You Got Some ‘Splaining To Do: Interracial And Interethnic Relationships, As Seen On TV. And Heard On The Radio. And Read On Cereal Boxes.

by Guest Contributor Alex Alvarez

Interracial and interethnic dating has as much, if not more, to do with “Family Matters” as my own family. So, in order to try to describe the experience of being in an interethnic relationship, I have to first evaluate the culture popping up all around me. Grab some Cheez Puffs or chicharrones, put aside your distaste for cheesy, alliterative snack food references, and let’s get to this.

Should you ever feel inclined to Google “Interracial Dating,” as I do not do often on a Tuesday night, you’ll find a lot of dating sites aimed at hooking you up with someone of another race. Not information about interracial dating, not tirades against it, not advice, not thoughtful writing on the subject, but, rather, dating sites with names like “Salt and Pepper.” Discovering this made a little light blink on and off in my mind’s eye reading “Fetish! Fetish! Fetish!” I’ll admit to feeling conflicted about interracial dating as it relates to the fetishization of a group. Who am I to make the distinction between preference and prejudice? That concern always takes the form of a certain cringe I’m never without when thinking about the subject, but when I see evidence of people actively going out and searching for someone of another, specific race or ethnicity, well. That action toes the very fine line between personal preference and …and what, exactly?

This isn’t racism in the traditional sense of hating or fearing a group of people, but there does seem to be the impression that the fetishized group is somehow either aesthetically or sexually superior to other groups or that, taking that a step further, they are somehow subhuman, objectified, interchangeable receptacles for sex and attention. I don’t want to advocate the idea that there are different levels of racism, but this particular brand is so hurtful because it occurs so subtly and, for the most part, disguised as a compliment. When a man who is darker than me compliments me on the paleness of my skin, as I often encounter with Latino men, it insults and devalues both of us. I’m reduced to my body parts, and he buys into the idea that white skin is inherently beautiful. And I am left feeling disgusting. Utterly, completely disgusting. Because I am both a victim and a perpetuator of this ongoing war against people’s skin. Why don’t I find this man attractive? Is it his look? His attitude? His beliefs? Am I also guilty of fetishizing, of being racist? How am I implicated in all of this; what is the level of my culpability?

So, when I approach a subject like interracial or interethnic dating, I have to first question those who seek it out and the motives for why people enter into such couplings. People, as it turns out, like me. “Love! We’re in love!” is the simple answer coming from couples tightly clasping hands. But, you know. That’s just not good enough. Love means different things for different cultures, at different points in a historical timeline, for people of different ages.

Chemistry, then, makes sense to me. Pheromones and closeness and, in some cases, an open bar featuring really cold Vodka on a really warm night. Attraction makes sense to me, but, like love, it’s never simple and never exists in isolation from the culture we live in. TV commercials, catalogues, perfume ads, romantic comedies, heroes and heroines in coming-of-age novels – these have all had a part in coloring, literally and figuratively, my idea of what is attractive. And, although I am attracted to wit and personality and thoughtfulness, those are not things that will necessarily make me cross the line from friends to… half of a couple, clasping hands, yelling “Love! We’re in love!” despite my inability to intellectualize that impulse.

I have been asked whether I think that minorities, especially women, choose white partners once they have reached a certain level of success, monetarily and/or socially. To which I respond, “Sure. Maybe. Sometimes?” I think, however, that while this may prove true for some couples, a lot of interracial and interethnic couplings are more the result of being raised in, and thus being more comfortable with, a culture that is created by and caters to White Americans. In my own family, my two youngest aunts, one of whom was born in the U.S. and the other who moved here when she was a toddler, have both married Anglo men. And, true! They do happen to be very successful women, in terms of their careers. But they also happened to have grown up immersed in American culture, with American friends and American TV shows that presented a picture of what relationships should be like – an ideal that is different from the ideal my Cuban grandmothers and Spanish great-grandmothers were raised with.

Having grown up in Miami, I feel like I’ve been raised in – at least – two different worlds. As such, I’ve gotten to sample what I like and what I don’t care for in terms of relationships. I know that a lot of what I don’t particularly care for are qualities most often associated with machismo. While I understand this is a cultural construct and not something inherent in Latino men, it is ingrained in the Latino community in ways both subtle and explicit. It’s a concept that is nurtured and intensified in places like, say, Miami, where, more and more, people are expected to, and often do, behave according to socially mandated roles that I have always found ill-fitting. That particular identity, a Miami Latina as I had felt it had been defined for me, was not something I wanted.

So, I don’t find it terribly surprising or groundbreaking that I’m dating a White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. We’ve grown up watching the same cartoons; we speak in the same highly complex code formed of song lyrics, movie references, web comic characters and internet memes. And we both like spicy chicken sandwiches. We have a common language and enough cultural touchstones between us to bind us together. You guys. It’s love.

My family, however, is a different story. It’s not that they are necessarily put off by my insistence (as they see it) on dating a non-Latino, it’s that they worry for me and that worry manifests itself in a way that makes me want to scream.

The funny (horrible) thing is, I would never have been able to predict their reactions to my boyfriend. But Americanness is seen as something so far removed from their own identity and experience, that they seem to fear I’m stepping into some void from which I’ll never return. When, in truth, this stepping across occurred the first time I watched, enraptured, as Mr. Rogers traded one sweater for another and tearfully joined Feivel, singing “Somewhere Out There” entirely by heart. I was already long gone. It wasn’t that I never felt Cuban or Latina, it was that I never knew what it meant to feel these things. I was into books and TV shows and oldies. Pop culture didn’t include salsa music or flan or Noche Buena dinners. These were part of my childhood narrative, sure, but they weren’t the guiding factors. I didn’t realize I was supposed to be Latina until I took a summer course in Spain and was promptly informed that I did not resemble or act like Jennifer Lopez. Seriously?

But back to my family. I was asked, half-jokingly why my uterus was not yet brimming over with future Cubans. I smiled demurely while inhaling two margaritas and a beer. “I’m practicing,” I slurred. My family, very kindly, ignored me. Then I was grilled about my boyfriend.

“Is he Cuban?”

“Nope.”

“But he’s Catholic?”

“Hiccup.”

A worried pause. I crammed one or seven nacho chips into my mouth.

“Is he…?”

“Mmmf?”

“The J word?”

The string of expletives that immediately swirled around my alcohol-soaked brain was decidedly Cuban.

But what can I do? I know my family loves me, completely and unequivocally, and have what they see as my best interests at heart, always. I know they care that my boyfriend and I are bonded together by common values. They want him to respect me, all of me, and that includes my Cuban family and my identity as a Cuban-American. I know the idea of racial or ethnic purity pales (God, whatever) in comparison to a common set of values and morals.

But.

Therein lies the disconnect. My values are complicated. They have much to do with my upbringing, sure. I would never deny that. But my upbringing has been shaped by more than being Cuban, than eating purée de malanga for dinner and being doused with Agua de Violetas after bath-time or being able to recognize a photo of Jose Marti before I could name the President of the United States. My upbringing is also the Mr. Clean jingle and The Ninja Turtles and Full House and the Babysitters Club series. And although these things may not be definitely American, they are definitely White, Upper-Middle Class America, no matter who consumes and enjoys them. They are, as it so happens, definitely me. And while I’m sure many Cuban-American boys in Miami and elsewhere carry around the same cultural reference guide, I haven’t met one. I met a guy who happens to be White, who happens to be Protestant and who happens to speak the same language I do. That’s just what happened in this particular episode.