By: Scott Hines
It was pretty good for one of those cookie-cutter action films. The writing was pretty tight and it had a happy romantic Hollywood ending. What was interesting was—it brought into my awareness that tremendous progress has been made on an issue that has caused me sadness throughout my life. In the movie, the good guys, the bad guys, and the really bad guys all had teams that were racially and ethnically diverse. And the romantic relationships crossed all historic taboos easily and comfortably.
Things have been changing quickly that way. It is so common to see interracial relationships on TV now that it is completely unremarkable. A few years back, I used to spend a bit of time in Washington DC (not Peoria, but definitely America) and I seldom saw couples from the same ethnic background. I can’t say how delighted I am that our culture is becoming so facile about partnering across cultural and ethnic lines. It has great meaning for me.
But it hasn’t been so long that bi-racial relationships were far outside the norm and would draw stares and even revulsion. When I was a wee lad, I had a precocious attraction to little girls. Every year I would pick one to have a year-long crush on and think of her as my girl friend. Kind of a private love affair with only one person knowing. I remember when I was in second grade, my eyes met the eyes of a beautiful little African-American girl and in that moment, she was the one. In the next moment, I was completely aware that it could never be—that was a painful realization. From that incident an inexplicable sadness took hold and lingered unexamined for decades.
It wasn’t something I thought about, the dis-ease was embedded in my cultural experience. Ozzie and Harriet had neither black neighbors nor friends and if Ricky dated a black girl we certainly never heard about it. The cross-racial taboo was not something I had ever heard talked about and it certainly didn’t come from my family, at least not in any direct way. The presence of it was simply unspoken in the culture and my young mind had already noted it. But there was also awareness that that absence had a reason, even if I did not understand what it was. I certainly did not know how to talk about it, or to whom. In the fifties, my mid-western hometown was about one-third African-American; if there was a bi-racial couple in it, I certainly wasn’t aware of it. I suspect if there was, it would have been a big topic of conversation and I would have heard about it.
Years later, during a playful moment in high school, I made a date with a black girl that I had been friends with for a couple of years. Friends in that context meant we could talk and be friendly in school, engage in conversation at school functions, and generally feel easy and friendly around each other. We certainly didn’t run around together nor have mutual friends outside of school. I say made a date, but it was very playful. A time and day was set and we both agreed and then laughed. Could we go through with it? Did we actually make a date? We were kidding, right? I didn’t know and I wasn’t sure what I would do.
If I didn’t show up it would be standing her up and she could be rightfully offended. If I did show up, I might look foolish, not getting the joke. But if she was serious (though she probably wasn’t), I still wanted to do it. And I didn’t want to. Yeah, I was scared. I put on my date clothes and went to the south side of town where 99% of African-Americans still lived then and knocked on her door. Her mother answered the door, surprise not well-hidden. My friend came to see me, not dressed for going out, confirmed we were playing; no date. It was a comfortable uncomfortable moment and I never had a notion of regret for showing up for the non-date.
After school I married a fine young woman of German stock, went into business, made a blended family of adopted Latinos and a biological child. We lived, well, a life that looked a lot like our parents—except for having children that were brown and did not look like us. We moved to the South and continued a path that honored the conventions of our mid-west upbringings.
Along the way I met an African-American man who shared the story of a profound experience in his life. Born in Mississippi in the fifties, his mother was a day-worker in the home of a white family. His mother took him to work with her and he shared a crib and play pen with his mother’s employers’ baby girl. They were together every day for years and the two children became close friends, perhaps more like siblings.
When the children reached the age of eight, the girl’s parents felt it was no longer proper for them to play together. Her parents told his mother not to bring him anymore. That was that. There was no conversation, no explanation. The visits stopped and contact with his best friend ended with it. I don’t think I could fully understand the experience of what he told me, but I was able to empathize with his pain, reflecting on my own.
My children grew, the marriage came apart, and I was single again in my late thirties. One of my Latina daughters made me a 37-year-old grandfather of a Latino-Iraqi/African-American (so she tells me) grandson. Five years later my biological granddaughter was born and my daughter married her African-American father. These two children became a primary focus in my life and to this day my heart beats with theirs. We were in the early nineties then and my family’s life was evidence that things in America were changing; cross-racial, cross-ethnic relationships seemed commonly accepted.
Around that time, again, desire rose up in me to cross the barriers, kindled by another woman; this one with dark black skin and flirtatious eyes. We were a couple for over a year and cultural and ethnic differences had nothing to do with the ending. There was broad acceptance among our friends and families, but it became obvious we were noticed in more public settings. Eating in a fine restaurant in Chapel Hill, filled with sophisticated diners, the eyes were upon us. It was not just a feeling. A glance around the room found eyes fixed, unable to release the unusual picture. One weekend morning near the beach we stopped for breakfast and we were standing in line. She was the only black face in the crowd. That time it was not just the looking, it was the faces of the lookers. I could project a lot of possibilities; but blatant discomfort and apparent distaste surprised me.
Twice, once in Chapel Hill and once on the campus of the University of Michigan, we experienced the disapproval of young black men. Both times, out in the evening, the expression was verbal and clear. I still remember the utterance of one young man as he passed, going in the opposite direction, “Uh-uh, sister!” She was dark and beautiful and I quite white. Perhaps it was the vast disparity in color, perhaps they thought she should be with someone better-looking. All I know is that in the early nineties we were a spectacle.
As my grandchildren have grown, I have watched to see at what point they would come to deal with racial issues and their still-unique heritage. Would there come a crisis of racial identity at some point? How would they handle it? For my grandson, a crisis of identity did arrive one day and I remember it vividly, as his parents were out of town and I stepped into the void. But it had nothing to do with race, and I cannot say that it was any different than any other teenager’s experience when the pressures of school, social standing, and negotiating impending adulthood come rushing into life.
Both grandchildren seem to flow easily between the worlds of their parents’ families and for a while it was evident that my grandson really wanted and needed the connection to his step-father’s family. He attended huge family reunions every summer if he could. He learned to negotiate the social scene in his high school, eventually finding his best friends in the small pool of bi-racial kids from a mixture of parents.
My grandson is a well-adjusted young man who dates easily, and color and race are of no account. There is no discussion among us of such things as there is nothing to discuss. I never know the race, color, or looks of his girlfriends until I meet them or they appear on Facebook. Who he will be with is unpredictable, as he doesn’t see differences in the same way I did. My granddaughter, recently entering the dating world, seems equally unconcerned.
So I am grateful that my grandchildren are living in a different world that doesn’t automatically separate people on the basis of skin color or cultural background. You can walk the streets now and see the grandchildren of immigrants from many Asian cultures walking hand in hand with the descendants of European, African, and Latino cultures. And members of those cultures with each other. For the newly arrived, integration is often happening faster. Of course there are going to be pockets of resistance, but the American culture has crossed the abyss and there is no going back. The pockets will get smaller and smaller.
I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, and all the other turmoil of the sixties. The civil rights movement, the Watergate hearings, and the Vietnam War were amazing events happening during my life. We have entered the information age and the rate of change is increasing. This is a fascinating time to be alive and I am grateful to have witnessed so many extraordinary events. But for me personally, there is nothing more significant than watching the arbitrary cultural walls, built to keep people in a false sense of separateness, come down at a faster and faster rate. And, maybe even more to the point, that a little white boy can look a little black girl in the eye, feel the connection, and not flinch.
Scott Hines splits his time delivering relationship workshops, coaching individuals in business and their personal interests, and personally customizing houses to meet homeowner desires. firstname.lastname@example.org