Most people forget about their master's thesis as soon as they've got their degree. Not 29-year- old Brooklyn resident Ken Tanabe -- he used his Parsons School of Design thesis to create Loving Day, a national holiday that celebrates the right to marry interracially.
Named for the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving vs. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage in the United States, Loving Day is currently in its fourth year of fighting prejudice through education and community-building. Tanabe's father is Japanese and his mother is Belgian, so Tanabe takes the decision personally -- without it, he might not have been born.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the landmark case, and 11 cities will feature Loving Day events, including New York City's June 10th party at Solar 1 on the East River waterfront. Local hosts can download the new "Loving Day Celebration Kit," a PDF that makes throwing your own party simple. It includes everything from a fill-in-the-blank invite to a fact sheet sure to generate conversation (did you know that laws against interracial predated slavery, and lasted longer than segregation?).
"The appeal for this project is so broad, it's ridiculous," says Tanabe. "On the same list of celebrations, there's a rural church in small town Illinois, and then there's a Bay Area queer community center. The common ground is astounding," he says. This unifying stance on interracial marriage might seem like a given, but Tanabe points out the disturbing FBI hate crime statistic: in 2005, 54 percent of all hate crimes were motivated by racial bias. "If this is any indication of what's dividing us as a nation, there's much more we need to do."
Also this year, Loving Day, in partnership with the Association of MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA), has organized the Loving Decision Conference, which will be held in Chicago from June 21-24. The international academic conference will feature over 100 presenters and performers that will address everything from transracial adoption issues to classification, identity and racial/ethnic formation. Attendees will come from as close as Canada and as far as South Africa. "It's not a Loving Day celebration per se," says Tanabe, "but all the national Loving Day events lead up to the conference, which will be like a big hurrah."
Tanabe was born in Washington D.C. just 10 years after the Loving decision. Growing up, he attended public schools in and around the Capitol. "As a kid, I didn't have many coherent thoughts about being multiracial. It wasn't on my general radar," he recalls. Though some kids teased him with mock-Asian accents and slanted eye comments, he chalked them up to a typical childhood: "Kids are mean. They'll make fun of you for whatever they can." It wasn't until college that he consciously considered his heritage. "I was sitting in seminars, surrounded by people who could be multiracial, and I was shocked, thinking, 'There's such a thing as multiracial identity? How did I miss this?'"
In 2001, Tanabe was doing an unrelated web search at work when he came across something that stunned him. It was a quote from Judge Leon Bazile's 1956 ruling that sentenced Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter Loving, a black woman, to one year in jail for breaking the ban on interracial marriages: "Almighty God created the races, white, black, yellow, Malay, and red and placed them on separate continents... The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix."
Tanabe was speechless. "Racism was not a new idea, but to hear it from the mouth of an official, so recently... it blew me away," he recalls. He investigated further and discovered another surprise: the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision. In 1958, the Lovings traveled to Washington, D.C., to get married because interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia. When they returned home, police arrested them at night while they were asleep in bed for the crime of being interracially married. They were given two choices: go to jail, or leave Virginia for 25 years. They moved to Washington, D.C., and nine years passed before the Supreme Court overturned their convictions, declaring all anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. The Loving story piqued Tanabe's interest, but he soon moved on. "I filed it for later use," he says.
In 2003, Tanabe was a graduate student at the New School's Parsons School of Design, working on his master's degree in design and technology. When it came time to create his thesis, Tanabe remembered the case, and started researching widely. He read about the Loving decision, civil rights history, and multiethnic communities. Then he struck on the holiday Juneteenth, which commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. "It's not a Hallmark holiday, it's not a federally endorsed celebration, but the spirit is so powerful. 'We're going to do it whether you give us a banner under which to celebrate or not.' And I thought, 'This is it,'" he recalls of the inspiration for Loving Day.
It took a full year to create the website, which began as a solo project, but as soon as he submitted his thesis in May 2004, he threw together the first Loving Day party with one month's notice. One hundred and fifty people showed up and had a fantastic time. "Even if you have nothing else in common, there's a shared experience if you're married interracially. You're kindred spirits," he says.
Those kindred spirits continue to flock to the parties, from 300 people in the second year, to 500 people in 2006. Up to 1000 people are expected at this year's party in Manhattan. Tanabe's eyes widen when he says, "The biggest surprise is that it's working. It's real."
This success is made more impressive by the fact that Tanabe coordinates the entire holiday with a core volunteer team of eight people. "It's somewhat petrifying. It's scary to be at the helm of this organically growing entity and trying to manage it," Tanabe admits with a laugh. But, he also says, "It's rare to have an opportunity to identify something that society needs, that it doesn't
have, and to fill that need... Most of us work all day to sell a commercial product. It feels good to work on something that has social value."