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Sex, Interracial

Sex, Interracial






Public disapproval of and legal restrictions on interracial sex, or racial exogamy, have varied widely in civilization, but sex between members of different racial groups has remained common whenever people of different races have lived together. Attitudes toward interracial relationships have evolved since the Age of Discovery and are connected with trends in society, culture, politics, and economics.


The few people of color in England and in the English colonies in the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century seemed to have been able to have white sexual and marital partners without great difficulty. Famously, John Rolfe (not Captain John Smith) married Pocahontas and brought her back to England to live with him in the 1630s. In other European countries at the time, interracial sexual relationships, both informal and sanctified by marriage, were not uncommon. In Spain and Portugal there was a long tradition of mestizaje, or race mixing, between whites, Moors (including people from black Africa), and Jews. These relationships were completely unremarkable until after 1492, when increasing restrictions on New Christians meant that those in mixed relationships and their mestizo children had a social handicap to overcome. Also after 1492 Spaniards and Portuguese began to have relations with Indians and Africans in the New World, and the mestizos who resulted from these unions often rose to high ranks in their colonial societies. Limpieza de sangre, or purity of blood, was an officially defined characteristic that could be purchased by someone whose ancestry was actually partly Indian or African. Nonetheless, mixed ancestry was a handicap for the children of the conquistadores and their Indian partners.


From being somewhat unusual, culturally exotic, and a slight handicap for the resulting children in the sixteenth century, interracial sex and marriage became taboo (although still enthusiastically practiced) by the nineteenth century. White indentured servant women in Virginia in the eighteenth century who had children of color found their own indentures extended and sometimes their children sold into slavery despite the general legal provision that children follow the free or slave status of the mother. Thomas Jeffersons long-lasting relationship with his slave Sally Hemings was potent political ammunition for his opponents. Federalist newspapers at the time brought up the rumored relationship, and even centuries afterward defenders of his reputation try to explain away the evidence and deny that any relationship took place. Jefferson overcame these attackshe was reelected despite the fact that the rumors were widely heard and apparently also believed. Many white men in the U.S. South before 1865 had unacknowledged informal sexual relationships with their slaves, and these relationships sometimes had negative consequences for the white partners if they became known. The increasing strength of racial separatist ideologies meant that these white men had to engage in a sort of hypocritical double-think, supporting the idea of racial separation in their public lives while practicing interracial sex in private. By the mid-nineteenth century the southern diarist Mary Chesnut reflected the views of women of her class in her acid criticism of wealthy white men who fathered children with their slaves. In other slave societies in the Americas, the situation was somewhat less difficult for those white men who were involved in long-term sexual relationships with women of color. Men who wished to marry women of color generally had to give up some of their civil rights, and those in acknowledged long-term relationships could suffer in social regard and economic relationships with other whites. Men of color who had sexual relations with white women anywhere in the Americas were in great perilthe penalty could be death or, at a minimum, brutal physical punishment and sale to a faraway master. Outside the United States, white men who had informal sexual relations with women of color (as opposed to seeking marriage with them) faced few penalties in social regard and none at all under law. This led to a situation of considerable license, of which some men took enthusiastic advantage.

The traditional interpretation of interracial sex between whites and African American slaves (and between Spanish conquistadores and Indian women) is that these were rapes. Much recent research suggests that most children of mixed race in the slave societies of the Americas were the product of lasting relationships that produced a number of children. Often these relationships were between poor white men and slave or Indian women they worked or lived alongside, as, for example, that between Toussaint Charbonneau and Sacagawea from around 1800 until her death after 1810. It is unclear what inducements led the women to join and remain with their partners. However, in slave societies, although the children of a slave woman and a free man were born slaves, they had a much greater chance of gaining their freedom than did the children of two slaves. And the social price paid by a poor white man for being in an interracial relationship would be less than that paid by a wealthy planter such as Jefferson. Moreover, the price a slave owner or hacendado paid for regularly raping his slaves or peons was unrest in his workforce, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a price paid in social regard in white society, especially in North America. Indeed the most notorious rake, Thomas Thistlewood of Jamaica, had numerous run-ins with his neighbors because of his general brutality toward slaves.


After the abolition of slavery, restrictions on interracial sex became even more pronounced in most former slave societies in the Americas. These prejudices began to strengthen even in places where there had been few or no slaves, such as in the northern states of the United States and in Britain and France. In former slave societies an ideology of white solidarity, reinforced by legal segregation, meant that even relationships between poor white men and women of color became less common. In contrast, in areas where there were many native people, such as Mexico and the Andean region of South America, informal relations between the races had always been common, but mixed marriages became more common and tolerated after independence from Spain. In Latin America there was a racial hierarchy, but sexual relationships and marriages between people from different levels of the hierarchy were not harshly punished. In the United States, though, by the early twentieth century antimiscegenation laws were common, affecting all interracial relations, not just those between blacks and whites. These laws remained in force until 1967, when they were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia. Germany adopted harsh miscegenation laws under National Socialism (Nazism). South Africa had miscegenation laws under apartheid, and Israel in the early twenty-first century does not recognize marriage between Jews and non-Jews, although there is no attempt to hinder informal interracial sex. In other areas there have been no laws against mixed marriages or informal relationships, but in many places people in such relationships and their children have faced significant social handicaps, including active interference by the state in child rearing, as in Australia, where children of mixed native and white ancestry were routinely taken away from their parents by the state and raised in orphanages until the 1970s.

Informal restrictions and bureaucratic impediments to interracial sex have been much more pervasive and long-lasting than formal laws. In many places in the U.S. South and in the former slave societies of the Americas until the middle of the twentieth century, a man of color could be beaten or killed with impunity for having or even suggesting sex with a white woman. Quadroon balls in southern cities functioned to pair white men with women of color, but men sought to conceal their participation, and overt relationships with women of color had grave social consequences.

In the early twenty-first century throughout Europe and North America, men of color who are in sexual relationships with white women continue to suffer social penalties from both whites and fellow members of their minority group. Although white men in these societies often seek out women of color for casual sextaking advantage of still-extant racial power differentialsmore formal relationships invite some social consequences. Mixed-race couples in the United States still report cases of housing discrimination at higher rates than same-race minority families. The most serious prejudice in this regard is against relationships between blacks and whitesexogamy between whites and other racial groups is somewhat better tolerated by both those groups and white society. However, even exogamy between groups that are traditionally the targets of racial discrimination as between blacks and Latinos or Asians in the United Stateshas attracted opponents within those groups.

However, restrictions on interracial sex and marriage are much weaker in the early twenty-first century than they were even in the mid-twentieth century. Popular culture bears witness, with interracial couples in movies and television not raising any eyebrows, and powerful people have successful political careers while married to members of other races (for instance, Clarence Thomas, associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court).


The traditional explanation for prohibitions on exogamy is that people naturally fear the unfamiliar and find it distasteful. This begs the question of why many men from dominant groups in racially mixed societies often seek out women of other races for informal sex. Of course in some cases, as in sixteenth-century Mexico, there were few white women available, but even when there are many white women, white men often seek out women of color for at least informal relationships. Sociobiologists such as Jared Diamond (The Third Chimpanzee ) argue that men seek to control sexual access to women they control members of their own groupwhile undermining such attempts by males of other groups, thus providing a neat explanation for both restrictions on interracial sex and informal white male exogamy. The problem with sociobiological explanations is that human genetics changes slowly, whereas popular resistance to racial exogamy in Europe and North America has waxed and waned during the last five hundred years, a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms.

Much of the explanation for popular opposition to racial exogamy must lie in the realms of socioeconomic, cultural, and ideological changes. In the area of ideology, Christian religious teaching in the 1400s held that human beings had a single originas children of Adam and Eve. All people were human and fully eligible for all the sacraments, including marriage. Reformation thinkers did not deny this scriptural analysis, but the period saw the establishment of national churches in Protestant Europe, and membership in the national church meant citizenship. Inasmuch as slave owners and colonial masters were reluctant to grant the rights of citizenship to their racial subordinates, they also were reluctant to think of them as fellow Christians and marriageable. In any case, the Enlightenment reduced the influence of Christian teaching over Europeans and also raised the possibility that the various races had separate origins. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century racial ideologies tended to dehumanize the racial other and encouraged whites to preserve racial distinctions in all things, including sex and marriage. The high point of this ideological current was in the early twentieth century, when a harsh racial climate, given scientific sanction by the eugenics movement, spurred the adoption of antimiscegenation laws in most states in the United States that did not already have them. The Virginia law overturned by Loving, for example, was enacted in 1924 and specifically cited eugenics as one of its motivations. There had been miscegenation laws on the books in a number of states in the South before the Civil War, but all such laws in former Confederate states were wiped off the books during Reconstruction. (Maryland was an exception since it remained loyal during the Civil War and was not reconstructed.) When the laws returned in the period of Jim Crow, they generally used eugenic arguments. The eventual failure of these laws is a signpost of the generalized decline in the power of racist ideologies in the late twentieth century.

Larger historical forces also had an impact on public attitudes toward interracial sex. At the end of the fifteenth century Europeans had little contact with the racial other outside of Iberia, and it was precisely in Spain and Portugal where there were some restrictions on interracial sex. Those few non-Europeans who lived outside of Spain and Portugal had no difficulty selecting partners of other races. As Europe spread its economic and political control over the entire globe, Europeans felt a need for racial solidarity in the face of much more numerous subject peoples. Support for racial endogamy can be seen as part of a package of ideological responses to the problems presented by colonialism. One strong argument for this point of view is that restrictions on interracial sex and marriage were strongest in those places where Europeans (or their descendants born in the Americas) ruled over large numbers of non-European peoples: in Spanish and Portuguese America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and in the United States and South Africa in the late eighteenth century, the nineteenth century, and the early twentieth century. As non-Europeans gained political power in the late twentieth century, these restrictions began to diminish. However, this explanation does not account for the persistence of popular resistance to racial exogamy or for the opposition among groups traditionally the subject of racial discrimination.


Burnard, Trevor. 2003. Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Diamond, Jared. 2006. The Third Chimpanzee: The Biological Roots of Human Behavior. New York: Harper Perennial.

Gordon-Reed, Annette. 1997. Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Pilkington, Doris. 2002. Rabbit Proof Fence: The True Story of One of the Greatest Escapes of All Time. New York: Miramax Books.

Romano, Renee. 2003. Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vasconcelos, José. 1977. The Cosmic Race. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stewart R. King

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