Miscegenation refers to the marriage or interbreeding of races, particularly of whites with nonwhites. The Spanish equivalent is mestizaje, from which we get the Spanish term mestizo, whose English equivalents, derogatory or otherwise, include terms such as half-breed, half-caste, mulatto, or hybrid.
When the first recorded interracial marriage in U.S. history between John Rolfe and Pocahantas occurred in Virginia in April 1614, negative ideas about miscegenation had hardly formed. Afterward, opposition against miscegenation involved rejection of intimate relations between groups who were phenotypically different and of the legitimacy of mixed offspring.
Reaching a peak number of 30 in 1913, miscegenation laws then existed in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Their statutes varied, and further confusion arose from the decisions interpreting them, especially in defining races other than white and the impossibility of formulating any general rule with regard to the (il)legitimacy of the progeny from such unions. Penalties for violation of these laws ranged from either imprisonment for a few months to a term of 10 years, or fines ranging from small sums up to $2,000, or both. These laws remained in the books until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court abolished them.
Although no known scientific method existed for ascertaining the difference between the blood of white and nonwhite people, frequent references in the statutes spoke to persons having varying degrees of “colored” blood. This concept gave U.S. miscegenation its most peculiar characteristic, whereby a white woman could give birth to a black child but a black woman could not give birth to a white child. The terms hypodescent or descending miscegenation refer to this latter phenomenon. In popular U.S. terminology, this is the “one-drop” rule, which defines persons with even “one drop” of African blood in their veins as “black.”
In other countries, opposition to miscegenation was less strong and persistent. In 1514, the initial prohibition in Latin America of marriages between Spaniards and Indians ended, replaced by encouragement of intermarriage in the hope that this would bring Spanish adventurers to settle permanently in the New World. Similarly, miscegenation was commonplace in the Portuguese colonies.
The French recognized interracial marriages in their Caribbean colonies until the early 18th century.
However, the famous Code noir of 1685 punished concubinage between a white man and an African slave, imposing a fine of 2,000 pounds of sugar if any progeny resulted; if the couple married, the woman was freed and the fine rescinded. Enforcement was lax in the colonies, unlike France itself, which officially prohibited interracial marriages in 1778; the ban ended after the French Revolution of 1789.
In colonial Africa, the French, Italians, Portuguese, and Arabs showed more tolerance toward miscegenation than the British and Germans. In the British Empire, the most widespread miscegenation occurred in South Africa, primarily the result of illicit sexual intercourse, leading to a 1927 law making extramarital relations between Europeans and Africans a punishable offense. In other British colonies, the Crewe Circular of 1909 prohibited cohabitation between government officials and “native” women.
In German Southwest Africa (GSA) in 1905, in German East Africa (GEA) in 1906, and in German Samoa in 1910, the governors enacted regulations against interracial marriages. In 1912, when the Reichstag, or German legislature, became aware of the issue of interracial unions in the colonies, it passed a resolution upholding the legality of the colonial laws.
The Arabs in colonial Africa were the most amenable to interracial marriages and concubinage. Their amenability was ameliorated by Islam, which accepts the equality of races. Equally important, due to the patriarchal nature of Arab culture, children of Arab-African unions were recognized as Arabs regardless of how dark their skin complexion was. Thus in contrast with America’s “descending miscegenation,” Arab-African miscegenation is “ascending miscegenation” because the offspring assumed the status and identity of their Arab fathers.
- Berry, Brewton. 1972. “America’s Mestizos.” Pp. 191-212 in The Blending of Races: Marginality and Identity in World Perspective, edited by N. P. Gist and A. G. Dworkin. New York: Wiley-Interscience.
- Harris, Marvin. 1964. Patterns of Race in the Americas. New York: Walker.
- Ifekwunigwe, Jayne O., ed. 2004. “MixedRace” Studies: A Reader. New York: Routledge.
- Nash, Gary. 1999. “The Hidden History of Mestizo America.” Pp. 10-16 in Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History, edited by M. Hodes. New York: New York University Press.
- Smith, John D., ed. 1993. Racial Determinism and the Fear of Miscegenation, Post-1900. New York: Garland.
- Young, Robert. 2008. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture, and Race. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.
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