CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1 This book by Cécile Coquet-Mokoko, professor of American civilization at the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, is original in more than one respect: for the subject itself, heterosexual couples consisting of a White and a Black partner, so-called interracial couples, rarely named and studied as such in France; and for its international comparative perspective, between the southern United States and France. Published in English, it is richly documented with relevant references in both English and French.

2 Coquet-Mokoko begins by posing the question of why we might want to study interracial relations through the prism of love. She argues that the ‘policing of interracial intimacies has historically been one of the most effective ways of creating, naturalizing, and consolidating the dominance of White male elites over all other social groups since the 17th century’ (p. 2). She then outlines the two qualitative studies that she presents in the book. The first was conducted in France between 2001 and 2019 in the Paris region and other university towns: 35 couples were interviewed, including 23 with children. The second was carried out at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa between 2009 and 2018 (with the participation of students): 22 couples were interviewed, including 14 with children. From a sociological point of view, however, some methodological issues must be noted. The interview guide, awkwardly referred to as a ‘questionnaire’ (pp. 184–185), is very brief; the study took place over slightly too long a period; and a more precise presentation of the couples interviewed in each context (level of education and occupation) would have helped to clear away doubts about the reliability and comparability of the results presented.

3 The book is divided into two parts. The first presents the respective national historical contexts of the relations between White and Black populations (Chapters 1 and 2). The presentation of historical facts in these two chapters is fairly unequal, in keeping with the different histories of the two countries. The chapter on the United States is centred on three centuries of laws prohibiting racial mixing (anti-amalgamation laws) from 1630 to 1967, the year in which the Supreme Court’s ruling in Loving v. Virginia finally lifted the ban on interracial marriage in all states. After an initial colonial period of widespread interracial relations, White Christian elites drove the development of a moral code that classified interracial desire as a sin, singling out interracial marriage in particular for condemnation. Laws established by the Southern states aimed above all to maintain the idea that these relationships were contrary to nature and to ensure that the children born to these couples could not access the same rights as White children (p. 19).

4 In France, the history is quite different. This chapter reviews the specific legislation enacted in the plantation colonies (the Code noir) condemning sexual relations between masters and slaves, in the African colonies (the Code de l’indigénat) establishing two-tier citizenship and in mainland France (policy aimed at reducing the number of people of colour on French territory). Coquet-Mokoko then emphasizes that in the contemporary period, despite persistent discrimination, a Black French identity has emerged. The specificity of the French situation lies in the fact that ‘interracial marriages’ were never disallowed, and the ‘mixed’ individuals born of these unions were recognized as members of the French population.

5 The second part of the book (Chapters 3–6) presents the empirical findings of the study, relating the experiences of interracial couples through a thematic framework that highlights the differences between France and the United States. While on the official political level, the two societies are ‘colour-blind’ and take no account of racial differences, they are both dominated by a ‘White racial frame’. Chapter 3 thus logically opens on systemic racism as expressed through the explicit disapproval of family and friends concerning interracial relationships, and through challenges and even insults directed at such couples in public space. Chapters 4 and 5 then offer a careful inquiry into conjugal lives to counter these negative representations, before concluding in Chapter 6 on the challenges of raising children born in this context.

6 Taken together, these results show just how intertwined are issues of race and gender. Social representations, cultural expectations, and ways of reacting all differ depending on which member of the couple is Black and which White. Interracial couples upset habitual representations of femininity and masculinity, both in the majority population and in the reference groups of each member. Power relations are at work in all couples, but in interracial couples there is the added fact of having to constantly deal with normative framings of the White man as dominant, and the Black man or woman, and, to a lesser extent, the White woman, as dominated. The interviews are full of detail, illustrating the everyday lives of these couples, the challenging contexts in which they make their way through the world, and how they take responsibility for their choices by developing mixed cultures and critical distance with respect to the values of their own group of origin. It is possible to get lost at points in the analysis, given how many different aspects of their public and intimate lives are addressed.

7 The comparison of the experiences of couples in the southern United States and France reveals structural differences that can be directly linked to the historical construction of interracial relations in the two contexts. Residential and school segregation is more marked in the United States, and interethnic social connections seem to be less common. Spouses are accused of ‘selling out’ to the other group, White women of being ‘race traitors’, and Black women of reproducing master–slave domination. In France, on the other hand, arguments relate less to racial belonging as such than to cultural differences and of schemes to trick the immigration system. It is here, too, that we reach the limits of this comparison. Due to the different circumstances of the presence of Black populations in the United States and France, the challenges faced by interracial couples in France are not the same: gender stereotypes; cultural, religious, and culinary habits; beliefs in witchcraft; family expectations in the country of origin, etc. The racial dimension is always caught up in an ethno-cultural world that marks both couples’ daily lives and the disapproval they may experience.

8 And indeed, the book’s conclusion questions the construction of the racial category in the US census: more and more people in the United States describe themselves as multiracial (1 in 50 Americans), whereas immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean do not identify with this specific category. Yet the White racial frame remains ideologically dominant in both countries and continues to produce a specific disapproval of these couples that other mixed or international couples will never experience. The book is a major contribution to the field of studies on mixed marriages, both through its documentation of historical contexts and through the richness of the empirical material, which confirms the results of numerous empirical studies carried out in France and in other countries.

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