Some interracial couples find a hospitable milieu


When Victoria Cofield-Aber and her husband, Joel Aber, searched for a place to live, they picked Columbia. They believed the new town would welcome and respect their children.

Mrs. Cofield-Aber is black. Mr. Aber is white and Jewish. "Columbia has been a great place to raise my children," she said. "My children can see children like themselves."

The Wilde Lake pair is among many interracial couples who came to Columbia because of its reputation for diversity and tolerance. Nearly three decades after its founding, Columbia has achieved its goal of attracting a variety of residents -- more so than many other places in the United States, some interracial couples say.

More than 1.2 million interracial couples live in this country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's an estimated 3 percent to 5 percent of all marriages, said Stanley Gaines, a psychologist at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., who has studied interracial couples.

Columbia doesn't keep figures on interracial marriages -- on purpose, in an effort to promote racial harmony. Although it has been nearly 30 years since the Supreme Court, in Loving vs. Virginia, struck down "anti-miscegenation" laws forbidding marriage between members of different races, Mr. Gaines says attitudes elsewhere about interracial dating and marriage haven't changed much.

"Some speculate it's because of this country's obsession with the whole black-white issue," Dr. Gaines said. "If we truly believed in racial equality, intermarriage would not be an issue."

Columbia, interracial couples say, is ideal for children of dual heritage because it allows them to see and interact with other biracial children. And the ideal is being perpetuated by youngsters who grew up in the diverse community and are dating interracially as teen-agers.

"It's not to say there is no racism," said Mrs. Cofield-Aber, 43, an assistant principal in Baltimore County and a licensed clinical social worker.

Since 1986, the Howard County Office of Human Rights has tracked hate crimes, which include harassment, symbols and fights and are not limited to race-based acts. From 1986 to 1994, the number of incidents reported annually ranged from 25 to 84, said Administrator James E. Henson Sr. This year, 22 hate crimes have been reported.

But for Mrs. Cofield-Aber and Mr. Aber, their 10 years in Columbia have been like any other married couple's with children. Recently at their Wilde Lake home, their 14-year-old daughter sat beside her father in the living room and asked for money to go to the movies. Later, Mrs. Cofield-Aber arrived from work, and eventually scolded their 5-year-old daughter for going outside in the pouring rain.

The couple met in her hometown, New Orleans, in 1977 while both worked separately as volunteers. "I was passing out literature one day in front of a drugstore," recalled Mr. Aber, originally from New York City. "And Vicki got this literature and she said, 'Oh, I know about this case.'

"We ended up talking about a lot of things. . . . I found out that we had a lot in common," said Mr. Aber, who teaches science in the Montgomery County public school system. Both had participated in the civil rights movement, and he had been an anti-war activist.

After living in New Orleans, Seattle and Kansas City, Kansas, the couple found jobs in Prince George's County, then decided to move to Columbia after visiting Lake Kittamaqundi.

"We saw the racial mixture of people . . . and the ducks on the lake," Mr. Aber said. "It was real beautiful."

Sometimes there are problems. Mrs. Cofield-Aber said she went to Wilde Lake Middle School to change her daughter Olisa's race on official school documents as "biracial" after she learned the school listed her as "white."

Said Mr. Aber: "Olisa is very clear that, 'I have two heritages and that I'm proud of both, Jewish and African-American.' She doesn't want to be listed as one over the other."

A school guidance counselor first refused to change Olisa's official racial designation, which had been listed as white for years, Mrs. Cofield-Aber said. The principal was sympathetic but it took an assistant superintendent to finally change the designation to "biracial."

Sometimes society and its institutions aren't the problem -- families are.

"Grandma had real problems," Mrs. Cofield-Aber said of the matriarch of the family who raised her. "But she did come around eventually.

"In the beginning, she was concerned it was not natural," she said. "But you'd have to understand my grandmother to understand that."

Wil Greene, who is 18, black and will be a senior at Centennial High School, and Carrie Colburn, 17, who is white and attends Howard Community College, have been dating for 2 1/2 years.

"In Columbia, it's not really a big problem," Mr. Greene said. "It's like Columbia is so notorious for interracial couples."

But the young couple acknowledged that interracial couples do encounter problems.

"Sometimes you get a look -- not a dirty look," Mr. Greene said. "People just look. It's not a big problem."

To bridge cultural gaps in a rapidly changing society, Christine Hanson, 34, started a bimonthly newsletter in January called Small World to inform people about different cultures. Ms. Hanson grew up in Howard County but lives in Washington.

Ms. Hanson, who is white, met her boyfriend, who is black and from Africa's Ivory Coast, at a reggae festival in Washington, and they have dated for a year.

"The thing I'm finding is we're very similar philosophically and that is more important than what color we are," the 34-year-old woman said.

To support interracial families and biracial children who might face identity problems, the Interracial Family Circle was founded in 1984, said its president, William Harris of Northeast Baltimore.

"The kids know that there are other kids who are out there . . . and they can get together and play," Mr. Harris said.

The 200-member group holds conferences, seminars and picnics and discusses topics such as cross-racial adoption and racial classification.

The group supported a state bill this year that would have allowed the term "biracial" as a classification on forms, but though it cleared the General Assembly, Gov. Parris N. Glendening vetoed it.

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