Welcome back 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 first college boyfriend had immigrated with his family from Taiwan when he was 4: in Boston in the mid-90s, I definitely caught and was weirded out when we would get one of Those Looks on the subway (white women dating Asian guys being a less common interracial kind of relationship, he explained, though Boston’s not exactly known for being a bastion of racial tolerance, so it might not have been that specific, either). His family adored me — not so much for me, though I think I tried hard to be nice, but because dating a white blonde girl represented a level of American assimilation achievement that they wanted for their son, and they expressed it that way at some point to him (and he, foolishly, repeated it to me).
But I’ve spent the entirely of my adult life living and working in urban areas, where interracial dating is relatively common, my friends are pretty liberal and most people who know anything about me know better than to say shit to or in front of me that I’m not going to like. I wracked my brain trying to think of anything particularly stereotypical that’s been said about one of my partners, but the best I could come up with was a roommate who said about my Latino then-boyfriend, “It looks like you two have been fucking your brains out for months” because of our pretty clear physical chemistry whenever we were hanging out. I guess that would play into a stereotype about Latin men — especially as we hadn’t actually slept together at that point — but we were pretty absurd around each other (and me as much as him), so it’s harder to call it out as an example.
I should qualify: I’m pretty weird about introducing the men I date to my friends, and have a tendency not to do so until after at least the 3-month mark (a bar not achieved that often). So there are, like, 3 guys in the last 10 years who have dated me long enough to have actually spent any time with my friends or close acquaintances (outside of my roommates/the friends who introduced us), let alone my family. So I also just don’t have a lot of recent data in this regard, outside of strangers giving me the side-eye for making out with/holding hands with someone who doesn’t present as white. I’m sure I have relatives who would break out some stereotype crap, and even some people in my extended social circle who might stupidly do the same, but I just don’t have the data.
Sam: When I was dating Women of Color, pre-critical consciousness, I was in spaces where interracial dating was “normal” and I wasn’t particularly attuned to how race was functioning while I was with my partners. After I stopped being a completely oblivious jackass, the places where my sexuality was public were mostly spaces of resistance, and I rarely spent time with partners in open public spaces. As such, I rarely encountered the sort of stereotyping problems that I’ve heard friends and comrades discuss, and which I’m sure others in these roundtables will discuss with razor-sharp insight.
Paradoxically, I encounter more awkward situations with my current primary partner than I have in the past. I’m now working at a very mainstream non-profit and dating a white bio-woman (two things which bring me no end of self-doubt, guilt, and authenticity crisis, even though my partner and I love each other a lot and discuss these things often). It’s the most public, long-term relationship I’ve been in and we’re in mainstream spaces more. She’s part Portuguese and sometimes is read as a Woman of Color and both of us are frequently read (correctly!) as queer. This leads to all sorts of funny situations that baffle people around us (including parents) but since we’re insulated by class and race privilege and both work and live in social justice/activist communities, it is rarely damaging to us.
Jill: I’ve been in New York for nearly the entirety of my dating life, in a community where interracial relationships are commonplace, so any reaction at all has been minimal. Since my first Big Relationship, I’ve dating men of color and white men with varying degrees of seriousness, and the reactions are pretty much the same — although with the men of color there are sometimes comments (always from white people) about how we’ll have cute babies that will look like Benetton ads. That’s about as racially explicit as it gets.
And of course sometimes boyfriends and I have actually left New York, and reactions vary — during a layover at George Bush International Airport in Texas, we got a lot of raised eyebrows and outright stares, and it was very uncomfortable. We also studied abroad together in Italy, and public displays of affection were met with some visible confusion. Which isn’t to say that there are never raised eyebrows in New York, but negative reactions (or any reactions at all, really) are much less common, and not much different than those I’ve gotten being out with white men.
Porter: Friends have made jokes about dating someone exotic, but I was sure each time that the joke was mocking the idea that interracial dating would be a concern, not actually mocking interracial dating.
I think my family goes slightly out of their way to communicate their supposed comfort with it, which seems like a pretty well-meaning approach for someone who does actually have some concern. Haven’t dated someone of a different race for a long enough time to know if that reaction would change as things like marriage and kids might come up.
Megan: Actually, having wracked my brain, I did come up with one incident in my peer group of racism that just completely flummoxed me. I’ll redact some details for her privacy, but let’s call her a friend from my post-secondary education days with whom I retained contact into my early professional life (and, for context, she was a mixed race child of a Catholic Asian mother and white father from an urban area). I was having a small party over a holiday weekend and invited a (married, African-American) friend and co-worker to join us, a crew of mostly people from college and grad school. When she arrived, I was standing just out of sight talking to my co-worker, and, when she rounded the corner, she stopped short, kind of flinched and was like, “You didn’t tell me you’d invited someone like this.” I’m not sure if she didn’t notice his ring or thought we were dating — my ex and I had broken up a couple months earlier and I wasn’t seeing anyone specific — or what, but I can only imagine her reaction if I’d then introduced him as my boyfriend. As it was, we just stared at her like she was a crazy person and I stammered an introduction, and I think I spent weeks apologizing to him at every opportunity for having subjected him to racism in my own apartment. She and I haven’t really spoken since. Reading what others have said (in this panel and the others), it pretty clearly falls into that hierarchy-of-race thing that others have touched on and experienced, but having been presented racism at a young age as a strict binary (something Bad White People feel or do to other races), it was just very unexpected, even in my early twenties.
DC: I think that Jill and I had a similar experience with environments and the role of the interracial relationship. Growing up in Washington, D.C., interracial relationships were commonplace. I think that I’ve received more looks for being with my partner of the same sex than I ever had when holding hands or having other public displays of affection with a straight woman of a different race. However, I have heard similar stories of friends going out of town to visit friends or take a vacation, and their comfort-zone of expressing themselves in their relationship suddenly gets thrown out the window when dropped into a new environment.
Allison: My friends were accepting. But I noticed that my mother showed a more defensive and protective side. I still remember when my younger brother was snowed in with his white girlfriend across town during the same week that she called me at M’s house — and she never called to check in without concern — to insist that I come home before midnight. My Dad got a picture of M* and I at my senior prom. It isn’t displayed anywhere in the house. Stuff like that. It gives me… pause.
Porter: I have dated interracially. But living in New York, I experienced something new that prevented some: I have been told by a handful of Jewish girls that we were getting along too well and it had to stop, because they couldn’t seriously date a goy.
Sam: Yes, this is definitely akin to anxiety I experience. And I don’t think this type of reasoning is very helpful. Now, just because I think it’s unreasonable doesn’t mean I don’t still give myself grief for it, but I try not to give it too much thought, with a few caveats. White people have a lot of personal work to do around racism. It fucks us up in all kinds of ways that are really hard to deal with. The last thing we ought to be doing is externalizing our fucked-up-edness on the People of Color we’re close to. If we have stuff we need to deal with, if we haven’t done a fearless and searching personal inventory of our whiteness and our own personal racial formation, then it’s probably not a good idea to be dating a Person of Color. If we’re doing the best we can with that stuff and deal with it pretty well most of the time: ok. It’s something we should always be open to continued work on and ought to be in open and honest dialogue about with the people closest to us, both white and People of Color, but dealing with it opens up opportunities for more ethical relationships. The personal and communal practices we engage in that resist, destabalize and construct alternatives to those structural and cultural things the commenter mentioned are probably varied and localized and are definitely an important part of coming to personal terms with one’s own whiteness. If a white person is engaged in good personal and political, individual and communal work fighting racism and dealing with their own whiteness, I think they effectively address a lot of critiques about interracial dating for themselves.
Megan: The alternative — segregated dating? — seems so absurdly fucked up to me that I can’t hold that thought in my head for very long. I think it’s important to resist the white beauty standard, and I make an effort not to date individuals of any race who racially essentialize dating (men of color who only date white girls, white dudes who can’t imagine being attracted to X race). But I have trouble approaching dating as a zero-sum game or as a competition, and I just can’t get with the idea that we should all stick to our own race for the good of the women of another. Like, if everyone supposedly means well but the end result looks discriminatory, it can’t be a good thing.
From a more structural perspective, the white beauty standard isn’t going to be solved by individual white women eschewing interracial dating. It’s a structural problem rooted in white and class privilege and limiting people to dating within their race isn’t going to solve the structural problems (nor eliminate white people and people of color from being attracted to one another — not everything about attraction is about looks, for one). It might actually exacerbate the problems inherent in the standard and the community tensions.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t be cognizant of your race privilege as a white person, or that there’s no area of constructive criticism or engagement on these issues (see also: don’t date men that profess themselves exclusively attracted to one race!). But it does seem like the solution proposed by the commenter (and others) — date only white men — is both unhelpful in addressing the structural problems with the beauty standard/intracommunity discord/limited acceptability of certain combinations and in being a throwback to a day in which interracial dating was frowned upon.
Work to change the system, to expose its underpinnings; advocate for more diversity in media images and image makers; check your own privilege and grip it less tightly. See beauty outside of the pages of Vogue, and share it with others. Love other people who do the same.
Jill: That’s actually something I’ve thought about a lot. The “only date white people” suggestion isn’t a particularly good solution, but I do think it’s crucial to interrogate who we’re attracted to and why. I’ve known too many white dudes who only date Asian girls (or girls of whatever race, but there’s a particular breed of white man Asian fetishizer that I seem to encounter a lot) because “I just like them better,” and, well, I don’t think it’s that simple either (not to say that all white dudes who date Asian women are fetishizers, obviously, or even that I’m usually in a position to judge who’s fetishizing or who’s not — I’m talking about a specific kind of white dude who will talk about how he only dates Asian women because he loves that they’re so small and sweet and “act like ladies” etc etc). Obviously relationships are highly individual and we’re attracted to who we’re attracted to, but there are also themes to how these things actually play out — as Megan said above, it seems less common to see white women with Asian men, for example, than white men with Asian women. And there are different class assumptions that get projected onto black/white couples vs. Asian/white vs. Latin@/white, etc etc. I think checking that is important, and recognizing that dating both outside and inside of one’s racial group can bring up more than “just” racism (or racism that’s also informed by classism, assumptions about religion, etc).
That doesn’t mean “don’t interracially date.” It does mean at least devote a little brainpower to this topic, and realize that no matter how much of a Good Anti-Racist White Person you are, you’re still part of this system, and that means that you’ve not only gotta do some extra work, but also that there’s no easy perfect way to be a Good White Person Interracial Dater. Anxiety and guilt over The System is not going to be particularly helpful to your relationship. And romantic relationships are so particularly intimate and unique that zeroing in on race because you need to be The Anti-Racist White Person can throw up blocks to intimacy — your partner Jack should be “my partner Jack” whose racial background informs his life, not “my black partner Jack,” if that makes sense. That isn’t to say “be colorblind,” because just no; it is to say that there’s a fine balance between recognizing the complexities and difficulties of interracial relationships, and going so hard into Good Anti-Racist White Person mode that you make the race issue about you, and you let your partner’s racial identity eclipse your partner as a whole and complicated person with a history and a set of characteristics that are interwoven with race but far from solely defined by race.
Porter: I think that’s a pretty sweet sentiment to express. “I have this inclination, but is it causing others harm?” I don’t have a whole lot to add to the above… examine the inclination, which usually includes indulging it. Worry less, do more. I think it’s when Big Systemic Concepts get in the way of Enjoying (or at least, Trying Out) Life that humans experience a subtle, needless suffering.
If someone gives her grief, she can go Socratic on them and see if they can explain why she, personally, is exemplifying their preconception.
DC: Honestly, it’s never crossed my mind. I’ve certainly never felt like I should be guilty for who I am and am not attracted to. Philosophers and scientists together have studied the ways that love that drive someone crazy in the exact same way that it can bring a nation together. Azar Nafisi put it really well when she said, “Cultures should meet with the best that they have to offer.” I think that by hiding the way that we love to bend to societal expectations or to avoid the potential consequences is ultimately more damaging than trying to make people hear you. Make them hear you, or live in the silence.
Allison: I’m with Porter — interrogate your privilege, yes, but don’t let it stop you from living life to the fullest and enjoying a meaningful relationship between two equals of different backgrounds. When it comes to race, I understand that the dominant culture reveres my whiteness and endows this attribute with purity, inherent beauty, and an elevated social status. I also have to be mindful of reducing partners of color to stereotypes; I recently had a heated exchange via Twitter with a white rapper who claimed to be sick of “feisty Latinas” throwing their dinners at him (actual quote: “I love yall but dios mio you have the shittiest disposition’s ever”). He was irritated that I even suggested it was problematic.