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Love in Black & White : The Last Racial Taboo

December 09, 1990|Sylvester Monroe | Sylvester Monroe is a writer for Time magazine's Los Angeles bureau.

LAST JULY, AFTER Liz Farnsworth became engaged to Richard Cooper, 40, a University of San Francisco admissions officer, she called her mother in Minnesota. At 35, Liz hadn't worried about getting her parents' approval in years, but as she dialed their number, she became more and more nervous. And with good reason. Her mother's reaction to the news was something short of jubilation. "She was pretty sad," Liz recalls. Her mother told her, point blank, that she felt Liz was making a mistake. Liz's father wouldn't even come to the phone.

It took the Farnsworths several days to come to terms with the fact that their white daughter was going to marry a black man. But after a few parent-daughter phone conversations in which the topic of weddings was studiously avoided, Liz's mother finally popped the question: What kind of bridal gown was Liz planning to wear?

To Liz, it was a sign of acceptance, if not approval. "I think she finally realized that it was really going to happen." Liz could continue planning her January wedding, with one less weight on her heart. But she still has a recurring nightmare that the wedding pictures will show her walking down an aisle that is also a line of demarcation: blacks on one side, whites on the other.

No one said breaking a social taboo would be easy. Despite the combined efforts of the civil-rights movement and the sexual revolution, intimate relationships between blacks and whites are still considered unacceptable--or shocking or disgusting--by many people in this country. In many ways, Liz and Richard's trials are just beginning. Fortunately for them, the road they have chosen is no longer unmarked or untrod. In the short time since 1967, when "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" hit American movie screens and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws barring interracial marriage (then on the books in 16 states), interracial relationships have increased dramatically in number and visibility. In many major American cities, especially on the West Coast, it is not unusual to see almost as many interracial couples as intra-racial ones.

According to the Census Bureau, the cumulative number of interracial marriages has tripled from 310,000 in 1970 to 956,000 in 1988, accounting for almost 2% of marriages in the United States. While Japanese, Chinese and Native Americans in the United States marry outside their race at rates of between 40% and 70%, nationally only 3.6% of black males marry non-blacks. For black women, the rate is still lower, just 1.2%. And the interracial marriage rate for whites is less than 1%. These statistics reflect a country where social barriers and segregation affect blacks more than any other ethnic or racial group. While intercultural relationships of all kinds can bring about the disapproval of family, friends and society, black-white couples bear the brunt of this racism.

Still, during the past two decades, black-white marriages have more than tripled from 65,000 in 1970 to 218,000 in 1988. They are most common in Western states, where 16% of all black men and 4% of black women are married to non-blacks, according to a recent study by the UCLA psychology department and Afro-American Studies Center. Black interracial marriages accounted for 20% to 25% of all interracial marriages in the region.

Numbers and percentages aside, black-white relationships are visibly increasing, even in the commercial mass media, hardly the vanguard of social change. This season, "True Colors," a comedy about a black man who marries a white woman and forms an interracial "Brady Bunch," debuted on Fox Television. In the second episode of "True Colors," the couple were shown together in bed. "That wouldn't have happened 10 years ago," says a Fox producer. On Lifetime cable's "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," the title character's boyfriend, and the father of her unborn child, is black. And next year, Michelle Pfeiffer will star in "Love Field," a movie in which she portrays a woman who falls in love with a black man. Hollywood has come a long way since the late 1960s, when Petula Clark created a furor by touching Harry Belafonte's arm during a television special.

Unfortunately, the new images of harmony radiating from our TV sets are not always reflected in the real world, where societal approval of biracial marriages has not spread nearly as fast as the practice. "It's clear that interracial, intercultural marriages are on the rise," says Nancy Brown, a co-founder and president of Multiracial Americans of Southern California, a 3-year old, Los Angeles-based family support group. "It is fairly common, and it's here to stay. It's not a fad or a trend." At the same time, she says, "Black-white relationships still remain the ultimate taboo."

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