Lessons, Then and Now, From Rhinelander v. Rhinelander

…Finally, Rhinelander teaches us about the limited spaces that are available in society for recognizing families that are multiracial. Like many multiracial families, Alice’s family, the Joneses, existed within an American landscape that had no recognized place for them and their lives. Just like the one-drop rule was applied to individuals, it was applied to the Jones family during and after the Rhinelander saga. In other words, Elizabeth Jones’s legal and social classification as a white individual became “implicated by [the] brownness” of her family members, and the reality of her family’s existence as one that lived between two worlds, one white and one black, was erased. It had no place in 1920s New York society, and it placed them nowhere within the spectrum of American families. Today, this sense of family as defined by race persists. The lesson is so clear that even young children understand it. Just ask my husband, who is white and who is often asked as he drops off or picks up our children, who are racially mixed, black and white children, “why he does not match.” Or ask my daughter, who even at the age four, understood that there was no place for her family, often declaring that she wanted to paint her daddy “brown like Davey’s dad.” As Heidi Durrow has explained about the continuing “spaceless-ness” of interracial families in our society, “[w]hen race acts as the primary kinship identifier, the reality of [the multiracial] family dissolves.” It is important that we continue to explore and study cases like Rhinelander case, which serve as stark reminder of this dissolving multiracial family, and our need to create spaces for it…

Angela Onwuachi-Willig,  “A Beautiful Lie: Exploring Rhinelander v. Rhinelander as a Formative Lesson on Race, Identity, Marriage, and Family,” California Law Review, Volume 95, 2007, University of Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 07-27.

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