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 by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and then the Voting Rights Act of 1965, rendering 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, a Korean adoptee. 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’s 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 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 I don’t fit in, all the ways I’m different, and all the progress that we as a society have yet to make. But when I look back at the last 66 years and acknowledge just how much has already changed, I am encouraged. It proves 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 is much more malleable than we typically imagine, and if we keep pushing, who knows where we will all be in another 66 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 into white and non-white people (the latter have also been variously referred to as coloured people, racial minorities and most recently people of colour), and generally assume that there is some kind of easily discernible essential difference between the two. However, even the idea of so-called whiteness is an ever-moving target. People of Finnish, Jewish, Irish and Italian descent, for instance, have all been considered racially other (another term for non-white) at some point in American history.
This ever-shifting idea of race is useful for tracking changes in social norms surrounding interracial sex and relationships. 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 policies were first formalised 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-miscegenation 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 a 1968 episode of Star Trek (1966–69), however, 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 the 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. I suspect that because Luna, unlike Nichols, reads as white or ethnically ambiguous, her kiss with Shatner is less remarkable to modern eyes.
Similarly, years earlier, Lucille Ball (white) and Desi Arnaz (Cuban-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. 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 women) to put off marriage for so long, much less to skip it altogether. After centuries of legislation and taboo, divorce is also more or less accepted as commonplace—we no longer frown upon men and women who have got divorced, and instead, even celebrate their second, third, etc. marriages. The dating process itself 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.
It’s not just our courtship conventions that have changed over a relatively short period of time, but also what is perceived as normal behaviour in the bedroom. Until the 1960s, every state in the US 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. We tend to think of these laws as targeting gay men, which has often been the case, but time was, sodomy 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’re 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 were some timeless 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 concept is defined over and over again that we have come to the point that so many once strange or immoral behaviours have been normalized.
We live in a society that recognizes divorced folks 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, vote 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 realise just how profoundly my father’s world has changed in the last 66 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.