Welcome to the White panel on Interracial Dating. Our panelists are:
Megan Carpentier, friend of the blog, formerly of Jezebel, now executive Editor of The Raw Story; Sam Menefee-Libey, friend of the blog, one time contributor, and blogger at Campus Progress; Jill Filipovic, friend of the blog, and Editor of Feministe; Porter, technologist and friend of Latoya; Lauren, founder of Feministe and long time friend of the blog; Allison, long time friend of the blog; and DC, Allison’s brother.
Megan: My parents were liberals, so they went to a great deal of effort to teach my sister and I about equality and to drill into us that racism/homophobia was really, really bad. Of course, growing up in a small, almost exclusively white semi-rural town, there wasn’t a lot of putting-that-into-action that could go on, but that’s what we were taught. When I started dating the one black guy in my graduating class (and stayed besties with my friend once she came out), I definitely sensed that the values behind the rhetoric were being tested in ways they didn’t necessarily plan for. (It didn’t help that he was far from the best guy to me and that my relationship with my parents was already strained almost to the breaking point at that time, so it’s hard to separate those things from what I felt was their hesitation about his race in any specific way, but that was 17-year-old me’s impression.)
Of course, that was also the first time I ran up against “Mom doesn’t like me dating white girls,” too, which came as a kind of shock. It had never occurred to me that anyone but white people could be inappropriate about race or even racist (see also: 17, from a small, semi-rural mostly-white town), so to have someone’s mother basically refer to me as “that white slut” her son needed to stop dating, I wasn’t sure what to even do about that. I mean, other than sneak around behind her back and prove her right.
I should say: my parents were also very conservative about what media my sister and I were allowed to consume: we didn’t have cable; I wasn’t allowed to see R rated movies before I was 17 (in theatres or on video, insofar as they could prevent it) or PG-13 movies before I was 13; I didn’t hear pop music at all until I was 7 or 8. Magazines were limited to, like, Highlights and Ranger Rick. Books were about the sole thing I was allowed to consume without question (until my dad caught me reading Heinlein for the graphic depictions of sex with no understanding of the underlying misogyny, so they imposed limits eventually). So questions about cultural messaging are weird for me, because so much of media was occurring outside of my limited vision, and what I was taught about right/wrong came down from my parents, from books and from age-appropriate television. All of which, in the 80s, boiled down to “racism is bad, and if you think people of x race are that different from you, you’re racist.” It never really occurred to me that interracial relationships were or should be problematic to anyone but an unreconstructed racist.
Sam (White, Queer, College-Educated Man): Almost all the messages I encountered, whether directed at me by teachers/parents/community or soaked up from broadcast media, were standard white liberal pablum. Interracial relationships were fine because we’re all people or race doesn’t matter or [insert colorblind platitude here]. My parents gave race and personal relationships more thought than most other adults in my life, but they rarely brought it to the forefront of conversation or gave it the kind of sustained focus a white kid probably needs not to turn out totally messed up by White Supremacy. I don’t blame them for this and am extremely thankful for their capacity to have thoughtful and challenging discussions about race and racism, but they certainly weren’t raising me in an actively anti-racist manner. Most of what I encountered outside of a family context was the careless sort of Gramscian “common sense” that is toxic because of its thoughtlessness and self-centeredness rather than because of any sort of explicit ill intention.
I grew up in a Los Angeles suburb that was both racially and economically diverse and quite lesbian/gay-friendly, so my friends and social milieu at school and in the places I hung out were multiracial and culturally and economically diverse, something I didn’t come to appreciate or think of as unusual until attending a very white private college. I’m the son of two middle-class, lefty college professors. I was materially comfortable but not excessively so growing up, but of high socio-economic status because of my parents’ profession and community of academics.
Interracial dating was a pretty normal thing amongst my friends and I had several friends from school, church and my neighborhood who were multiracial and whose parents were in an interracial marriage. Interracial gay couples were not even unusual. Again, these relationships and atmospheres didn’t seem particularly unusual or notable in a multiculturalism-obsessed 90s, where I assimilated all kinds of messages that told me this was how it ought to be and had nothing to do with politics or inequality. As long as I had friends who were People of Color and listened to jazz and attended international fairs, etc., I had no issues. I think that without race ever becoming the focus of any sort of sustained focus or coming into question, I took most of this for granted and didn’t feel particularly strongly about any of the messages I heard, since none seemed to take a particularly strong stance and none seemed to conflict with each other. Racism, of course, was a terrible thing and I wasn’t a racist (of course not!) but was race a problem? Not really. Then were interracial relationships? Definitely not.
I should stress that I don’t remember all the messages I received, but that the above general impression is an accurate (if a little flippant and over-simplified) rendering of my memories of childhood. I didn’t really date before I graduated high school for a number of reasons, so the questions of love and sex and race never collided in a way that would register as important to a narcissistic, angsty teen. My story is about as banal as it comes (read into this as you will).
Lauren (het, white): It would be fair to say that much of my early social justice education was done through the act of interracial dating and the discussion around it. My parents were older, and were raised in the Jim Crow south, even attending high school in a rural Arkansan town during the state-enforced desegregation and the Little Rock Nine. Their wishes were often communicated by my mother, who tried to convey many stereotypically racist ideas about sex and dating, and about black people in particular. Black men were untrustworthy and sexually deviant, they would hurt me, don’t ever bring one home. The underlying sentiment was that there was no telling what my good ol’ boy father would do to the young man of color I chose to date or to me, the unruly fast-assed daughter that brought him home. My older sister tried to talk to me about it once, saying that no matter how nice or accomplished this theoretical date of mine would be, it would never be acceptable in our house to date a black man. I remember teenage me balking at her, disbelieving the extent of my parents’ racism. I genuinely didn’t understand the various rules and guidelines of racist dating. No matter how nice? There was one guy I dated on and off for a couple of years at the end of high school who was Latino-American, and I remember some conversation among my family about whether or not it “counted” for me to date a “Mexican” who, other than his very floral name, read “white”.
I was raised in the North, on the campus of Purdue University in Indiana. Rural as the state is, I was fortunate to have had access to the university’s social and education resources, and the effects of living with one of the more diverse campuses in the Midwest (we used to boast the largest foreign student population in the U.S., but I don’t know if that is true any longer). My friends were racially diverse, thus my dating pool was racially diverse, and my friends and I dated as we wanted overall without a lot of racist social interference. My folks were horrified when I came home one night at barely eighteen years old and announced that I was pregnant and was going to keep the baby. The father was a Chinese-American college student five years my senior. They kicked me out of the house and I couch-surfed for the remainder of my pregnancy. The offense was twofold: 1) I was pregnant out of wedlock 2) by a person of color.
Jill: My parents are liberal Seattlites, so any conversation around interracial dating generally amounted to, “We just want you to find someone who makes you happy and who you love.” The rest of my family, though, is less open-minded — my sister and I were repeatedly removed from family events when my uncle or grandpa would start using the n-word, and it was pretty clear that for their kids, interracial dating was not an option (my parents used to voice hope that my female cousin with the racist dad would marry a black guy, which they meant as “Your uncle needs to quit it with the racism and his daughter marrying someone black would at least make him shut his trap,” but in hindsight was pretty messed up, at least for the hypothetical black guy. Unsurprisingly, the cousin in question married a white guy).
I’m not sure anyone ever said it out loud, but I always got the sense that there was a hierarchy of which racial groups were the most acceptable, and that black people were at the bottom (there were comments from my immediate and extended family about how it would be unacceptable for a guy to pick me up for a date “blasting rap music” or calling me his “bitch,” which is racially loaded enough to read loud and clear). And from my peers the messages were much stronger. A white high school friend dated a black guy, and her brother immediately asked her if she was going to turn into “one of those girls who wears her hair in a slicked-back tight ponytail” — a class signifier, where I’m from, of being “trashy.” White women who dated black men (and to a slightly lesser extent, white women who dated Latino men) were definitely marked as low-class; the same wasn’t true of white women with Asian men. Black women with white men weren’t nearly as visible, and where I grew up it was pretty commonplace to see white/Asian relationships, so I saw less of a stigma there.
My first serious relationship, which lasted for almost all of college and a while after, was with an Indian guy, and that was generally ok with my family (his family was less thrilled about it). But the fact that his family wasn’t particularly happy about it gave my family slightly more room to air their concerns — that the cultural differences would be too big to surmount, that his family would never accept me, that I wasn’t being treated as well as I should because he couldn’t be totally honest with his parents about our relationship. So the message I got about interracial dating was basically that interracial dating is fine in theory, but very hard in practice — and that its acceptability varied pretty widely depending on the race of your date.
Porter (male, het, white, 31): For a little context — I’m the youngest of two, and we were a pretty nomadic family. We moved about every 2 years, and sometimes more often — almost entirely within the “Big 12”: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Missouri. Also stints in Wyoming and Alabama. Being from Texas was a point of pride for my parents, and for me. Never really lived in an urban environment, but definitely middle class suburban, upper class suburban (top 10% of household earnings, not top 2%), and quasi-rural. We went to company-paid country clubs, and stressed about house payments and college tuitions.
We were consistently and somewhat saccharinely religious, if not deeply (until my sister and I both became pretty die-hard in high school, setting the stage for an agnostic pivot later on). We always had a church home and participated regularly, and worried about new agers and Satanism infecting us, but also, dancing was fine, drinking was fine, R movies were fine at most ages (esp. for me; less so for my sister), and we made fun of Baptists over dinner as the ones who were going to love Heaven, since they weren’t having any fun down here.
So, race. From my family, a few different keyframes come to mind. My parents were consistent in saying that race doesn’t matter, and dating across racial boundaries is OK, even if these messages weren’t consistent with other ones.
- My dad loves jokes about racial stereotypes, and passed that on to me, for better or worse. This made my mom uncomfortable…
- …even though my mom was the one who worried to me if my sister had enough white friends, and called her the “President of the International Club” of our very white high school. Concern about one’s kids not fitting in is a strong one, I think.
- I recall my mom, a middle school teacher, saying interracial dating & marriage were totally fine, but that she really worried about the impact on their children.
- I’ll never forget my dad’s company (a commercial insurance broker) trying to sell a custom suite of insurance products to an association of black churches. (My dad also tried to develop strike insurance for union members; he thinks insurance products can do good in the world.) He commented, jokingly and also in real disbelief, that written correspondence from the association’s people would spell “ask” as “aks”. Far moreso, he was shocked at what he felt was an unjust amassing of wealth by paid church leaders in poor black communities, and felt the insurance product never came together as a result of their, in his mind, greed. I was about 10-11 years old when hearing this.
- I dated a Korean Catholic girl in high school. I remember being very nervous to tell my parents, but I started with my dad one night, and he was just happy about it, and for me. This was a huge relief, so I’d clearly expected their rhetoric about being OK with race to butt up against reality in a negative way.
- Her family was not OK with it. So, we snuck about.
- Months after we started dating, my parents remarked that they could see why white guys would like Asian girls, because Asian girls are more conservative and sweet. Facepalm. They meant well and I acted agreeably in appreciation of the gesture, although I found the comment a bit offensive and short-sighted.
- In 2008, there was no way my folks were voting for “Barack HUSSEIN Obama”. Complicated.
As for friends / peers, I recall a few things:
- Very little friction amongst high school friends, and later, around dating any race. I was in band and it was a lifestyle for us, though, so we were already a more diverse, nerdier group, staying within ourselves and slightly removed from perhaps rougher social pressures.
- There was definitely friction about dating people of a different faith in high school.
- In high school, most students knew who the girls were that only dated the small number of black boys, and some of us — me, regretfully — thought that strange and conspicuous, and made fun behind their backs.
DC: To be honest, I don’t think I really heard much in the house about interracial relationships growing up. My closest cousin, Cristina, was of mixed descent. Her father (my uncle) was half African-American and half Japanese, while her mother (my aunt) was half Spanish and half Irish-American. We spent a lot of time at their house when I was younger, and we all got along just fine like other families. Another one of my great uncles was African-American and married my great aunt, a Spaniard, and their children were also close with us. In church, we were constantly surrounded by other interracial couples and their children.
Despite having these people constantly in my life, I never realized that “interracial relationships” was even a term that separated people’s lifestyle choices into categories until someone told me. I never really thought about what it meant to date “interracial” because in my mind, particularly as a child and adolescent, there was no difference. When one of the kids at school questioned why a “white boy” would have any interest in a “black girl,” I remember being really confused. Why wouldn’t I? She was pretty, after all, and until the same kid told me that “it just isn’t supposed to be that way” and that “it’s mixing,” it never crossed my mind to think about it.
As I grew older, my oldest brother began to date a young and beautiful Caribbean-American girl. They dated throughout high school, and when my brother moved away to live with my father and attend community college, she came to visit once that summer. My father, who had lived a separate life away from my aunts and uncles for many years after my parent’s divorce, did not warm to her immediately. I would certainly never classify my father as a racist, but this moment certainly made me question where exactly his values changed from mine. I would later notice the way he worried more about my younger half-siblings in their choice of partner when the partner was of a different race. However, I never grew up in this environment where a certain race warranted a particular implication.
Allison: The messages I received were very well-intentioned, but often limited in their scope. (I should mention that I’m DC’s sister, so we share the same relatives mentioned above!) I know that my aunt faced some criticism when she got involved with my uncle: both of them were young, working-class Jehovah’s Witnesses, but she was white (first-generation immigrant from Spain) and he was Japanese-African American. I can’t quote any of the specifics about the scrutiny she received for dating him because I heard about it the way so many other family stories are passed down: secondhand from other relatives. I do think you have to consider the specific demographics of a Jehovah’s Witness dating pool — baptized Christians aren’t allowed to date outside of the religion, but single men (“brothers”) who were both age-appropriate and JW were in short supply. So there was a kind of open-mindedness within my extended family, driven by equal parts doctrine and Law of Scarcity, that stretched to make room for interracial relationships — in large part because being unmarried was not an option for the women in my family after a certain age. Did their acceptance for new in-laws of color always translate into anti-racist thinking? Judging by some of the comments I’ve heard my white relatives make over the years, I would be hard-pressed to say that love always conquered privilege.
Megan: Obliviousness helps, I guess? It never occurred to me when I was younger and dating interracially that anyone I’d want to be friends with would care, and I figured anyone who cared isn’t someone I’d want to be friends with. I think that still holds today, but with more compassion: I can understand why the women of color with whom I’m friends might have misgivings about me dating outside my race because of the beauty standard/cultural messaging stuff, and I wouldn’t want to contribute to making someone feel bad (which is not to say I’d take it into account in terms of whom I would date, but I’d understand the issue and be willing to talk it out). But if a white friend was weirded out by me interracially dating, I’d lose their phone number.
In terms of dating someone more seriously, I think dating interracially can add a layer of complexity in terms of one another’s families and making an effort to be respectful and value and participate in one another’s cultural traditions and practices — particularly if really long term decisions like marriage and children are on the table. And I’m cognizant that as the white person in the relationship, I probably have a lot further to go to understand, respect, value and participate respectfully. It doesn’t give me pause, obviously, but it’s one of those things that it’s important to think about and verbalize inside the relationship and to be willing to accept (constructive) criticism about.
Sam: Before I started going through my “good white person” phase (and before coming out as Queer), I didn’t think about my interracial relationships as particularly denoted by race. Sex and dating were scary enough by themselves that they tended to push out other reasonable areas of concern. When I started dating Women of Color, I was spending my time with liberal-non-profit-types who mostly demonstrated a similarly “race-neutral” attitude, so there was no friction there. The go-along-to-get-along attitude actually postponed any and all catalyzing events that would force me to examine the significance of race both personally and politically, so this lack of friction wasn’t helpful or nice.
After/while moving blessedly quickly from “race-neutral” to “good white person” to “white anti-racist,” I became much more concerned with race and personal relationships, sexual and platonic. Add on top of this that I was coming into a Queer, polyamorous sexuality and I was very, very concerned with power and relationships, whether racialized, gendered or otherwise. I had sexual relationships with several Men of Color, Women of Color and one Genderqueer Person of Color over the course of a few years in several different cities and countries and each and every time race was a significant factor that my partners and community and I discussed as openly and honestly as possible. My fears and misgivings were often about my own thoughts I would fuck it up, anxiety about my privilege, anxiety about my own anti-racist or queer authenticity, etc. These fears and misgivings were many, frequent, and extremely varied, making them difficult to rehash quickly in this context. I’ll leave this train of thought here, open to questioning/problematization by interlocutors and commenters.
Jill: I also didn’t really think much about it when I started dating someone non-white. It was my first real relationship, and my first most things — the fact that he was Indian was pretty low on my list of things to stress out about, at the beginning. The fact that he was a New England prep-school-educated kid from the East Coast and I was a middle-class public school kid from out West felt like more of a cultural divide than his race or religion, and I was way more concerned with the whole “I’m a 19-year-old virgin who has never dated anyone and now I’m away at college and I found this amazing person who I feel like I could maybe be with forever and oh god what do I do now how does this work?” But as the relationship progressed, it did become an issue, especially when we were years in and dipping our toes into conversations about marriage and kids and a life together. He was pretty straight-forward early on that things would be easier if I shared his cultural background, and since I didn’t he wasn’t totally sure we could really have a future. As much as that was hurtful at the time, he was right — of course that would have been easier. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t be honest with his parents about the fact that I wasn’t just a “friend,” and I didn’t understand why he couldn’t grasp that I felt deeply disrespected by that refusal to disclose our actual relationship (in my culture, saying your girlfriend of several years is just a friend and not introducing her honestly to your parents is taken as a sign that you don’t respect her or are embarrassed by her). He couldn’t understand why I was insulted by his decision, when for him it wasn’t about respecting me but about respecting his parents’ wishes and his family’s distaste for discussing relationships. So going in I was pretty open-minded; he was less so, and his hesitations were pretty justified. It was not easy. And juggling the conflicting needs of his family and me (in addition to his own needs) was very tough on him — much tougher than it was on me.
The reaction from our peers was fine and rarely notable. Strangers on the street would sometimes make comments (and my high school friends had a hard time spelling his name), but mostly it was a non-issue.
Porter: Other than my initial experience in high school about dating a Korean girl, where I worried about what my folks would say, I’ve had very few misgivings since. I’ll confess to having a slight bit of pride when I date a girl who isn’t white — not so much that it drives my choice, but I’m aware that the feeling is there.
Since my humor is South Parkian in a sense, I tread carefully before a gal reveals her sensitivities around that type of humor, but I also won’t end the night before I’ve tested them.
I don’t think I’ve been treated differently, positively or negatively, as a result of interracial dating (I’ve dated Korean, Indian, Persian). Class and worldview differences provide more social anxiety for me than race does, with two notable exceptions: taking a black woman or a Muslim woman home to the folks would make me anxious, no matter how consciously I’m resolved on accepting any range of reaction. I just sense that those are the points of greatest friction.
DC: Well, I certainly didn’t feel like I had anything to be concerned about. My first interracial relationship was with an African-American girl, back when I was still fooling myself about my sexuality. We were 12, in sixth grade, and crazy about each other. I was short, hadn’t really hit puberty yet, and had bleach blonde hair. She was tall, had large breasts, and a calm, quiet personality. I remember trying to get my mom to agree to let me marry her then, and it was all very fairytale-esque. My mom never expressed any sense of disinterest or worry that I was dating someone of another race, and seemed more concerned about my potential misunderstandings of a marriage license at the ripe age of 12.
I don’t really remember getting much in the way of criticism from my then-girlfriend’s parents, either. Again, I think her parents thought that we were young and hormonal, and that this phase of “puppy love” (as I remember it being called) would come to pass. People at school thought it was cute, or funny, or gross. (Remember that in sixth grade, girls are starting to become more than someone to tease to a young man’s mind, but they haven’t quite reached that point yet.) I honestly can’t recall a bad experience from that relationship that was related to race.
When I was 16 and open to my sexuality as a gay man, I began dating a Filipino young man. I was infatuated with him and everything about him, though I had never dated anyone of Asian-descent. Again, I don’t think the infatuation was with his race, but rather with the excitement that came with a new relationship. As I was very much “undercover” in my sexuality, my family never met him, and the few friends that did thoroughly enjoyed him and his company. We never talked about the role of race in our relationship.
My husband is of mixed “white” and Latin-American descent, while I am a mix of primarily Spanish and Irish “white” descent. As we both speak Spanish and lived similar lives in smaller Spanish-speaking communities in the United States, race has never come up. Most people in our group of friends are shocked to find out that we both come from such a background, and though he is very connected to his Latin-American side (as I am to my Spanish side), no one on either side of our families or groups of friends has had concerns solely based on the issue of my or his race.
[Just as a side note: as I’m re-reading this and thinking about my answers, it might sound like I “had it easy.” I think the biggest difference (for me) was that I never really labeled relationships as “interracial” when approaching one. Until the label had been introduced to me, I never felt any sense of separation between couples of the same race or couples that included one or more races. I feel frustrated that even such a label exists, as it separates my relationship from someone else’s solely based on a single fact.]
Allison: I haven’t had any long-term, conventional relationships that were interracial, but there were two close friends I was involved with romantically in high school and college. I had some anxieties about what each of their parents would think of me, an introverted white girl who dressed in thrift store cast-offs, coming home to get their once-over. But it wasn’t really an issue in either case. M’s mother let me bum cigarettes even though I was underage. I asked her questions about journalism — she worked for a major paper and had some insight as a long-time employee of the industry. She didn’t comment on her son’s obvious feelings for me, but she did leave us alone in the living room several times (and we all know what happens when you leave two horny teenagers alone together for more than 30 seconds). The mother of my other friend (Bengali) gave me books, tea, and praise for my student-produced play. Considering that her mother was loathe to praise my friend’s best work, it came as a shock to both of us that my overwrought little high school play had earned her positive accolades. The core of these two mothers’ acceptance was always obvious to me.