When Romanian tennis captain Ilie Nastase imagined Serena Willams’s baby with her white fiancé Alexis Ohanian would look like “chocolate with milk” last week, his offensive comments were immediately criticized in the media. Williams herself called out his comments as racist on Instagram. Days later Nastase apologized, saying, “That was the first time I had heard about her pregnancy, and my reaction was spontaneous.”
This feud offered the public a glimpse of how mixed race people around the globe are subject to a variety of similarly insulting terms. Nastase may try to pass off his remark as an isolated incident. But in reality, it reflects the continued widespread opposition to and discomfort with interracial couples and multiracial children.
On one hand, mixed race celebrities and interracial celebrity couples like Williams and Ohanian are heralded in the media as examples of a world where race, ethnic background, and color no longer matter. This belief in a post-racial world grew louder after the election of President Barack Obama, who is biracial. Accompanying these proclamations of multiracialism was the notion that opposition to interracial unions was a thing of the past. In addition, we also hear that interracial marriages are on the rise and the biracial population is booming.
Yet a closer look at the statistics tells a different story. Interracial marriage rates are actually still quite low, accounting for just 12% of all marriages in 2015, up from approximately 6% in 1980, according to the Pew Research Center. Black-white marriages are particularly low, making up just 1.8% of all marriages. (Black woman and white man pairings, such as Williams and Ohanian, are the least common of all race-gender combinations.)
Beyond these numbers, societal acceptance of mixed unions is tepid at best. While most Americans support intermarriage in surveys, I have learned through interviews with different ethnic and racial communities across the U.S. that opposition to racial mixing is very real, especially the idea of it happening within one’s own family.
The continued rejection of racial mixing lies in deep-seated notions of racial difference and maintenance of racial boundaries. In the U.S., we are still highly segregated in our neighborhoods and friendship circles. Even in our favorite TV shows and movies, interracial couples are infrequent, and biracial children even rarer. Most individuals will maintain that race does not matter in terms of who they work with or are friends with. But despite that, it remains socially acceptable for us to discriminate in terms of who we date. Most whites will not admit they do not want a black neighbor, but will freely admit their racial preferences in dating, referencing physical attraction and lack of cultural similarities as reasons not to consider dating anyone of another race.
Opposition to interracial unions today is far more subtle that the blatant racist sentiments often expressed in the past. Instead, racism takes the form of jokes and innuendos that many believe are harmless, such as comparing a child to chocolate milk. In my book Navigating Interracial Borders: Black-White Couples and Their Social Worlds, I found that people often justify their opposition to interracial couples with a discussion of the “problem” of biracial children, and express “concern” about how the child will look or be accepted by society.
Therefore, we need to understand Nastase’s comments within the idea that there is something defective, or at least different, about biracial children, a twist on the tragic mulatto stereotype. Interracial couples often report strangers questioning whether they are actually the parents of their child or asking questions about the child’s conception, birth, color, and other physical characteristics that would not be asked of same-race parents. Couples have told me how strangers have even touched their child’s hair, as if they were a science project.
While most people know better than to keep their “chocolate with milk” comments to themselves, it does not mean that these types of thoughts are not still being silently perpetuated throughout the world. The growing number of interracial marriages and births of multiracial children will not change the landscape unless families and communities are challenged to think about race from a different perspective. Williams’s willingness to call out Nastase’s comments as racist is a step in the right direction, and will hopefully make others reconsider their attitudes toward racial mixing in contemporary society.
Erica Chito Childs is an associate professor of sociology at Hunter College and the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center.