No one should be surprised that interracial marriages are at an all time high. 8.4 percent of all marriages in the U.S. are interracial, up from 3.2 percent in 1980. The increase includes interracial marriages of all combinations but is tied to the increase of the Hispanic and Asian populations in our country.
I remember going to the movies with Cara and Mackenzie to see Save the Last Dance in 2001. It was a movie about dance, and that’s why we went, but it was also a movie about an interracial couple that faces prejudice from peers and family. I cried through the whole movie: not sniffles and discreet dabs at my nose with tissues, but outright sobbing, snot and tears flowing, and shoulders heaving. I didn’t realize until then how much emotion I had stuffed inside me and pretended didn’t exist. I felt the full onslaught of anger, loss and hurt at the way people treated us and how much of it went unresolved after the death of my parents, Dad in 1981 and Ma in 1983. Cara and Mackenzie were embarrassed and baffled that I had reacted so strongly to a predictable and sentimental film.
They were rising seniors in high school and were about to leave to attend their first year at the conservatory that was predominately white. Their whole school career had been at urban public schools that were around fifty percent ethnic minority. They wore the confidence of acceptance amongst their peers. Too soon they would experience prejudice, stereotyping, isolation, and racism at the conservatory, but at the time we saw the movie, they could not understand what their own parents had experienced.
I realized that day that I just wanted to be like everyone else: worry about the bills; wonder how Cara and Mackenzie would fare 700 miles away; work at getting to know one another again after raising two kids and beginning a new phase in our relationship. I didn’t want to have to think about Ronald being treated poorly because of his skin color or worry whether or not we’d have problems if we tried to buy another house or went to have dinner at a restaurant or tried to get a hotel room when we went south to see the girls. That’s all anyone wants – to feel the freedom of not being judged and to live one’s life without someone stepping in and trying to make something out of it that it isn’t.
(Excerpt from essay Staying on It: Beauty and Aging)
My aging hair upsets me the most. I can never recapture its color, a blend of browns, golds, and reds that lit up in the sunlight and glistened with health. I didn’t start dying my hair until I was in my late thirties. I had, long before then, advised my sister Peggy, ten years older than I, to dye hers.
“My God,” I said to her when I was searching for her in a large crowd of people on the concourse under the New York state capital plaza. “I didn’t recognize you. You look like Aunt Josephine.”
She called me a week later, my thoughtless comment still stinging, and asked me if she should start dying her hair. “Yes,” I said, “you look older than your years.”
I knew women whose hair had turned gray or white prematurely when they were in their teens or twenties, and I loved the uniqueness of it. But why am I so tormented by my own gray hair?
“Don’t dye your hair,” Ronald said weeks before I started getting it done. “They can’t duplicate your hair color, and I’ll notice if you color a single strand on your head.”
It took him six months.
Now he complains that my hairdresser doesn’t know what she’s doing. “She’s putting the lighter color underneath the dark,” he said. “It looks like your scalp is showing through. It should be the other way around.”
“Ronald, that’s not what she’s doing,” I said, anger flaring for his pointing out what I can no longer hide. “That’s how white my hair is, and when it starts to grow out, that’s what you see. I’d have to have it colored every two weeks to keep up with it.”
Debra Gimlin studied how middleclass white women take care of their hair and the role hairdressers play in helping them in her book Body Work: Beauty and Self-Image in American Culture. She says, “Clients above all want ‘natural-looking’ hair. However, this quality is related not to its being ‘natural’ in any genuine sense but rather to the painstaking construction of ‘naturalness.’”
Both Cara and Mackenzie think I might like the white or gray my hair really is, if I would just grow it out and try it. I talk to Ronald about it, but neither one of us seems to be able to make a definitive choice. Besides the awful skunk stripe I’d suffer with for the months it would take me to grow it out, I’m afraid that I’ll have succumbed to being old.
“I don’t want to look like George and Barbara Bush,” I’ve told Ronald on several occasions. His hair is salt and pepper, he has a growing bald spot, and he sports a spare tire at his waistline. I’ve promised to tell him when the bald spot has become too large, and he should shave his head. Cara, Mackenzie, and I see how he has aged, but strangers think he is years younger, even twenty years younger than his chronological age. I feel the unfairness and obsess over it.
“Are you going to leave me for someone younger?” I ask, dreading the answer.
“Dianne, I’m still here. Let me deal with the sadness I feel sometimes. Give me time to sort through what it feels like to watch you age,” he said.
I was hurt that he felt sad for me, even as I felt sad for myself. I felt old women became invisible but old men continued on as always.
“Dianne, it’s like a favorite pair of shoes,” he said, as we lay on the bed, my head resting on his shoulder, his arm around me. “They might be worn, but you’ve grown attached to them.”
A pair of shoes, I thought, anger breaking like beads of sweat, an emotional hot flash, but I realized it was his way of saying that he couldn’t imagine living without me, just as I could not imagine living without him.