Parents struggle with children’s interracial relationships
“People tend to have preconceived notions about each other based on race or culture that hinder them from getting to know one another. That’s where we were in the beginning with my parents.”
Parents of interracial couples and families sometimes struggle with their own personal prejudices, have mixed feelings toward interracial marriage and grapple with the numbing fear that a hate crime could threaten their children’s personal safety.
These parents say the challenges are abundant, yet they do learn acceptance when they spend time with their interracial families, readjust their attitudes, debunk stereotypes about race and move past preconceived notions.
Grandfather of three, Bobby Gremillion, who is white, said his life has grown richer since the acceptance of his daughter’s interracial relationship. He drew some comparisons to a movie that helped paint a picture of what some modern American families would one day look like.
When “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” opened in theaters in 1967, Gremillion said he watched the then-taboo subject of interracial marriage play on the Broadmoor Theater screen on Florida Boulevard at a time when racial unrest among blacks and whites was prevalent.
“I also remember the incident of a rumored bomb threat when the movie was released,” Gremillion said.
Some 40-plus years later, Gremillion can proudly and without fear of attack sit at a dinner table and eat a meal with his black son-in-law, Bernell Smith, his daughter Kristy and their three biracial children, he said.
“We love our grandchildren to death,” Gremillion said. “They call me, ‘papa’.”
Gremillion is part of a growing population of adults who are grandparents to children of interracial marriages and developing relationships that know no racial boundaries, said Bryan Gros, a clinical child psychologist who works with children and families.
“There’s nothing like a smiling baby to soften things up,” Gros said. “And grandparents of interracial grandchildren must remind themselves that, ‘This child is no less my grandchild than my next grandchild who is either white or black or another race. It will always be my grandchild.’”
Several of the movie’s scenes reminded Gremillion in some ways of his own experiences with his son-in-law. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn played parents who were anticipating meeting their daughter’s new fiancé during dinner. Much to their shock, a black man, played by Sidney Poitier, was their dinner guest and soon-to-be son-in-law.
Gremillion too was taken off guard after he realized his daughter was going to marry her black boyfriend.
“Initially, it was a surprise,” he said. “I had no idea they were seeing each other.”
Growing up in the South during a time when racism was common, including his own father’s racist attitudes, Gremillion said he was naive about race.
“I didn’t know any black people until I worked with a black guy during the ‘60s, and we’d go to lunch together,” he said.
Even though Gremillion knew Bernell and Kristy were friends and worked together at a pizzeria in 1996, it wasn’t until his wife, Sheryl, told him that Kristy was pregnant with Bernell’s child that he began to piece their relationship together.
“I was disappointed that she didn’t let us know anything,” Gremillion said. “I was flabbergasted.”
Bernell and Kristy were married in 2004. Kristy, now a registered nurse, said she wanted to keep her involvement with Bernell a secret initially. Even after she became pregnant, she was afraid to talk with her parents about her pregnancy for fear that they would reject her child’s father.
“People tend to have preconceived notions about each other based on race or culture that hinder them from getting to know one another. That’s where we were in the beginning with my parents,” Kristy said.
Gremillion was determined to work through some of his own issues with race, including his initial fear that Kristy’s then-boyfriend could turn out to be a poor provider, or worse, abandon her and the baby. That fear grew out of Gremillion’s past observance of a close relative who had several biracial children with a black man “who was not a good father and who left her,” he said.
Gros said these types of assumptions can present challenges if they are not resolved.
“People can change, and it involves working through their own heads and getting through preconceived notions and stereotypes. Every race has stereotypes about other races,” Gros said.
Gremillion did put preconceived notions to rest and peeled away stereotypes to find the true Bernell, he said. The results over time caused Gremillion and Bernell’s relationship to flourish.
“Every individual needs to make an effort to make it successful. It takes effort to make it work,” Gremillion said. “Once they got married, my wife and I were supportive all along. If you ever want a son-in-law, Bernell was that guy. He’s such a gentleman, and he works hard, long hours, and he’s always trying to be helpful.”
Kristy is no longer quiet and secretive about the couple’s relationship, she said.
“My dad calls Bernell to go to LSU games. My mother absolutely loves Bernell. She calls and nags him just like her biological sons. They openly discuss race, politics and religion, even if their opinions are different.”
Other parents of interracial couples are often concerned for the safety of their children and fear backlash from others who may not approve of the couple’s interracial relationship.
Warren Crockett, a black man, married Sherri, a white woman, in 1994. Warren’s mother, Veronica Crockett, feared for his family’s safety initially.
“She used to be to the point where she thought somebody would come in and slaughter us in the middle of the night,” Warren said.
Warren too feared for his life and that of his family.
“I moved from Glen Oaks in Baton Rouge to Prairieville where they were hosting KKK meetings,” Warren said. “There was some concern from my family about our safety. I used to have nightmares about someone coming into the house and hurting us.”
Warren did not meet most of Sherri’s family until after their wedding due to the family’s disapproval of the relationship. However, Sherri’s father and Warren eventually became very close.
“Her parents were reluctant initially. Once we got married and they got to meet me and see who I was, and grandkids started coming along, everything played itself out,” Warren said. “Sherri’s father died in ‘06, and at the time of his death we were like best buddies, whereas, I didn’t meet him until we were married.”
Acceptance was also a key concern for Veronica.
“I was afraid that he (Warren) wouldn’t be accepted by her parents. And they weren’t accepting at first,” Veronica said. “When Hailey (their first child) was born, that brought a lot of togetherness.”
Veronica said once she realized her son was serious about marrying Sherri, she told him to be a good provider and take care of her. Still, the times were different.
“Twenty-something years ago, I’d only seen maybe one other interracial couple, and back then it was an eye-catcher. He told me, ‘I didn’t go out looking for a white woman. I fell in love with Sherri,’” Veronica said.
Veronica’s relationship with her daughter-in-law has blossomed through the years. She stays involved with her three grandchildren and visits with them often.
“I’m glad Sherri’s with my son. She is beautiful and she’s a part of our family,” Veronica said.
For other couples, both age and race can play a pivotal role in a parent’s ability to adjust to interracial relationships.
Gros said it helps for interracial couples to talk with their parents about their relationships, even if their parents aren’t accepting of it in the beginning.
“There’s a balance by how assertive you want to be with your parents and knowing that time does heal all wounds,” Gros said.
Jessica Vallet, a 25-year-old black woman, married Paul Vallet, a 54-year-old white man, almost two years ago. The couple’s parents were worried about the arrangement in the beginning.
“We both made it clear when we were getting married that family approval, although nice, wasn’t required. We also let them know that any behavior amounting to interfering or causing problems wouldn’t be tolerated,” Jessica said.
Their parent’s fears eventually subsided.
“I think both my father (Ahab J. Lee Jr.) and Paul’s mother (Ophelia Vallet) were probably more age-concerned than race-concerned. But even more, I think they were both worried about ‘losing’ their kids. Once it became clear that wasn’t happening, it was all OK,” Jessica said.
Jessica’s relationship with Paul’s mother moved from tense to one of loyalty and respect following hip surgery and an aneurism.
“Jessica became a staple for mom,” Paul said. “She became somebody who did for her, and Mama knew that she was a loyalist and that she could depend on her…She stood with my mother and helped her every day and every night.”
Likewise, Jessica’s father, who died on April 11, 2012, eventually saw Paul as a member of the family.
“Her dad was raised in New Orleans and he went to jail quite a few times over some white boys, and when he found out I was white and I was older, oh my God, he wasn’t happy about it,” Paul said.
Jessica’s father was part of the civil rights struggle of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Jessica said.
“Before Brown vs. Board of Education and all of that, one of the first fights he ever got into was about when the buses were divided and there was a little bitty board in the back for the blacks and then all of the space up front for the whites,” she said.
Jessica further explained that Lee wanted to integrate bus seats so that blacks could sit in some of the empty seats toward the front of the bus that whites were not occupying. He moved the signs on one bus that separated people, and that got him into trouble.
Understanding her father’s past helped Jessica and Paul approach his attitude about their relationship with more sensitivity. Paul said he did several things to prove his love and commitment toward Jessica, though it took a while to convince his father-in-law, he said.
“He hated me right from the very beginning, but we had to get one foot in the door. I told Jessica the burden is mine to bring everybody together. I’m the one that wants to marry his daughter, so I have to prove that I’m worthy of her and that was my objective,” Paul said. “At the wedding I said (to the preacher), ‘Excuse me, I have something to do’ and I got down on my hands and knees and asked him in front of everybody if I could marry his daughter.”
Paul said persistence helped Jessica’s father overcome some of his deep-seated prejudices and distrust of white men. Paul also took time to help his father-in-law get to know him and explained his reasons for wanting to marry his daughter.
“We made small connections and you have to exploit them to get in the door,” Paul said.
To further help gain his father-in-law’s trust and confidence, he spent time listening to him talk about his masonry work in New Orleans, love for jazz and blues music, and about his fight for civil rights for blacks. Paul also helped his wife care for Lee during his illness leading up to his recent death.
Paul’s relationship with Lee flourished as a result of respect, persistence and patience.
“I know for a fact that persistence overcomes resistance,” Paul said. “So if you’re persistent and consistent, you will overcome.”