Welcome to the Mixed Race panel on Interracial Dating. Our panelists are:
Phil Djwa, technologist; Jozen Cummings, creator of the Until I Get Married blog; LM, long time commenter and friend of the blog; LB, friend of the blog; Jen Chau, Founder and Executive Director of Swirl and co-founder of Mixed Media Watch and Racialicious; N’Jaila Rhee, the mastermind behind BlaysianBytch.com (link NSFW); Holly, contributor at Feministe; Ken, friend of the blog; and A.C., friend of the blog.
Phil: My mother was white from Canada and my father Chinese-Indonesian. It was a funny combination of totally being normalized and also sticking out. My family was interracial, but no one else was. It seemed totally normal inside the family, but I couldn’t see any other examples of it locally. I remember meeting the only other Chinese family in the neighbourhood and realizing they were “like me”. I learned later from my parents that they had quite a bit of turmoil in finding a home to rent at first and had received funny looks etc. My mom, who is white, would go to meet the realtor and my dad would only come later after they had agreed to rent it. For myself, dating white women as opposed to Chinese was pretty natural as there were not a lot of Chinese people at my school at the time. There was a lot of casual racism, “Hey Chink” and that kind of stuff, but my extended family was supportive of my mother’s choice, so it didn’t seem to matter.
Jozen: It felt normal in my family. My mom and my uncles who raised me grew up with a Puerto Rican father and a Japanese grandmother. So my family was in on this whole interracial relationship thing early, like dating back to the 1940s. My father who was never around was Puerto Rican and Black, but soon after I was born, my mom married the man who would adopt me as his son and he was white and they had my sister, so she’s mixed. All my uncles married and had children with women from other races, so if there was any type of message about interracial relationships it was that it was not only okay, but kind of normal. There was no beating of the chest about the diversity within the family, it’s just how we live our lives. More than interracial relationships, we all were different people, different values, and I think culturally there was some disconnect within the families, but that’s more of a generational thing than it was a race thing. My Korean cousins were never called out for acting Korean, Filipino cousins weren’t treated differently than our black cousins. It was all mixed up but the conflicts resided in other things outside of race, like most families.
LM: I didn’t, at least not out loud. I came from a white father and Puerto Rican mother, and that background was viewed as “mixed” by anyone who asked about it. But my mother, though she identified strongly with Puerto Rican heritage, looked “white.” So did I. Furthermore, her last name came from her straight-off-the-boat Irish father and she was fluent in both English and Spanish. (To speak English fluently and look white with freckles, as she did, was to have her Puerto Rican-ness doubted — by white people.)
There was enough of a stigma tied to being Puerto Rican — not in our house but what I picked up from muttering cabdrivers and pop culture — that I suspected a) if my mom and I didn’t look white, we might have been treated differently, and b) within my family at least, the concept of inter-group relationships was OK. On this second point, I understood that in reality, there might be opposition to such relationships based on more obvious surface differences. But even as a pre-teen, I figured no one but the two people in a relationship ought to have a say in the matter.
LB: I’m half Black, half-Navajo, however I was raised culturally in a Black home, as my Navajo mother was adopted by a Black family and removed from the reservation. That being said, I definitely received some mixed messages regarding interracial relationships. My mother is a an evangelical Christian, and so I was taught to love everyone equally, that there were no races and we were all God’s children. However, there were messages communicated to me that anyone dating white people thought they were better than other minorities. There would be discriminatory comments made in my family about other races. So, it was a bit confusing at times to reconcile these mixed messages.
Jen: I didn’t receive the most positive messages about interracial dating growing up, which was a shame given that I am the product of one. I received messages from peers, messages from my parents and family, and messages from the communities to which I was attempting to belong. Peers asked questions all the time. They didn’t quite understand how I could be both Chinese and Jewish at the same time. They asked a lot about my parents and how they met. I got the feeling that my parents coming together was a strange thing. An abnormal thing. If it was normal, then there wouldn’t be so much interest and intrigue, right?
My family – my Jewish grandparents in particular – used to tell me that I would marry a “nice, Jewish boy.” Funny – the first boy I really liked was black and Jewish, but somehow they didn’t quite mean that brand of Jewish. It was clear that white was right when it came to whom I should be dating. This felt invalidating and made me wonder if anyone in my family truly understood my experience – both as a mixed women and a woman of color. I kept wondering and stayed single right through college. I knew that the boys to whom I was attracted, would not do. In hindsight, I don’t think that I was ready to fight that fight with them.
And then, the Jewish community – while there were many diverse and accepting synagogues out there, mine was not. Even though we rehearsed for my Bat Mitzvah with my father up on the bima (the altar), the night before my big day left my mother in tears. She got a call from the Rabbi. He told her that the Ritual Committee had had a special meeting and decided that the three of us – me, my mom, my dad – could not be on the bima together. They did not want to promote intermarriage.
I grew up knowing in my heart that there was nothing wrong with interracial relationships (again, I came from one)…but got message after message that they were not approved of, and probably more trouble than they were worth.
N’jaila: I’m a Caribbean American Blasian mutt. My parents made more of a issue of them being from different islands than them being different races. My mom was brown, my father was lighter, but still brown so I never felt “mixed”. Mixed was for people that were part white in my head growing up. I really did think that it interracial was code for “White”. There’s so little discussion of Black and non white/non blacks marrying and dating. Even less about intercultural relationships within races.
When I got older there was a feeling like both my parents did this whole mixing thing wrong. One of them was supposed to be white. I remember when my first serious relationship abruptly fell apart he solemnly said “if god wanted us to be together your mother would have been white.” So a lot of times I felt like I was a double cast out. Black people were only allowed to be Black and nothing else.
Holly: I grew up in a proudly multi-racial household, although when my sister and I got older it became clear that there would still be problems if either of us wanted to date “beneath us” in terms of class, and of course overlapping that in all sorts of ways, race too. My mother, who’s Japanese, always had much more mixed feelings about being in a multi-racial relationship than my father did. For my mother, it represented giving up her heritage in a lot of ways, and having kids who were “Americans” at heart, instead of “actually Japanese” like she would have had if she had stayed in Japan, or maybe if she had married another Japanese immigrant. I don’t know if she actually would have followed that path, though, despite her misgivings! I’ve always had a feeling that my father thought that being in a multi-racial family made him cooler and more politically with it than other typical white guys, which became a thorn in my side as a teenager, naturally. He eventually characterized one of the most enduring problems of his relationship with my mother as being about cultural differences and lack of acceptance — from his family, and from the two of them trying to adjust to each other. So in the end… I got a lot of overt messages when I was younger about how multi-racial families and kids are great, but a lot of more subtle messages about how it didn’t work.
Ken: As my parents are Southern and things of their generation were very black-white, no acknowledgement of mixed-race ancestry ever took place until I started researching genealogy. I do remember my mother saying when I was a pre-teen, however, that she would prefer I not bring a white girl home. (Since I’m a gay-but-open-minded male, really no worries there!) She did acknowledge a few years later that I would likely bring home ‘a foreigner,’ and she seemed to be alright with that. So now I’m a good-ol’ American mutt (black/white/native) in a relationship with a dark Spaniard.
A.C.: I never spoke explicitly with my parents about interracial dating. As a mixed-race kid, though, my parents never really just talked with me about how I felt about being Latino, Irish and German. I was raised partly, though, by my father’s aunt, who came to live with my family and help with me and my sisters while my parents worked. She had a real problem with black folks and it scared me off from ever asking out nonwhite or non-Latino girls, since I knew I’d have to bring them by eventually. It was only years later, when she finally moved back to San Antonio, that I brought home an African-American girlfriend to watch a movie. My dad came down to say goodnight-and I hadn’t told him I had been bringing anyone over, which was pretty ordinary, really. But I do remember a look of surprise on his face. I can’t rule anything out but maybe it was because I was in the basement watching a movie with a girl. Maybe not.
Phil: I think the white side was the strongest as we were living in a white community. A lot of the Chinese Indonesian side was a little forced, with sometimes going to the Lions club (Chinese) or my mom making Chinese Indonesian food. It seemed a little like play-acting. Still, my mom was concerned that I have some exposure. My parents never made any comments that I could remember about dating. I do remember not being able to go on a high school trip to South Africa with my girlfriend at the time because of my skin.
Jozen: When my dad and mom divorced, my mom met the man I would call “Pop” for 11 years.. Essentially he raised my sister and I and he was black and Filipino, but culturally, he was like a lot of brothers who lived in our small town of Seaside, California. He raised my sister and I to be conscious of being a person of color, but it was never something was pushed us. I wasn’t raised to embrace being black, but I don’t speak Spanish and I don’t speak Japanese. One of the benchmarks of any culture is it’s language, so not speaking either of those tongues made it appear as though I was not trying to identify them. But the fact is, my mom’s parents never taught her and my uncles their languages, largely because my grandfather was a Puerto Rican in the U.S. Army and they were all raised on military bases in the 50’s and 60’s. There was none of this holding onto language and such going on, so my mom and uncles don’t speak Spanish or Japanese either. I think, culturally my family identified as people of color and Seaside is a black city, and we were just looked at as part of that mix. It never impacted messages I received about dating. I was bringing home black girls who I liked to meet my mom when I was way too young to be bringing any girls home (a point my Mom made clear). We could date whoever we wanted, but I do think it would shock anyone in my family if I brought home a woman who wasn’t black. I went to an HBCU, Howard University, and as one classmate of mine jokingly told me, “You didn’t come here to not date black girls.” I laugh at it, but it’s kind of true because like most men, one of the factors I considered in choosing a college was the girls, and well, you can only guess Howard was my idea of heaven on earth from a social standpoint.
LM: While there were no overt messages, my mother’s celebration of her Puerto Rican heritage, plus practically annual visits to my grandparents on the island and a three-year stint there due to my father’s military assignment, led me to identify significantly with that “side” of me. I thought of myself as white because that’s what I looked like but saw no conflict between that and being Puerto Rican. Meanwhile the Irish “side” — though it came from both parents and my mother’s stepfather — came across to me as lip service. From Ireland I got pale skin, freckles and soda bread. Guess which two I didn’t much appreciate.
After several moves due to my father’s military service, I eventually came of age in New York City, where from eighth grade on I felt an immediate connection to many Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean islanders — and by the time my consciousness was raised in college, people in other communities of color.
LB: Culturally I was raised Black with very little connection to my Navajo heritage. My mother lives her life as if she is a Black woman, with a footnote that she’s Navajo whenever questioned about her ethnicity. I often have conversations with her reminding her that she can’t really speak about the “struggle” to others when she looks like a Native American woman. I think I was raised to ignore the Navajo side of my culture if only because it reminded everyone that my mother was not the birth children of my grandparents. Nobody discussed the adoption, ever. It wasn’t until I was 8 years old did I realize my mother was adopted, as pointed out by my cousins who taunted me for not being our grandfather’s “real” granddaughter.
Jen: For all intents and purposes, I was raised as a white, Jewish girl with little to no Chinese cultural influence. However, my Chinese father was probably the more vocal parent when it came to communicating expectations around whom I should be dating. He came to this country in order to receive better opportunities and always stressed the importance of success to me and my brothers. He always talked about choice of partner influencing this success. Partnering with people who “didn’t struggle” in this country was ideal. Partnering with others would only put us in danger, bring us down, hold us back. Of course, this was very hard to hear, as I knew he was applying practicality to a matter that didn’t always feel that cut and dry. He made relationships sound like business propositions. I remember nodding at the dining room table as he lectured on, knowing that I would do what I wanted to do in the end.
N’jaila: I used to be a firm believer in the one drop rule racially, but I identify strongly as West Indian. No matter what race a person is if you are Jamaican or Trini no matter what race, where you move or who you marry you’re still West Indian and your kids are West Indian. I came from a more inclusive culture.
My parents have their prejudices , ironically I think my father would be much happier if I did not marry or date Asian, my mother is a lot more fluid, for her education is more important. She doesn’t care what color the man is so much as he pedigree.
My parents were very passive with race, this might have to do a lot with my father’s own issues with his race, they always made the conversation about culture.
It is a little odd for a mixed race person that looks Black. I think many people expect us to only think , act and identify as Black and the assumption is that we will greatly favor Black or White partners. When I started seriously dating I found myself looking for the men that I “should” want to be with and not the men I wanted to be with regardless of who had anything to say about it.
Holly: I was raised to believe that I was both “Japanese” and “Welsh/English/Irish/Scotch,” which looking back I can see as an attempt on the part of my dad’s liberal, middle-class family to be more specific about “their half” of our identity than just homogenous whiteness. But that half of my family is… well, really white. And the very fact that I was raised on the west coast of the US meant that my sister and I were raised in their cultural context, not my mother’s. My mother felt alienated and we were perpetually aware that “her side” was very far away, especially because she didn’t have strong ties in any local Japanese community. She made us go to Japanese language school during our junior-high years, and we went to the Japanese grocery store, took aikido and kendo lessons at times, but we barely knew any of the other kids and families. So I was always aware that I was mixed and was “half-Japanese” — it was the most significant and visible marker of difference, otherness, outsiderness in my childhood — but we also felt extremely far away and cut off from the source of that. Thinking back, I feel really lucky that I did get to visit Japan and my relatives there a few times growing up — if I hadn’t, I would have felt even more like a solitary alien from a long-lost planet.
Ken: Definitely raised to identify more with the black aspect of my heritage as both of my parents grew up in the Civil Rights Era south. And as N’jaila said, if you outwardly appear as black to most folk, that’s all you are or have a chance to be until you assert yourself as other.
I didn’t know any mixed couples growing up, so my messages were from pop culture. Essentially that interracial dating might make for a nice Hallmark moment, but otherwise it’s likely too difficult of an option to entertain.
A.C.: Culture factors in big. My dad’s pretty explicitly encouraged me to date Latinas in the past, and though I have, it’s simply never worked out to be a lasting relationship. In spite of the fact that I’ve been exposed to a lot of Irish, German, and South Texas culture about equally, I identify a bit more as Latino for several reasons. I’m much more attached to that side of my family, and was raised on southwestern food. I’ve always enjoyed visiting Texas more than rural Illinois, where my mother’s from. There are two things important to me in a potential partner that have filtered down: speaking Spanish and cooking food I enjoy. But those can be learned.