My husband and I finally made to Shakespeare in the Park to see Othello last week. This was a tradition for us before we were dating, but since child #1 and #2 came, we hadn’t been in a few years. For those of you, like me, who haven’t thought about Othello since high school (and I think we didn’t read the whole thing then, but watched the movie instead)…
Othello is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, with possibly the worst villain in English literature—Iago. Unfortunately, Iago is Othello's best friend. Othello is one of Shakespeare’s few Black or “dark” principal characters. There seems to be some debate as to whether Othello was truly Black in the modern sense of the term; nonetheless, it is clear that Othello is perceived as racially “other” in the play. Othello marries Desdemona, who is described as White, which enrages Desdemona’s father. Prior to this, Othello had been in good favor with Desdemona’s father as a Moorish prince and military officer. Through a series of machinations, Iago manages to incense Othello by inventing a story of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. He plays on the idea that she will ultimately wish to be with someone who looks like her. Othello ultimately kills his wife, and then kills himself when he finds out Iago has deceived him.
This plot is supremely depressing, however, I don’t remember being as disturbed by the story as a high school student as I was this past week. As I watched, I was horrified by the racial slurs, sexual innuendo, sexism and misogyny. I looked around at the crowd and wondered what they were thinking about these atrocities taking place on stage. As in previous years, I was aware that the majority of the crowd was White. I think I noticed more Black people this time, but I’m not sure if that was because I was looking for them or if there were in fact more Black people present. I wondered if it was also hard to watch for the Black folks. I wondered if the White people were thinking, “Gee, I’m glad we don’t live in that time period. See how far we have come?” All I kept thinking was, “Nothing has changed.”
Let me repeat that. Nothing has changed. There are still White parents who refuse to attend their daughter’s wedding because she married a Black man. There are still White families who treat interracial couples poorly. And conversely, there are Black men who won’t date a White woman because of the Black family’s negative feelings about this type of union, although admittedly this bias might be more defensible in light of our history. However, it all ends up adding up to the same thing--attitudes against interracial marriage. And these are only examples from people I know. If you don’t want to take my word for it, there are also studies that have been done that document white people’s attitudes towards interracial marriages (Bonilla-Silva, 2002, 2003; Frankenberg, 1993).
I focus on White people’s attitudes because the social construct of “Whiteness” has historically shaped the dominant discourse about "race' and racial difference in the U.S. In other words, “Whiteness” is the concept by which all racial difference is measured and defined. Laws made by White people and based on “Whiteness,” and backed by Christianity, forbid interracial marriages (i.e. White marriage with black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American) until 1967 in the U.S. The issue was and is also not limited to Black/White, however, there is evidence that White people’s attitudes towards people of color exist on a spectrum (i.e. Asian people are considered to be closest to White, while Black people are considered to be the most different, with everyone else falling somewhere in the middle). White people had the power to enforce these norms on everyone else.
One argument against interracial marriages has been that the interracial couple will struggle because of cultural differences. The second argument, and perhaps more prevalent, has typically been the kingpin: “The children will suffer.” These arguments are based on an understanding of White people as essentially different (either culturally and/or biologically) from Black people. Second, the argument about the children acknowledges that racism still exists in society (i.e. the children will be treated differently because of their racial identity), but puts the onus on the interracial couple, not the society at large.
Even when White people spoke in favor of interracial marriage in the studies I mentioned, it was mostly in ambivalent tones. In other words, while there are strong arguments against interracial marriage, there has been a dearth of arguments for interracial marriages. I recently had an e-mail conversation with a friend who pointed out the number of interracial marriages or unions in the Bible. (While I realize that the modern concept of race based on phenotype is unique, I maintain that the concept of the “other” based on ethnic origin resulted in systemic and institutional hierarchy and discrimination from which we can draw many parallels.) I quote my friend’s list below:
1. Judah and Tamar: scholars believe that Tamar is probably Canaanite (Judah had already married a Canaanite wife Gen. 38:2); Tamar is “more righteous” than Judah (his own words in Gen. 38:26).
2. Joseph and Asenath (daughter of Potiphera-priest of On) Gen. 41:45. Joseph and Asenath have two children—Manasseh and Ephraim (Gen. 41:51-52) who are adopted by Joseph’s father Jacob (Gen. 48:5) to become part of the 12 tribes!
3. Moses (Jewish/adopted by Egyptians) and Zipporah (daughter of Reuel/Jethro/priest of Midian) Ex. 2:15-22; Ex. 18 “Guess who’s coming to Dinner?”; Family “dynamics” of inter-racial marriage Num 12:1-3,9-13.
4. Salmon and Rahab (Canaanite in Jericho) Josh. 2; “she lives among the Israelites to this day” Josh. 6:25; Heb. 11:31; James 2:25 “considered righteous”
5. Boaz and Ruth (Moabite) Ruth 1:4
6. David and Bathsheba (debated if Bathsheba was Israelite or not)
7. Timothy’s parents (Acts 16:1,3) “a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek”
Christianity clearly has no basis for an argument against interracial marriages. If anything, this would be a strong argument for interracial marriages, if nothing else because many of the couples listed above are included in the lineage of Jesus. I believe that it is time we not only recognize that interracial marriages are not a problem, but that they are an advantage and a blessing. The problem has always been the racist ideology that still prevails in society.
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (2002). The linguistics of color blind racism: How to talk nasty about blacks without sounding “racist.” Critical Sociology (Brill Academic Publishers), 28(1/2), 41.
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.