Diane Farr on confronting racism in surprising places.
One year into my marriage, my mother looked at my husband and said, “We always hoped that Diane would not marry outside of our race.”
My mother felt the silence in our living room. Her glance swung between my husband’s eyes and mine. Looking at them did not give her pause so I had to interject. “Mom, you realize Seung and I are different races?” My mother grunted a laugh. “No, you’re not.”
My husband is Korean. He was born in Seoul and immigrated to the United States as a child with his parents. I am a second-generation American, of Irish and Italian descent. And my mother, at fifty-eight years old, did not realize that my husband and I are different races because she, above everything else, is a New Yorker. And to a New Yorker, there are only two races, it seems: black and not black.
I would say black and white, but every time my husband’s family refers to me as “white,” my mother, and the rest of my family, laughs out loud. My mother claims I am not white. You may be thinking my mother is not all there from the previous quote, but she’s right about my skin. My coloring is olive. My hair is dark. I’m taller than most American women, and my body frame is small. You could argue that I look Brazilian or Russian, with the body of a Swede or a sub-Saharan African, depending on your frame of reference. But when my Korean in-laws look at me I am most importantly not Asian. Therefore, I am white.
While I do not own a set of pearls or a single knee-length skirt, nor have I ever been to a derby of any sort, we could assume the Koreans mean I am “culturally white.” But if this is acceptable logic, even an appropriate generalization, then why is my mother’s belief that my husband and I are of the same race wrong? Seung and I grew up watching the same TV shows. His sister and I had the same dolls and similar restrictions on eyeliner. He played all the same sports as my brothers and was also told that boys don’t cry. These similarities are all that my mother sees when she looks at my husband. Does the fact that my mother did not see my Korean-born husband as different from us make her more or less racist? Specifically, more or less racist than my husband’s parents, who categorize me with a culture I have little in common with except that it’s not theirs?
Or are both of our parents’ misnomers just a generational mistake? Should every age be given license to use antiquated, incorrect language just because “they don’t mean it that way”? Should we also excuse young people in pockets of this country who use “regional” terms for race and religion just because their parents did? Or is there a larger question? Why don’t any of these people, of either generation, just consider themselves to be American — the most obvious and common bond between them all?
The plain answer in my story is because the Koreans in this family trust Korean Americans more than other Americans. Not because they have an inherent dislike of anyone but because they feel most comfortable with their own race. As do many Americans, recent to this country or not. On the other hand, my mother felt that specific groups of Americans — having nothing to do with her heritage and only to do with her very regional experience — would not fit in her family. She may love all people as friends and neighbors and business partners, but she just didn’t see a comfortable fit at her holiday table for some. Neither of these prejudices is a blanket statement of hate. Both may even have validity. However, they become an issue when the parent expects the child to subscribe to (what is at the very least) their narrow-mindedness.
Immigration to the United States, today, usually leads to über-embracement of the society left behind. There is so much revelry afforded to the old country now that Americans whose ancestors have been in this country for two hundred years are seeking out and embracing foods, holidays, and clothing of people they presume a relation to and have often never met. So if many old and new Americans are burning a torch for a way of life that has nothing to do with their current residence, is the homage just alienating us from other Americans?
It is this refusal to assimilate that stokes the argument to keep the others out of this country. But Jews and Greeks (here and in their homeland) require a bloodline for membership. So do the governments of Qatar, several African nations, and America for an American Indian classification. Most Laotians hate for their own to mix with Chinese, and many Cubans feel the same about Dominicans. And Tibetans will not let other races adopt their orphans. So why does my stomach turn when I hear an American radio station talk about a purebred white bloodline? Perhaps because these other nationals are at risk of losing their culture to a neighbor threatening to overtake them, yet I don’t feel America’s white man’s majority, or at least his dominance, is in any real jeopardy. Yes, Kwanza is celebrated in our preschools and Yom Kippur shuts down the cities of L.A. and New York and Spanish-only radio stations are found across the country. And you might wonder if the fanatical descendants of Plymouth Rock have a point about their country changing too much or too fast.
Until you recall that this is the point that birthed America. It was not built as a refuge for just a few. These states were united for anyone suffering under a government that no longer took care of them. Our land, minus the unsustainable portions we gave back to the people who are really from America, is full of people who came from elsewhere, including the Anglo descendants of King James. There is no “seniority clause” in our constitution that gives more privileges to those who fled here the earliest. At this time in our history, when large portions of the world are so angry at the seeming entitlement of America, you would think our country might come together. But for all the social progress we have made over the last thirty years in public — in education and real estate, and business and friendship even — forward movement has not fully crossed over into the privacy of people’s homes. Many good people in this country, including my husband’s parents and mine, are still drawing a line at who is acceptable for love — and who is not. Many adult Americans alive today have been told by someone in their family that all people are created equal but still, “You can’t love one of them.” Maybe there was also a seemingly reasonable argument as to why whole groups of people are not “right” for your affections. Maybe these theories still make some sense but leave you to wonder if they fit with how you live the rest of your life — or if you would teach these sentiments to children. Yours or anyone’s.
My mother’s limited experience with race was the smallest issue I faced when marrying a man whose hair is one shade darker than mine, as his family’s idea of a wife for him was never me. I’d love to think I could just walk you along my path to marriage and believe this could solve any problem between every Hatfield and McCoy of varying shades in America. But my experience is only one — of a racial mix that isn’t even that foreboding — and still it took a village full of advice for me to arrive at my union. So instead of pretending I’m a genius pioneer who scaled every racial speed bump America has to offer by my lonesome, this tale includes the most riveting couples I’ve met on my journey to making a family.
With the help of all their insight, I finally constructed a road map to the destination I was originally looking for: the time and place in America where multicolored love stories live happily ever after. Where love really does trump race. And once I discovered it, I was no longer seeing this place solely from the perspective of my family. I was thinking about it from yours.
You and I are forever entwined. We are countrymen. My experience as an American has to inform yours for it to mean anything for my children — just as yours must inform mine. As much as I fear the nosy lady in the supermarket with her inappropriate questions about my children’s race and the ignorant person behind me at the DMV who is soliciting a judgment about my marriage, I have inadvertently been both of them to other people. Over time I have learned that as unique as another couple might look or as colorful as another family might seem to me, it’s not out of the ordinary to them. It’s just their family.
Excerpted from the book Kissing Outside the Lines: A True Story of Love and Race and Happily Ever After by Diane Farr. Excerpted by arrangement with Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2012