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Amy Steinbugler on the Campbell Conversations

Have interracial couples moved beyond race in their relationships?  Are they color-blind?  This week on the Campbell Conversations, sociologist Amy Steinbugler joins host Grant Reeher to discuss that question, based on her new book, Beyond Loving.  She argues that these couples must still navigate difficult racial terrain in their relationships.  And this terrain gets even more complicated for interracial couples who are gay and lesbian, another group she studied for the book.

Interview highlights

Grant Reeher: Your book is about how interracial partners navigate racial differences in their relationships, and you looked at, as the title says, straight, gay, and lesbian couples. Why did you want to undertake this study?

Amy Steinbugler: Well, I think that studying the family as an institution can tell us a lot about racial stratification or racial inequalities in the United States. I mean, if we go back to the 1660s in Maryland and Virginia where the first anti-miscegenation laws, laws against interracial sexuality and interracial marriage, and during the time of slavery, policing this line was very important to whites because policing families was not only a way to separate whiteness from blackness but to separate enslavement from freedom. Whites were very invested in maintaining this line to make sure that white privilege and power and property was inherited by other whites. In 1967, the Supreme Court passed Loving vs. the State of Virginia and interracial marriage was legalized in every state. And a lot has changed since then and America has changed since then and racial politics have changed since then. But, some things have endured, and trying to understand what it feels like for couples and for families who form relationships across the color line, what these changes feel like to them, has been an interesting kind of intellectual pursuit. And I think that interracial couples can tell us a lot about how race works in the contemporary United States.

Reeher: And, you’re talking about, I would imagine at times, pretty sensitive things. How did you get these folks to trust you and open up?

Steinbugler: It’s difficult. In a sense, it is difficult for people to sometimes talk about race. I think often white Americans have a difficult time talking about race. The fact that I’m white might have facilitated some kind of ease about that. But you know, what’s surprising…people like to talk about themselves, and I don’t mean that in a crude way, I mean people like to tell stories and they like to talk about their lives. So when I ask them about their relationship and their families, they light up, they get a chance to talk about something that is really meaningful to them. So, there are definitely things that are tricky about it, and as a qualitative researcher when you’re interviewing people about race, there’s a lot of things to be mindful of. But the process of qualitative interviewing in general is an exciting process and people are often happy to talk to someone that’s interested in what they have to say.

  Reeher: And do interracial couples themselves enter into their relationship with those assumptions that -?

Steinbugler: That’s interesting. Among many of my couples, maybe a thing that surprised me. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find out that race mattered, but maybe I was surprised to find out how many people thought it didn’t matter. There really is a language around people would say, “He could be red, yellow, green, or brown. I don’t see race. He happens to be black. She happens to be white.” Things like that. So I think that’s interesting. I think that reflects the kind of moment that we’re in in a broader sense around race in the United States. And, maybe if I just push it a little farther, maybe I can also look at those couples and think that they’re trying to do a particular thing which is to dispel the notion that they are a disreputable couple. That they are just eroticizing each other, that their relationship isn’t solid, that it’s not built on the same kinds of emotions and trusts as everyone else’s, you know, as same-race couples are. So, maybe part of that is a reflection of the kind of discourse of the way that we talk about race, but maybe part of it is being in a kind of relationship that has been marginalized. So, we would say I might call it work. You do this kind of work, you have this way of talking to kind of ensure everyone else that you’re not like that.

Reeher: Tell me a bit more about the reality then of these relationships in contrast with this. What are the things that these couples are working out and how do the tensions come out in their lives?

Steinbugler: Well, maybe I can think of it like this. We could say that there are certain challenges that interracial couples face that are certain kinds of conditions of living in America but that feel different to them a little bit. And certain kinds of things that are sort of unique to being an interracial couple. For instance, the cities that my couples live in, Philly, New York, D.C., these neighborhoods are highly racially segregated neighborhoods. So just a way to be specific about that, we would measure segregation with an index and in New York, the index of segregation is .79. What that means, is that in New York, 79 percent of African Americans would have to move in order for blacks to be evenly distributed across the city. That’s for segregated urban neighborhoods, that’s a reality for everyone. It’s a reality for everyone who lives in these cities. But for black-white couples, it’s taxing in a particular way. So, it means that, often one of them is going to kind of feel like they don’t quite belong. So, let’s say in two-thirds of the couples that I talked to, two-thirds of them lived in a neighborhood that was either 70 percent white or 70 percent black. We could think of it as stress. It’s sort of taxing. In the book I talk about it as racial fatigue. I don’t think partners experience it in exactly the same way. I think that often times the middle class black folks that live in white neighborhoods also work in places that are majority white, and so it might be a little bit more of a usual thing. Still taxing, but not new. Whereas the white partners who live in neighborhoods that are majority black, for many of them they talk about how they’ve never been so conscious of being a white person or it’s never been part of their identity that they noticed so much. So, there are a lot of stories about the ways that feels difficult to them. It’s a particularly new sensation for many of my white partners. That’s how I would say it.

Reeher: And are there different sets of challenges for straight interracial couples versus gay and lesbian interracial couples?

Steinbugler: Yes, is the answer. And it sort of depends on the realm that we’re talking about. So, for instance, when we were just talking about segregation. The racial segregation of neighborhoods, I would say, affects gays and lesbians in similar ways. The racial segregation of social spaces, like lesbian, gay, LGBT spaces like bars or kind of community events, the ways that those are racially segregated is difficult for gays and lesbians, especially. And in part because I think there are so few places where some of these couples can kind of go and relax that the notion that even those spaces should feel divided is particularly different. But there are the ways that being lesbian or gay matters specifically, I think, has to do with what it’s like to be in public. When we take the experiences of straight couples to kind of stand in for everybody, then we have an idea that being in an interracial couple makes you highly visible. And straight, black-white couples tap into a very long and difficult history in the United States. You know, around racial and sexual violence. Both black men and white women and black women and white men. Lesbian and gay partners feel themselves to be much more kind of invisible in public places. The notion that racial difference makes them highly conspicuous or highly vulnerable, it sort of depends who you’re talking to. Sometimes the sexuality matters quite a bit and then there are other ways in which it, kind of, is more diffused. 

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.