2012. Vol.2, No.1, 75-79
Published Online January 2012 in SciRes (http://www.SciRP.org/journal/sm) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/sm.2012.21010
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 75
How “Commonsense” Notions of Race, Class and Gender
Infiltrate Families Formed across the Color Line
Eileen T. Walsh
California State University, Fullerton, USA
Received August 15th, 2011; revised September 8th, 2011; accepted November 12th, 2011
This research presents data from in-depth interviews of sixty adults in Southern California who have
formed families across the black/white color line. In a societal context where normative family formation
remains mono-racial, many adults in multiracial families manage their social performances to mitigate the
stigma associated with their unusual family pattern or to challenge social expectations associated with
race, class, and gender. Their stories reveal how they deploy strategic exaggerations of gender and
stereotypes of social class in their day to day lives. These deployments operate to manage social interac-
tions when confronting commonsense expectations about what it means to be a man or woman who tres-
passes the color line in family formation.
Keywords: Gender Performance; Multiracial Family; Racial Formations; Social Class Performances
Family, as an institution, remains a bastion of racial segrega-
tion for whites and blacks in this century in the United States
(Fu, 2001; Qian, 1997; Fields & Casper, 2001). Although in-
terracial marriages have increased in the past three decades,
marriages across the black white color line seldom occur (Fu,
2001; Gullickson, 2006; Qian, 1997; Qian & Lichter, 2007). In
part due to their rarity, and in part due to the historical stigma
associated with such unions, multiracial families are subject to
social surveillance in their everyday lives (Childs, 2005; Dal-
mage, 2000; McNamera et al., 1999; Rosenblatt et al., 1995).
Notions of gender and social class were and remain as im-
portant in the creation and recreation of racial disparities as is
the ideology of white supremacy that enforces and patrols the
boundary between those who think of themselves as white and
those who have been assigned by historical practices to social
locations of racial categories (Ferber, 1998; Pascoe, 2010;
Wallenstein, 2002). The interview excerpts illustrate that ideas
of race, gender and social class are inextricably entangled with
understandings of both the color line and racial ideologies. By
examining what multiracial family members say about their
race and gender performances, this research exposes the gen-
dered ways that race is socially constructed. Second, the data
illustrate how gender conflates with social class and continues
to function in contemporary society as an essential prop of the
historical racial hierarchy. Although especially true in the social
construction of white femininity, with its emphasis on purity
and racial purity that forms the ideological linchpin for white
supremacy, ideations of femini nity/mascu linity and re spectabil-
ity/class operate as powerful social constraints on many of the
men and women who have formed families across the color
Despite generation after generation of academic and popular
writings declaring that the country was the verge of an explo-
sive increase in marriages across the color line, marriages
across the black white color line remain the most unusual pat-
tern of family formation with the flattest rate of growth since
the 1960’s (Sanjek, 1994). The US Census Bureau estimates
that of the fifty-nine (59) million married couples in 2000,
fewer than one million were comprised of partners of two dif-
ferent races. Of the couples where partners were two or more
races, less than a half million had one black partner and one
white partner. Analysis of the same data indicates that fewer
than half of one percent of black married women in 2000 had a
white spouse; fewer than 5% of all black married men had a
partner of another race—with the majority married to women of
Asian or Hispanic descent (Qian & Lichter, 2001; Lichter &
For decades, demographers have noted the low incidence of
black/white marriages and the inverted gender pattern (Heer,
1966; Heer, 1974; Kalmijn, 1993; Monahan, 1976; Quin, 1997).
The literature posits theories to explain the scarcity of black/
white marriages and the unusually low exogamy rate for black
women (Kaba, 2011; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1998). No
other the research, however, has compared white and black men
and women in integrated families to illuminate their under-
standings of race, their experiences with broader social net-
works and how gender challenges shape their encounters with
others. Some qualitative data suggests that men and women
married across the color line experience different types of chal-
lenges about their gender and race. White women report a sense
of loss of their femininity and their whiteness and Black men
report a loss of their racial authenticity by marriages across the
color line (Dalmage, 2000; Reddy, 1994; Rosenblatt et al.,
1995). This research examines those experiences to shed light
on how these gender challenges operate as social control
mechanisms to maintain racial boundaries.
Multiracial families are at the fulcrum in “the socio-historical
E. T. WALSH
process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, trans-
formed, and destroyed” (Omi & Winant, 1994: p. 55). Stories
from men and women in multiracial families illustrate the gen-
dered nature of race as an important but under researched dy-
namic of power in their experiences. Shifting racial boundaries
are at the heart of the multiracial family project. It is important
both to document the structural aspects that inhibit formation of
families across the color line and to interrogate the cultural
meanings that circulate about race, class and gender on the edge
of the color line. This research adopts the definition of race as
concept, socially created and negotiated, that changes in differ-
ent historical epochs and in different cultures (Lopez, 1996;
This research focuses on the process adults who form these
families create, reproduce or challenge mainstream under-
standings of race, class and gender. They engage this process in
concert with other social actors in their everyday lives. It is in
the narratives, conversations and life stories of those who live
on the color line that many others turn either to authenticate
their own commonsense understandings about race and gender
or to puzzle out questions of race, class and gender that the
multiracial family poses to our commonsense unders t a nd i n gs .
The persistent racial segregation of blacks and whites in the
most intimate institution, families, contradicts all predictions
that the progression of racial integration in the 20th century
would continue from schools and workplaces to the selection of
marriage partners (Billingsley, 1992; Heer, 1974; Kalmijn,
1993; Myrdal, 1945; Parks, 1926; Quan, 1994; Washington,
1993). The fact that the family, as an institution remains a bas-
tion of racial segregation for Whites and Blacks in this century
runs contrary to expectations and probabilities. If race were not
a factor in mate selection, the rates of intermarriage since the
US Supreme Court decriminalized such pairings would be
much greater than what occurs. The continuing significance of
race and social distance from Blacks is clearly evident, however,
in America’s marriage patterns (Bonilla-Silva, 2002; Harris &
Common sense discourse about families formed across the
color line remains an important prop in the hegemonic racial
project that curtails intimate transgressions across the color line
in this country. In an age of color blind ideology, what social
processes remain in place to curtail family formation across the
color line? By examination of how those in multiracial families
bump up against commonsense notions of race, class and gen-
der, this research sheds light on some ways that the cultural
legacy of historic laws along with the ideology of white su-
premacy seep into the actual lived daily experiences of those in
A burgeoning literature makes compelling arguments that
social phenomena must be interpreted through a framework that
seeks to understand the ways meaning emerges from interac-
tions and reminisces (Gubrium & Holstein, 2002; Weiss, 1994).
This framework informed the in-depth interviews which form
the basis of this research.
I interviewed a total of sixty (60) adults living in Southern
California who have formed families across the powerful black
white racial divide. I choose to concentrate on this particular
subset of multiracial families for five reasons of particular
theoretical interest. First, blacks are the only group in the United
States whose racial identity has been historically based on the
“one-drop” rule of hypo-descent: any known ancestor of so-
called Negro blood consigned one to the black side of the color
line (Davis, 1991; Pascoe, 2010; Spencer, 1999). Second,
whites form the only group whose membership eligibility de-
pends on the myth of racial purity requiring the documentation
of ancestors and creation a family tree (Dalmage, 2004). Third,
one persistent feature in the inconsistent patchwork of myriad
anti-miscegenation laws written from colony to colony and
from state to state, was the prohibition against blacks marrying
whites (Pascoe, 2010; Wallenstein, 2002). Fourth, kinship ties
between blacks and whites remain the most uncommon type of
multiracial family. Compared to other children of racially di-
verse parents, black and white parents have the smallest percent
of multiracial births; when compared to intermarriage rates
among all other racial groups, the growth rate for black white
marriages remains flat (Sanjeck, 1994; Quan, 1997; Tucker et al. ,
1999). Fifth, in an interesting twist, the gender pattern of black/
white family formation inverts the pattern that prevails in every
other exogamous marriage. Typically, white men out-marry
women from other racial categories and women from so-called
minority groups out-marry more than men from racial minori-
ties. In contrast, most families that form across the black white
color line continue to be comprised of a black husband and a
white wife (Zebrowsky, 1999). In all, these five reasons suggest
that the black white divide is not only the most persistent and
least permeable crossing of the color line, but one where some-
thing different is going on.
I recruited respondents through convenience, chain and s-
nowball sampling with a purposive sampling technique. The
final sample is comprised of thirty women and thirty men;
thirty Blacks and thirty Whites: with fifteen respondents in each
of the four gender/race cells. The interviews lasted at least one
and a half hours and typically three hours.
While not representative of all adults in Southern California
who formed families across the color line, the interview data
are intended to tap into a wide range of gendered narratives
about life on the color line. In this endeavor, it is necessary to
make some generalizations at the risk of over-simplification. To
avoid making erroneous generalizations, each of the respon-
dent’s quotes are put in context within a summary of what they
reported in the in-depth interview. In addition, because Ameri-
cans “read” race off the body, I include a brief description of
the respondent to allow the reader access to each respondent’s
presentation of self which is central to gender and class per-
Results and Discussion
Femininity and Class on the Color Line
It is often said that only the worst Negroes and lowest Whites
intermarry (duBois, 1967: p. 358).
Drawing on the conventional wisdom circulating as com-
monsense in 1930, W. E. B. DuBois refutes the assertion that
intermarriage is highest among the class with least prestige and
property using empirical data on a sample of 9000 to show
interracial marriage at that time was most likely among those
who had the most contact. Nonetheless, his frame of the issue
reflects long held and enduring notions about the types of indi-
viduals who intermarry.
At the time I interviewed Jeanne she had been married to
6 Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
E. T. WALSH
Lou Jamison for 49 years. The 72 year old, trim Jeanne, wore a
jogging outfit for the interview in her home in a gated desert
community. With graying nappy hair and deeply tanned, she
was every bit as dark complexioned as her café au lait husband
who greeted me before retiring to the patio. A self-described
“red diaper” baby she recounts being dragged from meetings of
socialists to gatherings of communists during her childhood
with parents whose counter-culture beliefs influenced her
deeply. Explaining that her activist parents had approved of her
dating a black man, Jeanne:
My parents were thrilled when we started seeing each other.
In 1950s having your daughter going with a Neeg—roe (pro-
nounced deliberately in two emphatic syllables) was like an
endorsement for them, “Look everyone; we raised her with the
right values”. It was a validation for them.
Nawt so—oo happy when we decided to get married.
But it wasn’t about the color line. It was that we were getting
too (long pause) too middle-class. That was the worst insult my
parents could ever say, “middle-class”. Jeanne Jamison, age 72
at intervie w , married a black attorney in 1954.
Jeanne Jamison gave many examples of using her husband’s
prominence and their social class status to “rise above” criti-
cism. Over the years she used a defiance of convention along
with the safe security of social class position as shields strate-
gically employed to deflect criticism, social ostracism and
negative comments from others. She gave examples from “up-
pity” neighbors in her North east urban neighborhood to school
officials who were chagrined to discover “who we were”.
She spoke at great length of involvement with progressive
cooperatives for schools and food to charity work where she
refused to wear “the expected girly costumes”. She took great
pleasure in asserting the many ways she defied conventional
performance of femininity—even at the disapproval of her
In 1964, when a suburban Los Angeles school teacher from a
working class background and her black fiancé married, they
experienced a very different social and cultural context than the
Jamison couple had in metropolitan Northeastern city a decade
before. Trudy, a young looking, impeccably coifed 64 year old
blonde, greeted me at her door wearing a holiday themed
sweater set and dangling jack-o-lantern earrings that matched
the embroidered pumpkins on her black velvet flats. We began
the interview surrounded by dozens of silver-framed family
photographs: a chronicle of vacations, birthdays, holidays and
personal events spanning the past fifty years.
Nobody would rent to us when we went looking together. At
least, not a place in a decent (pronounced with emphasis on
both syllables) neighborhood. Trudy Graham, age 64 at inter-
vie married to a black teacher in 1964.
The use of “decent” to describe a neighborhood she was will-
ing to live in and her frequent use “good” in referring to fami-
lies are two devices echoed by many interviewed. These rhe-
torical props allude to social class, but are code words often
used by whites to avoid a direct discussion of race.
Their friends, with one exception, “just happen to be” white.
Their daughter attended private schools as a child, had “almost
all white friends” and the family has had virtually no contact
over the years with Phillip’s family. The Grahams’ strategies
for living with the social context of the color line they encoun-
tered during the 1960’s was to find sympathetic friends, avoid
any controversial discussions of race, achieve a comfortable
lifestyle and revert to a social network of whites who were
comfortable with Phillip.
Lucy is a high school English teacher, raised by white collar
parents in Southern California. This interview took place in her
older suburban tract home in an exclusive neighborhood of
horse properties. Lucy described her ideas about the color line.
My sisters and I—all three of us girls knew that there was
this invisible line. Invisible, but real. That line dictated where
you shopped, where you lived, what you did. It was never said.
It was kinda like everyone just knew. You know, we never had
anything to do with kids who lived south of the freeway—no-
body did, we just knew they weren’t like us. They were white,
but they were from the other side of (names) town (pause).
I honestly don’t remember ever seeing any black person
anywhere in Orange County until I was a teenager. But I knew
they were out there. I knew they were out there somewhere.
And I knew that bringing home a black guy would seem to my
dad like the biggest insult—like maybe he’d feel like he hadn’t
been a good dad. Like I’d let him down. Nothing was ever said.
We girls just knew. Lucy King. 32 years old at interview. Mar-
ried a black professional athlete in 1997.
Lucy deployed naiveté and racial innocence throughout the
interview to underscore her femininity, her social class standing
and her whiteness. Ruth Frankenberg (1994) discusses the way
that whites create an innocent racial self as a way to distance
themselves from accusations of racism. In the white women I
interviewed, several used this theme of naïve innocence as a
credential of whiteness. Lucy’s comment that she never saw a
black person, but knew they were “out there—SOME where”
speaks to a theme of whiteness: the creation of the “other”.
Bonilla-Silva details this as one of several ways linguistic
strategies used by whites try to maintain a nonracial stance to
soften the blows of racism.
I interviewed Susan Harris after her workday as a supervisor
in a welfare agency. A slightly built red headed woman, Susan
was dressed in loose fitted denim skirt, athletic shoes and a
sweatshirt with the mascot of a local college. Her office had the
British flag mounted on one entire wall and various pictures of
her three sons posed in football jerseys. Over the next three
hours, she described meeting her husband, getting married,
raising three boys, getting a divorce and filing for bankruptcy.
Recalling how she met her black husband, Susan:
That’s how I met him, in a bar. When I saw Sydney that
night across the room, it was instantaneous. I just gave into the
attraction. His color never crossed my mind then or later. Took
him home and he stayed two weeks. How’s that? Isn’t that like
white trash? (Laughs) Meet in a bar and go home with him? I
fell in love instantly. Susan Harris. 53 years old at interview.
Married a Black construction worker in 1978.
Susan’s tongue in cheek description of herself as “white
trash” signals her awareness of stereotypes that circulate about
white women with black men as well as her insight into the
construction of “proper” sexual restraint among women.
This is a contrast to Marilyn Waters, who clings to her iden-
tity of a good white girl, at great expense. The mother of two
daughters, Marilyn returned to her parents’ home after divorc-
ing her black husband, a meat cutter. She now attends college
while working part-time. Marilyn was at an outdoor patio table
on campus when we met for the interview looking harried and
finishing a cigarette. With pale skin, her face looked much
older than most women in their thirties. She had one eyebrow
pierced with a silver barbell and one nostril pierced with a
green stone. Her discussion of her husband’s repeated philan-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 77
E. T. WALSH
dering are peppered with Marilyn’s emphasis her ladylike, po-
lite behavior. It apparently did not occur to her to step out of the
expectations for a “lady” to solve her marital problem. Notice
how Marilyn uses gendered notions of whiteness to explain her
inability to conf ront her husband on his extramarital affairs:
I didn’t challenge him, it was such a hassle to confront him
on stuff that I just looked the other way. I mean, he could just
beat the shit out of me with words, so I just caved in and didn’t
ask about (the infidelities).
He was so good with words. He knew all those ways of
fighting I didn’t. I didn’t do well. So do I think it was because
he was black? Well I think part of it was (ETW: What part?).
That part they didn’t teach us and nice white girls don’t do
well in that. We just get eaten up alive. We won’t just call
somebody a liar. We won’t call them on it. Just like that. We
don’t do that. We weren’t socialized that way. That’s really it.
It was to my detriment. But I’m a lot smarter now.
Marilyn Waters, 38, divorced her black husband after 18
Marilyn not only relies on an image of “nice white girls” to
explain her lack of assertiveness, she implicates me in her circle
of white femininity with use of “us” and “we” to describe the
hyper-politeness associated with “rarified southern white la-
dies” (Moon, 1998) She uses her innocence associated with
whiteness and femininity to excuse her inability to take a stand.
Then, Marilyn engages in essentialist discourse while noting,
“they hear everything, they see everything”. While it is unclear
whether she attributing this extra sensory perception only to
black men or to all blacks, it is clear that she draws upon essen-
tial thinking about both gender and race in her description of
her ex-husband’s alleged omnipotence. When she invokes the
metaphor of “being eaten up alive”, Marilyn relies on a familiar
cultural representation, with a long history, which portrays
black men, in general, and black sexuality, specifically, as
predatory and all-consuming.
Dianne Kennedy, a walnut-color with freckles across her
nose, has her hair pulled lightly to a bun at her neck. Wearing a
white sweater draped over her shoulders, she looked right
through me with coffee color eyes as she discussed her strategy
for countering the stereotypes of black women, married across
the color line, by describing her considerations when out in
public with her white husband of twenty years:
One, you got to be more on your P’s and Q’s. You got to be
careful how you act. I would never go out with Michael looking
like a tramp. I would not. And I think that’s from childhood
growing up in the South. You think of a black man with a white
woman she’d be all fat and nasty. A black woman with a white
guy—that wouldn’t look good. Where I come from, she’s
probably a working girl, if you know what I mean.
The awareness of stories that circulate and impressions oth-
ers might have of an interracial couple works as a social control
mechanism for Dianne who continues after twenty years to
consider how strangers might misinterpret her for a prostitute.
Dianne was not alone with this concern; two other black
women interviewed also made pointed comments about being
concerned about their appearance in public with their white
husbands and their assumption that black women in the com-
pany of white men might be mistaken for prostitutes.
Masculinity and Class on the Color Line
Both black and white men who married across the color line
expressed a common theme seldom articulated by the women I
interviewed: their sense of male entitlement to resist social
judgments about them. As summed up by one participant: “I
don’t pay attention to people who don’t approve of me or Mar-
sha. If they can’t accept us, I don’t want to know them”. Of
course, most of the interviews revealed experiences that contra-
dicted their imperviousness to social criticism. Floyd Barring-
ton, for instance, recalled his first reaction to falling in love
with his secretary years earlier, he said:
At the time, I told her, “No” I said, “I can’t do this. I really
can’t do this. She didn’t understand. I tol her, from where I’ve
been, who I am, I couldn’t possibly possibly get involved with
you. Not with a white woman. No.” I had been steeped in the
“blacker than thou” mindset. Black men taking up with white
women were suspicious and not to be trusted in the revolution.
Floyd Barrington, 52 years old at interview, married his
white secretary in 1982.
Marty McVeigh, a police officer, is slightly built, with crew
cut dark hair, brown eyes. He uses his whiteness as a claim of
entitlement to date and marry his black wife. Recalling how he
was attracted to her at t he ir workplace:
So one day, I thought, (raises his voic e to a higher pitc h and
cocks his head to indicate a voice in his head) Well, why not?
Yeah. Who cares? I don’t care. I can ask her out. Why not? It’s
a free country. I’m 21, free and white. Marty McVeigh, age 36
at interview. Married a black police officer in 1996.
Notice how Maurice Holland’s beliefs about gender cannot
be disentangled from his racial notions:
Umm I don’t know about my baby, but my older two picked
black people to marry. Whether she will or not I don’t know. I
don’t know. (ETW: Will it matter to you?) Oh yeah (Talk about
that to me).
Kris. Umm I hope she doesn’t. I mean, I don’t like white
men. In general I don’t. It would be hard. Yeah I would not be
in favor of that. I couldn’t know his white family’s outlook, see,
about racial things. And it could impact her. How would he
raise kids? Ya know? I would be very, very upset if that were
the case, a white man. I would actively discourage it. (ETW:
What if your son married a white girl. Would you feel the same
(ETW: Tell me about that) Because generally the wife adapts
to and enters into the husband’s world. I’d say that essentially
is what it is. Ya know? And um, if my son married white, she’d
come into his world. And I would imagine if my daughter mar-
ried white, her life would be in his world. Just the way it is.
Maurice married his white wi fe in 1967.
Ron Darby, a beefy redheaded salesman for a tile company
greeted me at his wholesale warehouse dressed in a navy sports
coat, white shirt, dark slacks and tasseled loafers. Ron lives
with his black schoolteacher wife and two children in a middle
class, neighborhood where the median home price is $390,000.
His parents “had no problems with Carla” and had always
treated her brother, George, as “an honorary member” of the
Darby family. Ron complains, however, that his parents favor
his daughter over his son and he feels their increasing disinter-
est in his son is “racially” motivated.
It is so obvious. Mom thinks Molly is just like my sister.
Always pointing out how Molly looks just like (my sister) Car-
rie but “with a tan”. (As he tilted his head alternatively from ear
to shoulder syncopating with a whiney tone to indicate a voice
not his own) “How cute Molly is. (Tilt) How smart. (Tilts head
other directions) What a Darby she is”. (Tilts head back again
8 Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
E. T. WALSH
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 79
to match the sing song rhythm of his discourse). I tell my Mom
that Danny and Molly are both half Darby. Equal parts. Half the
blood flowing in Danny is the Irish n Scottish blood from us.
But she only sees the black in that boy. It’s ridiculous. He isn’t
even darker than Molly. The older he gets, the more this black
thing comes up with “em”. Ron Darby, married his black wife
The study’s focus on how participants use notions of gender
and social class in describing their everyday experiences living
on the color line illustrate that the concept of race itself is inex-
tricably entangled with gender and social class. The interviews
reveal the well worn provenance of cultural notions about the
intersections of race, class and gender.
The participants expose how many deploy social class status
to buffer and contest racial and gender challenges they encoun-
ter by membership in their racially integrated families.
The narratives illustrate that the stories people tell about their
experiences in a racially integrated family reflect deeply em-
bedded structures of their culture which are deployed to con-
struct identity. How multiracial families signify racial dynamics
to others and how they perform their racial and gender identi-
ties reveal much about commonsense understandings of the
color line in contemporary society. Less obvious, but apparent
through an examination stories that circulate as common wis-
dom is the fact that the color line depends as much upon the
interlinking systems of gender and social class that are embed-
ded in our institutions as upon ideology of white supremacy.
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