Sociologist’s Book Highlights Experiences of Interracial Couples and the Meanings They Give to Race and Ethnicity

By Tom McLaughlin

While people in American society often talk about race mixture as an antidote to the country’s racial problems, interracial couples remain stigmatized, according to a new book by a Rutgers University–Camden sociologist.

The book looks at the experiences of black and white interracial couples in two settings – Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro – according to the various race-gender combinations of the couples.

“The idea is that, the more people who are interracially marrying, then we will have more multiracial children and magically there won’t be racial inequality or racism anymore,” says Chinyere Osuji, an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers University–Camden.

That’s not the case, says the Rutgers–Camden researcher.

According to Osuji, looking at interracial couples in Brazil – a country historically known for its racial diversity – shows how racism can coexist with race mixture. She explains that, although the country does have a substantial multiracial population, interracial couples are very much still stigmatized and race mixing is segregated by class – more likely to occur “in poor communities, where brown and black people live.”

These are just a few of the illuminating findings in Osjui’s groundbreaking new book, Boundaries of Love: Interracial Love and the Meaning of Race (NYU Press, 2019).

The book looks at the experiences of black and white interracial couples in two settings – Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro – according to the various race-gender combinations of the couples.

From 2008 to 2012, the Rutgers–Camden researcher conducted more than 100 in-depth interviews with spouses in order to determine the meanings that they give to race and ethnicity in these two contexts.

“I wanted to understand how they make sense of race and racial and ethnic boundaries in their everyday lives,” she says.

Just as importantly, Osuji sought to shed light on what is understood about race itself in these two societies.

“We are so used to talking about race in the United States using particular narratives that we take for granted the way we have come to understand it,” she says. “With this comparative perspective, we can see how race really is a social construct with many significant implications.”

Throughout her book, Osuji uses her findings to challenge the notion that society should rely on interracial couples and their multiracial children to end racism.

Osuji explains that, in order to understand the differences in these two contexts, it is first important to understand how the countries’ origins and corresponding histories of race mixing are very different.

She notes that, in the United States, race mixture was explicitly prohibited with regards to cohabiting and marriage until 1967, when the landmark Loving v. Virginia U.S. Supreme Court decision made interracial marriage fully legal. Race mixing did occur, she notes, but it was illicit.

In Brazil, however, race mixing has been part of the country’s nation-building process since its inception. Many more slaves were actually brought there than the United States, but many either bought their own and their family members’ freedom or were granted freedom from their masters. The society then evolved with a long history of race mixture without similar formal laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

“So the whole idea of who they are as a people is different in Brazil,” she says. “There is this idea that everyone looks Brazilian if you are racially mixed. That’s a very different story than the United States, where American citizenship was limited to white men for a long time and changed gradually due to social movements.”

However, she says, when speaking with interracial couples in Brazil, this traditional notion of the country as a multiracial society is “ripped at the seams.” Couples talked frequently about how blacks and whites are discouraged from interracially marrying – especially by white families – and, as mentioned, are stigmatized for doing so.

In spite of these predominant negative views, she says, there is large sense of familialism in Brazil, with family members spending a lot of time together. By nature of this closeness, families often come to accept spouses of a different race much quicker than in the United States, where interracial couples are more likely to live far away from their families of origin.

“In Los Angeles, I found that these couples may be torn up about these strained relationships with their families, but they are living their everyday lives, are supported by their friends, and live in a very diverse city,” says Osuji. “They have crafted these multiracial, diverse spaces for themselves.”

In the United States, she continues, no one wants to believe that they are racist, so Americans practice “color-blind racism,” which maintains bigotries in a more subtle way.

“We come up with all of these different narratives around the issue of racism – other ways of rationalizing why we don’t like a particular person,” she explains.

According to the Rutgers–Camden scholar, when it comes to interracial relationships involving black women and white men in the U.S., another interesting dynamic happens: these men experience “an autonomy,” wherein people don’t question with whom they decide to partner.

Conversely, she notes, when she spoke to black women with white men in Brazil, she found a “hypersexualization” of these women. They spoke of being viewed as prostitutes and their husbands as johns. As a consequence of this stereotype, they didn’t wear revealing clothing in public and avoided popular hotspots such as Copacabana and Ipanema.

Throughout her book, Osuji uses her findings to challenge the notion that society should rely on interracial couples and their multiracial children to end racism. For example, she notes, when President Barack Obama was elected, women whom she had interviewed in Los Angeles shared their belief that society was going to be much more accepting of blacks because of their biracial children.

“I pushed back and asked them how that is going to happen,” says Osuji. “The fact is, there are no mechanisms in place to make it happen.”

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