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

Harold and Kumar

Welcome back to the final South Asian Panel on Interracial Dating. Our panelists are:

RB, long time reader and friend of the blog; Anna JohnSepia Mutineer and friend of the blog; Honey Mae, friend of the blog; Lisa Factora-Borchers, blogger at My EcdysisNeesha MemingerYA Author and occasional contributorHarbeer, Racialicious reader and friend of a friend of the blog; and Rohin Guha, author of Relief Work and a blogger.

In pop culture depictions, depictions of South Asian Americans are rare – recently, the characters on television are presented as (1) hopelessly single or (2) partnered with white people. Films representing South Asians are often imported. How does this impact the communities view on dating? How does it influence the idea of the “ideal partner?”

Rohin: I think you’re right, in that there’s a notable scarcity of accurate depictions of South Asian Americans, with Mindy Kaling’s character on The Office serving as one of the more accurate depictions.

I also think you’re on-point with those observations. And I think the reason South Asians are presented as “hopelessly single” is because making them asexual makes them an easy fit for the model minority archetype. “She’s too busy for love because she pursuing her M.D.!”

But maybe all of these representations are sending any number of irresponsible messages to the effect of, “You might not be American enough unless you fit either of these prescribed roles.” Scarier: There are South Asian Americans who are currently buying into these characterizations.

RB: First of all, I would disagree that depictions of South Asian Americans are rare. Considering the fact we constitute less than one percent of the population, I would argue that we’re increasingly well-represented in the media industry. With that being said, the quality of those depictions is still open for debate. Yes, many South Asians on-screen still end up in the arms of white folks, especially attractive women. It seems obvious that this is because 1. Most American TV shows and movies are marketed towards white people and 2. Indians are slowly being viewed as one of the more “acceptable” candidates for interracial relationships with whites, likely because of our generally above-average socio-economic status.

But I don’t think you can blame Hollywood for the fact most Indians would prefer a white partner to one that’s black or Latino. Preference for fair-skin is deeply ingrained in Indian society, a remnant of thousands of years of occupation and a lasting colonial hangover. Watch any Bollywood movie and the actors could pass for Persian, Latin or even white in some cases. I’m sure there are Indian kids sitting at home watching these shows and thinking that finding a hot white guy/girl would constitute success. That is tragic, but sadly also brings them in line with most of the U.S. population.

Anna: Well it certainly benefits the fair and lovelies. The female protagonists are never as “black” as I am. It’s interesting, in Bollywood, female stars are pasty. On “E.R.”, when they finally got an Indian doctor on that show, Parminder Nagra was fabulously brown. I love America. Incidentally, I believe her character married a black doctor, not a white person.

Honey: I really think it depends on generation, geography, and community. And I don’t agree that the depictions of SAA are always partnered with White people. I often see them partnered with another Asian person — which is just as annoying as seeing them patternly partnered with a White person.

In my communities and family, there is no “ideal partner.” It’s understood that our diaspora is complex, our dreams our complex, therefore dating is tremendously complex.

Neesha: See, dating is a huge issue in the South Asian community as a whole. The big question is still, “Are you allowed to date?” whether you’re an adult, or a teen still living at home. More parents are okay with dating, I think, now than ever before, but the dating – as far as I know (it’s been ages since I’ve even had to think about dating) is still pretty monitored and the parents still have a lot of input. But I do have a younger brother and he is dating – mostly white women because of where he lives. My parents are surprisingly okay with this. It could be because he’s the youngest of three and they’re getting older and mellower. Because for my middle brother it was still a colossal battle to date white women.

Harbeer: I ignore pop culture and people who are heavily influenced by it. (I’m old! And I like nerds who’ve lived wild lives.)

Is there anything else you want to discuss that we did not cover above?

Rohin: Honestly, people like who they like. Sometimes that might be you, but most of the time, probably not!

RB: I think a lot of South Asian people come to the dating issue with a lot baggage. When you are young there are only so many opportunities to interact with large group of your brown peers and after a certain age those interactions inevitably come accompanied by a certain amount of appraisal and sexual tension. Being rejected from a group you expect to accept you as you are is probably one of the most traumatic experiences one can go through.

Still, my general experience is that most Indian people seem to prefer to date within their race but are sometimes held back by their perceptions of what “other” desi folks are like. Almost every Indian kid thinks they are somehow “different” and that other Indians would never “get them.” My experience is that those are the people who 1. are mostly like to date outside their race and 2. have the least experience in India or among large groups of Indian people, which are inevitably more diverse than one would ever expect.

Neesha: Like Anna, a lot of my partner choice all throughout my dating years had to do with the way I grew up. The light/dark thing. I hated feeling like the ugly dark girl. I was that in my family. I was that in my community. I didn’t want to be that with my partner. The first time I ever even considered the possibility that I might actually be attractive to anyone was when I visited Jamaica. The first time anyone ever told me I was pretty was there – an immigration official. And he was looking at a picture of me as a little girl, when I was facing the most hostile racism I’d ever experienced in Canada from white folks, and when I was feeling the ugliest within my family and community. I think partner choice is incredibly complex – who we’re attracted to and why is based on so, so many factors.

Harbeer: I think Desi parents who want their offspring to partner up with Desis do themselves and their cause a big disservice by having us all grow up with this conception that we’re all each other’s de-sexualized “brothers and sisters.”

  • Anonymous

    One thing that is interesting to me is the things that are “acceptable” to say in the open.  I spent some time in India, and I was reading a magazine and there was an interview with some Indian actor, and the topic of skin color came up, and this guy was quite fair and apparently you do not pair men with women who are darker than they are, so this guy had bronzer or something applied when his female co-stars were darker than him.  The quote was “well naturally the man must be darker” or something that had my jaw dropping.  
    At work, I also had to interview a female doctor who was talking about there being issues with the nurses native to the state we were in (in the South) because they brought in so many fair and pretty girls from the North.  I was gagging at that.  I’m black, so the whole thing was uncomfortable and gross to me.I mean, I get the subtle message in the U.S. that anything white and blond is naturally prettier than dark skin, and beautiful black women are usually dismissed as looking like “tan” white women since black cannot be beautiful on its own, but this was on a whole different level.Also, while flying in India, it was clear that the flight attendants, male and female, were picked for skin color.  I managed to fly on almost all of the Indian airlines, and while the people taking tickets and taking my bags at the airport were dark like me, the ones serving me food on the flights were nearly as fair as white people. The “darkest” were not that light, but still on the lighter end of things.  I still remember being in the airport and this whole troop of flight attendants, male and female, came striding through, and from a distance, they were so light that you could have almost mistaken them for white people.  It was such an odd scene to me and it still stands out in my head.  Considering the diversity of skin tones in India, the way that people wound up sorted out in certain kinds of service jobs was striking and memorable (not in a good way).  

    • CB

      i completely agree with this – i live in Mumbai right now (my first visit to India for longer than two weeks and without my family), and the diversity of people and cultures is everywhere. still what seems to be ubiquitous is the unquestioned and unchecked value for fair over dark. it’s really staggering. i of course grew up around other indians in the US with this mentality, but being here takes it to a new level because of how normal and acceptable it is to voice the opinion that dark = ugly. this is of course deeply tied to the stringently stratified class system here and it’s impossible, like you said, not to notice that the bustling tides of people working and visible on the street, doing all the jobs that make this city run, are deep dark browns, and the people carted between their lavish homes and the newest swanky clubs in air-conditioned cars are, a  lot of times, creamy pasty white. i think this obviously goes ties back to colonialism. and in a very odd observation, i’ve even come to see that whatever group it is that constitutes an emerging middle class actually seems to fall in between in the skin color spectrum as well. it would be so nice for us to all be past this globally. 

      • Anonymous

        Well, I’d always thought that the colorism in India pre-dated colonialism, and having spent a good bit of time in Southern India, where dark skin seems to be more common, and also just knowing a lot of people who are Tamil, the skin color stratification (or I should say lack of upward mobility by darker Indians) was not visible to me there.  But once I went to other parts of India, I did see that the darkest people were at the “bottom” of the jobs pile.   However, even among those people, I see the men that I know picking lighter spouses in many cases, and equating lightness with prettiness is just so natural for them.  But as I’d mentioned, as an American, seeing someone who isn’t really that attractive being described as beautiful just b/c of being light or white is nothing new…it’s funny how someone’s skin color can make the realities of their face melt away in the eyes of many people.  
        You’d have to agree that it’s kind of harder to establish the color hierarchy if everyone is dark brown.  But I personally felt more comfortable in the South, and some people came up to me speaking Tamil, and even ones who had me correctly pegged as a foreigner were very warm even in their shock.  I can say that I was openly mocked by light-skinned Indians on more than one occasion though.  

  • Adi

    I also immediately thought of Neela from ER – however, I think she was British South Asian on the show, and not American. If I remember correctly, while she married a black man early on, after he passes away all her remaining relationships are with white men. Her character still has to be a favorite of mine on TV though.