At its core, this study is about how people maintain relationships across lines of stratification and how they establish intimacy in the context of inequality. To explore these topics, I used a qualitative approach—one that would allow me to understand how interracial partners interact with their social worlds and how they interact with each other. I wanted to understand how people interpreted the racial difference between themselves and their partner. What does it mean? Under what circumstances does it become important? When is it not important? How do sexuality and gender shape these experiences? To investigate these and related questions, I conducted interviews and gathered accounts of what it means to be interracial in everyday life.
This book is based on the narratives of eighty-two interracial partners, as well as ethnographic observations conducted among a smaller subset of this group. (Methodological details are provided in appendix A, and key characteristics of the sample are provided in appendix B.) Because it was important to talk with the members of each couple separately, the eighty-two interviews represent both partners of forty couples, plus two additional interviews with Black women whose White husbands were unavailable. Of the forty couples, ten are lesbian, ten are gay, ten are heterosexual couples in which the woman is Black and the man is White, and ten are heterosexual couples in which the woman is White and the man is Black. I chose to compose the sample this way so that I could compare nearly equal numbers of Black partners with White partners, same-sex partners with heterosexual partners, and women with men. The composition of the sample also represents an effort to prevent the experiences of Black men with White women from becoming representative of every other type of relationship, as has happened in numerous qualitative studies of interracial intimacy.32
The interracial partners in this study share several important characteristics. The sample is almost exclusively urban and suburban. Over half the couples live in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, about one-third live in the New York metropolitan area, and the rest live in Washington, D.C. The sample is also distinctly middle class. This was intentional. I designed the study to not introduce too many competing factors into a project aimed at analyzing intersections of race, sexuality, and gender. What do I mean by middle class? Sociologists often look to income and education as important reflections of a person’s class status. Over 90 percent of these partners attended college and 70 percent of the respondents have college degrees.33 The typical couple in my sample, as measured by the median, jointly earned between $60,000 and $75,000 (in 2004-2005). Occupational prestige is also important. Middle-class people like those in this study tend to have occupations with relative autonomy and are often responsible for supervising others in their workplaces. Constructing a sample in which respondents have similar class positions does not, however, lessen the influence of social class on the narratives as a whole. Economic resources provide these couples with numerous choices in deciding where to live and whether to send their children to public or private schools. Partners who have attended college and received their degrees have likely been instilled with the dominant colorblind discourse that pervades higher education. In these and other ways that I highlight throughout the book, the “middle classness” of the participants’ interracial stories is plainly apparent.
The scope of this book is inevitably limited, in that all the interracial couples I interviewed involved one African American and one White partner, to the exclusion of other forms of interraciality, such as Black/Asian, White/Native American, Asian/White, and so on. As I noted earlier, there are good reasons for focusing on Black/White couples—theirs are the relationships that have been most forcefully prohibited. And yet in placing these two groups at the center of my analysis, I contribute to a longstanding pattern of framing racial politics in the United States as a matter of Black and White. Unavoidably, I join other researchers in reproducing a binary notion of race and excluding the experiences of non-Black communities of color. Numerous scholars have insisted upon the need to push beyond the Black/White paradigm and incorporate other groups—especially Asians and Latinos—into models of race and racism.34 Some of my findings may contribute to that effort. The practice of racework has much to offer those interested in other types of relationships in which partners routinely negotiate intimacy across racial lines of power and privilege. For example, as with African Americans and Whites, intermarriage between Asian Americans and Whites has historically been prohibited. Partners in these couples therefore may also engage in boundary work to disassociate themselves from pejorative stereotypes about their relationships or from stigmas attached to gay and lesbian Asian/White pairs.35 Similarly, conceptualizing the emotional labor through which partners negotiate racial difference may be useful for these other relationships as well.
One other brief comment on scope is necessary. Some readers may expect that a book about interracial intimacy will focus extensively on family—on the issues that interracial partners experience with their own children or with their families of origin, who may or may not be accepting of their relationship. These are crucial issues, and I do address them. My analysis, however, is limited to the ways in which interracial partners employ racework to deal with these interactions. I do not focus on the reactions or acceptance of families of origin except to examine how this shapes the relationship between interracial partners. Similarly, I investigated the racial identity of couples’ children only to the extent that it was a subject of discussion or contestation between parents.36