Interracial couples focus on goals and shared values But stereotyping, rebellion and prejudice lurk as dangers


PHILADELPHIA -- The brunch had ended, and Katharine M. Penn was elbow-deep in soap suds, her eyes glancing now and then at the man, a near-stranger, standing next to her in a friend's kitchen.

She's white. He's black. But working together, suddenly, the world, with all its hatreds, seemed a small measure more kind.

Twelve years after that encounter turned into an interracial marriage, Katharine and Michael L. Penn say they remain convinced that their love is larger than their differences and that strong relationships rely less on common backgrounds than on shared values.

"Our upbringings were so different," says Katharine Penn, 41, a graphics designer who grew up in decidedly middle-class, predominantly white Stratford. Her husband was raised in his mother's home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a mostly poor, mostly African-American section of Brooklyn, N.Y.

"We didn't have a lot in common," Katharine Penn continues. "We didn't even have the same likes and dislikes as far as music and food. But when we considered the big things, how we share our goals in life, we realized that we could get married."

Defying custom and culture

In the 30 years since the Supreme Court ruled that state and local laws banning interracial marriages are unconstitutional, growing numbers of men and women have defied the dictates of custom, culture and politics and have taken spouses outside their own race.

In 1970, census figures showed that there were 310,000 interracial couples in the United States. By 1991, they had increased to 994,000. Some experts predict that the number will easily exceed 1 million couples by 2000.

Despite the increase, the vast majority of Americans continue to marry people of their own race. Only 1.9 percent of all marriages are interracial, and since the early 1980s, the percentage has remained virtually unchanged, according to census figures.

In their sweeping 1996 study of interracial marriage and dating, UCLA behaviorists M. Belinda Tucker and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan cited the residual effects of enforced racial segregation and the presumption that marriage "is central to the socialization of children" as the primary reasons for the widespread resistance to intermarriage.

That shouldn't comfort opponents of such marriages. The researchers also found that interracial dating has been far more accepted than intermarriage and that as dating across racial lines becomes commonplace, marriages between people of different races are likely to follow in larger numbers.

'I had to follow my heart'

L Some aspects of interracial marriage have already calcified.

Marriages of Native American and Asian-American women (especially Japanese) to white men are now considered statistically "normative," say the researchers, meaning that they are as common as marriages to men of their own ethnic or racial group. And while black women have apparently begun marrying white males in increasing numbers (up from 0.8 percent of all black marriages in 1980 to 1.7 percent in 1990), census figures show that black men continue to marry outside their race at more than twice the rate of black women.

That disparity did not escape Michael Penn.

A professor of psychology at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., Penn said that his marriage to Katharine provoked fears that he was betraying African-American women, virtually leaving them alone at the altar while he ran off to wed and bed the white man's woman.

"I think African-American women are rightly concerned about finding suitable partners, and so there was a question of loyalty," says Michael Penn. "From a practical standpoint, it would have been preferable to marry another African-American. But I had to follow my heart."

Depending on how honest interracial spouses are with themselves and the people around them, following their hearts is either a wise policy or a fool's errand, says George C. Gardiner, a psychiatrist and specialist on race-related emotional problems.

Gardiner, clinical director of the Dr. Warren E. Smith Health Center in Philadelphia, says that an interracial marriage should be an occasion for "real introspection" and unflinching soul-searching.

"If one or both of the partners is in it because they are rebelling, because they are curious, because of some sociologically driven idea of forbidden fruit, then they are probably not going to have a healthy relationship," Gardiner says. "On the other hand, if the relationship significantly transcends racial issues, it can be happy. But I don't think any of us, no matter how hard we try, can be truly color-blind."

Sekai and Bobby Zankel make no pretense of being color-blind.

Bobby Zankel, 48, a jazz composer and saxophonist who reflects fondly on his upbringing by his Jewish parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., makes no bones about his debt to black music and African-American musicians, saying, "My teachers, not just my heroes, the people who taught me what I know, were African- American."

Sekai Zankel, 45, is secretary for the African-American studies .. department at Temple University, and after a nine-year relationship with Bobby that culminated in marriage last June, remains proudly Afrocentric.

Still, because of her marriage, there are always people ready to question her commitment to her African heritage.

"I have a friend who says she just can't understand how I can work in the department, be Afrocentric and then marry a white person," Sekai Zankel says. "I tried to tell her that this person complements me."

After four centuries of race conflict, finding a complementary partner of another race is easier said than done, suggests Marlene F. Watson, a family therapist and director of the master's and doctoral programs in couples and family therapy at Allegheny University of the Health Sciences.

'We prayed about it'

Watson says that interracial couples should weigh the influence of race on their marital decisions. That means nonwhite males who court white women should consider the pervasive influence of a Euro-American beauty standard that celebrates white females, and women of color should weigh the possibility that it is the potential for elevated status and not true love that underlies their attraction to white men. Whites who pursue VTC partners outside their race should be mindful that their attraction may be rooted in stereotypes about the sexual prowess of men and women of color or the docility of Asian females, or in a desire to rebel against white family members.

"Race is a significant factor in how we organize our lives," Watson says. "A couple needs to be very open about that."

The kinds of shared values and perspectives that the Penns talk about can apparently go a long way toward easing the stresses that arise in all marriages and that may be magnified by racial attitudes.

The Penns, for example, take comfort from their Bahai faith and its strong emphasis on racial unity. The couple, who met at a Bahai brunch, prayed often when they encountered initial resistance from Katharine Penn's grandfather.

"We prayed about it, and he eventually had a change of heart," she says. "He asked if he could come over one night, and he brought a wedding gift. It was a dining-room table and chairs - he gave us money for it. It was very generous. I was so glad he was able to accept Michael as his grandson before his death."

The Zankels are Buddhists and believe strongly in their religion's philosophy of "total equality of all beings," says Bobby Zankel.

And then there are those who believe that faith in oneself is the best hedge against the rejection many interracial couples face.

"I personally don't care what other people think," says Trisha Waggoner, who heads the Intercultural Dating Club. "I am living my own life." Waggoner's group, based in Los Angeles, is among a handful of dating clubs and services nationwide for people seeking partners outside their race.

"I personally have a [racial] preference, and a lot of people in the club have a preference," says Waggoner, whose club holds parties, schedules trips and does matchmaking. "I think it's the contrast. Even the skin feels different."

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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