My Sunday morning hiking pals and I are huffing our way up some tough hills in Berkeley’s Tilden Park. We’re talking about our children. Women from different walks of life, 50 and 60-somethings – lawyers, teachers, a dentist, and a computer scientist – we know each other through mutual friends, work, and children. Not everyone is a mom, and those who are have college-age children and young adults finding their way in the world.
We’re talking about the people our children date: those they seem to be attracted to and how we feel about that.
Lakshmi has just returned from visiting family and friends in Mumbai.
“I was surprised that many friends are sending their children to university in the United States.” Lakshmi recounts her conversation with Sandya, a childhood friend. We know she is an upper middle-class Hindu.
“I told Supriya: ‘Go to New York, have a good time, study hard and play, of course. But don’t for one minute think you can marry a BMW.’”
Lakshmi to Sandya, “a BMW, what does that mean?”
“You know, Black, Muslim, or White.”
I laugh, recognizing myself in Sandya’s admonition to her daughter. When my son Antonio, aka Tony Levine, is dating someone, I look for clues in hopes of learning that the young woman is one of our peeps, a Latina of some sort (we do come in many varieties). And if not Latina, I have my fingers crossed she is a person of color. If I do ask Tony point blank about his love interest’s ethnic or racial background, I’m usually met with two questions: “Why do you care? What difference does it make?”
“I’m just curious, son.”
My mother’s words whirl inside my head, “stick with your own kind.” In a the segregated South Texas town where the Mexican-American and white kids had nothing to do with each other, there was little chance I might be attracted to a white boy. The reality was that we pretty much distrusted and despised each other. Once I left South Texas, I no longer lived in a binary world and got to know all kinds people, and to my great surprise . . . when I was attracted to someone, their racial and ethnic background didn’t get in the way. I was an equal opportunity romancer and rejecting my mother’s provincial views greatly expanded my romantic horizons.
But when it came to settling down, I longed to be with someone who didn’t require a lot of explanation in order to understand the forces that had shaped me. For a period of time in my 30s I declared a moratorium on dating white men. “I’m on sabbatical,” I told my friends, “ethnic studies 101, is not being offered this semester.” I began resenting how attuned and well-versed I was about mainstream culture, and yet how little most white people knew about my group’s experiences, our history.
Given that I did end up falling in love with and marrying a Jewish man, it feels hypocritical that I have a strong desire for my son to choose someone from my group. I’m not alone in having these feelings. I’ve heard the same sentiments from Latina, Asian, and African-Americans friends. And I hear the delight in the voice of a Jewish friend, “Leah got engaged, she met a nice Jewish boy.” Mazel Tov to the happy couple and their parents. I imagine that my white friends have these feelings, and wouldn’t dare cop to them for fear of how they will be received.
It’s OK, that you have these feelings. Really, it’s within your control. What you do with these messy uncomfortable thoughts, that seemingly contradict your values, well that’s another matter.
The power of our tribal in-group biases is huge, and while it’s most difficult to grapple with the discomfort presented along racial and ethnic fault lines, we are seemingly hard wired to find ways of belonging. Numerous psychology experiments grouping people into random groups (tall people, brunettes, first-borns), find that individuals quickly develop positive connection to their group, however defined, and even began seeing their group as special and want to preserve their group.
I’m more forgiving now when I feel the longing that my son fall in love with someone from our group, because this desire is overpowered by an even stronger wish. I want my son to be happy, and whoever loves and appreciates him will have me in her court, no matter who her people are.