Since I'm white and married for the past two years to an African-American woman, I sometimes fantasize about under what circumstances I'd ever use that fact for my own benefit. A number of scenarios have presented themselves in my personal dream world. Most of them relate to how people would view me since I'm doing something that in today's society still remains out of the ordinary.
I've wondered if I would be more in demand for a promotion or a better job if an employer knew that my wife is black. (Unfortunately, the opposite could be true as well.) I've contemplated whether now that we have a child together, if that child has a better chance of eventually obtaining admission at the college of her choice because she is mixed race. I've thought about whether my wife's athletic ability and physical strength (together with my wannabe athletic prowess) might create a child who is a superior athlete.
One thing I've never really thought about, however, is how I'd be judged as a candidate for public office because of who I dated or who I married. I've run for local office twice and that issue never arose since, at the time, I was married to a white woman. I've also never contemplated, until now, how the outside world would view a person, politically, because he or she dated someone from another race. How could I have let my thoughts stray that far while I'm just now getting used to the fact that an African-American woman friend of mine will say to me when I am complaining about a black, female co-worker, "You know how it is with black women John, you gotta make sure you tap that ass to keep her happy and so she's happy at work. Her husband ain't doing his job." If you say so.
I can wonder all I want about how my marriage or dating relationship with a woman of another race has influenced peoples' view of me, but, alas, fantasy is just that and I've yet to trot out my mixed marriage for personal gain. Thankfully, I think I am aware of the line between fantasy and reality.
Now, there seems to be a new entrant into the pool of white guys who may be able to say, "I'm white and I'm not such a bad guy because I've dated someone outside my race." U.S. Representative Paul Ryan (R - WI), the recently anointed running mate of Mitt Romney, is apparently in that category. It was reported on Twitter by CNN that Ryan said he has a black sister-in-law, but to go one better, his "college sweetheart" was African American.
Political pundits may wonder how Ryan will use this relationship to advance himself or to make himself more credible. They may also speculate whether it will earn him inroads into the black or other minority voter communities. I, however, am more curious as to how a conservative Republican will respond to Ryan's dating history in the Alabama deep south or, more locally, in some of Chicago's most famous all-white, intolerant neighborhoods, when this fact is publicized. And, in an interesting twist, will this fact make this perceived anti-Medicare, anti-abortion candidate more palatable to Democrats or fence-sitters because of his ability to see beyond his race?
Ryan is now placing himself way beyond the "I have black friends" category and entering a world where few would dare to tread. It's as if Mitt Romney wanted to select Condoleeza Rice as his running mate, but instead opted for the white male equivalent.
How will this play in Peoria (figuratively, of course since Illinois no longer is deemed a "battleground" state)? Will Ryan use this fact of a black ex-girlfriend to benefit him in the way that his Republican backers may hope - to get votes so that he can be a heartbeat away from the presidency? Or, will he be more subtle and discreet about his past?
It seems to me that his willingness to step outside his own comfort zone could appeal to more people than he realizes. Americans appear roundly sick and tired of politicians who placticise themselves so they don't appear too radical or on the fringe. With everything moving toward the middle, wouldn't it be nice to think that a candidate for national office actually took a walk outside the norm?
Many of us may have viewed Paul Ryan as just another Dan Quayle or similar white guy candidate who possesses no larger world view than that of his white, conservative, Swiss-cheese eating brethren. At least now I feel that Paul Ryan offers something a little different, something that makes him worth taking a look at in a way that I wouldn't look at Mitt Romney. Maybe by thinking that I'm just as bad as the racist who would vote against Ryan because of who he dated. It's not easy walking that line. But, knowing that dating someone outside of your race takes extra effort and fortitude for some of the things you encounter along the way, I respect him for it. And, once you respect a political candidate, you've crossed an important threshold which I find difficult to cross in many instances.
Dating a person of a different race really shouldn't change the way a person is viewed or perceived - in a normal everyday setting - but for a Republican candidate for vice-president, it could make enough of a difference to change the outcome. We'll soon see.