By BROOKE LEA FOSTER
When I was a new mother living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2010, I often forgot that my infant son, Harper, didn’t look like me. As I pushed him around the neighborhood, I thought of him as the perfect brown baby, soft-skinned and tulip-lipped, with a full head of black hair, even if it was the opposite of my blond waves and fair skin.
“He’s adorable. What nationality is his mother?” a middle-aged white woman asked me outside Barnes & Noble on Broadway one day, mistaking me for a nanny.
“I am his mother,” I told her. “His daddy is Filipino.”
“Well, good for you,” she said.
It’s a sentiment that mixed-race couples hear all too frequently, as interracial marriages have become increasingly common in the United States since 1967, when the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia struck down laws banning such unions. The story of the couple whose relationship led to the court ruling is chronicled in the movie, “Loving,” now in theaters.
In 2013, 12 percent of all new marriages were interracial, the Pew Research Center reported. According to a 2015 Pew report on intermarriage, 37 percent of Americans agreed that having more people marrying different races was a good thing for society, up from 24 percent only four years earlier; 9 percent thought it was a bad thing.
Interracial marriages are just like any others, with the couples joining for mutual support and looking for ways of making their personal interactions and parenting skills work in harmony.
Yet, some interracial couples say that intermarrying, which in the past was often the cause of angry stares and sometimes worse, can still bring on unexpected and sometimes disturbing lessons in racial intolerance.
Christine Cannata, a 61-year-old retiree, and her longtime African-American partner, Rico Higgs, 68, recently moved from Atlanta — where their relationship sometimes attracted unwanted attention — to Venice, Fla., a predominantly white city where they say neither one feels like anyone blinks at their relationship.
Both are enormously grateful for the acceptance their families have shown them, and talked about how Ms. Cannata’s grandchildren treat Mr. Higgs as if he is a blood relative. They’re an older couple, they’re in love, and no matter who the crowd is, Mr. Higgs is always the life of the party, Ms. Cannata says.
Looking back at their time in Atlanta, however, the pair recalled how they sometimes drew stares in the airport, and how Mr. Higgs had been stopped by the police of that city for what Ms. Cannata said was no apparent reason. One time, officers pulled them over three blocks from their house; they wanted to know what he was doing in the car and asked to see his identification.
“When you love someone, it’s hard to watch them be treated differently,” Ms. Cannata said.
While they are happy in Venice, Mr. Higgs admits that sometimes, if they’re running an errand together, such as getting something notarized at a bank, he’ll wait outside, just to keep the tellers from asking suspicious questions because he’s black. Ms. Cannata feels badly when he does things like that, but Mr. Higgs says, “It always makes things go smoother.”
Katy Pitt, a 31-year-old consultant in Chicago, recalled being at a party in the months after her engagement to Rajeev Khurana. During a conversation with an acquaintance, the man, who was intoxicated, said: “So you’re getting married? Wow! When did you realize that he wasn’t a terrorist?”
Ms. Pitt, emboldened by his ridiculous comment, looked him square in the eye, she said, and told him, “I think what you meant to say was congratulations on your recent engagement.”
While moments like this don’t often happen to them, the couple, now newly married, say that their mixed marriage has played a bigger role than they thought it would in deciding what kind of community they want to be a part of and where they want to raise children.
Mr. Khurana, a 33-year-old corporate and securities lawyer, is the product of a biracial marriage himself (his father is Indian, his mother is half Filipino and half Chinese). And as of late, he’s feeling less certain that he wants to stay in Lincoln Park, the upscale Chicago neighborhood where they now reside. It was Ms. Pitt’s idea to start househunting in more diverse areas of the city. “If we have kids, we don’t want our kids growing up in a homogeneous area where everybody looks the same,” Mr. Khurana said. “There’s something to be said about interacting with people from different backgrounds.”
People of some races tend to intermarry more than others, according to the Pew report. Of the 3.6 million adults who wed in 2013, 58 percent of American Indians, 28 percent of Asians, 19 percent of blacks and 7 percent of whites have a spouse whose race is different from their own.
Asian women are more likely than Asian men to marry interracially. Of newlyweds in 2013, 37 percent of Asian women married someone who was not Asian, while only 16 percent of Asian men did so. There’s a similar gender gap for blacks, where men are much more likely to intermarry (25 percent) compared to only 12 percent of black women.
Some people admit that they went into an interracial relationship with some faulty assumptions about the other person.
When Crystal Parham, an African-American lawyer living in Brooklyn, told her friends and family members she was dating Jeremy Coplan, 56, who immigrated to the United States from South Africa, they weren’t upset that he was white, they were troubled that he was from a country that had supported apartheid. Even Ms. Parham doubted she could date him, although he swore he and his family had been against apartheid. As they fell in love, she kept reminding him: “I’m black. I check African-American on the census. It’s my identity.”
But Mr. Coplan reassured her that he was unfazed; he was falling for her. After they married in 2013, Ms. Parham realized just how wrong she had been. When Jeremy took her to meet his friends, she worried that they would be racist.
“In fact, they were all lovely people,” she said. “I had my own preconceived ideas.”
Marrying someone so different from yourself can provide many teachable moments.
Marie Nelson, 44, a vice president for news and independent films at PBS who lives in Hyattsville, Md., admits she never saw herself marrying a white man. But that’s exactly what she did last month when she wed Gerry Hanlon, 62, a social-media manager for the Maryland Transit Administration.
“I might have had a different reaction if I met Gerry when I was 25,” she said.
Back then, fresh out of Duke and Harvard, she believed that part of being a successful African-American woman meant being in a strong African-American marriage. But falling in love has humbled her. “There are so many moments when we’ve learned to appreciate the differences in the way we walk through this world,” she said.
Mr. Hanlon, whose sons have been very accepting of their father’s new wife, said that one of the things he loves about his relationship with Ms. Nelson is how thoughtful their conversations are. Whether it’s a serious discussion about police brutality or pointing out a privilege he takes for granted as a white man, he said, “we often end in a deep dive on race.”
Still, they’ve been surprised at how often they forget that they’re a different color at all. Ms. Nelson said: “If my friends are about to say something about white people, they might look over at Gerry and say: ‘Gerry, you know we’re not talking about you.’
Gerry likes to joke: ‘Of course not. I’m not white.’ ”