The complex reality of interracial dating in a “Post-racial” America.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Racism.
I am a black woman who has dated outside my race a few times, specifically white men. For the most part, they were regular, positive experiences that didn’t differ from any average relationship you’d see today. Yet, there were times when the topic of race became such a challenge that we had to cut ties.
I used to assume that if a white guy was interested in me, he couldn’t be racist because if he were, why would he be interested in me in the first place? Well, one day, reality hit when I overheard a white guy I was hooking up with saying to his friends, “I would never marry a black girl, but I’d have a mixed baby with one for sure.” Clearly, whatever fling we had didn’t last beyond that conversation. For a long time, I questioned why someone would have any type of romantic relationship with someone outside their race if they held these underlying feelings.
It didn’t make much sense to me until Liam Neeson’s recent interview with The Independent that has since caused a commotion all over social media. During the interview, he discussed a time in which real-life circumstances caused him to act out in a fit of rage and revenge reminiscent of his on-screen persona in Taken.
Upon hearing that a loved one was raped, his reaction: “I asked, did she know who it was? No. What colour were they? She said it was a black person. I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody – I’m ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could,” another pause, “kill him.”
These comments had many people raising an eyebrow because Neeson didn’t actually seem to be targeting the attacker. He went to places in the hopes that an opportunity would arise to justify him killing a random black person. Neeson himself admitted that this “primal urge” to hunt down black men, which he masked as revenge, disgusted him to the point where he reached out to a priest for help.
This story made many people, including myself, start to question Neeson’s character. Still, there were others who came to his defense, such as Michelle Rodriguez, his Widows co-star. During an interview with Vanity Fair, Rodriguez stated, “Dude, have you watched Widows? His tongue was so far down Viola Davis’s throat. You can’t call him a racist ever. Racists don’t make out with the race that they hate, especially in the way he does with his tongue—so deep down her throat.”
This brings up an important question. Is someone automatically exempt from being racist if they’ve dated or felt an attraction to someone outside of their race?
Simply put, no.
What does it mean to be racist?
For starters, people tend to get mixed up between the terms “prejudice” and “racist.” I hear all the time, “Well this or that person can’t be racist. They clearly don’t hate [insert race here]. They have tons of [fill in the blank again] friends. They even dated a [one more time] person before.”
Prejudice refers to sociological notions about a certain group. An example of prejudice would be clutching to your belongings extra tightly when you see a dark-skinned person out of fear that they will rob you.
Racism, on the other hand, has more to do with power. It is not only the belief that a certain race is superior, but is also a system that leverages this belief to ensure that the group in power stays in power while marginalized groups remain oppressed. Of course, a racist person isn’t always someone who marches down the streets of Charlottesville with fiery torches, spewing slurs and hate speech. Often, a racist person is the byproduct of their privilege and environment in which certain notions of the inferiority of racial minority groups were reinforced.
Racism has a complex and long history of sexual exploitation and fetishization of certain races. Take African-Americans, for example. Black bodies were seen mostly for physical service and not just in terms of slave labor, but for sexuality as well. It’s not a secret that slave owners routinely raped black women. The reasons for this included black bodies being viewed as property and also being hypersexualized, especially seen as exotic and kinky.
Back to the guy who would never marry me.
Putting those historical implications into today’s context, that short and excruciating statement I heard from the aforementioned guy made more sense. He may have appreciated me on the surface, but it was ultimately more about the fetishization of my body. He would even go to the extent of having a kid with someone of my color, but not marry them.
Perhaps, to him and others like him, being able to put a check next to “black women” on the list of people to have sex with was like tasting the forbidden fruit, but the idea of bringing one home to the family would be crossing the line.
His words and the feelings behind them weren’t necessarily about hatred, but more about power dynamics and fear of losing supremacy.
What does this mean for modern dating?
While racism in the context of dating isn’t to the extreme of slavery, minorities are still tokenized even within interracial dating without their partners necessarily noticing or caring how their actions will affect their wellbeing.
Admittedly, America has made some significant changes over the past century related to the legality of relationships between people of different races. Since 1967, no one in an interracial relationship has had to exist in secret for fear of being arrested (well, officially 2000 if you lived in Alabama). Culturally, however, interracial relationships still aren’t always accepted and people in them may have to hide their relationship or suppress their feelings if their family or community isn’t cool with it. The reality is that unfortunately, race in the context of an interracial relationship is a prevailing issue and will remain an issue as long as there are power dynamics that prioritize certain individuals over others. If you are in the majority, you can kiss, have sex with, have a relationship with, or be married to someone outside your race, yet still reinforce a system that only benefits you in the process.
As a black woman who has dated white men, that’s the context of interracial relationships that I can personally relate to. Needless to say, the hardships of racial dynamics aren’t exclusive to black people who date white people.
A white person can have a Latinx partner and still say something offensive to a Spanish-speaking person who isn’t speaking perfect English.
An Asian person can have a black partner yet not hesitate to call the cops on a group of black kids at the pool across the street because they are being “too loud.”
Race will inevitably be an important topic of discussion during most interracial relationships, as it won’t do anyone justice to pretend these issues disappear simply as a result of being in a relationship with someone of a different race. Interracial relationships can be a beautiful thing, but that certainly doesn’t make them the solution to racism.
So, what should interracial couples keep in mind when having conversations about race?
It’s about teaching, learning, and unlearning. People who date outside their race will likely have a different upbringing than their partner. This presents the opportunity to learn new things about each other’s cultures and perspectives. Through conversation and empathy, both people can gain a deeper understanding of what it’s like to live in the other person’s shoes. Also, it will give both partners a chance to unlearn any implicit beliefs they may have held before. This is important in any relationship but can be particularly relevant in one that is interracial.
Being “color blind” hurts more than it helps. We’ve all heard the typical phrase “I don’t see color” used in reference to people of color. On the surface, that may be nice to hear, but choosing not to see each other’s differences implies that there’s something shameful about a certain culture to the point where it can’t be openly discussed. I know race isn’t the easiest conversation to have, but you can’t understand it if you can’t acknowledge it.
Don’t make assumptions about your partner based on their race. When dating white men, I used to assume that they’d always prefer my hair straightened over my natural afro. I used to assume that their parents secretly wouldn’t approve of our relationship because I’m black. While it’s smart to be prepared for those outcomes, no one should completely assume the worst possible scenario based on their partner’s race.
This won’t be a one and done kind of conversation. Race is something that you will both have to acknowledge and deal with repeatedly especially given today’s political climate. Your willingness to engage and become more cognizant of these issues even if they make you uncomfortable at times, not only shows your dedication to the relationship but shows your integrity as an individual.
Enjoy your relationship as it is. Even though race is a heavy subject that will be discussed on more than one occasion, it’s not like every single conversation you have has to be heavy. Interracial relationships aren’t some political statement. At the end of the day, it’s a relationship first before anything else so appreciate it enjoy your partner!
Header image illustrated by Leonor Carvalho