Late last week, one of our favorite race blogs, Racialicious, featured a story about a justice of the peace in Louisiana who refused to marry an interracial couple because he was worried about “the offspring” such a marriage would produce. The JP, Keith Bardwell, claims he’s not a racist in this video from the AP:
Since the story broke, several prominent political figures in Louisiana, including Governor Bobby Jindal and Senator Mary Landrieu, have publicly rebuked the JP’s actions and called for his resignation. Bardwell refuses to resign, but says he had previously decided after 34 years in elected office not to run again when his term ends in 2014.
Last week I picked up a book on the subject of interracial marriage and parenting called Just Don’t Marry One by George and Sherelyn Yancey (themselves an interracial couple). Strangely enough, the Racialicious post I mentioned above featured the cover art of this book. The title fits the story perfectly. It’s the very objection every “non-racist” white person makes when their kids ask about befriending or even dating a person of color. I have to admit, I was a little embarrassed carrying this book around with me for a week thinking that the title, which is clearly ironic, might make me look like some kind of supremacist.
The book is a collection of essays by evangelical Christians from various ethnic backgrounds (Latino, Black, White, Native American, Asian, to name a few) on the subjects of interracial dating, marriage and parenting. As one who often criticizes the church (or at least my wing of it) for being AWOL on race issues, I was very surprised to see such a dedicated group of people who were not only educated on these subjects, but actively educating others about them.
While each writer had their own take on things, and almost all of them had their own personal experiences to influence their opinions and counsel, each seemed earnestly working toward justice and ultimately reconciliation within the body of Christ. Several of them sharply scolded their own faith communities for a lack of congregational educational resources. As A. Charles Ware puts it in his essay on pastoral counseling of multiracial families:
Interracial families are not the only ones needing accurate information. The entire church must be educated. (p. 36)
Several of them were more frank than I expected. Sherelyn Yancey, a white woman married to a black man and the co-editor of the book, writes:
In many families and churches, the prejudice of racial superiority manifests itself when it comes to interracial dating and marriage. We repreat our sinful history when we pass on unwritten rule: ‘Yes, you can play together and go to school together. You can even be friends. But…just don’t marry one.'” (p. 87)
Many of us remember the fracas raised when Senator John McCain referred to then-Senator Barak Obama in a debate as “that one.” Despite white Christians’ protest that they “aren’t racists,” often the prospect of being related to a person of color or having multiracial grandchildren brings out their true colors.
This justice of the peace in Louisiana is a good example of this very situation. Concerns about interracial relationships are often masked in false concern over the fate of biracial or multiracial children. In his essay in Just Don’t…, David Tatlock takes this issue on first by quoting author Lee Chanult:
‘What white people are saying with that statement is that they think racial prejudice is awful, especially when it affects children, and they sure are glad their kids are white!’ The only reason biracial children suffer is because they live in a racist society… (p.116)
Tatlock further explores this derailment tactic as it relates to white Christians:
Yes, biracial children will go through a process of discovering who they are, like everyone else. A child with godly self-worth can endure societal torment and taunts. Besides, the Bible teaches that my children will have to endure tremendous hatred and be considered social outcasts–just for being Christian! I have never heard a believer aska Christian couple through tear-soaked eyes, “Have you thought about the implications of having godly offspring? It says in the Bible that if you have children who follow Christ, they will be hated. What about the children?’ (p.117)
I got into a heated argument a couple years back with a close relative about the prospect that one day our white kids might come to us with a desire to marry a person of color. My relative said that she would have a conversation with her child about whether or not they were prepared to handle the social barriers that one might face with an interracial marriage.
While on its face, this is not a bad question, coming from someone who up until that moment in the life of their child had probably preached “colorblindness” and an implicit (though unintentional) sense of white superiority, the question is more meant to discourage the union than to encourage the kids to guard their hearts against the prejudices of others. Most likely the time an interracial couple has reached the point of marriage, they have already endured some degree if not a great degree of societal scorn during their courtship. Just like the “think of the children” comment, this so-called concern is often an indicator of familial disapproval.
The book touches on many of these issues, and I really believe much of it to be a good primer for the church, particularly for white folks. While it doesn’t contain much new material for a seasoned anti-racist, it would be helpful for Christians exploring these subjects for the first time. Many of the problems addressed (yea, even the title itself) explicitly confront white attitudes about interracial marriage and family. The books is often prescriptive, giving white people a place to begin a life of anti-racism and inclusion. In her essay on the history of interracial sexual relations in America, Sherelyn Yancey writes:
When it comes to race relations, we white Christians seem to have historical amnesia over past interracial sexual relations and resulting multiracial children…Many of us might complain, ‘I wasn’t there. I can’t help it if my family owned slaves or killed Indians.’ No, we are not responsible for others’ behavior, but we are accountable for how we use our social and economic inheritance. (p. 86, emphasis mine)
Unfortunately, while we white people are learning and growing and messing up and begging forgiveness, Christian people of color have their own burden in the reconciliation process. Randy Woodley, a minister and member of the Cherokee nation, writes in the book about the church’s role in the subjugation of indigenous people. Woodly talks about a piercing experience in forgiveness that he had during an organized walk along the Cherokee’s path during the Trail of Tears.
His story, like many who are working on anti-racist education and justice, remains somewhat unresolved. Woodley is clearly determined to forge past his own difficulties in forgiving others, but does so knowing that the task is not an easy one, nor is he always going to immediately cooperate with the process:
Though I may not always welcome [reconciliation], I am a mixed blood and based on my understanding of Scripture, I am a bridge. (p. 149)
As frustrating as it can be for me, a white woman, to bear with my white brothers and sisters who are wrong on the issue of interracial marriage, I have to do just that. I will not go quietly, and they will not go uncorrected (at least not if I am in the room), but ultimately, it is the truth and kindness that leads to repentance. Change is a messy process and in an effort to make progress, there will undoubtedly be offenses on the part of all (but mostly us) that require forgiveness and patience. Like Randy Woodley, I am a bridge. If necessary, tread on me.