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The Divide-and-Conquer Legacy: why some whites are uncomfortable with interracial relations between non-whites

More than a few people have noticed the curious antipathy of some individual whites towards interracial relations between non-whites. In one case, a black American woman K was mocked by some white men for mentioning interracial relationships involving black women and yellow men. The same men then said that the only 'valid' interracial couplings were between white men and yellow women. One might think that K's experience is exceptional, but other non-whites have also shared their encounters with white hostility against interracial bonds between non-Europeans.

A recurring question is, "Why are some whites uncomfortable with relationships that don't involve whites at all?" After all, an adoption, marriage or friendship occuring between two people of color has no impact on the life on an unrelated white observer or even his/her larger community. To better understand the causes of this irrational discomfort or hostility towards non-white interracial relations, one only has to look at the history of the Americas. From North America to South America, non-white peoples, specifically Africans and Native Americans, sometimes united to the detriment of European colonial powers.

By the early 16th century, escaped African slaves had joined native peoples in Haiti and Hispaniola.1 In 1502, the new governor of Hispaniola, Nicolas de Ovando, sent a request to King Ferdinand, asking that no more Africans be sent to the Americas. Ovando claimed, "They fled among the Indians and taught them bad customs, and never could be captured."2 Around the mid-16th century, indigenous Brazilians allegedly captured a Portugeuse slave ship and aided the escape of African abductees to the forests of Bahia.3

In 1537, there was an insurrection in Mexico. The Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza reported that the African slaves had revolted with the support of Indians and were planning to kill all the Spaniards.4 The Spanish authorities saw African/indigenous intermarriage as a problem for Europeans. King Philip of Spain [r 1558-1598] complained that people mixed of African and indigenous descent committed crimes and then dresssed as Indians so they could "hide out with their mother's relatives and not be found."5 It was not surprising therefore, that King Philip II of Spain received a letter from his Mexican colony in 1615 advising him that "division of the races is an indispensable element" in controlling his colonies.6

Separation of people of color became a matter of government policy in various parts of the Americas,including Mexico and North America. An 18th century South Carolina law prohibited British subjects from bringing their black slaves to the frontier where the slaves might encounter Native Americans. The stated concerns of a British colonel reflect the reasons behind the law: "the Slaves... talk good English as well as the Cherokee language and... too often tell falsities to the Indians which they are apt to believe."7

Jack D. Forbes stated in Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples:

There is much evidence to show that Americans and Africans often collaborated against European exploitation, as, for example, in Mexico...Needless to state, the imperial powers often attempted to keep black and red people apart, the better to divide and conquer.

Although most Europeans in the Americas are no longer aware of the history of non-white interracial resistance against the white ruling class, the 'gut-feeling' that cross-community alliances between people of color is bad still survives in the collective Euro-American subconsciousness. As the Native American population dwindled, some whites shifted their dislike for interracial relations between Africans and Native Americans to interactions between blacks and other cultural groups, such as Asians. Stripped of its original context and underlying causes, this white fear of non-white interracial relations is now simply an irrational bias of modern Euro-Americans. It manifests itself in situations where individual interracial relations between people of color pose no threat to white power. In Hawaii, displeased with the relative racial equality in the ethnically diverse islands, white GIs diligently 'educated' the local non-whites to fear and hate black GIs.

When the 369th Coast Artillery Regiment (The Harlem Hellfighters) were transported to their initial base camp on the little sugar cane railroad, people reacted to them as if they were some kind of invading force. People ran away, frightened of the train full of black men. It didn't take long to figure out what had happened. Local people had been repeatedly warned by white soldiers and sailors from the South that blacks were literally dangerous animals. Local women, in particular, refused to have social relations with African American men.8

The same thing happened in US bases abroad. P., a black American retired serviceman tells of his encounters with active white opposition to black-yellow relations:

I served in the United States Air Force for a period of 20 years. My experience with power-based White racism overseas came on base at Fuchu Air Station, Japan; 5th Air Force Headquarters, Showa AS, Japan and Yamato AS, Japan during 1958-1960. At that time I was in Supply (Stock Records/Accounting). On numerous occasions, I was told by Japanese co-workers, both alone and in the company of other Black GIs, that some of the "White" GI's threatened Japanese nationals with job loss if they fraternized with Black GIs. Both Japanese men and women stated such sentiments.

Off-base we Black GIs were welcome in many of the Japanese bars and "Whites" were not. Those bars were placed "off limits" by the military authorities because they were considered either hostile or unsafe for "Americans." (There were also some bars that no Americans were welcome in as well.) The "crowning experience" was being told by some Japanese coworkers that the White GIs had told them that we Black GIs had tails that came out at night! In spite of this ignorance, I enjoyed my tour of duty overall. The people were warm and hospitable. I encountered similar behavior in the Philippines while assigned to Clark, AB (1966-1968). For example, most (not all) of the bars were "segregated."

My bottom line is that I believe that a lot of behavior involving the preference of whites over blacks on the part of the local people was based on the issue of their economic survival - money (the color green). They saw friends fired for fraternizing (dating or otherwise) with Black GIs and they also perceive a link between "color" (green) and skin color. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that "white" skin either rightly or wrongly (I believe the latter) provides immediate access to the social system of "America." It also means access to basic social needs that most hold dear -- jobs, schools, communities, housing, loans and justice. I firmly believe that the issue of "color preferences" is deeply embedded in the politics of accessibility.

P's story tells us of irrational meanness on the part of individual whites, who, unlike earlier colonial Europeans, stand to gain nothing from enforcing separation between people of color. But considering that P's experience happened decades ago, some of us may prefer to think that such attitudes among whites are largely a thing of the past. Anecdotes seem to indicate otherwise, however. The following excerpt from a 2004 yahoogroups posting by a young black American serviceman echoes P.'s story from the 1960s:

I'm a 24 y/o black male in the Marines. I am now dating a Vietnamese woman who is also in the Marines. Marines are known for loving women of all colors, but I've noticed a couple of white guys that do not like seeing me with my girlfriend. They have even started vicious rumors to try to separate us, to no avail. I don't understand this whole "It's okay to like these people, but not THESE people" mentality. I've never experienced so much prejudice in my life, since I've started dating my girlfriend...

[For full post, see]

About 40 years has passed between the time of P. and this young 21st century serviceman. Yet it seems there has been little change in some areas. Hanging on to such attitudes does not benefit anyone, white or not. P. says, "It is not too late for change in America but are we willing to sanely do so?"

  1. Jack D. Forbes, Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples, p. 16
    William Katz, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, p. 28
  2. Katz, p. 28
  3. Forbes, p. 16
  4. Katz, p. 35
  5. Katz, p. 37
  6. Katz, p. 47
  7. Katz, p. 105
  8. University of Washington History 313:The History of African Americans in the West: Manual - Chapter 8: World War II and the Black West