacy, sexism, and heterosexism). The concept of racework, described earlier, helps bring into sharp relief the commonplace practices through which interracial partners deal with being racially different in a society where African Americans and Whites are spatially segregated and persistently unequal. Racework also draws attention to the dynamic nature of intimate relationships and helps us understand the countless ways in which race shapes social interactions. I am particularly concerned with four types of racework that people use to maintain close relationships across racial lines. I categorize these as boundary work, visibility management, emotional labor, and navigating racial homogeneity.

For many partners, the existence of longstanding interracial stigmas makes particular forms of racework necessary. Despite sometimes being heralded as symbols of a more progressive racial future, in everyday life—at work, on city sidewalks, at the mall—interracial partners often face a different perception. Their relationships are viewed as ill-fated, based purely on sexual attraction, or simply immoral. In response, Black and White partners take steps to assert a counter identity for their relationship, one that distances them from these stereotypes. This process of drawing boundaries between themselves and others—to assert who they are and who they are not—is a form of work. I identify these social practices as boundary work.

The same negative stereotypes that partners actively challenge as they talk about themselves and their relationship also shape their behavior in public spaces. In order to move safely through the streets, neighborhoods, and social spaces in which they live, some interracial partners, especially lesbian and gay partners, take one of two approaches. Some assume a defensive posture, modifying their actions in order to mask their intimacy. Others, conversely, take proactive measures to make their intimacy more visible. Although these may seem to be opposite strategies, both are means of obtaining some control over situations in which being recognized brings potential vulnerability. This form of racework is best characterized as visibility management. We can think of visibility management as partners’ public strategy for dealing with some of the same prejudices evaded at the level of their identity as a couple through boundary work. Conceptually separating boundary work from visibility management clarifies the extent to which the problems of racism necessitate modification of both identities and public behaviors.

Stigma is not the only manner in which racial difference manifests for interracial couples. Stigmas and stereotypes come from the outside—from strangers, coworkers, neighbors, members of church congregations, family members, and so on. Racial differences are also a reality inside the relationship itself. In the United States, along with social class, gender, and sexuality, “membership” in a racial group shapes people’s life chances, as well as the vantage point from which they view racial inequality. In the context of an intimate relationship, interracial partners must negotiate their different racial—and sometimes gender—statuses, as well as the particular orientations that arise from these statuses. I identify this form of racework as emotional labor.

The final form of racework is navigating racial homogeneity. More than two-thirds of the interracial partners in this study live in racially segregated neighborhoods (specifically, in neighborhoods that are at least 70 percent White or 70 percent Black). Living in a place where one’s racial group is in the minority did not bother every partner. For many, though, this experience engendered race fatigue—the stress that results from always feeling conspicuous and repeatedly having to consider the racial undercurrents in ordinary social interactions. I call the work of managing this fatigue and feeling of relative isolation navigating racial homogeneity.

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