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Stephanie Wash Headshot

What's Love Got to Do With It

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In 1967, Louisiana Justice of the Peace Keith Bardwell was 14 years old. That year, America watched its first Super bowl game, Aretha Franklin taught the world the meaning of R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and our beloved president John F. Kennedy was entombed in Arlington National Cemetery.

Another important marker of 1967 was when anti-miscegenation laws were overturned unanimously by the Supreme Court in the landmark civil rights case, Loving v. Virginia.

June 12, 1967 brought an end to an unjust ban on race-mixing and America took one step closer to racial equality - so it seemed.

Last week, Bardwell set the clocks back to the era before the 1967 decision, when he refused to marry an interracial couple, defying the boundaries set by Chief Justice Earl Warren and other Supreme Court justices.

It set off a firestorm in the media and is still being heavily discussed in many social settings because it raised the question of the social welfare of mixed-race children.

"There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage," Bardwell told the Associated Press. "I think those children suffer and I won't help put them through it."

Bardwell isn't speaking from personal experience - but I can.

Everyday no matter where I am, the train, the street, or a social gathering - someone asks, "What are you?"

I've heard the question so much, in fact, that I already know what they're really asking yet I still ignorantly reply, "What do you mean?"

It's an awkward question but when you have caramel skin and delicate features, as I've been told, people automatically want to group you under the category exotic or mixed. She can't just be black.

I always let out a laugh and say African-American and white. But people always want to know more. So I give the long version of the story - my father is a dark-skinned man from Jefferson, Texas, a small town rich in American history. My mother hails from a family steeped in Mayflower Society pride and was raised on a farm in West Lebanon, Maine, and later Boston. She has warm, freckled skin and striking hazel eyes. My father loves football and cooking; my mother loves to garden and make crafts. Two worlds, two cultures meshed together -- still, 28 years and four daughters later.

My mother, a bi-racial woman of African-American heritage as well, met my father in Germany while he was in the Air Force. She was immediately smitten. They married and eventually settled in Braintree, Massachusetts, a suburb outside of Boston. Growing up I had no black playmates. It was my sisters and me. We were the only black children in the public school system -- but somehow we slid in and no one really noticed the obvious difference between us.

There were the bad apples of course -- the mean girls, as there are in any school setting. In junior high school some taunted me for my thick and kinky hair bun and nicknamed me "meatball head" and others were downright malicious and used the "N" word.

In retrospect, I can say that I have never placed blame on White America for the things I went through. I blamed the individuals for their actions. It is in our system and in our society to hate and be intolerant of others, sometimes unconsciously.

The hate grazed the skin -- but I never let it penetrate to my core. My stability growing up as a mixed-race child in a predominantly white setting was the diversity within my own family. When you grow up on two different ends of the spectrum, so to say, you're loved by many and they don't love you any less because of the color of your skin.

One of the closest people to me throughout my childhood was my next-door neighbor, who I called Ms. Maureen. She was a second mother to me and raised me through her 40s and 50s. We would bake together, watch television in her living room, and take walks to the store. She was a gentle, white woman who always welcomed my company -- and accepted me as her own. She was there for every birthday and every important event in my life. She was a wonderful person and I was family to her.

There is no way to measure how one will be accepted in society if they are of mixed race. But to say that both races are not generally accepting of a mixed-raced child is unacceptable. Bardwell believes this outwardly -- and refuses to marry interracial couples. It is ideas like this that indicate that not much has changed since an interracial man was elected as our country's 44th president. President Obama seems to be a prime example of why Bardwell's thinking is doubtful. To say that family generally does not accept the other side of a mixed-race child is somewhat preposterous in my eyes.

The majority of the country embraced Obama when he was named President-elect and later the leader of our country. There are millions of people that have never met the man and know only what is written or said about him. But they see a man of mixed heritage and they treat him no differently. Now if millions of strangers can accept a man as the biggest public figure in the country, how can you say his own family can only accept one half of the man he is?

Bardwell is not the only one who shares in this belief. Take for example the case of Bill de Blasio. When Bill de Blasio was running for public office in New York, he did what every politician does -- put his family on a flyer and proudly boasted himself as a family man. But some disapproved. De Blasio, who is second in line to the succession of the mayor, has been married to his wife, a black woman, for 15 years. The image of De Blasio, his wife, and two bi-racial children did not sit over well with some who still have qualms with interracial marriage. The fact that the image of a "non-traditional family" ruffled a few feathers is indicative of the progress that American society has failed to make due to unexplainable trepidation.

I also find Keith Bardwell's comments about his personal relationships with black friends equally troubling. It is the all-too-common, "I'm not racist, I have black friends" line. Not to say that it cannot be true, but it is disheartening for Bardwell to draw the line between befriending a black person, letting them into your home to use your bathroom as he told the AP, and accepting a black person as family. Ms. Maureen showed me that it is possible -- and it has carried me through any social awkwardness I may be expected to feel as a mixed-raced child.

Perhaps Bardwell did not mean for his comments to be indicative of half-a-century-too-old beliefs, but his refusal to marry interracial couples because of his own intolerance and presumption is inexcusable. For 34 years, Bardwell has been wrong -- morally, and socially. I just wonder why it has taken so long for the state of Louisiana to question whether it's legal.

America fought too hard to erase the color barriers -- blacks can dine with whites, drink from the same water fountain, and share the same bus seat. Let's not refuse service to those who choose to love one another, rather than hate along the crooked color boundaries which will continue to haunt our country when decisions are made based on misguided probability as Bardwell has done.

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