Conceptualizing Racework in Other Contexts

The concept of racework is useful for understanding not only intimate relationships, but also other types of settings in which people may develop close interracial connections, such as schools, workplaces, community organizations, churches, and athletic teams. Examining racework in these contexts pushes us to consider how interpersonal relationships are shaped by and respond to racial stratification. It requires that we recognize that people who form a close connection across racial lines may experience conflicting racial perspectives as a result of their different racial positions, and that they may also be comfortable in different kinds of racialized spaces. For example, Black and White coworkers may have vastly different experiences in the workplace. Research shows that Black professional women often feel as if they are being unfairly judged in the workplace on their appearance, personal decorum, communication skills, and emotion management, and that they must repackage themselves in ways that are more palatable to White coworkers.18 A focus on racework would lead us to consider how close interracial connections between coworkers are sustained amid these inequalities. Do Black women share with White coworkers their experiences with race fatigue and the impression-management strategies they use to try to achieve equitable treatment and promotion? When and under what circumstances do they initiate these conversations? Or do they practice what I have called “strategic avoidance”? How do their White coworkers respond? For another example we might consider the experience of Black and White members of multiracial congregations. As I have discussed, religious institutions in the United States have historically been racially divided—researchers have found that less than 10 percent of religious congregations are multiracial.19 Still, an examination of how and when people engage in racework in these environments would be useful. It would shed light on how people in diverse voluntary associations where the express purpose is spiritual connection may still struggle with being racially different in a broader stratified society. Multiracial congregations sometimes draw from racially segregated neighborhoods, where people live and interact almost exclusively with others of their same race. Do tensions arise about which racial group holds leadership positions in the church? Or about how people should worship? Do Whites and Blacks talk to each other about the significance of racial diversity? Do they speak in colorblind language or do they address race squarely? These kinds of questions move us past thinking of interracial groups or settings as accomplishments in themselves and toward a critical examination of how race works in these spaces.

Scholars of race and ethnicity must continue to develop conceptual tools to better understand how racial stratification shapes interpersonal relationships. Researchers have provided sophisticated insights about the challenges that White parents face in raising children of color, given that their own racial upbringing does not equip them with the kinds of selfpreservation skills their children will need. France Winddance Twine conceptualizes racial literacy to describe the critical racial perspective that some White mothers develop. In a moving autoethnography, Barbara Katz Rothman highlights the inevitable power imbalances involved in the practice of transracial adoption. These scholars show with great clarity that racial differences have significant consequences in family life. Research in the area of mixed-race families and friendships should explore these questions further, for they establish important links between social structures and intimate relationships. This kind of analysis displaces the multicultural view of difference mainly as a cultural aesthetic—for instance, in food, music, or holidays—and moves beyond the notion that racial conflict stems mainly from prejudice and misunderstanding. Instead, it sees differences in skin color as differences in racialized power.20 It reminds us that race is a social structure and that people must contend with the consequences of that structure in interpersonal relationships.

This book is about interracial intimacy, but the stories I have recounted here speak more broadly to the significance of race in the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century. Racial inequalities have undoubtedly decreased in the past fifty years, and the taboo against intermarriage has been markedly eroded. Yet especially at a time when social pundits and commentators hail the dawn of a new racial era, interracial narratives point to the continued significance of race and racism in the United States. But interracial narratives are important beyond the simple evidence they provide that race still matters; many social scientific studies come to a similar conclusion. These narratives show that our position within an unequal racial system shapes more than where we live and the resources to which we have access. It also shapes our most intimate relationships. Love is not a raceless space in a deeply racialized world. Whom we love and desire and the intimacies we create are not merely personal, psychological, or spiritual—although they may be all of those things. They are also profoundly social. Understanding that our most intimate connections are shaped by social forces much larger than ourselves is crucial. There is much more to love than loving.

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