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The Old Taboos, Back in the News

Sex, power, class and race. The scandals encircling French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger conjure major taboos.
May 23, 2011 |
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Sex, power, class and race. The scandals encircling French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is accused of sexually assaulting an African-born maid in New York, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has confessed to having a child out of wedlock with a Latina housekeeper, for all their differences, conjure major taboos.

The stories hold our attention not just because they involve powerful men brought down to size (always an American favorite) but because they remind us of the often hidden history of interracial sex, and its roots in global migration, labor markets and social hierarchies.

For much of U.S. history, miscegenation — racial mixing — was a bad word deemed unacceptable in polite white society. Paradoxically, however, it was polite white society that was most responsible for that mixing, most often with women who worked in their households, as slaves and later as servants.

In 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that the "white race which today resents race mixture in theory has been chiefly responsible for the systematic misuse and degradation of darker women."

In the antebellum South, virtually every plantation produced mixed-race children. The 1860 census classified 588,532 persons as mulattoes, largely the offspring of illicit master/slave relations. Cornell University historian Edward E. Baptist has observed the widespread use of the term "fancy maid" in the U.S. slave trade, which referred to women considered sex workers first and housekeepers second.

Even after slavery ended, sexual exploitation of black servants by white employers continued. According to Calvin College sociologist Barbara Omolade, "black women domestic servants in every region of the country … complained of the sexual 'harassment' that went along with domestic work, especially as a 'sleep-in-maid.'"

Historians see two constants in the history of miscegenation. One is the element of labor: worker and boss, slave and master. In societies that demanded separation of races, economics worked against it. Whatever else the work relationship was, it was also just that, a relationship. The opposite of separation. The second element was that relationship's inequality. Bosses always have power over employees, and the more unequal the relationship, the more likely it is to result in illicit sex.

The Romans routinely made slaves — and sexual partners — of those they conquered. In his history of the Roman Empire, Paul Veyne writes that it created opportunity that led to temptation. "There was a word for husbands who gave in to that temptation: ancillariolus, maid-chaser. Their wives despaired of them."

Nearly two millennia later, under the British Raj in India, English "gentlemen" openly pursued interracial sexual liaisons with household help. An early 19th century guidebook for men bound for the civil, military or naval service of the Honorable East India Co. listed ways Englishmen could find native women who would be "bosom friends" as well as housekeepers.

The North American colony that was the most profoundly affected by this type of unequal relationship wasn't the American South but Mexico. Over the centuries, racially mixed people there became the majority population. Historian Woodrow Borah identified the one policy that contributed most to the mixture in Mexico as the Spanish crown's decision in 1630 to allow Indian laborers to contract individually with their Spanish overlords. The conquest set the stage; the economic relationship did the rest.

Of course, in Rome, India, Mexico and the Deep South, it's hard to say how many liaisons were rape and how many were consensual. It'd be equally hard to say that love was never present. In the case of colonial Mexico, subjugation, exploitation and disease decimated the native population, leaving some Indian women to seek refuge in the arms of the conquerors.

Today, in America the decision to date or marry across racial or ethnic lines generally happens in a social sphere where there is basic equality. Janny Scott's new biography of Stanley Ann Dunham shows this precisely, as Barack Obama's mother meets and marries a fellow student at the University of Hawaii who happens to be Kenyan.

But Schwarzenegger's liaison with a housekeeper and Strauss-Kahn's alleged criminal behavior with a hotel maid — if true — suggest that not everything has changed. The stories are different in dozens of ways, not the least of which are criminal charges in one and not the other. But the similarity is just as unavoidable, the echo of inequality. What has been admitted to in Brentwood and alleged in New York City is nothing if not the dark side of the global melting pot.