On Interracial Dating – The South Asian Panel (1 of 3)

Priya and Leonard
Welcome to the South Asian Panel on Interracial Dating.

Our panelists are:

RB, long time reader and friend of the blog; Anna John, Sepia Mutineer and friend of the blog; Honey Mae, friend of the blog; Lisa Factora-Borchers, blogger at My Ecdysis, Neesha Meminger, YA Author and occasional contributor; Harbeer, Racialicious reader and friend of a friend of the blog; and Rohin Guha, author of Relief Work and a blogger.

What types of messages did you receive about interracial relationships growing up?

Rohin: Well, it depends.

For heterosexual interracial relationships, there really were no messages. And that is probably for the best. When I was younger, I’m sure there was probably the expectation that I would date and ultimately marry someone who was not only Indian, but also Bengali too. But as I grew older and my interests diverged from those of friends I knew through cultural circles, it became more realistic to expect otherwise. I grew up around writers, musicians, and artists. This meant many of my friends simply weren’t Indian.

I also noticed that older members of my generation were then beginning to date and marry non-Indians. And their parents frequently appeared welcoming. I feel like there was a tacit agreement: My family and our relatives settled in a land where predicating the terms of marriage on a single race could’ve literally spawned a generation of spinsters. With a little time, many learned to curb their expectations.

But then I came out, so the stakes the changed. The more trying part became tackling the construct of interracial same-sex relationship. Nobody in my family spoke about it because nobody knew how to talk about it. There just too much “otherness.” While a heterosexual interracial relationship isn’t exactly the stuff of heartbreaking scandal, a homosexual interracial relationship apparently was.

RB (28-years old, South Asian American, Male Racialicious Reader): It wasn’t really something that was discussed much in our house, or dating generally. There was always the unspoken preference for one of “our people”, but what that meant exactly would be difficult to pinpoint. My parents are both South Indian, but speak different languages. Both sets of grandparents eloped and married out of their communities. So finding someone who has exactly the same background as myself would be fairly difficult to begin with.

With that being said, my parents never explicitly told me not to date any particular racial group. Our family doesn’t subscribe to some of the more antiquated notions like color prejudice so black or white amounted to basically the same thing. Interestingly, they seem to think North Indians are basically just as foreign as other Asian countries. Mostly it was emphasized to me that education, character and family background are far more important than someone’s ethnicity.

Anna: “Don’t even think about it.” I grew up in a very strict, Orthodox family; my parents were Malayalee/South Indian immigrants. Interracial relationships were forbidden, disrespectful, ungrateful and in the case of one of my cousins who married “out”, a sure-fire way to get disowned. My father railed for days about his disobedient, immoral niece. The subtext of his rage was clear: “this better not be you in a few years”.

Honey: I grew up in the Philippines. At the time, there seemed to be this understanding that interracial relationships had a certain kind of status, depending on the race of the spouse.

  • marrying white/fair-skinned leads to social/class mobility. This seems to be the most desired combination. Probably vestiges of Spanish & American colonization. You can still see this in the current obsession for skin whiteners and pop culture celebrities endorsing these products, or looking white in the Philippines.
  • marrying foreigners can lead to opportunities to leave the country (Philippines), and earning currency that is at least double that of the Philippine peso. Remittances to the Philippines via migrant workers/immigrants to family is a billion dollar industry.
  • hapa children have a kind of cache, esp bet. Filipino/White couples. They are the standard of beauty esp. in pop/celebrity culture. Fair skin, more caucasian features, etc.
  • alternately, filipino/black hapa children (esp bet filipina and black “G.I.’s”) are discrimated against. This is consistent with a pervasive internal racism in the culture that considers dark skin as lower class. I’ve had to deal with all sorts of discriminatory remarks for having dark skin.

I am not aware of discussions around interracial relationships within the Filipino culture that examines these messages, except in academia and outside of the Philippines.

There is also discrimination towards “those women” that choose to marry foreigners.

When I moved to Canada as a teen, I didn’t meet a lot of Filipinos. We lived in a predominantly white suburban area.

Lisa: I was raised in Catholic schools and in predominantly White areas. There weren’t messages because there weren’t any alternatives or options. You had one choice and one choice alone. Same sex crushes or even curiosity was unheard of. As a brown girl, I didn’t see any other options – not in school, not in media, not in peer circles. It was the same face for me growing up – from celebrities to the boys who made my heart flutter : they were White because I wasn’t exposed to other alternatives. There were such strong messages about race, religion, status, class and education and, as a young girl, I believed them to be true. I didn’t question it despite that tiny voice inside me that knew something was wrong.

Ironically, it wasn’t until highschool and a mentor told me that she didn’t believe in interracial dating that I woke up. She said she just didn’t see it as right, good, appropriate for any person of one race to be with another person of another race, no excuses. I looked at my Brown skin and felt humiliated. I wanted to ask, “What about me?” I could count the number of non-White students in my highschool and they were all friends, but no one I wanted to date. It was my breaking point. I screamed inside and knew that there was more to life, and dating, than what was around me, but I had to figure it out on my own. The message was that interracial dating was countercultural and to do that, I’d have to do it on my own.

Neesha: I was not allowed to date. Period. I was expected to have an arranged marriage to an Indian, Punjabi, Sikh boy of the appropriate caste. Interracial dating/marriage never even entered my parents’ radar*, never mind forbidding me from it. They were so worried I might actually TALK to an Indian, Punjabi, Sikh boy of the appropriate caste who was not related to me by blood, that they couldn’t even fathom the idea of me dating a girl, or dating a boy who wasn’t even Indian, let alone of an entirely different racial category.

(*The only time/s it did were as cautionary tales: “Gurpreet [not her real name] ran off with a white boy and her father and uncles hunted her down and shot her in the face.” I heard many of these sorts of “honor” stories growing up. And the stories were always about Indian girls and white boys. It was almost as if there was no expectation that I could possibly date a black boy/girl – because you’re supposed to move up on the social ladder, right? Why would anyone want to move down? And in places like the Caribbean, parts of Africa, Britain, etc., where South Asians and black people are often in close quarters, there is a lot of trying to differentiate between “us” and “them” to the powers that be.)

Harbeer: My experience was much like what Neesha describes. My parents had an arranged marriage and assumed that they would pick (with our input) spouses for my two older sisters and me. We were expected to study, do our chores, have a little wholesome fun like sports or TV (but none of those kissy shows like soap operas) and study some more.

There were a couple of uncles who’d married white women in our community–one, a German immigrant, and the other a Jewish American. I bet those two aunties would have an interesting perspective in this forum…but to us kids, at least in our family, there were regular aunties (and even a bit cooler than “authentic” aunties because they were a little more laid back). They made efforts to assimilate and, as far as I could tell as a child, were treated as full members of the community. The kids from those two families were fully integrated into our community, but I have no knowledge of their lives in their respective German-immigrant and Jewish communities or their mothers’ sides of their families. I know that at least some of those kids have gone on to marry South Asian spouses from various parts of South Asia, but I can’t tell you about all of them (lots of kids in those families!)

There were other uncles who married Chicanas and African-American women–for love or for papers or both, I couldn’t tell you, because those women were not present in any public spaces that I can recall, nor were any aunties who may have married outside the Punjabi Sikh ethnicity present. There were some inter-caste couples, to be sure, but that’s about as crazy as it got.

Oh, wait! There was another couple that sometimes came to our gurudwara–but they were a special exception altogether! They were a Punjabi Jatt Sikh man and a white Sikh convert woman–both followers of Yogi Bhajan’s branch of Sikhi. Because they were so orthodox in their beliefs and practices (not to mention their all-white clothes, including turbans on both!) they were almost mythical, idealized creatures. Theirs seemed to be held up as an angelic, holy union.

There was always some kind of background noise about how it would be hard for your children if you married out. I had one secret girlfriend in high school–she was from a different state in India. My mother found out about her later and acts now like she knew all along–she still asks about her and regrets that we hadn’t lasted and will still say things like “She was such a nice girl,” even though she made no effort to get to know her when we were “friends” (i.e.dating).

How does culture factor into conversations about interracial dating? Essentially, are all South Asians seen as equal and fair game for dating, or do most people have a specific nationality based preference? How does ethnicity factor in, and is there a hierarchy of aceptable to non acceptable dating options?

Rohin: There definitely is the preference among Bengalis to settle down with other Bengalis. But again, growing up in the U.S. has made it so narrowing my dating pool down by cultural background, caste, religion, or any other attribute that a person really has no control over counterproductive to my end goal of not wanting to end up like Little Edie in Grey Gardens.

I always count it as an added blessing if I’m dating a man who I can converse with in Bengali, but never a dealbreaker otherwise.

RB: Like I said above, we view South India as basically its own country. North Indians are OK, but no more preferable most other Asian countries. There is an exception for Hindus, since my family is fairly religious. Faith would likely take precedence over race with regards to a future partner. I have an uncle married to a Sri Lankan Tamil lady and her background fits almost perfectly in Chennai, given the similarities in language and food among other things. I was warned by my grandmother to never marry a Muslim, but I think that would be more of a problem for a woman seeking a husband than myself.

Anna: My parents were very specific about what they wanted for us– Malayalee, Orthodox Christian husbands. Not Catholic, not Protestant, Orthodox. Considering the granularity of their religious preference, someone outside of our community was out of the question. Other South Asians were not an option. Other Indians, especially North Indians were not an option; “what do we have in common with them?”, my parents would ask. The four states which make up South India are linguistically, “culinarily”–yeah, I totes just made that up– and culturally similar, but that was irrelevant. My parents wanted someone exactly like us. Their respective families had been endogamous for centuries. Who the hell were we to deviate from that?

Once my father passed away, a hierarchy did emerge. “Orthodox Malayalee” was still top-gun, but Catholics and Protestants (Mar Thomas) came next. Pentecostal Christians were last. Interestingly enough, Tamil or other Christians from different Indian states were never considered.

Now that I’m ancient for an Indian girl and in my mid-30s, any Indian person will do. South Indian is preferable to North. Indian trumps all other South Asian nations except for maybe Sri Lanka…they “feel” a bit South Indian, especially the Tamils. The two taboos are (and always have been) African-Americans and Muslims.

Honey: It depends who you ask. Some of my Filipina friends in Canada would never date foreigners. It’s a shared values & culture thing. Filipinos have a very different approach to relationships that can be seen as conservative by white “mainstream”, western culture. My parents taught me that what is important is how the guy treats me. Who I dated depended on the various subcultures I ended up in in various stages of my life.

Lisa: It’s a slippery slope. In my Filipino family, all my cousins that lived in the Midwest fell in love with and married White women and men. My cousins on the coasts married all different kinds of people: White, Chinese, Filipino…It’s not so much ethnicity or one thing, it’s a combination of values that makes someone right/acceptable. I also think it’s about geography. What groups you submerge yourself in will have an enormous factor on who you are attracted to.

It’s especially different for Filipino Americans who are born in the United States but raised by Filipino standards. Marrying another Filipino was seen as ideal because it was parallel to marrying someone who would understand the racial and cultural factors of marriage. There wasn’t a hierarchy, but it certainly was a case by case basis of what was deemed acceptable or not.

I married a German/French/Irish man raised in a small country town in western Ohio. Despite my urban loving, Filipino blood, I have more values in common with him than anyone I’ve ever met.

Neesha: To my parents, dating even among South Asians, there were may hierarchies. Religion was a big one. Class, caste, region, language – all of these were factors. The ideal mate for me would have been a Punjabi, Indian, Sikh boy from the same caste. God forbid I ever dated a Muslim, for instance, and that meant I couldn’t ever date a Pakistani, a Bangladeshi, or anyone else from a predominantly Muslim country. Even though we’re all South Asians in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Caribbean, etc., there are definite no-nos when it came to dating and marriage. Even in terms of culture, my brother married a South Asian woman from Barbados and my mother is still grumbling about “See? She’s not really Indian – how would she know our customs and culture? If she were Indian, she would treat her mother-in-law with more respect.” Which, of course, is sheer crap because there are plenty of Indian women who treat their mothers-in-law with disdain and plenty of Bajan women who treat their mothers-in-law like gold. But it’s this idea that somehow the culture is preserved–that there’s some sort of purity–if you marry “in.”

Harbeer: Are we still talking about our families’ ideals when we were coming up, our families ideals now, or have we moved on to our own, actual experiences?

Within my family–well, at this point I am ancient and my parents are desperate for grandchildren (I mean, they want me to be happy!) so they would accept any woman who is capable of bearing children. Growing up, the hierarchy would have been Jatt Sikh, non Jatt Sikh, South Asian other, East Asian, then “Americans” (white, black, latina) on a case-by-case basis. My mother has suggested, in the past five to ten years, suggested that I find an East Asian wife because they are submissive and she’ll take good care of my mother’s darling son.

Culture was and is a big consideration–ideally, you’d want to bring someone into the family who would understand the jokes and the rituals. But my parents are hard core social justice activists and community leaders in their own right, and that is another facet of my partners they have taken pride in.

My two sisters were held to completely different standards. Being not just a son but the only son gives me extra leverage. And I’m still talking about marriage, not dating. There is no dating, except maybe (now) as a first step towards marriage.

As far as my own experiences go, I am so ornery and idiosyncratic that if some unlucky woman passes all my other tests (intelligence, politics, humor, kindness, courage, generosity, spirit, conviviality), well, there’s really no room left for any kind of ethnic discrimination. I am attracted to (very few!) whole individuals, not to any particular attribute, but I was really surprised to learn recently (at 35!) that hearing spoken Punjabi makes my ears perk up and my heart skip a beat. As for my history, like Honey, the people I’ve dated has depended on the various subcultures I’ve inhabited over the course of my life. They have all been individuals rather than members of an ethnicity to me, but only one has been an active part of my family life (and I part of hers) and differences in cultural background certainly became apparent in that case, but it was never anything insurmountable.

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  • Anu

    This is really fascinating. I guess I’m a little surprised at how rigid the rules are even for South Asians who grew up in the US. I grew up in India and am now studying in the US and come from a South Indian (Tamil/Malayalee family). My parents already broke a number of taboos (my mother comes from a Hindu family, my dad from a Christian one) when they got married and they seemed to expect that I would find my own mate when I wanted to get settled down. Though I think they would have preferred a nice Indian boy (there was certainly no preference expressed about region or religion or caste), they have taken to my white (Russian) boyfriend quite well — in fact, my mom really likes him and is hurrying us along more quickly than I would like! I think they would probably have preferred that I settle down with my first boyfriend a Brahmin Tamil boy whose parents they knew but they’re more than fine with this. My second boyfriend they did not approve of (he was white, but I don’t think it was because of that) and in retrospect they were probably right to be concerned. So yay for my parents’ open-mindedness; I hadn’t realized quite how lucky I was. I must also mention that my grandparents didn’t raise a huge fuss when my parents married across religious lines either, so it must run in the family. And now my maternal grandparents know about my Russian boyfriend and besides telling me that I should ensure that my parents have met him and approve of him and to check into his antecedents carefully, they’ve been remarkably cool I must say!

  • Shona

    Even though I’m Indian, much of what’s being said here strikes me as incredible. The hardline Indian family has always been the stuff of folklore in my experience, but the truth of it seems even sadder and oppressive than I could have imagined. To be fair, I’m as mixed as you can get – Kashmiri Brahmin/Maratha/Bengali/Anglo-Indian, and every one of my parents siblings married people from different communities, typically different countries in fact, so there was no room for ‘prejudice.’ 

  • Grace

    First of all–Squeeeeee!! LOL

    Secondly, as Aqua said–fascinating, but…to be honest, also a bit depressing. As I mentioned in the other thread, I am a queer black woman who happens to have two simultaneous crushes on So. Asian men (Kal Penn [more SQUEEEE!! lol] and a former co-worker, who is a recent immigrant from Pakistan). In this experience, I’ve been finding myself attempting to make sense of the long, rich and complicated histories and present of So. Asia, and this panel is just a reminder that I’ve only scratched the surface. More than that, it confirmed what I feared: that the denigration of blackness is fairly universal (not that that would stop me from being interested, as I prefer to judge people on an individual basis, but I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t give me pause), and that as people of color we have a lot of work to do in terms of dealing with our own internal issues (with one another) in order to continue to move forward. I mean, I was listening to a hip hop track recorded by a former high school classmatw and one of the lines was something like, “The way you lookin’ at me, swear you was Asian”.

    …the fu…?? I don’t have to tell you I stopped listening after that. -__- A very important discussion to be had methinks. That being said, I learned quite a bit from this panel, so thanks! ^_^

  • Sadia

    Really interesting article. I guess that most South Asian people face a lot more hurdles when it comes to interracial marriages especially when they are living/studying abroad and their choices as to a partner are actually VERY wide but extremely limited by what their families or parents expect of them. As a South Asian Muslim girl who has grown up in a fairly liberal upper middle class family, and an entirely female household, my father came to expect that he couldn’t set many limitations as to the partner of our choice and definitely not in the way his parents did it or the way they did things 20 or even 10 years ago. Arranged marriages are not preferable for my parents, for the fear that it won’t work out the way it used to years ago.  Dating boys in high school and university was expected in my family, but my parents accepted it grudgingly, seeing this phenomenon as unavoidable in this day and age, what with co-ed schools. My mother had actually given me the green signal for dating an “acceptable” guy when I started my first year in university, and both my parents expected this of my other sisters as well, guys with whom we could eventually settle down.
    For my father, sending his daughters to study abroad might have made things slightly more complicated, as we weren’t dating or looking at boys who were Bangladeshis, but of other races/nationalities. In this scenario, he did set the rules for his 3 daughters as to what he wanted in our future partners, that included the usual mix of, in order, religion, education, family/family status, character…while this left many Muslim men of other nationalities available to us, my parents had an absolutely racist disdain for Pakistanis for obvious historical reasons and racial tensions that are commonplace between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. This has been extremely troubling for me, as I have been in a long term relationship with a Pakistani guy, and to make things worse, he is a Shi’ite, whereas I am Sunni. When I let my parents know about him, hell was loose in my house, and since then, I have kept the relationship entirely a secret. While the fact that my parents would disapprove of him because he was a Pakistani was almost obvious, it was shocking for me to find out they had reservations regarding Muslim sects too! It’s not at all different for my boyfriend either…just that HE has to marry within his sect, but is free to marry a girl of any nationality as long as it belongs to his extremely minor and small sect. So I guess it’s not all that different for other South Asians, such as Hindus who have to marry within their castes, Indians who have to marry within their state or region, or Christians who are limited to their denominations. I can’t say much on South Asians who live abroad, but for many Bangladeshis for instance who study abroad, men and women differ in their expectations of a partner. Guys who study abroad are left with a wider choice as to who they can marry when they come back home, and he can even choose a girl of a much lower “socioeconomic status”, “class”, etc…as in, he can always go or climb down the socioeconomic ladder, or even marry a non-Bangladeshi girl….but for most Bangladeshi girls who study abroad, they can only choose to either marry someone of their own stature or someone up the ladder…never ever below. Marrying foreign men is quite rare, happens sometimes out of the blue,  and only in extremely liberal families with different values than the more generic ones found in our society. Such are the double standards… :(

  • prg

    ugh wrote a long comment and then it got deleted.

  • prg

    So excited to see this South Asian specific discussion!!!

    I was particularly interested to see mention of South Asian- Caribbean people as I have recently become quite fascinated with “other” parts of the S. Asian diaspora not in the UK/US/Canada.

    In general, familial attitudes towards interracial dating seem, to me, to depend so much on which specific background and community you come from. Although there are certainly varying positions, and non-overt racism, in the community in which I was raised — Bengali, Indian, Hindu, in Texas — there is nonchalant acceptance (at least visibly) towards children of the community dating white people. It is important to note that the community is in general very highly educated often with Catholic schooling & upper middle class , and there were several aunties hailing from Kolkata who had been born to Indian fathers and British mothers. It is also considered ‘natural’ to date East Asians. Dating outside South Asians, White, and East Asian races seems to be uncommon, undiscussed, and in most cases a ‘step down’ socio-economically, although pedigree/education is probably the defining factor for the acceptance of any relationship regardless of race. I have many South Asian friends from different communities (Tamil, Punjabi, Bangladeshi) for whom the expectations of marrying within the community are a lot more rigid. 

    Also, in many families I know (I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the case for my family), “casually dating” interracially is fine, but interracial marriages might bring up more tension.

  • Aqua

    Other than the panels that relate to myself, this is fascinating. When dating someone from such a complex background and possibly closely linked by their parents/grandparents to a region, when/how is the most tactful way to ask “Hey, will your family hate me?” I’m used to dealing with this as a black person, but somehow this situation seems even more of a touchy topic than usual given the various region/caste/skin color/language/religion things involved. [It was depressing to write “usual”, but it typically is something that has to come up before meeting family]

  • Adi

    Interesting. Would also love to read the South Asian Muslim perspective on interracial dating, which at least in my family has always been defined by religion / moral values / education over ethnicity. I recently discovered that [at least in my family’s interpretation] to be married through an Islamic ceremony, it’s only required that both parties are ‘followers of the book’, any book. I.e., as a Muslim it’s acceptable to marry Muslim, Jewish, Catholic or Christian, but not Hindu, Buddhist, atheist. As many of the panelists noted, partner expectations aren’t just limited to race, but a variety of factors that may or may not cross racial boundaries. 

    • Nusrat Khan

      Hey Adi, I think my family/Bangladeshi community thinks similarly to yours.   When my sibs & I were younger, we heard that  it’s best to find a hubby/wife who is V educated, has conservative morals (like the Filipinas said above), & shares our Muslim background.  However, that is NOT always easy to find; I think there is even MORE outmarrying in BD community than in Indian (about 30%) & Pakistani (not sure) ones these days.  I’ve seen it in Southwest, Midwest, NYC, & DC regions for myself.  I haven’t seen MANY uncles & aunties in interracial rels, BUT plenty of folks in their 40s.