Welcome to the Outside of the Constructs panel. This one is a little strange as compared to the others. Originally, this was to be the panel for Indigenous people, but then I expanded it to include people who are normally outside of U.S. racial constructs. But then, we didn’t get very much response originally, and I asked for help recruiting. Cecelia responded, but she invited a mess of folks – but who didn’t fit the original idea for this panel. I was going to move Lyza, Julie, and Richard’s responses – but then I realized their experiences probably fit a bit better here, since they were radically different from other responses on the White and Asian panels. So, it all worked out.
Our panelists are: Cecelia, friend of the blog; Julie, friend of Cecelia; Brandann, friend of the blog and occassional contributor; Lyza, friend of Cecelia; Andrew, blogger at KABOBFest; May, blogger at KABOBfest and Sawaha Sumra; Fatemeh, Racialious crew and Editor of Muslimah Media Watch; El, long time friend of the blog; and Richard, friend of Cecelia.
Cecelia: My parents are an interracial couple. My Dad is Ojibway/Anishinaabe (enrolled tribal member in the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community) and French and my Mother is various European heritages, the majority of her is Scandinavian (Norwegian and Swedish) and German. When my parents started dated my Mother’s Father said to her, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Despite the one negative message from my Grandfather my parents tried their best, with all of the complications, family issues and life stresses, their overall message on their interracial dating was a positive one. My Dad grew up in Highland Park, MI which was what he called “mixed” and not diverse. He once described the neighborhood he grew up in by having “all the colors.” My Mother grew up in a working class, product of Ford and auto industry, mostly white inner ring suburb of Detroit. They moved to a more lower middle class neighborhood of an inner ring suburb and the compilation of their upbringings gave me a positive message about interracial dating, even despite our struggles as a family and individuals inside the family unit. Because of our various struggles from generational trauma, historical trauma and PTSD from being survivors of genocide on the Native side, I came to the conclusion that most relationships would be a struggle. This struggle can change as well heal. If our liberation and return to culture, language and traditions as Native people means feeling our ancestors pain then it may manifest in struggle within our family and therefore the interracial relationship of my parents.
My family on my Dad’s side is multi-racial, so mixing was already in the family and our family gatherings had all of us mingling which was most always a positive space for me. I am really thankful for my family being so awesome and open-minded! Some messages I received from my Dad (which he said weekly, if not daily): “the white man messed up everything,” and/or “don’t trust whitey.” Therefore, I wasn’t very trusting of white males in relationships, although I have had my share, I have retired dating white males because my Fathers statement that was ingrained in me since I was a child has proven true in the dating world. Sadly, I had to test the waters to prove his statements to be true.
Julie: Light-skinned = good. Dark-skinned = bad. Gay/lesbian also = bad. The races fell into those guidelines.
I grew up Vietnamese in a predominantly white area where they pulled eyes at me and made fun of my parent’s height and accents. As a displaced people who were just trying to survive, and as we watched other PoCs in our neighborhood/family turning to drugs and guns, assimilation seemed like the key to our well-being. I was surrounded by the ‘goodness’ of white people (some were pretty nice, but ignorant) and was brought up to appreciate them and to adopt their ideas, including their racist ones.
I may have received these messages, but more than what I was ‘sold’, was the fact that I was a target for racism (Seventeen Magazine was definitely not written with PoC in mind) and thus differentiated. I grew wary of white people and started gravitating to other races for my friendships (mostly latino and asian) in my late teens.
Brandann: I grew up mixed-race, and only slightly conscious of what that meant. I am assuming that my being a product of a mixed-race relationship meant that my family didn’t frown upon the idea of interracial dating or relationships.
I’m Ojibwe/Anishinaabe and European by descent, registered with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. If there were problems with such relationships, there was no indication of it from my immediate family. Though, as I got older and understood racial identity better (things such as the endearing nickname my father’s father gave me, which was a bit of a jab at my mixed-heritage but meant to be affectionate), I noticed that other people within my own community had ideas about what was right and what was less-than. Relationships between two Native people, at least in my own limited experience, were looked upon more favorably than those between Native and non-Natives.
The only time race ever arose as an issue was when I met my husband, who is Asian. My grandfather is a Korean War veteran, and I personally had fears that it would be an issue, however right or wrong that fear was. Turns out, it was never something I needed to worry about. He was accepted with open arms.
Lyza: Growing up in a rural farm community, where my mom grew up in a suburb of Grand Rapids and my dad grew up on a farm in Rockford, MI(which back when he grew up there it didn’t have the reputation it does today), allowed me to have a simple growing up experience that was for the most part homogeneous(white working class to middle class) in nature of where we lived. My mom was very intentional(coming from a Civil Rights and Feminism background) when it came to making my brother and I aware that the world was not homogeneous in nature she would yearly take us out of class to walk downtown Grand Rapids during the Martin Luther King Jr. day parade, as well as have literature and different avenues where we would be challenged with how we viewed the world from where we lived.
I thank my mom for being so progressive and going against the norm of ignorance that was prevalent in the community that we grew up in. My dad came from another generation where rural was rural and the only people of color in town were generally from the city and didn’t plan on staying any time soon. When I was in my early twenties I dated a Latino man that I worked with and after a date where he dropped me off at the home and met my family my dad sat me down and asked me what my intentions were with him and if I planned on dating him seriously. This comment disturbed me because of the undertone of racism that happened to ooze out of the comment. That was when I realized that there was a standard when it came to dating, and I was at a point in my life where I decided that was not acceptable. Within the past 3 years my father has changed his world view considerably with some hard life lessons that have come his way as well as my consistent challenging of how the world really “is” with all of the double standards.
My Grandpa (mom’s side) has been very adamant that interracial dating is unacceptable, however his deep seeded racism comes from generationalism and growing up in Benton Harbor pre and post WWII era. I constantly challenge his worldview by giving him an opportunity to explain why he has these views towards specific groups of people and offer him a different POV. Bringing some of my friends with diverse backgrounds to family events has allowed him to be around people that challenge where his fears and racism hold so closely to his belief system.
Andrew: I grew up in Ann Arbor, MI after having spent the first four years of my life in New York City. My mother immigrated from Lebanon in the late 70s and my father’s family, also Lebanese, has been in the United States since the beginning of the 20th century. On a personal level, both of my parents have always disregarded cultural traditions in favor of their own interpretations of what’s right and wrong or how people should and should not behave. For example, my mother was 31 when she married, which is virtually unheard of in a culture that pressures its women to marry young, and was the first woman to leave her village in Lebanon. Although there are far fewer social expectations imposed on men than on women in Arab culture, my father seemed to buck the trend by maintaining an air of humility despite his charm, intelligence, and professional success.
As a result, despite the fact that my upbringing was definitely defined by my Arab identity, I was always encouraged to challenge and confront cultural norms and traditions, and push social and personal boundaries within reason. When it came to sex and relationships, my parents never shied away from having conversations with me about relationships and sexuality, yet they rarely came off as nosey or intrusive. They have always encouraged me to view dating as a process through which I develop a better understanding of myself and what it is I’m looking for in a partner. Although I haven’t seriously dated a woman that isn’t Arab, I am confident that my parents would support an interracial relationship.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about my extended family. My grandmother (father’s mother) enjoyed being racist and would regularly claim that she was no Arab; she was Phoenician. She never missed an opportunity to obsess over the kinds of people her grandchildren would date and eventually marry, regularly encouraging all of us to date within our Arab Orthodox Christian community. Such attitudes are reinforced by the rest of my father’s family which, interestingly enough, embrace culturally traditional values and lifestyles despite being third and fourth generation Arab Americans.
On my mother’s side, I grew up knowing that interracial relationships were frowned upon and not taken seriously. This obviously did not extend to Europeans; my cousin was once married to a French woman. I should add, though, that my family is definitely more concerned with religion than they are race when it comes to relationships. This is because they assume that their children will not marry/date outside of the Arab community, and so they focus on religious identity. My Shiite Muslim (now ex) girlfriend definitely ruffled a few of their feathers, but I was never openly confronted about my relationship with her. As a man, I recognize that I enjoy significant privilege and am not subject to the kind of scrutiny Arab women must endure.
May: As a US born and raised to Syrian Sunni Muslim parents, I grew up watching both sides of my family interracially/ethnically marry—it was almost exclusively my uncles though, and to mostly white European women. As Syrians are regarded as the white people of the Arab world, I would venture to say that these kinds of unions were not only considered culturally acceptable, but a reinforcement of an aspirational whiteness.
Further complicating the fact that both my parents are Syrian (my father with a Bedouin background) was the culturally enclavish way I was raised. We lived on a cul-de-sac with all my father’s family populating the six model homes that the track housing in the sleepy Southern California suburb was based on. Thus not only was I encouraged to maintain a link with my “roots” but I was also expected to only have my cousins as my friends. As my father once retorted when I asked to attend a schoolmate’s sleepover party, “Friends? why do you need friends? You have cousins!” So you can imagine the jingoistic way marriage was regarded/viewed.
Because some of the aforementioned interracial/ethnic marriages failed, this led my father to come to the conclusion that his children would be best suited to marry someone who was culturally similar to us. Or in his words “another Arab.” Knowing very well the narrow definition my father was operating under with such an assertion, I pressed him to share his criteria for entry into this marriageable “Arabness” with series of annoying Socratic questions. Here is how that delightfully uninhibited conversation unraveled: The Match-making Chronicles: Race/Ethnicity/Nationality of Ideal Husband.
I never understood how I was to meet or even respect this imaginary husband in my father’s mind who, as illustrated above, should be Syrian from my father’s city of origin and from “a good family,” when I was never raised with Arabs or Muslims who did not bear my same last name. In fact, my father was known in the Southern Californian Syrian community as “The Syrian who doesn’t interact with Syrians” and kept company with a Benetton ad campaign circle of friends—Mexicans, Cubans, Salvadorians, Jews, African Americans and many more non-Arabs.
But I never shared my dating history with my father—neither did he have any desire to know. My mother, mapping together conversational glimpses of my dating history understood the geographic stretches of my past relationship partners, only had two criteria for me. The man I was to marry should 1) make me happy and 2) be a Muslim. Also knowing the narrow definition my mother thought fit snugly into her “open-minded” views on cultural diversity, I pressed her. “So you would be okay if I married a Chinese Muslim.” She paused…for a while, took a breath and asked “you would want to marry a Chinese man?” For my mother, although she and another aunt advised me against marrying an Arab, there was still a cultural closeness or familiarity she associated with being “Muslim.” To my mother’s credit, she finally released the emo-cognitive tight grip she had on notions of being Muslim.
Fatemeh: My father is Iranian and my mother is from Scottish and Irish heritage, growing up Mormon in Utah. Growing up, their racial differences seemed minimal to me, which probably normalized the idea of dating someone different than I. The most exposure to their differences I’d get is when they’d tease each other about polygamy on both sides of the family (my father comes from a Muslim family, my mother comes from an LDS [Mormon] family). They’ve been married over 35 years now.
Thankfully, my parents don’t push me about marriage. They want me to be happy and economically stable, and I don’t think they could care less about who I marry as long as I’m financially independent–when I was growing up, both parents stressed that I should get an education, get a good job, and then worry about marriage.
El: I’m full Persian and there are some pretty general taboos in Persian culture: don’t marry a non-Iranian, but if you must, at least bring home a white boy. The biggest taboo would probably be marrying a black or perhaps an Arab man (depends on how nationalistic your family is, I suppose). This was never really expressed within my immediate family, but when your culture has some closed-minded views, the messages will find a way to seep in somehow. For Iranians, it’s mostly about preservation of culture, of being able to pass down the language, customs and traditions onto your offspring. Interracial marriages can be seen as a threat to that.
Contrasting to that, I also came up in (and am still a part of) a religious community (the Baha’i community) where unity of mankind is a central principle and interracial marriages are quite common. We even have scripture that touches upon the topic! It’s seen as a positive thing in this community. I had a lot of half-Persian friends growing up and I was able to witness, firsthand, a variety of family dynamics in Persian-and-“other” pairings.
My day-to-day surroundings growing up were much less diverse. Almost all of the kids in my school and small town were white, so you really didn’t have any other choice BUT to interracially date. Even still, there was a weird dynamic in the town. Some other minority kids and I developed these weird complexes – we felt we were almost “too ethnic” to be dated there, and became every guy’s best friend who happens to be a girl. But then we went off to diverse colleges where guys hit on us, asked us out – we had to work out our issues and it took some time to see ourselves differently.
Cecelia: The only fears I had were dating a white male because of privileges and abuse of power. I have dated Latino, White, Native, Black and African. My worst relationships were with white males because of how their privileges brushed up against my multiple oppressions. My best relationship was with the Latino male who was half Peruvian and half White. We had a balanced relationship, would take about oppression, race, class, gender and do things such as hike, drink tea and enjoy meditation.
Julie: My worst experiences were with white males. My best ones with asian males. I was hesitant going into relationships with white males as a teenager (I was already wary of them but didn’t know better), where I suddenly became visible to the white peer world (it takes a white man to bestow the honorary white badge, I suppose). Disliking that, I got out of those relationships, lickity split.
By the time I was dating asian/mixed-asian men, I was hanging out with other diasporic asians, re-learning my heritage, and actively avoiding white people. I became more visible to the asian man, as he could feel safer with me and not have to worry about my throwing racist asian male stereotypes at him. My only fear was that I would ‘slip-up’ with my whiteness-upbringing, show my ‘whiteness’, oppress somebody.
By the time I married a Taiwanese-American man, I was comfortable in my skin and very tired of seeing asian girls with white men (the ‘accepted’ norm). I had no fears going into our relationship, whatsoever. I had an ally, flesh and blood. People from my hometown were generally surprised, but were used to being surprised by me, and I no longer feel like I belong there.
Brandann: I almost feel it is unfair to say “my worst relationships were with white men”. I have very little experience otherwise, and it is easy, I think, for me to dismiss any of the problems that occurred as things I did wrong. I too easily dismiss the idea that any of it could have been a result of an imbalance of power due to varying axis of oppression, but I have a tendency to feel responsible for anything, which, again, is probably a result of some of my relationships with mental illness.
My best relationship, obviously, is with my husband. I am not sure if it is because it feels like the power balance is more equal between us, or if our personalities just work well. It could be coincidence, but I’m not exactly naive enough to dismiss the idea that race affects it outright.
I’m read as “white” though, frequently, which further complicates my thoughts on the issue, because I am ascribed privilege and status that were not the experience of my upbringing or background. It is often presumed that I carry white privilege in our relationship, and it may be true to an extent, but my history definitely does not match that perception. I am not “white”.
May: Not really. I think one of my fears is related to my own judgments, especially when it comes to the courting process. This fear is that I would judge a man for not meeting the gendered expectations I had indoctrinated into me from childhood, ones that I had challenged at some points and now I see the value of upholding. I expect a man who is interested in me to approach me with expressed intention and—500 steps later or so—if serious about marrying me, obtain my father’s blessings before proposing to me. This is where an understanding of cultural sensitivities become fundamental—a man who is interested in me needs to be fully cognizant of the fact that he will probably not interact with my family, and mostly especially my father, unless his intention is to propose to me. Sometimes socioeconomic status and divergent educational background put more of a strain on the relationship or the potential budding of a relationship than race or culture.
As for the peers…
Most of my close friends are not Arab or Muslim and come from diverse racial, class, educational, and professional backgrounds. And because I have a tendency to self-isolate outside of the comfy boundaries of trusted friendships, I rarely confront the ire that comes from a homogenuous community’s concern about one’s interracial dating or mating practices.
And as other participants have broached the “dating or ‘talking’ to white men” topic:
I rarely attract white men, and when I do, there is this underlying fetishism quality to the attraction (and the probability of white men approaching me is usually heightened when I am on the thinner side!). The “specious informant” has never been a legitimate fear of mine, but I will say I have received the attention of far too many white men interested in learning Arabic or at that moment enrolled in Arabic classes. I brusquely joke that war and the Kardashians have made my kind more popular—and even wrote about it: The Kim Kardashian Effect On Arab and Middle Eastern Women.
Andrew: I haven’t really dated interracially. I’ve had a few one or two week flings with women of different races, but don’t know what it’s like to have a serious romantic relationship with someone that isn’t Arab. I know that my family’s disdain for interracial relationships affects me subconsciously, and it is definitely more difficult to feel comfortable in the context of an interracial relationship knowing that my extended family will react negatively.
Hooking up with white women has, however, been a little stressful, but not because of my family. Many of my peers, including some of my closest friends, consider it a betrayal for a man of color to pursue a relationship with a white woman. As a result, I remember several occasions during college in which I made a concerted effort to make sure that if a white woman and I were to spend the night, she would be back at her house before any of my roommates were aware of her presence. To this day, I go to great lengths to keep any romantic relationships I may have with white women an absolute secret (although, admittedly, they don’t happen very often).
Fatemeh: Since there aren’t a lot of other white/Persian hybrids like myself to date, I’d say all my dating has been interracial. And I always assumed it would be–growing up in a majority-white Utah made me assume I’d never find anyone like me to date. Living in a different majority-white state shores up this assumption, though I’ve met other biracial Persians like myself.
I don’t date much, but when I do, one of my biggest worries is that the person I’m dating won’t understand my ethnic and religious identities. Trying to figure out how to be together is hard enough without trying to educate someone on privilege, oppression, and gender issues. It’s really important to me that the person I’m dating understand these issues and is sensitive to them.
El: I’ve mostly dated interracially and I haven’t had many fears or misgivings going into it; overall, that aspect of it has mostly been positive. I honestly don’t care about my partner’s background and I don’t really have a moratorium on dating Persian men. When it comes to race, all that matters is that he’s race-conscious. And for a number of reasons, there aren’t many Iranian-Americans who are and vibe with me on that level.
If I had any qualms it was probably with dating white men because of how I grew up. I used to feel as if white men just weren’t attracted to me, and for whatever reason, I don’t often find myself attracted to them. Chicken or the egg?
Even still, I’m slowly bracing myself for the day when I bring home a non-Persian, non-white man as someone I want to marry. I don’t know if this is what will actually happen – I joke with friends that after all this, I’ll end up with a Persian doctor. But even still, it’s good to mentally and emotionally prepare. I’m not sure what the reactions will be, and the uncertainty is probably the hardest part. Family is very important to me and I want my partner to become a full part of it, I want there to be true joy and love to go all around. I’ve heard some horror stories from friends or their parents about when they brought home non-Persian mates – for some, acceptance took years. Others were shunned. But, in the end, many of them say their families grew closer through the trials and the prejudice within their families was slowly being eradicated, particularly when children and grandchildren arrived.