Sheryll Cashin’s ‘Loving’ advocates for a culturally dextrous society
A new book sheds light on the birth of white supremacy and how we as a nation can kill it
It’s clear from my conversation with Sheryll Cashin that she has a knack for understanding the big picture. The Georgetown Law professor’s new book, Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy (Beacon Press), captures the scope of racial politics in the United States, and she does so in a remarkably accessible manner. The book’s namesake is of course the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision, rendered 50 years ago Monday, that nullified all laws prohibiting interracial marriage. While Cashin devotes the middle section of her book to plaintiffs Richard and Mildred Loving, she bookends her analysis of their legal battle with a fascinating history of the birth of white supremacy and its lasting effects on interracial relationships in the United States, and that’s where the eye-opening content lies. She traces white supremacy’s roots in colonial Jamestown not as a natural societal progression but as one born of careful orchestration.
In the 1660s, where the book begins, the law’s obsession with controlling sexuality was less focused on race and more on preventing fornication. But as chattel slavery became racialized, white supremacy was orchestrated through anti-miscegenation laws. The key point that Cashin makes is that the only way to combat something as carefully engineered as white supremacy is to form interpersonal relationships across racial lines. In her words, make a friend. She coins this phenomenon “cultural dexterity,” a term that is the exact opposite of the pervasive “colorblindness.” But it’s a little more complicated than all that, so I chatted with her to better understand how it all fits together.
I wanted to talk about your thesis for the whole book. You’re advocating for the rise of a culturally dextrous class, and that the only way we’re going to get there, to use your words, is if we have a “critical mass” of allies who are willing to participate.
There are some people in the past who’ve made the simplistic argument that if we just all mix up it’ll make race go away and solve all of our problems, and that’s not my argument. What I’m doing in the last part of the book is just documenting what’s happening right under our noses. It’s snowballing in some ways — it’s accelerating. My argument is that perhaps the most important and most impactful thing is friendship. You don’t have to marry or adopt or sleep with a person of another race to experience or acquire this phenomenon that I describe of cultural dexterity. It’s an enhanced capacity for seeing a racial other in their tribe as a three-dimensional human being, and in some ways entering their pain. A growing class of whites is experiencing that, and I believe we’re going to get to a tipping point where we get to a critical mass of whites — not necessarily a majority, but just a critical mass. And those folks are allies of people of color. I believe we will get to a tipping point where, when you take the numbers of culturally dextrous whites and the numbers of politically engaged people of color, that that will be a majority coalition. Political scientists call them a coalition of the ascendant, and that coalition could, with effort, restore politics to being functional. It’s modest but potentially radical.
So you’re taking the “colorblind” society a step further, because a colorblind society isn’t the same thing as a culturally dextrous one.
Absolutely, it’s the opposite. What I see happening is whites, through intimate contact with racial others, acquiring sight. [Whites are] acquiring the ability to see and enter how the world feels to people of color. I am not in favor of colorblindness, and I think most people [inaudible] who profess to be colorblind are either delusional or are not being intellectually honest.
I like the term cultural dexterity. I know a lot of well-meaning white people who say I don’t see color or I’m colorblind, and I don’t think they’re truly like that. I think they don’t have the vocabulary to express what they’re actually doing.
I was trying to introduce a new word to describe what we need to happen and what is happening. I think the people who say that are utterly well-meaning. They are not racist, and they were taught that you’re not supposed to see race. And that’s something white people invented. A lot of well-meaning white liberals say, ‘In this house it’s forbidden to talk about race.’ I’ve had this with students of mine. I teach Race and American Law, where they have to learn and develop comfort, because they were told their whole lives that you’re not to see or talk about race. And you see people of color, they talk about it every day. It’s like brushing your teeth.
Is cultural dexterity a two-way street, or is this something we should expect only white people to do?
It is a two-way street. I’m sure you can think of some examples of people of color displaying a rigidity or intolerance. Sometimes I see this with black people who give mixed-race people a hard time for wanting to express their identity as mixed rather than just black. And that’s an example of lack of dexterity. Look, mixed-race people are one of the fastest-growing populations in this country, and their identity is their business. It’s not your place to tell them they should identify only with one group. So the answer is yes, cultural dexterity is multidimensional. Everybody has to work on developing the skills to accept other people’s realities and other people’s identities. It just so happens, though, that white people in this country are the least likely to acquire dexterity. Why? Because the majority of white people live in predominantly white settings. We’ve had a multicentury orchestrated effort through law and terror of constructing and reifying whiteness. There’s the idea that there should be a white, Anglo-Saxon norm that everyone should assimilate to, so white people have the least practice with having to adapt to other people’s norms. But I do celebrate those who are willing to do the work, and it is work.
Cultural dexterity may be multidimensional, but when people of color do it, it’s more closely tied to assimilation and survival rather than a concerted effort to understand the other side.
A lot of people of color acquire some dexterity just by living in this country, because of going back and forth in different worlds almost daily. They code-switch. People often learn to do this — they have to. You can’t be a person of color without finding some dexterity about entering majority-white spaces and knowing how to negotiate that. Whites have much less practice entering cultures.
Your focus in the book is primarily on person-to-person relationships, but I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on the proliferation of this phenomenon of cultural dexterity on a macro level.
I honestly think the most effective way is to just make a friend. Individuals of all colors need to have some context of their life where they really are practicing pluralism — not assimilation, pluralism — where they’re not calling the shots. They are one voice among many. I think the most effective way of spreading cultural dexterity is having an intimate relationship with a person of a different race. An authentic relationship is one where you’ve built enough trust that you guys can talk about anything without defensiveness. I think a lot of whites in particular are terrified of saying the wrong thing, and frankly a lot of people of color are quick to jump on the slightest error. The easy thing is to just not talk about it. But if you’ve got a friend, and it’s an authentic friendship, where you really spend time together, then you’ve got a context where you can ask questions, and that would be of tremendous value. It’s a much higher-stakes thing to adopt somebody or date somebody.
I want to talk about sex now.
[Laughter] You might know more about that than me, but go ahead and I’ll see what I can do for you.
Don’t worry! There’s an interesting part of the book where you talk about interracial relationships being reduced to a check mark for people on their sexual bucket list. You seem shocked by that. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that kind of “cultural dexterity,” if you will.
My niece tells me that she had white frat boys gunning at her, and she says it definitely felt like, ‘I want to taste that.’
I’ve definitely experienced that.
I think that impulse is not that different from what the slave owners were doing with their slaves. There was this artificiality where they can’t mix, but then they would mix. Interracial sex has been around since time of man. My point is that’s an indicia [of the challenge to white supremacy]. I’m not condoning the fetishization of other people’s bodies. It’s an indicia of the coming down of social taboos. The fact that even the preppy sorority girls are hooking up with black men. I’m not condoning anything, I’m just documenting. A lot of these taboos seem to be coming down, and interracial sex on campuses is an example of that, even if there are some unhealthy motivations going on there.
I graduated last year. There wasn’t a racial barrier when it came to sexual intimacy in campus. I didn’t think people were discounting someone because of their race, but what I did see was a lot of nighttime fetishization and desiring. Maybe you’ll hook up with a black girl —
But you won’t date her.
You won’t date her, you won’t be seen in daylight with her, and you definitely won’t take her home to see your parents. We’re not quite there yet.
But at the same time I do see white boys who are marrying black girls. My hope is that the black girl in that situation will not engage in that [fetishization] and demand from all men, of whatever color, to treat her the way she deserves to be treated. That’s my hope. But I’m not supposed to be preaching here.
No, it’s fine! I love it.
I used to think of this whole anti-miscegenation law, which the Loving case is about, as some side issue, and that the real issue was school segregation and residential segregation. But what I found in my research is that [anti-miscegenation] laws were the main vehicle for constructing white supremacy in this country. The way to try to communicate racial purity is to keep people from having sex with each other, and that’s been going on since the 1660s. And even though 50 years ago the Supreme Court struck those laws down, here we are in 2017 and the ideology is still out there in the ether. We have not put that ideology to bed. And that is sad. I really think that we will really not destroy that ideology until a critical mass of whites decides to be part of the coalition to destroy it. They have to stand up and reject it forcefully, along with allies, in all of its manifestations.