How to Know a “Sell Out” When You See One
When people think of prominent black-white couples, figures that come to mind might include “sensational” (read: chock full of drama) pairings, Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren/Lindsey Vonn, Kobe Bryant and Vanessa Laine Bryant (though she’s actually Hispanic), and Lamar Odom and Khloe Kadashian (in the picture). And for many ordinary black people, these guys ‘sold out’.
For Christmas 2011, our brother and sister-in-law gave Dan and me a great book: Navigating Interracial Borders: Black-White Couples and their Social Worlds, by Erica Chito Childs. The book discusses white and black community responses to black-white marriages. It is a fascinating study that made Dan and me feel incredibly fortunate that our families and friends were so accepting. But I’d like to pick up on one thing she talks about that made me raise a brow.
In her book, Dr Childs writes the following rather provocative statement (among many):
“In black communities, interracial relationships are often seen as a sign that one is removed from the black community. More important, they indicate a negative image of oneself as a black individual and of black communities in general. … [T]hese relationships are constructed as incompatible with black pride, cultural affinity, and fighting racial injustice. In other words, to engage in an intimate relationship with a white person means that one is selling out to white society and in the process has sold out the black community. … Contemporary black scholars such as Lawrence Otis Graham also argue against interracial marriage, stating ‘the cumulative effect is that the very blacks who are potential mentors and supporters of a financially and psychologically depressed black community are increasingly deserting the black community en masse, both physically and emotionally.’” (emphasis added)
As Dr Childs describes, the last statement is primarily supported by black community members’ observations that “mainly successful black men choose to date white women and that whites only accept blacks if they are highly educated and/or wealthy such as sports figures.” This argument is mainly reflective of the historically-grounded concerns and fears of black communities that might be summarised, as one joke I know ends, in the words: “everything a black man owns, a white man takes away.” In this sense, the black individual who crosses the racial-romantic line is selling out the community which needs him or her most.
Building on the first concern, Dr Childs finds that, in the sight of the black community members interviewed, “blacks who do cross the racial divide to date are accused of ‘selling out’ the black race and of not being ‘black’ enough.” In other words, the individual is not just selling out the black community but him or herself as well – they are choosing to be white. Of course, the two points are rightly seen to be connected.
Not having previously lived in America, where I think these issues might be more intense because black people form a minority of the population, I’ve still got to say that I agree with the community respondents. Anecdotally-based, my sense of black people who date/marry interracially is that a significant enough proportion of them are inclined to leaving ‘the community’ behind, partly as a way of leaving themselves and their own blackness behind. If they could, they would disown their own families; in indirect ways, some of them do. Even if they can’t, they still seem to act white, somehow.
As an amateur scholar of Fanon, I find his arguments persuasive – that is, his arguments about how ‘whiteness’ sets itself up as a most desirable identity and that paradigm comes to dominate even black minds (to varying degrees) such that some come to hate themselves and want to acquire whiteness. If you (assuming you are a white person), as a fly on the wall, were to hear some of the things we black people say about ourselves as a people, you might be shocked. But, you shouldn’t be – after all, that’s what centuries of being told you are an inherently worthless race will likely do to a people.
But, of course, there are some for whom marrying interracially does not mean leaving ‘the community’ behind – at least, not in terms of their investment/concern. In those cases, however, the arguments questioning the black individuals’ ‘blackness’ do not naturally dissipate. Rather, the authenticity of the person’s demonstrated commitment to the black community might be questioned. They might even be seen to be putting on a performance; hence, trying (maybe too hard) to show their blackness. Essentially, those individuals lose trust and credibility. They can no longer speak as complete insiders.
I’m particularly interested in this question of how continuously dating or marrying across the black-white divide can change one’s race, for the black partner. (I’m similarly interested in how intimate interracial relationships do not typically change especially white men’s race and, hence, credibility – but that’s a discussion for another day.) This strikes me as troubling for a number of reasons.
Firstly, as Dr Childs rightly observes, the whole argument is based on the idea that there is some clearly discernible ‘black’ identity – as if there aren’t a number of metaphorical shades of blackness lying on a spectrum.
Secondly, it establishes causation in a single direction only, without justification. By this, I mean that the argument says that a black person becomes white because of his/her white spouse when there is no empirically-based reason not to think that the kind of black person who is most likely to marry a white person is one who was already closer to white identity on the black-white behavioural scale before getting together with the white person.
Thirdly, it is troubling that the judgment is so final: the black person who is married to a white person is white; and thus an individual’s identity and idiosyncrasies are wholly attributed to a single racial descriptor. Everything they say and do is therefore justified in those terms and there’s no way for them to do anything that releases them from that. It becomes a kind of stigma one cannot work off. Thus, while the white partner could show him/herself to be ‘down’ (‘umuntu‘), the black partner is perpetually working to prove his/her identity, so whatever misstep and, ‘oh, it’s because s/he’s [married to a] white [wo/man].’ (Read: ‘It’s because s/he thinks s/he’s white.’) It would be somewhat helpful if the change weren’t depicted as fatal but some discussion were offered on why white partners do not typically move into the black community and how that might be encouraged so as to address black communities’ loss.
Finally, fact is that this supposed racial transformation doesn’t play out once the black person rejects or is rejected by the black community and enters the white community. The best one can get from white society is ‘you’re not like the others’ (that is, the other black people) – ‘you’re different’. But that’s not the same as calling you white. And, as far as how that black person is treated by white people who don’t know that s/he might be ‘white inside’, that still says they’re black. So, there’s no winning for them, really.
You’ve probably guessed by now that this issue fascinates me largely because I, myself, have been told I was ‘white’. The first time it happened, it was by someone close and I was deeply wounded by it. On reflection, I understood that the person was actually saying that I was behaving in a manner that did not meet her expectations and desires, and the nearest explanation was that of race: I am married to a white man thus my behaviour must surely be attributable to my having adopted his habits (about which the person had made some wrong assumptions, anyway) which must surely be based on his racial identity (according to racial stereotypes that the person held).
It happened again, recently, at the Johannesburg airport as Dan and I were moving to the US. One of the porters offered to help us with our bags, which I declined. He then insisted on giving us directions to international departures, since we said we were going there. Again, I said thanks but no thanks. (Having forgotten exactly where we’d said we’d meet him, Dan and I were wanting to pause and consider where to go and wait for my dad who was coming to meet us to send us off.) Next thing I knew, the porter was making derogatory comments about me in vernacular to the porter next to him: “this one thinks she’s white and better [than us] just because she’s with a white person … .” I called him out in vernacular but he didn’t apologise; his colleague apologised for him. I imagine he might have just been having a bad day where business was slow but, again, that that epithet came so quickly and easily to explain my not supporting this brother’s micro-business is telling of the potency of the ‘sell out’ concern.
I have even had it insinuated by a caller while, for work purposes, I was participating in a radio debate, advocating for the rights of ordinary (black) rural people to constitutionally-compliant justice even in traditional courts. …
By now you know that I don’t believe society is colour-blind and I don’t want anyone to pretend that it is. But, I’ve got to say that I am bugged by the thought that I might not be judged on the merit of my deeds and their contribution to the upliftment of black society (and, in turn, society in general), simply because I am married to a white person. More than that, I think it does a disservice to the particular white person to whom I am married who fully supports and partners with me in my commitment to eradicating racial inequality and injustice.