|Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Law, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2014-04-07 03:39Z by Steven|
Camille Gear Rich, Associate Professor of Law
Gould School of Law
University of Southern California
According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family. By Angela Onwuachi-Willig. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. 2013. Pp. 325.
Angela Onwuachi-Willig’s provocative book According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family seems tailor-made for the current cultural moment. The book arrives on the heels of the reelection of our first mixed-race President. It arrives in the midst of a media blitz that favorably presents mixedrace couples on a routine basis, making the multiracial family seem a normal, even pedestrian occurrence. Indeed, in 2012 the cultural embrace of the interracial family seemed complete when Modern Family was chosen as the top sitcom in the United States. The program centers on the Dunphy-Pritchetts, an interracial, gay-tolerant family, seemingly progressive in all dimensions. Onwuachi-Willig’s new book, however, boldly challenges the contemporary claim that interracial families are now an accepted and celebrated part of the American polity. The author instead painstakingly reveals that the world still subjects the interracial family to insult and inferior treatment that the law fails to address and, further, that the acceptance of interracial couples in contemporary popular culture is far more partial, conditional, and ambivalent than it might initially seem.
One need look no further than the program Modern Family itself to find evidence of America’s continuing anxiety about interracial unions. While fans of the program know the cast of characters well, the program’s viewers most likely have not fully apprehended the program’s cultural commitments and underlying political ambitions. The core characters of Modern Family are members of a white nuclear family, Claire and Phil Dunphy and their three children. This couple’s 1950s-style Dick and Jane union stands alongside the May-December romance of Claire’s white father, Jay Pritchett, who, having separated from Claire’s white mother, has married Gloria, a fiery Latina from Colombia. Jay has also functionally adopted Manny, Gloria’s Latino son. The family clan is complete when we are introduced to Claire’s brother, Mitchell Pritchett, a white gay man who has coupled with another white gay man, Cameron, and adopted Lily, a Vietnamese child. The not-so-silent political subtext that informs this current cultural favorite is that the era of interraciality has ended and the postracial future has arrived. Indeed, in the world of Modern Family, “interraciality,” the term Onwuachi-Willig uses to describe the discrimination aimed at mixed-race couples in American society, is a relic of the past. The program further reassures its viewers that the white nuclear family will not be threatened by this new post-racial future, a time when whites casually form intimate family relationships with people of color. For Modern Family is treacle-coated reassurance that in these new “modern families,” interracial parenting and interracial marriage will simply mimic the dynamics of the white nuclear family in its original form.
Close analysis of Modern Family further demonstrates that, despite the seeming cultural celebration of interracial families, the racial acceptance offered in the program is surprisingly partial. One major racial group is left out of the Dunphy-Pritchett clan’s seemingly capacious diversity circle — blacks. Indeed, in the Dunphy-Pritchett family, white parents eagerly reach out to care for Latino, Asian, and mixed-race children, but there are no black children in the family. Over the course of each season we occasionally see black friends, or black neighbors, but there is no sign that any black person has ever been invited into the Dunphy-Pritchett marital bed. One wonders, why did the producers’ willingness to represent interracial intimacy stop with blacks? According to Our Hearts provides an answer. Onwuachi-Willig explains that black-white romantic dyads and the mixed-race families they produce are particularly anxiety provoking in the United States and, as a consequence, are typically erased and rendered culturally invisible (p. 18). She further argues that this invisibility hides the fact that black-white families suffer under a unique form of hostility and disadvantage (p. 9). By charting these black-white couples’ experiences and using them in a “miner’s canary” analysis to assess race relations, she argues, we learn just how long racism and fear of interracial intimacy have endured (p. 122)…
…Indeed, history shows that the interracial family historically has been an institution that assimilated ethnic or racial differences to whiteness and therefore did not disturb the existing racial status hierarchy. Ethnic whites that immigrated to the United States in the early 1900s, including Germans and Northern Europeans, intermarried with “American” or British whites as a way of being absorbed into the larger category of privileged white persons. A second wave of immigrant intermarriage expanded the category of whiteness again in the 1950s and 1960s, when Italians and other Southern Europeans were added to the category of whiteness. Today we are experiencing a third wave in this expansion as sections of the Asian and Latino communities have gained sufficient social status that they are being accepted as suitable marriage partners by privileged whites today. In many cases, whites appear willing to treat Asian or Latino background, particularly for mixed-race persons, as a kind of “ethnic” rather than racial difference. Professor Charles Gallagher refers to this dynamic, in which racialized or subordinated ethnic groups are granted status equal to whiteness, as “racial redistricting.”
Given the subtle and sophisticated nature of Onwuachi-Willig’s account of the interracial family, it is surprising that she does not cover the potentially racially regressive role the interracial family can play in contemporary race relations. However, this oversight may be a consequence of methodological choices she makes in her study. First, Onwuachi-Willig opts to make the black-white multiracial family the paradigmatic case that guides her understanding of interraciality (p. 122), and an assimilation focus is not as common in black-white families. Sociologists have suggested that assimilation messages are not as common because phenotypic differences prevent many children in black-white mixed-race families from assimilating to whiteness easily. However, there is some evidence that even black-white interracial families use these unions as a path for their children into whiteness when possible. Second, sampling bias may account for the problem. Onwuachi-Willig uses an approach called convenience sampling in her account. Specifically, she collects stories from former volunteers and acquaintances made through friends (pp. 8–10); understandably these like-minded individuals were more likely to share her progressive vision. Those who were not like-minded, for obvious reasons, would likely opt not to participate in a study of interraciality-based discrimination. Members of interracial couples who could see their children easily transitioning to a white identity or a transcendent raceless identity would be less interested in exploring the unique forms of discrimination faced by interracial couples.
Despite these problems, in my view, Onwuachi-Willig’s account of the interracial family provides a much-needed starting point for persons interested in theorizing about the relationship between family formation and racial formation. However, some supplementation of her account is required in order to fully address the interracial family’s tutelary role or its role as a site of racial messaging. Part B further explores these roles, concentrating on families that appear to be committed to assimilating their members to whiteness and therefore are treated as reinforcing existing racial status hierarchy in the United States…
Read the entire review here.