Welcome back 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; Liz, friend of the blog and co-founder of VerySmartBrothas; 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: The “where are you from? No, I mean originally?” question used to drive me nuts, but I’ve calmed down a bit and try to be a little more positive in responding to the curiosity in the question rather than the ignorance. But it really has happened less. Sometimes now it’s “what are you” but that is usually after someone knows me a bit. I’m happy to talk about my heritage if someone asks politely.
Jozen: Not to toot my own horn, but I’m extremely comfortable in my own skin and since I look mixed, I think it throws some people for a loop. A lot of mixed people play this role of having some sort of identity struggle, or they like to play up all their ethnicities, but that’s not me at all. So if I’m around a bunch of black folks who are unmistakably black (and this is the case 99% of the time), and I’m not missing one beat, not acting like an outsider in anyway. This causes a person on the outside looking in to wonder what am I? When I break it down for them, the reaction I get is usually, “Oh, okay.” And that “Oh” is funny because it’s almost like they were wondering why I was acting the way that I do or talking the way that I do, whatever it is. The other thing is, the group of people who ask me most often who I am is black people. Without a doubt, black folks are the ones who ask me most, “What are you?” I usually chalk this up to them not seeing enough black people in their life to understand black people look all types of different from other black people, mixed or otherwise. So the question is understandable. When people ask me what I am, and usually that’s the way they say it “What are you?”, I just think to myself it’s because they’ve never seen someone who looks like me before. When I told my high school counselor I wanted to go to Howard University she said, “You know I always wanted to ask you, what are you mixed with?” So that’s kind of what I mean, I was comfortable in the choice I made for college, and I think that made my high school counselor with asking me a question that prior to, she was uncomfortable asking.
Liz: I think minorities have been treated like a commodity in this country long enough that it’s okay to talk to them any way you like.
LM: This tends not to occur to me as an individual until after I’ve begun some sort of conversation, and my voice, or the subject matter, or my manner, something other than my phenotype or shade of skin causes them to ask, “What are you?” or some variation. I don’t mind. I’ve gotten the question from when I was in elementary school, though back then I think it was more of an institutional question — a class learning from where people’s parents or other ancestors came. (As I write this, I wonder first if my memory is right and second whether that sort of exercise would fly today (or if it’s commonplace).
In my relationships this has occurred but not much. On the whole the public acknowledgement that I’ve noticed and my partners have discussed has been positive — a smile here and there, mostly. There have been a handful of frowns over the years. There was one time outside of Savannah, Georgia this past year when my wife and I saw outright rudeness that seemed based on our inter-racialness — people in a vacation condo complex turning their backs on us when we said hello. But if anything we’ve encountered less of this than we’d have expected.
I don’t believe it’s socially acceptable at this point to react this way publicly. Of course not everyone behaves in a socially acceptable way, and particularly in communities with less exposure to inter-racial couples I can imagine things being different. And although I wish people in the United States — white people in particular — were better suited to talk about race publicly, doing so as a passerby ain’t the time. I’m not against people being curious, but curiosity ought not be intrusive.
Jen: While I don’t always appreciate feedback or commentary from strangers, I have committed myself to anti-racism work and education. This means that I hold myself to a standard of no public fights, as little anger as possible, and mostly giving people the benefit of the doubt and trying to engage them. Looks and comments are the result of curiosity. And perhaps lack of exposure. You watch things to try to understand them. To study them. Sure, this feels rude sometimes, but I try to respond with kindness instead of hostility. If strangers look, I look back and smile. If strangers ask questions, I ask questions too. To “What are you,” I will reply, “I’m mixed, Chinese and White/Jewish – What did you think when you looked at me? And what are you curious about?”
N’jaila: People seem to think that my identity is up for argument. I had a former manager ask me to my face, “ Well , your father can’t be all that Asian, your too dark and big to be Asian.” This man was mixed race himself, White and Puerto Rican. Not only was this ignorant because there are millions of brown Asians and big Asians but the fact that he was trying to argue with someone about the circumstances of their birth. As if my existence is somehow a bit less valid because I didn’t come out some fair skinned choco-dipped geisha. There’s an unspoken rule that I have to be what people see me as. I think that’s why I choose to identify as Blasian. I’m not a fraction of anything I’m a whole Blasian.
I’ve learned to just ignore the looks and one liners, but I do pay very close attention to my partner’s reaction. If someone makes a remark and a look of shame washes over his face I know that that relationship is doomed to failure.
People think that because something is odd to them they have permission to interrogate you. When I lived in Newark, NJ, which has a VERY low Asian population people would stop me and my then boyfriend on the street and ask us how we knew each other. It would always make me laugh a bit when other Black women would say things like “I hope you two get married. The kids will be adorable!” All I could think , “yeah or they can look just like me”.
Holly: I definitely get the “what are you?” questions, although less and less over the years. I assume that’s a little bit about being more around older, more circumspect people as opposed to naive college kids, and maybe a little bit about changing social attitudes. When it comes to partners, I’ve definitely experienced the confused/disapproving frown — although honestly, it’s always been hard to tell the difference between someone giving the stinkeye beacause of my race / lack of easily-identifiable race or someone giving me the stinkeye because I’m holding hands with a white girl. Or someone giving me the stinkeye because they perceive us as two girls holding hands! When it comes to conversations, where you can get a little more info than from a stinkeye… well, see above. I’m not always sure that people who WOULD say anything to me can even comprehend that I’m someone’s girlfriend.
Ken: I struggle with this one. To me it seems like the past five years really where people look at me and think to themselves, ‘You don’t fit my neat conceptions of human beings, so I need you to wear a t-shirt this lists who you are.’ The one I most often receive is, ‘You don’t look Jewish. Where does it come from?’ None of your business is where it comes from, unless I already know you. Because most people, even when they look and sound sincere, have ulterior motives for asking that are beyond mere curiosity. As for the unsolicited comments… well I think it’s just ignorance really. People ain’t brought up the way they used to be. As my mom says, ‘They don’t know any better. If they knew better, they’d do better.’ And since I am an educator by profession, I don’t always feel like turning my identity into a teachable moment on the bus/plane/sidewalk/party all the time.
Liz: Three of the four couples seemed like they have some sort of identity issue, and I gave many of their responses a side-eye. While I think it’s great for people to date outside their race, I think it’s difficult at times tot ell who is doing it for genuine reasons, or from a place of pain with their own race. In the end, it’s none of my business and I’m not the dating police. People so that they want to do, but Essence didn’t seem to find much depth here.
Jen: Some of the comments leave me a little speechless and I wish that there was more depth instead of a couple of questions that merely scrape the surface. Some of the people sound very superficial and it’s hard to tell if that’s really the way they think or if it’s just the way they are being portrayed by Essence. One woman says that she likes it when people look at she and her partner because they are so beautiful, and earlier she talks about steering clear of black men because of the disappointing experiences she has had with other black men in the past. It’s clear that stereotypes of other races have played a part in some of the interviewees’ choices. Not everyone though. There is a mix of people – those who seem to buy into the stereotypes and others who question and challenge them. I always hope for journalists who try to deeply understand the experience. Too often we get fluffy stories that don’t do these relationships justice. There is so much to look at, but most go for the wow factor – comments that are going to get people’s attention. This isn’t always helpful in understanding interracial relationships in a three-dimensional way.
N’jaila: Can I just comment on how cringe inducing the little interviews with some interracial couples were. “Asian men are my match because of their family values, Black men were disappointing so I jumped ship” Really ALL OF THEM? Have you met ALL Black men or ALL Asian men to make such an assumption. If I gave up on every race of man that ever disappointed me I would be a lesbian and listening to my LGBT friends talk about their dating lives I would assume that I would just have to give up human contact all together.
I think there is a big difference between being open to “something new” and looking for a partner of another race to solve what you perceived to be the innate deficiencies with people of your race. I really wish they would stop spotlighting people that like this , because I know people are going to judge me by these airheaded words. I find the people that are the most vocal about their IR relationships are always the last people that should be having them.
Ken: I agree with you, N’jaila. There is that huge difference as to the motivation for being in / looking for an IR. I’d like to see more stories about people who were always ‘into something new’ or who merely have never limited themselves to dating one race.
Jozen: I guess it would be, don’t put your confusion about who I am onto me or any other mixed race people who are comfortable being themselves. Just the other day someone asked me, “What is with your obsession with black culture?” And it’s like, how do I even answer that. Is that person asking me in a roundabout way if I’m black or if I’m mixed? There are mixed people who aren’t trying to play both sides or mulitple sides, mulattoes who aren’t tragic, believe it or not. We identify culturally and socially with other people, and if we’re comfortable with that, it should be respected. If my comfort in my own skin confuses you and makes you wonder what I am, feel free to ask and don’t look so uncomfortable or sound so ignorant when doing so.
Jen: This is a great conversation! The only other thing I would say is: I encourage people to look a little deeper. Interracial relationships (similar to mixed race people) are still intriguing to people because of the visual impact of the mix of “races.” So we focus our attention on that which pops out – usually the things that we see. I hope that people will start to dig a little deeper. If interested in an interracial couple’s experience, try to learn about how they interact. What makes each partner love the other. Where their values overlap and where they deviate. It’s not always about racial difference. Same with mixed race people – learn about the person…not just the racial ingredients that have mixed to create the face they have.
Holly: There are some fascinating things you can do on the internet when it comes to multiracial stuff. Try googling “mixed-race babies” or “multiracial babies.” People want photos!! They want to know what these kids look like. Or they want to post photos of how cute their baby is, but they’re emphasizing the mixed-race part of it more than most people would emphasize their infant child’s race.I think part of this is the visual fascination, but part of it is from parents who can’t imagine what their kids might look like in an interracial relationship. They’re worried that the kids might look more like one parent than the other, etc. It’s like a little nexus of racial anxiety. Another good one is to do searches like “is (insert name of even remotely racially-ambiguous celebrity) mixed / multiracial” and see how popular those search terms are. People also ask the “what is” question about these celebrities a lot — I guess it’s just the famous-person level of “I need to categorize you!”
Liz: It’s funny I decided to be on the Mixed round table as opposed to the Black round table. Usually I don’t get to pick the “mixed” anything, so this was an interesting exercise. I wasn’t sure how Mixed my responses were, as they felt Black to me. Whatever that means.
N’jaila: Well I think the voices of mixed people that are seen as Black need to be heard too so people can figure out finally that we exist.
Ken: Ditto N’jaila’s comment.