Richard Cohen’s gag reflex was triggered by the visual of white Bill DeBlasio being married to his black wife Chirlane. Cohen couched his disgust in the everyman approach, attributing it to “conventions” of normal middle Americans.
I feel like I’ve written already about the socio-economic politics of beauty, gender, race, sexuality and marriage. I won’t rehash that.
I did think the social media response to Cohen was telling of how even in our earnest attempts to embrace progress and progressive causes we can erase the very experiences we are trying to highlight.
When I read the story I immediately understood Cohen to be situating Chirlane DeBlasio in a specific social space. He was not just gagging on the idea of interracial marriage, generally. I searched and I cannot find any previous write-ups by Cohen of how disgusted he is by other high profile interracial political marriages. Neither can I recall many white mainstream pundits of any ideological bent expressing dismay about who wealthy, powerful black men marry. Many of those marriages have black men and non-black wives. That is representative of national out-marriage rates. Black men do it more than black women. Adam Sewer cited how conservatives never took issue with Clarence Thomas being married to white Gini Thomas as evidence, I think, of people being over the idea of interracial marriage as perverse, even when they are otherwise culturally conservative. I thought that was the wrong read of Cohen.
I suspect my imposition of a state of being (“confused”) signaled some disrespect that obscured my message about gendered racism. It is a twitter usage error. I was responding, by proxy, to someone with whom I dialogue regularly in a way that I regularly dialogue. No reason for Adam, someone with whom I do not dialogue regularly, to read me through that familiarity. But, still, Adam disagreed with my read.
That happens. But I would like to explain, briefly.
There is certainly a long history of backlash against interracial intimate relationships between black men and non-black women, particularly white women. That history is steeped in violence, myth, and oppression. But it is also predicated on the assumption that white women should be found desirable. The violation for black men is not that they desire white women but that they marry them. Or, rather that white women marry black men and black men have the option. But the desire is not considered abhorrent. Acting on it? Sure. Having it reciprocated? Possibly. Marrying because of it? Distasteful, mayhaps, but not a reflection of an unnatural desire. With some variation, the same is true of black men desiring Asian, Latina, or South Asian women although intensity tends to correlate with the proximity to whiteness.
In contrast, the violation of a white man marrying a black woman is also steeped in violence, myth and oppression. But the violation is not white men sexually desiring a black woman. Indeed, there is a well-documented history of black women being constructed as acceptable receptacles for the slaking of lust to protect the purity of white women. No, the violation in that instance is a white man loving and marrying a black woman. A private predilection is one thing. A public, legal union is quite another. It is the latter that seems to choke up Cohen’s “conventional” strawman because, as he intimates, something about it is unnatural. It is so unnatural it triggers a visceral, violent physiological response. It’s actually a bizarrely violent image if you think about it. It is surely one hard to imagine him having when he has to look at, say, Clarence Thomas and his wife.
Cohen goes farther with a parenthetical about Chirlane being a lesbian, to boot. I tend to think of parentheticals as inner dialogue vomited onto a page as some sort of subconscious desire to reveal our true selves, by the way. But that is neither here nor there. The point is Cohen felt a need to further locate Chirlane as not just black but as queer.
Like everything else, queer identities are viewed through the prism of race. Whereas sexuality can be seen as a dalliance or a performance for the male gaze when the parties are attractive white women, queerness for black women is a perversion. That is largely a function of the assumed inferiority of black female hetereosexual sexuality. If a black straight woman is gross, then a gay one is that much grosser. Again, that’s not to say that white queer women do not face discrimination but its nature is rooted in a very different history (pdf) and has a different penalty. I think here of Mignon Moore’s work on black queer identities, families, and marginalization.
I have been reading and working on a piece about race, gender and symbolic violence on the internet. So a great deal of black feminist work is foremost in my mind right now. One of those pieces is by Kimberle Crenshaw. In it she, the scholar responsible for intersectionality theory and law, talks about how we risk erasing the specificity of black women’s experiences when we are not careful in how we conflate them with intersectionality. My instinct about the social media response to Cohen as a general disgust with interracial marriage was tempered by this concern. If he was actually talking about black (queer) women, what do we erase when we make his argument about interracial marriage more broadly? Or, more importantly, who do we erase?
Cohen’s gag reflex was triggered by his specific location of Chirlane in a specific history, which he laid out with his language. She is black. She used to be a lesbian. Taken together, Chirlane is a perversion, an embodiment of an inferior type of sexuality and Bill DeBlasio, by virtue of his white male heterosexual identity had better, more normative, “conventional”, less gag inducing options. There is a price to be paid when an individual rejects the benefit of their privilege. That is because in rejecting that privilege one calls into question the assumption of what is right and natural, i.e. white men marry white women or, at minimum, a non-black woman. When they do not, the very premise of what is natural is thrown into relief. And if we start questioning everything we assume to be right who knows where we might end up?
There’s a horribly cheesy movie staring Al Pacino as The Devil, as in the biblical Satan. It’s horrible and I watch it every time it’s on television. At some point, Pacino playing Pacino playing Satan, tosses out, “the greatest trick the devil ever pulled off was convincing the world he doesn’t exist.”* As a metaphor for power it is, I think, a useful one.
Cohen’s disgust with what DeBlasio represents and not what Thomas represents is because of what he assumes to be right and natural about their respective choices. That he couches it as conventional may or may not be accurate but it is telling. He is appealing to what he has always been able to assume is true and he cannot believe you do not assume it, too. When your assumptions have been rewarded and reflected back at you by law, media, and culture anything out of step with your assumptions is worthy of being published in a mainstream newspaper. But, I want to be clear, the violation Cohen is writing about, the way he writes about it, is all about how it is natural to desire a white woman and an aberration to desire a black woman.
So apologies to Adam Sewer for reading the specificity of black, female, queer history and politics into Cohen’s take on interracial marriage. But, to be fair, I think Cohen did it first.
* a twitter person wants me to point out that the line is Space in the Usual Suspects, also a favorite movie. I am thinking of Pacino’s line at the end here about being incognito and conflating it with the obvious foreshadowing. My apologies. It kinda changes everything. Kinda.