Book Review: "Interracial Families: Current Concepts and Controversies"

Reviewed by Professor Richard Glotzer, Ph.D., CFLE
CFLE Network
Content Area
Diversity and Inclusion
Families and Individuals in Societal Contexts
Interpersonal Relationships

Interracial Families: Current Concepts and Controversies. George Alan Yancey and Richard Lewis Jr. 2009. Routledge, New York. N.Y. ISBN 10:0-415-99034-3 (Paperback).

In the United States diversity discourse is often framed within the context of pluralism, i.e. racial and ethnics groups sharing the workplace, the public institutions and spaces of civil society and having self-selecting group oriented residential patterns. Typically we ask how groups dissimilar in ethnic and racial identity can work toward harmonious and mutually rewarding workplace, community and interpersonal relations. The pluralistic assumptions embedded in this national discussion (reconciling difference and equality) influence the questions we ask and the outcomes we accept. Sociologists George Yancey and Richard Lewis remind readers that the American context is evolving both demographically and interpersonally. Interracial Families explores attraction, dating and family formation in an emerging environment that is less socially bounded and retaliatory about personal choices than even in the recent past.

In the United States twenty-fifty is the symbolic year in which African-Americans will make up approximately one-third of the population. Latinos and Asians will constitute another third and Caucasians the remaining one-third. This racial composition, described in the language and context of our times, may not describe reality four decades hence. Yancey and Lewis suggest with ample evidence, that more people are selecting partners from outside of their own groups. Their children, whether Asian-Latino, African American-Caucasian, or Asian-Caucasian, etc. in turn will constitute a new demographic with perspectives on race and ethnicity reflecting their own identities. While Yancey and Lewis are writing about the United States, the same processes are taking place in Canada. Consider the international acceptance and popularity of Drake, Toronto's Black-Canadian and Caucasian rap star; the Bar Mitzvahed product of a Jewish day school.

While demographic trends suggests movement toward greater acceptance of diversity and multiculturalism, North America as a whole, has an unpleasant record of its treatment of ostracized groups, whether first nations, the Irish, African-Americans, Eastern and Southern Europeans, Asians, or refugee populations. We have used the melting pot, the promise of intergenerational upward mobility, and Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, as mortar to cement and smooth over the rougher contours of racial and cultural relations. Discrimination is often addressed as an initiation ritual which inevitably ends with assimilation, earned through hard work and education.

Yancey and Lewis provide a useful explanation of the background features of contemporary racial and cultural relations. They explain the logic and functioning of racial hierarchies, skin tones among African-Americans and the notion of passing. By extension passing can also include Anglicization achieved through altered sir-names, consumption and residency patterns, religious realignment, and even cosmetic surgery. The authors offer as their central thesis that:

The level of social acceptance of interracial marriages is an important gauge for determining the extent of assimilation within society. Historically, marital assimilation has been the stage where the dominant group has drawn the line to keep its distance from the subordinate group (pp.31, reviewer's italics).

The authors argue that since the period of the civil rights movement, racism has become markedly less acceptable in society. The contradictions and hypocrisies of racism and its horrific manifestations, coupled with the movement for social justice and the notable achievements of people of color (often linked to anti-discriminatory legislation), have made overt and obvious discrimination unacceptable. More sophisticated proxies for race, and the use of coded language, are another matter.

The authors inquire why most people do not recognize the larger pool of potential dating/marriage partners that emerges when race is factored out. Plausible reasons range from personal ascetics to culture, customs, and comfort level. Many groups, conscious of their cultural histories and travails, may view race not as a biologically deterministic factor but as encompassing cultural understanding. It is inevitable however that when one considers the social influences of dominant cultural themes in our society, race becomes an important factor. Many are reticent about crossing such boundaries because of the concern of families and the public attention (and disapproval) such relationships sometimes bring.

Black-white relationships remain the most difficult from the stand point of social approval, expectations and level of understanding and social skills that relatives, friends and coworkers, typically have when interacting with interracial marriages and families. Social class and the mass media portrayals are important mediating factor here. In the past they have been strong deterrents (often backed by law). In contemporary society increasingly sympathetic understandings of such relationships makes them less unusual and more normative. Interracial families also must tease through such heady issues as how housework is divided, budgeting, discipline, and deciding vacation destinations.

One of the most interesting parts of this volume deals with how parents, extended families, and residential communities, can help interracial children grow up with broad cultural experiences and a healthy self concept. While many interracial children still come to assert a primary identity, children may also identify with aspects of both parents backgrounds. The authors brief discussion of biracial identities in Britain.

Some of the basic ideas presented in this book will be familiar to readers. Part of what makes this volume so useful is that it exams the literature and puts it all in one place. (Most readers encounter interracial dating, marriage and families, when they are brushed over at the end of a book chapter.) The bibliography offers multiple entrance points to this subject covering many ethnicities. Interracial Families is well written straightforward reading, and any course covering race and ethnicity in social relations would benefit from using Interracial Families as a supplemental text.

Reviewed by Professor Richard Glotzer, Ph.D., CFLE, School of Social Work, Fellow, Center for Life Span Development and Gerontology, The University of Akron.