Ever since the Lakers won the NBA championships, Kobe Bryant’s picture has been circulating on the web. But this particular photo has nothing to do with the Lakers’ victory, basketball, rap music or any other aspect of Bryant’s public persona. What’s landing in e-mail inboxes worldwide is a picture of the basketball sensation’s beautiful companion – his allegedly white fiancée.
With her long blonde hair and hazel eyes, Vanessa Laine has been the subject of much heated debate; while she has not publicly discussed her ethnic heritage, she has been rumored to be all-white, Latina or half-black/half-Italian.
Romantic relationships between blacks and whites are still causing controversy. While the sentiments of miscegenation-phobic whites are roundly denounced as racist (witness the Bob Jones University debacle last February), the ire of African Americans who oppose mixed-race romances in the name of racial solidarity gets much less public play. And yet incidents like the alleged “Wall of Shame” at Brown University several years ago (a list of black students who have dated whites), the virtual rounds of Bryant’s picture with his wife – not to mention all of the hard stares and mumbled hostilities directed at interracial couples on the streets – indicate that for many black Americans, the issue is still fraught with tension.
According to Census Bureau statistics, the number of black/white marriages quadrupled between 1960 and 1980 (from 0.4% to 2.0%) and has been rising steadily ever since. Today roughly 4% of US marriages are interracial. While the number of black men marrying white women surpasses that of black women marrying white men, this trend is changing; since the 1980s, when black women entered the professional sector in larger numbers, their rates of intermarriage have risen dramatically. As for young people, in a recent Gallup poll published by USA Today, a whopping 57% of teen respondents said that they had dated someone outside their race or ethnic background. When the same question was asked in 1980, just 17% of the respondents said they had dated someone outside of their race.
“I prefer white men as a matter of preference,” Kymberly Jean announced a decade ago on the daytime talk show Donahue. Ms. Jean, who founded Opposites Attract, a Los Angeles-based interracial dating service in 1989, spoke frankly to the studio audience. “I have a lot of respect for myself. And I found personally [white men] treat me the way I want to be treated. They open car doors. They take me to places I like to go. I like to be treated well.”
What was shocking then seems less so now: interracial dating has come out of the closet. Perhaps most noticeably, a critical mass of multiracial children has come of age to challenge old assumptions. Even though the push for a multiracial category on the census failed, activists raised public awareness for the conundrum faced by multiracial children who are constantly forced to choose a race; now the census gives mixed race individuals the option of checking all boxes that apply.
It is clear that for many, this is a non-issue.
“We are still operating on a slave-based, one-drop rule system,” says Rebecca, a New York-based black actress who chose a pseudonym for the purposes of this article. Rebecca contends that while she is proud of her ancestry and feels an affinity for people of African descent, she rejects the idea of dating black people solely out of racial loyalty. “There was rampant colorism and internal racism in my family. It was a caste system, basically. On the one hand it was ‘don’t you dare bring home a white man,’ but on the other ‘don’t let him be the color of a skillet.’ When I finally broke out of that mentality, I left it all behind. I felt I could date whomever I wanted, period.”
But for other black Americans, the debate is still valid.
Interracial relationships, particularly those featuring black men and white women, trigger painful feelings of rejection. Tiger Woods is not black, he’s Cablinasian – with a white girlfriend to boot. Montell Williams is going on his second white wife and Wesley Snipes has said flat out that he doesn’t date black women because they are too difficult. “There’s a reason why black girls grow up thinking they’re the ugliest things on the planet,” Arhima Jacobs told a Brown University student paper. “It hurts to see that you are not wanted by your brother.”