You say “interracial,” I say “who?”

28 Oct

“Record-High 86% Approve of Black-White Marriages” the Gallup Organization enthused in September (http://www.gallup.com/poll/149390/Record-High-Approve-Black-White-Marriages.aspx). As I read about how US Americans are “approaching unanimity in their views of marriages between blacks and whites,” my attention went immediately to the lingering 14%.

Really? Still? Isn’t it exhausting, people, to actively disapprove of interracial and gay marriage? How about freeing up that emotional bandwidth to disapprove of something more insidious and destructive than a commitment between two people?

After my knee jerked in reaction, I found myself wondering more about the 14%…

While the poll tracked responses by age, region, education, sex, political orientation/affiliation and race (more on that in a moment), it didn’t identify respondents by marital status–or, even more specifically, racial marital status (whether they are in an inter- or intraracial union). This might sound funny, but I’m curious:

  • how many people who aren’t married/don’t believe in marriage disapprove of other people’s marital choices?
  • how many of the disapproving 14% are in an intraracial v. interracial marriage?

While I would expect that the 14% are largely in the intraracially married (or intending to be intraracially married) category, I hesitate to assume.

I wonder how many people who are themselves in an interracial marriage disapprove of the idea in general. As someone who is in an interracial marriage herself, let me say: it’s not easy. I love my partner, I choose to be in this relationship, and race sometimes throws us into a tailspin. I don’t kid myself that being in an intraracial marriage would simplify everything and create harmony on all fronts: I’m just saying that it’s a source of some additional challenge and growth for us (just like being a woman and a man, an educator and an engineer, a younger and middle child, and a planner and an impulse-actor pose their own hurdles, laughs and revelations for us). All of the diversity in my marriage is part of our attraction, our synergy and our disconnection. So while I happen to agree with the majority on this one, I can see how someone who is an interracial marriage could take a different stance for the general public. Or for one’s own children. The point being: we can’t assume who approves, who disapproves and why.

Now regarding the racial breakdown of respondents, Gallup noted that they included “an oversample of blacks.” (The statement, “Blacks have always been more approving than whites of interracial marriage, going back to 1968 when Gallup first was able to report reliable estimates on each group’s opinions” seems to suggest that Gallup loaded its response pool to ensure its “record-high” results. Interesting.) Notice that there’s no mention of the overall racial diversity of the pool: while whites are explicitly called out, it is not clear how many or even if Asians, Latinos, multiracial and/or Native Americans were included (although we may reasonably conclude these groups were not “oversampled.”) All we have is the following graphic:

Notice that the title of this graph is “Approval of Marriage Between Blacks and Whites, by Race [emphasis added].” Right. I’d forgotten. The poll was not inclusively about interracial marriage: it was specifically about black-white marriage. How could I have forgotten? Because by the second sentence, Gallup generalizes its findings about black-white marriage to all interracial marriage. (The other explanation is that the organization really does define “interracial” as just black-white). Gallup again makes this leap when it purports to illustrate approval “by race”… and only shows the responses of black and white people. Again, I have no idea whether Gallup polled black and white people exclusively, or just decided that the responses of “other” racially identified people were peripheral to the real news.

It seems an odd sloppiness in this polling, given that we know not just how many Democrats and Republicans, but how many Independents approve of “interracial” marriage (88%, 77% and 89%, respectively). After all, this is a poll about race. Isn’t the diversity of racial groups’ attitudes inherently interesting? And not just attitudes about black-white marriage: as an Asian-American, I’m curious about this large demographic’s attitudes about Asian-white, Asian-black, Asian-Latino, Asian-Native American and Asian-multiracial marriages. And yes, about intermarriage among other groups. I suspect that for my and other racial groups, there’s a different response to “interracial marriage,” depending on which races are intermarrying, and I’d love to know if there’s any basis for my belief.

But that’s now what this poll was about. And while I’d like to see a little more precision in naming from Gallup*, it’s not just about this one poll. What Gallup did in its analysis is reflective of a cultural tendency: to choose ambiguity over clarity, in order to avoid offense, discomfort or a troubling truth. I see this happen in schools sometimes when a group of well-intended educators is discussing “students at risk” without naming that this particular group is even more specifically black boys, adolescents questioning their sexuality or second language students with a single parent. What happens when we name the group we’re talking about? We can see them. We can ask questions, consider how identity shapes experience, confront our biases, grapple with real stereotypes and discrimination, and learn about their particular hurdles, needs and strengths. In these cases, being precise in our language helps us to be more human and effective.

Gallup’s languaging is also consistent with a cultural tendency to reduce the complexity and diversity of identity into an either-or. Black or white, female or male, gay or heterosexual. Approve or disapprove. And that’s another question: did respondents have a “Don’t care” option? Or did they have to take a stand, one way or the other?

* Thanks to Gallup for sharing the precise language of this poll from 1958, and 1968-78, when “blacks” were “colored” and then “non-white.” For more on how race language has changed in the US, check out: http://racebox.org/ (a compilation of the US Census’ race categories from 1790 to 2010, posted by Josh Begley).

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