Making the Modern Family: Interracial Intimacy and the Social Production of Whiteness
A new approach to the law of multiracial families
Angela Onwuachi-Willig’s provocative book According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family seems tailor-made for the current cultural moment. The book arrives on the heels of the reelection of our first mixed-race President. It arrives in the midst of a media blitz that favorably presents mixed-race couples on a routine basis, making the multiracial family seem a normal, even pedestrian occurrence. Indeed, in 2012 the cultural embrace of the interracial family seemed complete when Modern Family was chosen as the top sitcom in the United States. The program centers on the Dunphy-Pritchetts, an interracial, gay-tolerant family, seemingly progressive in all dimensions. Onwuachi-Willig’s new book, however, boldly challenges the contemporary claim that interracial families are now an accepted and celebrated part of the American polity. The author instead painstakingly reveals that the world still subjects the interracial family to insult and inferior treatment that the law fails to address and, further, that the acceptance of interracial couples in contemporary popular culture is far more partial, conditional, and ambivalent than it might initially seem.
According to Our Hearts is an ambitious project, as Onwuachi-Willig uses the book to flesh out a new area in antidiscrimination studies, namely, the study of relational discrimination. The author’s central claim is that in many cases it is not an individual’s racial status alone that triggers discrimination, but rather her willingness to enter into interracial relationships (pp. 17–19). This insight has broad implications for discrimination studies, for although courts have developed a rich doctrine that addresses discrimination triggered by interracial family relationships, antidiscrimination scholars have not fully considered the implications that relational discrimination protections will have when extended to other protected groups. Onwuachi-Willig, therefore, creates an opportunity for us to consider the depth of our commitment to the concept of relational discrimination as this issue also arises with relatives of disabled, gay, or transgender persons.
Importantly, there is some risk that the more sophisticated elements of the author’s theoretical contribution may be missed by less careful readers, as the book’s hydra-headed account of relational discrimination is presented in a series of woven narratives, rather than in a more linear expository form. Also, Onwuachi-Willig solely focuses on race discrimination, despite the obvious broader implications of her relational approach. To ensure that her contribution to the antidiscrimination literature is properly recognized, this Review provides the framework and structure necessary to fully appreciate Onwuachi-Willig’s insights about relational discrimination, as well as the context required to understand why her relational account charts a new direction for antidiscrimination theory.
Properly framed, Onwuachi-Willig’s book makes a second contribution to the antidiscrimination literature, as it provides us with a finely nuanced account of the dialectical, mutually constitutive relationship between family formation and “racial formation.” The study of “racial formation,” a methodological approach introduced by Professors Michael Omi and Howard Winant, requires that scholars examine the ways in which race is constantly redefined, reworked, and rearticulated by social and political institutions in different political and historical periods. Onwuachi-Willig does not use racial formation terminology to describe her work, instead explaining that she is interested in “how both law and society work together to define families and their rights and opportunities by race — especially when those families are multiracial” (p. 8). However, her analysis maps the micro¬aggressions and microassaults against the interracial family that are intended to discipline the family by sanctioning those who have defied America’s monoracial family norm (pp. 173–83, 203–11). She explores the ways in which race is recognized, reworked, and reproduced in small scale, seemingly inconsequential workplace discussions, housing market inquiries, and random exchanges between strangers in streets and restaurants. According to Our Hearts carefully charts how these microexchanges hew together to actualize and enforce an oppressive default monoracial standard for American families.
In summary, this Review is entitled Making the Modern Family for two reasons. First, the title draws attention to the fact that Onwuachi-Willig is actively “making” the modern family that she purports to merely describe, for the construct of the modern family she offers is open to challenge, just as much as is the pop-culture, Dunphy-Pritchett construction most Americans use to understand the interracial family’s place in American life. This Review shows that Onwuachi-Willig’s construct of the interracial family productively informs her work in some ways, and yet in other ways fundamentally distorts her account of the interracial family’s role. Additionally, the title Making the Modern Family is intended to remind us that the modern family is the interracial family, and that the racial identity lessons that are disseminated in these family structures will have huge consequences for the maintenance of whiteness as a social category and the persistence of racial status hierarchy in the United States. Indeed, the choices family members make about how to raise interracial children will determine whether interracial families function as a racially progressive force or remain in their more historically established role of charting a path to whiteness.