I’ll say it flat out: Interracial relationships won’t change the world. They won’t.
I say this as someone with white, Latinx, Asian and black family members. I might sound cynical, but I am not. Rather, I’m very aware of the limitations of the idea that people of different races and different ethnicities will lift humanity unto a higher consciousness simply by forming close relationships of proximity with each other. The idea that interracial relationships will change the world basically assumes that the main problem standing in the way of racism and xenophobia can be reduced to a lack of interracial intimate and familial relationships.
I believe that this is true to an extent. This idea might be so appealing because many of us have seen the transformative power of relationships. How can you love a group of people that you do not know, for instance? How can you serve them and do right by them if you do not know them? How can you form coalition with groups of people whose interests you are unfamiliar with?
But, if you think about the relationships and connections that you have with others within your own lives you realize that there are many reasons why people choose to be in relationships with each other. And those purposes may not always be transformative. Thinking that close or familial relationships can solve racism and xenophobia is dangerously naive. It underestimates the tenacity of racism and misunderstands the way that racism operates in our world.
I am skeptical about the notion that interracial relationships are a cure-all for racist and xenophobic conflict because I see racism happen daily in personal relationships all around me. Colorblind lovers who choose to marry because “love sees no color” may find themselves unable to see eye to eye about movements against mass incarceration, colonial occupations, employment discrimination and police gun violence. I was reminded of the pervasiveness of “colorblind” sentimentalism when I stumbled upon an episode of CNN’s LoveStory which crossed my Facebook timeline. The story features a black woman named Catherine and a former neo-Nazi body guard named Keith who fall in love with each other. You can see the episode yourself. When describing Keith, Catherine declares that Keith doesn’t have “a racist bone in his body”. The video reveals that Keith was concerned about the abuse Catherine was facing from a former partner and wanted to provide refuge for her. After that, they had fallen in love. I finished the video wondering what about Keith demonstrates that he worked against racism and I imagined that it was perhaps the individual acts of protection and care she received from Keith that has prompted Catherine to declare that her lover is free from racism! But allowing individualized acts of kindness to assess a person’s commitment to fighting racism deeply misunderstands the nature of racism and locates racism as solely a problem of character and attitude, as opposed to one exacerbated by passive (or willing) participation in cultures and policies which dehumanize and create social and economic inequality.
This story has been viewed over 8 million+ times. What horrified me the most about this story is that this man doesn’t renounce his affiliation with the Nationalist Socialist Movement (NSM, a neo-Nazi group) upon dating Catherine. He doesn’t consider ceasing to do so until he receives cancer and is told by his pastor that he cannot pray for him unless he renounces NSM. What I’m trying to highlight is: Dating Catherine, A BLACK WOMAN, wasn’t enough for him to stop affiliating with this racist party.
And even after he rescinds his extremist affiliation, who knows what mundane ways Keith may be normalizing the culture of racism? One has to wonder if people like Keith think their work is done simply because they leave an extremist organization and have a black wife? We cannot rely on these “feel good stories”. Besides, one has to wonder who these stories feel good to? (Because it sure doesn’t feel good to me).
You can be racist and be in a relationship– MARRIED EVEN– to a person of color. You can tell yourself you are in love with a person of color and not want society to budge an inch. Unless you are actively working against racism, you are doing nothing to abolish it. Your proximity to people of color does not exempt you from this work.
There are many friendships and relationships where racist and racial comments are excused. These comments are how racism gets normalized. Hyper individualist understandings about race and racism allow us to think that these mundane comments do nothing in the grand scheme of things. My experience with my own multi-racial and multi-cultural family reflects this.
I receive constant racial microaggressions from my stepfather’s parents. Orientalizing comments about Asian and Asian American communities persist despite the presence of my Korean stepmother within our family. But, I don’t have to look only to these explicit comments to know that understanding and fighting racism isn’t a priority in my family. Sitting in a room with the news on is enough to bring an onslaught of comments about the “right kind” of people of color, and these moments reveal the ways that family members view parties opposing certain racists policies as “being offended by everything” and being unable to accept the racist world as it is; as simply “the way things are”. “So deal with it!” Deal with the racism, is essentially what I hear from my extremely multiracial family.
Activists, scholars and racially progressive social media outlets have made our society more aware that passive participation in systems and institutions that create or excuse racial injustice marks the kind of racism that we ought to watch out for. Yet, many of us put our hopes in interracial relationships without encouraging our friends or loved ones to require more from their friends and partners. I believe that we do this because the dominant culture forgets that racism is preserved through taken for granted cultural norms, institutions and policy.
Perhaps my mother, a brown Latina, doesn’t think that these comments reveal anything significant about my white family’s worldview or character. But to me, it doesn’t matter how much my white relatives express that Martin Luther King Jr. was a great man when they believe that the black liberation activists of today are destructive to society, despite those very activists being moved and inspired by Dr. King’s legacy.
I feel passionate about talking about interracial and inter-ethnic relationships because of the ways that they are discussed. Interracial relationships are lifted up as being some kind of sign of the “brave and courageous” new world that we are building. But I do not think that being in cross-race and cross-ethnic relationships alone will make a large difference.
Race and ethnic struggle are a lot more complicated than the average American gives credit to. If we want to understand why racism exists, we have to talk about power. There can be no meaningful or productive conversation about racism if power is not addressed.
Who someone chooses to date doesn’t matter to me. However, how someone decides who they want to date is important and should not be ignored or underestimated. The logics that sit behind what many cite as “racial preferences” matter severely. Often, when we cite having a preference for non-white races, it is because we are relying on stereotypes fed to us by popular culture. Remember, that racism operates through culture and policies. Much of our pop culture is racist. Yet we take many of our cues about each other from pop culture. We don’t allow people to show us who they truly are.
Conversely, when people of color say that they only want to date white people because of the ways that they view their own race, one has to wonder how much they have internalized from pop culture that white people are the only true individuals or that people of color can be reduced to the harmful stereotypes we face daily. Racism and internalized racism can play a huge role in who we choose to pick as friends, lovers and family members.
So given all the ways that interracial relationships may be used to excuse racism, we need to make sure we are examining ourselves when we decide who we want to date or form families with.
What are the stereotypes that we believe about minority groups? Where do these stereotypes come from? What purpose is this stereotype meant to serve?
For white people dating people of color, consider the idea that no person of color is entitled to date you. There are many ways that white people communicate through their lifestyles and their behaviors that they are not safe and trusty worthy enough to be part of a person of color’s life. Social and political reservations that people of color may have about white people are most likely valid given that for hundreds of years, the average white person has remained passive in the face of violence against communities of color.
White people are not the only ones that need to self-examine, however. For people of color dating non-white folks, it’s important for us to also look at what what we believe about our own race, as well as other minority groups. Often, people of color can internalize messages from the status quo that mark us as undesirable and monolithic, which may lead us to dating interracially exclusively. For instance, I often see non-black people thinking fetish stereotypes about black women are compliments, as well as non-Asian people thinking Asian stereotypes are harmless. Fetishizing another racial group is never humanizing and often the stereotypes that result from these stereotypes carry a long history of violence. When you do this, you don’t allow the person that you are meeting to show you who they are in their unique complexity, and thus, you forfeit the chance to have a true connection with them. In addition, you normalize the forces that may make their lives difficult.
In contrast, white people generally get the luxury of being percieved as individuals and because of their privileged status, stereotypes such as “not being able to dance” don’t have any dire consequences for white people, unlike the many stereotypes created to divide minority races from building coalition and exist to justify their oppressions. White folks don’t have to worry that a person of color is dating them because of an oppressive racial stereotype.
Love may be “colorblind”, but to loosely quote James Baldwin, if I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see. If we are to create a healthy, joyful and just world together, we have to be willing to face that which we may initially not want to see. That may be our own racism or internalized racism. I want to have a family someday. Whoever I form family with, I hope that they would be willing to see the things that affect me, to know that part of loving me means doing their part to abolish racism in the world. I wish to always strive to do the same.