Welcome back 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 I do have misgivings about, though, is what a centerpiece skin color remains in contemporary gay culture and what that means for South Asians who are dating within this community. A conversation I had out in a bar in Chelsea not too long ago:
Random Man: Hi!
Random Man: What are you?
Me: I’m sorry?
Random Man: Like, where are you from?
Me: I live in Brooklyn.
Random Man: No, I mean, where were you born?
Me: Just outside of Detroit, actually.
Random Man: I mean, where are your parents from?
I ultimately gave him the answer he had been trolling for–”India!”–and then cast him the sharpest daggers I could. Not because I was ashamed of saying, “India!” but because he didn’t clearly stop to consider how bizarre it sounded to ask a complete stranger where his parents emigrated from.
RB: Honestly, I have dated a bit interracially when I was young and it was never that big a deal. Part of it is being brought up as one of the only Indian people in my area I was used to being mostly friends with white and black people, so I didn’t think it unusual. I’m sure there are girls that have been less interested because of the fact I’m Indian but they were smart enough not to say anything about it.
Anna: In my nearly twenty years of dating (!) I’ve only dated interracially twice; both times it was a disaster. I was nervous each time, because it was outside my comfort zone and yet in a way, it wasn’t. The first situation, in 1998, involved a Persian guy that I had known throughout college. While he was fair-skinned, he was definitely not “white”. The second situation, in 1999 almost doesn’t count, because I had a mild crush on an “Indian guy in scrubs” for weeks before I met him…only to discover that he was Palestinian, not South Asian. So I tend to have a rather strict type: dark hair, dark eyes, olive or brown skin. Still, it felt like unknown territory, after exclusively dating only Desi men.
1998 taught me about the nasty strains of racism within the Persian community towards South Asians and our dark, dirty, skin, our crude, uncivilized ways. This guy, who had been a friend for years, who “coded” white the entire time I knew him (which, to be accurate, I did, too, with my sorority, lack of membership in the Indian students club etc) suddenly defaulted to the ugliest dynamic possible. A lot of it had to do with my skin, which had been appealing as he flirted with me constantly for four years until we actually dated– then I was…dark.
1999 was a similar situation. Both of these men felt like Indian girls were somehow “easier” or more disposable. We didn’t deserve love or respect. I don’t know where the fuck this stereotype originates from, but it’s disgusting. Neither “relationship” survived for more than two weeks. My spine kept interfering.
My peers didn’t care about the interracial aspect of my entanglements, they were more concerned about the excessive assholery. Their peers didn’t treat me with the same respect they accorded women who were their “own” kind. Classy. Assholes.
Honey: I fear being exoticized. That was interesting what you posted about an asian woman’s fear of being good enough to fuck but never taken seriously as relationsip material. I always wonder about that. At the same time, because I’ve lived half my life outside of the Philippines, my value as a “good Filipina” to more traditional Filipinos seem diminished. Conversations among male friends who still live in the Philippines indicate that because I am (proudly) sexually active, that I’m no longer marriage material. It’s pretty ridiculous. I fear that someone dates me as a status symbol for “progressiveness.” It’s the same as exoticization in a way. The idea that the person dating me feels ‘progressive’ because they are ‘not-racist’, colour-blind, etc. Because look, they are dating a non-white. I’ve only dated one white guy who was very interested in exploring what the politics and ramifications were of interracial dating, specifically between us. I never thought of it as a problem, and in some ways expected our peers, friends, family to treat me as a person rather than as a person of colour. For a while, it was the combination of being Asian and young-looking that was particularly annoying because I would never get taken seriously, or was often treated patronizingly.
Lisa: I was most apprehensive about the friends and family of the person i was dating. Racism, ignorance, and “just a joke” kind of attitudes would often bleed into the relationship. And a white boy just doesn’t understand what the world is like for a brown girl. At the end of the day, IR dating sometimes meant falling in love but with extra vulnerability and more defensive armor in your back pocket. And you could never mention same sex attraction – that’d be a “sin.”
Neesha: I had misgivings when I started dating girls – I was worried that my parents would freak out because I was dating girls. But they were SO much more okay with that than with me dating black guys. Ha! Imagine my surprise. But it made sense – with the girls, they could hide me. They could pretend we were nothing more than roommates, or bffs. But with the guys, there was no hiding. No pretending. When I dated white guys I worried that people would think I was a sellout. When I dated black/latino/Asian men/women, I worried people would think I didn’t embrace my South Asianness – that I somehow rejected who I was. Or that I didn’t know who I was.
Now that I’m married (to an African-American man), I worry that my kids aren’t as connected to my culture as I was. Of course, they wouldn’t be (for sheer logistical reasons), but it makes me sad that they won’t get to experience some of the beauty and joy of it that I did. They don’t speak the language (also makes me sad. In fact it’s one of the things I miss most – speaking Punjabi at home, as my husband doesn’t speak it.).
However, and this might come off as cliche, in terms of core values, everything that I feel strongest about in life has nothing to do with culture. And that was what attracted me to every partner I ever dated, hooked up with, hung out with, etc. Anyone I had any kind of intimate interaction with had to be a feminist, first and foremost, and they had to believe in social justice. And those values are particularly strong in my kids, even if they don’t speak Punjabi. Would I want kids who spoke Punjabi AND espoused those values I hold dear? Not particularly. I think there’s something really special about being in that in-between place. I’ve been in it many times – as an immigrant, bilingual, culturally, etc. There’s a perspective you have when you’re in that in-between place that people in either camp don’t have. It’s a kind of objectivity and compassion that comes with outsiderness, I think. I kind of love that about my kids, even if they don’t speak Punjabi >grin<
Harbeer: Nope. When you say “peers,” you have to understand that I generally avoided friendships with fellow South Asians well into my 20s, for a number of reasons.
RB: As I said, White, black or latino was pretty much the same in my parents’ eyes. If they were from “good” (read: well-educated, professional) families they were negotiable. Middle Eastern and Asian people were slightly more favorable based on the perception of common cultural traits. Muslims were the only group I was warned against, and again that was as much due to my now-deceased grandmother as anyone. I’m sure if I wanted to date a Muslim girl my parents would judge her as an individual.
Anna: As is done in many South Asian families, we were taught that Black or Muslim partners were forbidden and very undesirable. As for current reactions towards me and my partner, I think it brings people great comfort that I have such a nice, brown, Indian boyfriend. We’re “like” dating like. Convenient, and non-threatening!
Lisa: People treated me and my partner like a delightful homegrown chemical experiment. Countless times we receive comments wondering how our features will combine when we have children, how they’ll be raised, how we’ll be contributing to the “post racial” generation. It’s nauseating.
Neesha: South Asians are almost ALWAYS put off when they see that my husband is black. When people meet me and my girls (they can pass for having two South Asian parents), they assume my husband is also South Asian. When they meet him, things change drastically in the vibe. And it’s not just South Asians who react like this. A lot of white folks respond the same way. It’s like things are one way when people assume we’re a nice, Indian family, and then everything changes when they realize we’re not. We’re a nice, mixed family – with narry a white person among us. I have no doubt that most South Asians (and white folks) would have an easier time with us if my husband were white. And my mother would think my kids were cuter because they’d be lighter-skinned and closer to whiteness. As it is, my kids are totally adored by my parents, but they’ve had to do a lot of work (read: we’ve had a lot of loud “discussions”) to get there.
Harbeer: I’ve only brought one of my former partners into my family/community in any meaningful way. She has always been welcomed. She’s pretty bad ass–everybody can tell that from the get-go. For some strange reason (stuff I did as a kid?), unless I’m delusional, I’m pretty well-regarded in my home community and my parents’ friends all trust my judgment. Or maybe I just self-select the company of people whom I project this onto…I don’t know.
I have a ton of privilege. At this point in my life, I do what I want–openly. Maybe people talk behind my back, but I don’t know or even care.
Anna: There are two factors:
1) the two disastrous experiments I detailed earlier
2) this is going to sound way harsh, Tai…but I’m just not that in to it. I don’t care to be someone’s cultural tourguide. I don’t want to be a fetish, a line item on a bucket list or a way to expand horizons. I don’t get down like that. Hold your rage– I am well aware that all interracial relationships aren’t so tawdry; many of them are beautiful works of art. But people have very specific, very personal tastes in art. I’ll never be a fan of Gaugin, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be!
I’m attracted to South Asians. I always have been. Beyond phenotypes, I love that I don’t have to explain that curry smell to them, or even that curry is a problematic term. I don’t get asked a million questions about my past, my family, my values. To me, dating another brown person is like using a Mac. They’re sleek, intuitive and elegantly easy. They just work and they’re less likely to get a virus. KIDDING. Does that make me a narrow-minded, lazy person? No, it makes me a fan of an excellent user experience and great design.
Comedy aside, I’ve never considered marrying out– and that has nothing to do with my uber-strict parents’ issues with it. Though my sister and I were both born in California, I was always the “Indian” kid in our house. I spoke Malayalam before I babbled English. Unlike my little sister, I wanted Indian clothes, books and music. I wanted to major in South Asian Studies. I dreamed of a hazy, far-off day when I’d have brown babies. I have always been this way. Just like how my only sibling has never spoken our “mother tongue” and has always dated interracially, despite being raised in an identical environment. To each, their own.
Maybe it stems from an adamantine core forged during the isolating experience of being the only brown kid, everywhere, for years. I don’t want to feel that way at home. When I walk through my front door after negotiating all the bullshit I do on a daily basis, I just want to exhale and look at brown eyes that relay pure understanding back at me.
If I call my mom “Mommy”, I don’t want an eye-roll; that’s what she prefers to be called and I don’t mind. If I worry about what intangible debt I owe my superhero parents, for all they sacrificed for me, I want someone who commiserates with me about living on the hyphen. It’s not productive to hear well-meaning platitudes about living my life for me. Nursing homes are not an option. Ever. I don’t know if non-Desis would find that fair or understandable– and I don’t blame them. It’s not necessarily how they were raised.
I also don’t feel comfortable with asking someone to walk away from themselves or their past for me; some of the most successful interracial couplings I’ve observed– a few in my own family– involve that level of super-human denial of self. These spouses become Desi, in every possible way. I’m happy for them, but it makes me a little bit sad, and I always find myself thinking, “if that’s what it takes, why not just date brown?”
But you know what? It’s none of my business. All I really hope is that people find a partner who loves, cherishes and respects them, no matter what their color. After all, dating someone Indian isn’t a guaranteed way to find love and respect; I’ve dated plenty of jerks who look like me. Brown gets their foot in the door, but it doesn’t keep it open.
Am I missing out by not considering loyal, kind, smart, funny, compassionate, feminists who are not Desi? Quite possibly, but my South Asian, South Indian boyfriend is all that anyway, so it doesn’t matter. I got mine. Here’s hoping you get yours, too. And if I can give an unsolicited tip: get you a corn-fed Midwesterner. After being born and raised on the West coast, and choosing a home on the East coast, people from Michigan are like an invigorating, sweet gust of thoughtful, fresh air. They’re so nice! Whee, stereotypes!