Press-Republican

February 13, 2012

Love between the lines

Viewpoints of interracial love shared, discussed

ROBIN CAUDELL
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — "Ooh sha sha. We got to live together."

The refrain is from "Everyday People," a 1969 hit for Sly and the Family Stone, a multiracial conscious-raising band, rocking the San Francisco Bay area.

Dr. Nell Irvin Painter of New Russia in Essex County grew up there, in Oakland. There, love American-style was not just black and white.

"There, the big hysteria about race mixing was with Asians," said Painter, a Princeton University professor emerita and the author of "The History of White People," "Creating Black Americans" and "Southern History Across the Color Line."

"The case I remember was Noriko Sawada and Harry Bridges. She's Japanese. During World War II, her family spent three years in an Arizona internment camp."

Like other Japanese Americans and others with "Foreign Enemy Ancestry" on the West Coast, the Sawadas were relocated due to Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942.

Harry, a white labor leader instrumental in the establishment of the International Longshoreman's and Warehouseman's Union, met Noriko, a labor and civil-rights activist.

They dated and fell in love. He popped the question. She decided on Pearl Harbor Day nuptials. Their 1958 obstacle was a Nevada law that prohibited interracial marriages.

RACE HYSTERIA

Place plays a role in where race hysteria is focused, according to Painter.

"As far the states laws regulating who is what, the stigmatized part is the Negro and the white part is what is left over."

In Virginia and other southern states, she said, the laws that defined race were frequently changed — blood quantum fluctuated between 1/16 and 1/32 Native-American ancestry without any traceable African ancestry.

"How do you figure it out?" Painter asked. "The point I would stress, the laws were against interracial marriage, not interracial sex. Surely, they didn't enforce any laws against interracial sex. That tended to protect the rights of men, particularly white men. Making it respectable was the problem ... for property, for standing."

Dr. J.W. Wiley explores these topics in his Plattsburgh State courses, "African-American Culture from 1865 to Present" and "Romance, Sex, Love and Marriage."

"A lot of the anxiety of interracial romance has a lot to do with the context," said Wiley, who was born in Tulsa, Okla. and raised in Los Angeles, Calif.

"If you're in a big city like NYC or LA, and depending on where in the big city you're at, it becomes a no-brainer because there is so much racial diversity there. No one has a hang-up or heartburn (about interracial relationships)."

UNPACK BIASES

Interracial romancing in Plattsburgh can be eye-opening to see a college couple walking from campus to downtown Plattsburgh. Depending on how many drinks passers-by have had, interracial couples can be subjected to outbursts from locals and peers, Wiley said.

"People think we have evolved so far, and we have a president, a product of an interracial union," Wiley said. "He's not seen as a biracial man. He's seen as a black man. It tells you people still have problem because technically he shouldn't been seen as a black man, unless he wants to."

Wiley challenges students to unpack their biases, for example, in dating. What are their Match.com preferences?

"Philosophically, what is up? We haven't challenged or scrutinized our biases. They are just a part of who we are. We don't stop to ask ourselves what's going on with me?"

He uses films such as "Jungle Fever," in which a married black protagonist has an affair with an Italian woman, whose father beats her for doing so.

"What is that really about? It's so bad you have a situation like this. A white woman is so socialized against dating a black man. He could be a doctor, salt of the earth, make a six-figure salary, and a white guy is verbally abusive, disrespectful, not well educated and not earning a large income; she won't even see the black guy. She doesn't date the black guy. Why? What daddy sees is a n——-. Daddy may try to dress it up and make like it's not a problem."

CRITICAL THINKING

Social media and college opens the world to young people.

"They make new friends, they go back home," Wiley said. "They take their new friends back home or their parents see pictures of them on Facebook. The parents are cool as long as they are not crossing certain boundaries. The last thing they want is for their children to come home with somebody that doesn't fit their idea."

What would the grandparents think? The neighbors?

"It's so layered and textured."

Many students don't date outside of their ethnic group due to parental and peer pressure, he said.

Wiley uses films, articles and discussions to help students think critically.

"They understand how socially constructed most of this bias is," he said. "They start to hear other people's stories. They realize this is really ridiculous."

Email Robin Caudell at: rcaudell@pressrepublican.com