The New Normal

EduardGurevich via iStock

EduardGurevich via iStock

My father was born in 1953 in Utah to a fairly conservative White Mormon family. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education began the long process of desegregating schools in the United States, which was followed nine years later, in 1964, with the passage of the The Voting Rights Act. The next year, The Civil Rights Act was also passed, which rendered the last of the Jim Crow laws obsolete. Then, in 1967, Loving v. Virginia struck down all laws that had made interracial marriage illegal. In 1984, when my father was just thirty-one years old, he married my mother, who is a Korean adoptee. Then, in April of 1985, they had a biracial child together: me.

This timeline of events is something that I often marvel at. We tend to think of cultural change as something that happens slowly, and that somehow our current set of social norms are the ultimate stable state. However, when I look back at my father’s lifetime I am awed by how rapidly our society has changed, and what is more, that it wasn’t all done by some supreme being waving a magic wand. On the contrary, these changes took place because individuals, both around the country and around the world, continually pushed at the boundaries of what was then accepted and normal.

Today, it is easy to look around and see all the ways that I don’t fit in, all the ways that I am different, and all the progress that we as a society have yet to make. But when I look back at the last sixty-six years and acknowledge just how much has already changed, I am encouraged. It proves to me that such change is possible and that every tiny action we take today is nudging the world forward a little bit at a time. All of our current cultural baggage around sex, race, gender and relationships are much more malleable than we typically imagine, and if we keep pushing, who knows where we will all be in another sixty-six years?

Given the peculiar position that race has always held in America’s social fabric, its role in the evolution of what is considered “normal” with regard to sex and relationships is particularly illuminating. First, although the perimeters of different racial categories tend to be thought of as fixed, history clearly shows that in fact, they have always been fluid. Americans, for example, are used to thinking of the world as divided up into White and non-White people (the latter of whom have also been, at various moments in time, referred to as “colored people,” “racial minorities,” “citizens of color” and most recently “people of color”) and generally assume that there is some kind of essential difference between these two groups that we can easily discern. However, even the idea of Whiteness is an ever-moving and ever-changing target. People of Finnish, Jewish, Irish and Italian descent, for example, have all been considered racially other (another term for “non-White”!) at some point in American history.

This ever-changing idea of race is particularly significant to charting changes in social norms surrounding interracial sex and relationships. Due to its visibility, popular media provides an especially easy window through which to chart this evolution. Although attitudes opposing miscegenation in the United States go back several centuries, Hollywood’s anti-miscegenation rules were first formalized in the Hays Code, which was a series of rules set forth by the Motion Pictures and Distributors of America (later the Motion Pictures Association of America) meant to ensure that the content of films was not a corrupting influence. The Hays Code featured an anti-miscegintion rule from 1930 until the 1956 revision, and it was within this atmosphere that television was born. Although, by 1968, the Code had weakened significantly and was often only loosely enforced, the effects of its influence were still clearly visible in the continued absence of nearly all romantic interracial relationships on screen.

In 1968, however, on an episode of Star Trek (1966-69), Captain Kirk, played by White actor William Shatner famously kissed Uhura, played by Black actress Nichelle Nichols. Today, many people celebrate this moment as the first interracial kiss on television, and insist that it broke decades of laws, rules, and traditions forbidding the portrayal of “miscegenation” in film and television. Yet, a little digging reveals that this exchange was not actually a first. One year earlier, on the very same show, Captain Kirk kissed another character, Marlena Moreau, who was played by a mixed-race woman, Barbara Luna. But, I suspect that because Luna, unlike Nichols, reads as White or ethnically ambiguous to many modern viewers, her kiss with Shatner is less remarkable to modern eyes.

Similarly, years earlier, Lucille Ball (White) and Desi Arnaz (Cuban-born American) also shared an interracial kiss on I Love Lucy (1951-57). However, their claim to the first interracial kiss is now complicated by the fact that the United States Census Bureau has changed the definition of race since I Love Lucy first entered our homes. Although their marriage both on and off the screen was considered “interracial” at the time of the show’s airing, “Hispanic” is no longer considered a racial category, and is now instead classified as an ethnicity; therefore, their kiss would no longer qualify as interracial today.

American notions of what is “normal” and “other” when it comes to sex and relationships are also in a constant state of flux outside the context of race. Take courtship practices, for example. Today, a growing number of couples are waiting until their thirties or later to marry, whereas just a few decades ago it was unheard of (particularly for so many women) to put off marriage for so long, or even more extremely, to skip it all together. After centuries of legislation and taboo, divorce is also more or less accepted as commonplace—we no longer shun men and women who have gotten divorced, and instead, even celebrate their second, third, etc. marriages. Even the entire process of dating is pretty newfangled. The idea of spending months, or even years getting to know someone, having sex with them, maybe even moving in with them, and then deciding whether or not to marry them was unimaginable not that long ago.

As it turns out, it is not just our courtship conventions that have changed over a relatively short period of time, but also what is perceived as “normal” behavior between two (or more) people inside the bedroom. Until the 1960s, every state in America had some kind of sodomy law on the books. In fact, it wasn’t until the 2003 decision of Lawrence v. Texas that the Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws were unconstitutional, thereby making any state laws still on the books irrelevant. Typically, we tend to think of these laws as targeting gay men, which has often been the case in recent history. However, further back, definitions of sodomy have also included all forms of oral and anal sex (even between a married heterosexual couple), and if you go back to medieval times, even solo masturbation. It turns out that, based on these standards, the vast majority of us are sodomites!

We all have a natural tendency to think of ourselves as “normal” until we are told that we are racially different, sexually deviant, or socially wrong. Society is quick to point out the ways in which we are classified as Other, as if there is some essential and unmovable definition of what is normal that we should all measure up to. However, this entire idea of a fixed normalcy is an illusion. It is only by pushing the boundaries of how the word is defined over and over again that we have come to the point that so many once “strange” or “immoral” behaviors have been normalized.

We live in a society that has learned that divorced individuals still deserve romance and that people of different races will fall in love. Heck, we’ve even changed our definition of race. We are increasingly living in a society that accepts that people fall in love with others of the same biological sex. We live in a culture where women are allowed to wear pants, have their own bank accounts, and be single. Men are now allowed to be loving fathers who don’t “babysit” because they are parenting.

As I reflect on all of this, I realize just how profoundly my dad’s world has changed in the last sixty-six years. Even though I still think of him as a fuddy-duddy sometimes, I am also blown away by how flexible he has been and how much he has embraced these cultural transformations. I hope that my paradigm can shift as quickly and thoroughly as his did, that I can be as flexible and as accepting as he is, and that my children will look at the world I grew up in and marvel at how much the notion of “normal” has changed.