Desegregating the Heart

In her new book, According to Our Hearts, Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Interracial Family, Angela Onwuachi-Willig brilliantly deconstructs and challenges the norm of the monoracial family — the idea that “normal” families are and indeed should be produced by heterosexual single-race couples. As Onwuachi-Willig explains, this norm fundamentally shapes American legal and social relations, including marriage and family formation. The social and legal challenges created by the norm of the monoracial family have long been a theme of Onwuachi-Willig’s work,1 but According to Our Hearts charts new territory by more clearly demonstrating the connection between racial formation and family formation. As a consequence, the book is destined to find fans among family law scholars, race discrimination scholars, and even lay readers interested in better understanding the role family connections play in triggering race discrimination.

Onwuachi-Willig uses the tragic love story of Alice Jones and Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander as a window into three key themes that she believes continue to inform discussions of the multiracial family today. The first theme, “interraciality,” allows us to explore the role that cross-racial family relationships play in triggering race discrimination. She argues that the study of race discrimination has largely neglected discrimination’s relational component. This relational component posits that discrimination may be triggered by others’ concerns about cross-racial intimate contact or family relations, rather than a single individual’s apparent racial status. The second theme is an examination of the fluid nature of racial identity in multiracial family units. Onwuachi-Willig explores the questions of power that emerge when the individual’s interest in defining her racial identity is juxtaposed against the competing interests of family members, the community, and the state. The book’s third, and perhaps most important theme is the racial hierarchy that exists between various types of interracial families, with black-white unions being the most disfavored. Onwuachi-Willig bravely takes on this hierarchy and deftly illuminates the hierarchy’s material and social consequences. Specifically, she suggests that the special disfavor saved for black-white marriages, particularly those involving black women and white men, ensures that wealth does not easily transfer through marriage and inheritance from white hands into black ones.

The first half of Onwuachi-Willig’s book, which focuses on the love affair between Alice Jones and Leonard Rhinelander, is a tragic tale worth reading in its own right. Alice Jones, a working class colored woman, met, fell in love with, and married Kip Rhinelander, the wealthy white prodigal son of a New York society family. When Kip’s father learned of the marriage, he sought to have it annulled. Importantly, although New York law in the 1920s did not prohibit Kip and Alice from marrying, the racial culture of the period made the marriage unthinkable in respectable circles, and law facilitated the enforcement of this cultural understanding.

The central question at the annulment trial was whether Alice had deceived Leonard about her race by telling him she was white, a material misrepresentation that would merit an annulment. If it was established that Leonard knew Alice’s race at the time of the marriage, there would be no fraud, and thus no grounds for an annulment. Instead, a divorce—and the concomitant property settlement and alimony—would be the only vehicle for ending the marriage.

Onwuachi-Willig masterfully uses the Rhinelander tragedy to illuminate all of her themes. She shows that the public ridicule and censure that Alice and Kip faced was not based on discrimination because of each party’s individual’s racial status, but rather, because of “interraciality,” – the threat of cross racial intimacy. The challenges created by a multiracial individual’s fluid approach to racial identification—what I have elsewhere termed “elective race”2—was also central to the Rhinelander case. The proof at trial showed that Alice identified herself as white in certain contexts and colored in others, which Kip’s lawyers argued established fraud. The more likely (and modern) account is that Alice had a very complex and conflicted approach to racial self-identification. Further, Onwuachi-Willig shows that the public opprobrium the couple suffered was in large part prompted by the racial hierarchy that ranks interracial unions—then and now. This hierarchy, which Onwuachi-Willig contends is largely based on the devaluation of black women, relies on the assumption that when white men voluntarily become involved with black women, the attraction is driven by lust rather than a real and substantial emotional connection.

Interraciality is destined to be an important concept because antidiscrimination law and scholarship has largely neglected discrimination triggered by interracial intimacy and connection. Save for discrete theories, like interracial association doctrine,3 race discrimination law is focused on how an individual is treated rather than how he is treated as a consequence of his cross racial intimate and family relationships. As a consequence, the law at present is not based on a full picture of how discrimination operates on the ground and in the most intimate areas of our lives. Onwuachi-Willig’s discussion of the fluid nature of racial identity also strikes a chord, in part because in the contemporary era multiracial persons have made the case for respecting more fluid approaches to racial identification. However, Onwuachi-Willig’s greatest contribution may be her forthright discussion of the racial hierarchy between various kinds of multiracial couplings, the legal foundations of this hierarchy, and the hierarchy’s contemporary material implications.

In sum, the book spurs us to think more deeply about the connection between race, law and intimate life. Indeed, the book transforms common sense, seemingly apolitical attraction and intimacy questions into questions with broad material implications. In this way, Onwuachi-Willig’s book revisits a classic but still important touchstone in feminist legal theory—the notion that the personal is political. She reminds us that our desire for connectedness and belonging, if pursued in an unreflective manner, can be just as much a vehicle for social inequality as the legal restrictions on mixed race coupling declared unconstitutional



  1. See e.g., Angela Onwuachi-Willig, A Beautiful Lie: Exploring Rhinelander v. Rhinelander as a Formative Lesson on Race, Identity, Marriage, and Family, 95 Cal. L. Rev. 2393, 2458 (2007) (identifying and analyzing the the monoracial family norm); Angela Onwuachi-Willig & Jacob Willig-Onwuachi, A House Divided: The Invisibility of the Multiracial Family, 44 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 231 (discussing the cultural and legal erasure of the black-white interracial family). []
  2. For an explanation of “elective race” and its role in Onwuachi-Willig’s book, see Camille Gear Rich, Making the Modern Family: Interracial Intimacy and the Production of Whiteness, 127 Harv. L. Rev. 1341 (2014). []
  3. Tetro v. Elliott Popham Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick & GMC Trucks, Inc., 173 F.3d 988, 994-95 (6th Cir.1999) (holding Title VII applicable to allegation that employee suffered discrimination because he had a biracial daughter); Parr v. Woodmen of the World Life Ins. Co., 791 F.2d 888, 892 (11th Cir.1986) (“Where a plaintiff claims discrimination based upon an interracial marriage or association, he alleges, by definition, that he has been discriminated against because of his race.”). []