Relationship or Rorschach Test? Interracial Relationships and Societal Self-Projecting

by Racialicious Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

In a recent discussion about the content of Ciara’s video “Love, Sex, Magic,” in which the songstress collaborated with Justin Timberlake, many readers commented that the video itself served as a classic example of race baiting via sex and sexuality on the small screen. The video demonstrated what some considered a clear example of exotification and sexual exploitation of black women for the fodder of a white male audience. And again, in recent weeks, came the criticism of comments made by Kate, of the TLC show about adventures in parenting Jon and Kate Plus 8, who declared her attraction to, and arguably, fetishization (in the connotative sense) of Asian and Asian-American men.

These accounts garnered considerable attention from tv audiences, gossip column connoisseurs, and critical race theorist alike. Yet despite the aforementioned controversy, few considered the experiences of the interracial couples “on the ground.” In many instances, interracial relationships exist as some conversation piece or pivotal point for people who talk about race, but there is little attention paid to the simple fact that, like any other relationship, interracial relationships deserve the respect and courtesy of same-race relationships, respect in this sense meaning the right to exist sans accusations of racial essentialism and an excessive amount of societal self-projecting solely on the basis of the relationship being interracial.

In simply beginning an interracial relationship in the United States, one often suffers a considerable amount of social pressure, be it from family members, friends, or co-workers. When the presence of an interracial relationship is noted, its very existence at times solicits a barrage of questions in the minds of onlookers, one firing after the other. The questions range from the simple, “how did they meet?” to the complex, “do they really love each other or are they just together because they wish to rebel against social norms?” to the intrusive, “how is the sex?” Some of these questions are customary when considering any relationship, yet with interracial relationships, there seems to be an exceptional increase in curiosity, one that certainly rivals that of intraracial pairings.

And while there are plenty of unuttered questions, there is an equal, if not greater, number of unspoken answers, guesses and assumptions as to the many aspects of the relationship. In relation to interracial couples, the participants are rarely given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their reasons for being together in the first place, at least not in the same way as intraracial couples. For example, if one were to date someone of the same racial background, the issue of essentialism, the idea that one has chosen his or her partner solely on the basis of race and the characteristics one attributes to said race, is rarely considered. Thus we have the double standard. People of the same race could very well be dating each other for calculated reasons, one of them being race, yet this is rarely considered and applied to such couples. Only interracial couples fall victim to such assumptions.

Other assumptions include the possibility of one partner or the other wanting to make a political statement, to rebel against his or her parents, community, or culture, and/or to have a token member of another race to diversify one’s social surroundings. These, too, are rarely mentioned when considering the case of intraracial couples. In several recent articles about the “phenomenon” of first and second-generation immigrants of color choosing to date and marry “within” their race (1, 2, 3, 4), the issue of the couples’ having made this choice, clearly a political choice on their part, was not demonized or questioned in the same way it would be if, say, a person of one race chose to date someone of another race to make a statement as well. While this is not to say that the evidence of intraracial couples making this choice is favorable or ideal, it is important to note to show the pure hypocrisy evident in considerations of interracial couples’ respective choices.

Furthermore, there is the importance of appearance and physical features. Is one who has chosen a mate of a different race doing so because of an attraction to the physical features commonly attributed to said race? Could said attraction be due, in part, to stereotypes associated with someone of his or her partner’s racial group? These questions are also markedly absent when discussing intraracial couplings, though that does not mean such issues are not present in both types of relationships. If someone of one race were only to date members of his or her own race because he or she likes the features (and possibly thinks of stereotypes) attributed to said group, this choice is not so markedly isolated as a flaw as it often is when discussing interracial relationships. However, if someone of one race were to point out his or her attraction to specific features of another race, the person is often accused of combining stereotypes and physical attributes. This is not to say that this does not occur, as if often does, but to assume that it is always the case, and something exclusively associated with interracial couples is not only judgmental, but decidedly racist.

As one who has been involved in both interracial and intraracial relationships, I have experienced the aforementioned in both types. For example, I identify as black, and while dating another black person, the issues of skin color, hair type, and facial features came up quite a bit. To speak more specifically, I was lauded for these features being on the “good” side (in southern vernacular, meaning closer to white). My skin is light brown, my hair is curly, but not “nappy,”* my facial features render me somewhat racially ambiguous, and because of these features, I was considered attractive by my black partner. If the same features had been cited as defining points of my being attractive by a partner of any other race, people certainly would have called “foul.” On the other hand, in my experience, my features that could be attributed moreso to my being black and less so to the traces of European whiteness in my heritage have been more appreciated and accepted as beautiful by partners who have been of a different race. In cases like this, where do we cast judgment?

It is unfair to use interracial couples as scapegoats, yes, but it is equally as unfair to assign them with unrealistic expectations with which intraracial couples are rarely laden. The biblical analogy, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” comes to mind. Before we criticize interracial couples by way of, at times, assumed and unconfirmed flaws, we must examine our response to intraracial couplings that often go unscathed and without nearly as intense consideration.

Equally as important in this case is the need to avoid turning interracial couples into poster children or representatives for some imagined, racially democratic society. To assign more weight and social obligation to interracial couples is unfair and unwarranted. As someone who is presently living in Brazil, I have seen far more interracial couples in the 10 months I have been here than I have in my entire life while living in the United States. That certainly does not mean, however, that Brazilian concepts of race are perfect nor that racism is nonexistent. It simply means that at some point along the Brazilian cultural landscape, being in an interracial relationship became more socially acceptable, and at times even encouraged. Though even this example is not without its cause for concern (i.e. the fact that miscegenation with whites had long been encouraged for the sake of ethnic cleansing).

As with any relationship, there is often more to it than what meets the eye. And while I am certainly not discouraging the discussion and analysis of interracial relationships, I feel that our criticism at times should be curbed if we do not choose to assign the same judgment, expectations, and/or assumptions to couples who happen to be of two partners of the same race. People involved in interracial relationships are human beings, not objects, and we must bear in mind that they are not poster children on which society should feel free to project their own fears, insecurities, or dreams.
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*Before anyone jumps on me for using the term “nappy,” I should make it known that I do not assign negative meaning to that word and am the product of a mother who is a self-proclaimed possessor of “nappy” hair that I think is beautiful.