Saturday, March 22, 2008

Why Interracial Love Is Still Hard

Interracial relationships are more common now than in, say, 1950, but the pressure on today's mixed couple is still very real.

The miscegenation of our society may seem to be growing at a steady rate based on how often we've been talking about race lately. But let's not kid ourselves. Interracial relationships represent approximately seven percent of couples in the country, which is incredible progress considering they represented just .07 percent in 1960. But for our ever-diversifying nation, these are alarmingly low figures. For the most part, everyone is still sticking to their "own kind." Is this intentional segregation or just cultural tradition? Could be both. But one thing remains certain: Every interracial couple entering into a serious relationship knows what struggles lie ahead. Maybe that 93 percent would just rather avoid them.

I can't say I blame them. I'm white, and I lead a very happy life with my black husband. Our families love us and our friends are accepting. Of course it helps that we live in Los Angeles, a big city that's had a longer time to get used to multiculturalism and interracial couples than most. Still, we experience little daily reminders of just how far we have yet to go to reach complete acceptance in this country -- a raised eyebrow here, a snarky comment there, just enough to remind us that we're still discriminated against. And we've got it easy compared to most: Had we been born at different times and in different states, we'd never have had a chance.

It was only 40 years ago -- on June 12, 1967 -- that the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down a Virginia statute barring whites from marrying non-whites. The Loving v. Virginia ruling also overturned similar bans in 15 other states. This was the same year that Hollywood released Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, a comedy based on a white couple's inability to accept their daughter's black fiancé. The film was considered both groundbreaking and controversial.

Bob Jones University in South Carolina only dropped its ban on interracial dating in 2000; a year later 40 percent of voters objected when Alabama became the last state to remove a ban on interracial marriages from its constitution. So, yes, we've still got some work to do.

One of the hardest struggles for interracial couples is the fact that the topic itself is still one of the most debated "taboos" in our country -- a country that, at its heart, is still very nervous about the idea of races, cultures, and classes mixing. (Consider ongoing immigration debates, an imbalanced criminal justice system, and the fact that we can't stop obsessing about the degree of blackness of our mixed-race presidential candidate.)

It also doesn't help that happy, healthy interracial couples are still a novelty in Hollywood. Movies and TV -- especially standard, primetime adult fare -- are largely whitewashed, and when minorities are represented in relationships, they have to stick to their own kind (The George Lopez Show and Tyler Perry movies, for example). Even when there's the chance for a legitimate interracial relationship, scripts are shifted to keep things "safe." The biggest no-no seems to be black/white pairings. Denzel Washington can mack on Eva Mendez in Training Day, but in both The Pelican Brief and The Bone Collector, the hottest black actor in Hollywood didn't have a chance in hell at getting hot and heavy with co-stars Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie. What a shame.

"There are no complex sociological reasons for the taboo still attached to interracial romance in movies. It's racism, pure and simple," says Charles Taylor, in an article about the lack of such relationships in pop culture. "Perhaps these attitudes are sometimes connected to an executive's fear that audiences will be turned off by the sight of black and white together, but a decision that bows to racism must bear the mark of racism itself."

If liberal Hollywood can't embrace the image of interracial love, what are the odds the Deep South will?

Interestingly, teen networks like The N and ABC Family are quite progressive in showing boys and girls of all different colors holding hands and developing crushes. The N's Degrassi: The Next Generation pushed lines further with kissing, sex and pregnancy, and has continued to with couples on Instant Star and The Best Years; ABC Family's Lincoln Heights focuses on a black family with a teen daughter who's dating a white boy. But turn to primetime, and nearly nada. The best interracial couple we've seen in years was Sandra Oh and Isaiah Washington on Grey's Anatomy. Finally, two mature adults of different races in a complex relationship that wasn't all about their racial differences! But that didn't last, now, did it? (I still maintain that Washington's firing had more to do with his race than that stupid thing he said, but I'll save that debate for another essay.)

The fact that teen channels show more examples of interracial relationships than the Big Four networks actually represents what some scholars consider the trend of mixed-race partnering in America. According to a 2005 Cornell study, most interracial relationships that last into adulthood were formed early on in the individuals' lives (late teens to early 20s). Adults looking for new relationships, however, were less likely to settle with someone of a different race. This makes sense. The younger a person is, the more genuinely accepting they are of others. The older we get, the more we've been influenced by our society, so it's just "easier" to stick to your own kind.

But all the societal and political pressure can't compare to the pressure interracial couples feel from their own families. "Growing up, my parents were always great to my friends of different races," says Kimberly Edwards, a 31-year-old teacher born and raised in a mostly-white suburb of Boston. "But when I started to date a black man in college, their true colors came out. The way they reacted, it's like I told them I had cancer. I was shocked. I never thought they were racist, but I guess you never know."

"If I dated outside the Filipino community, my mother would go nuts," jokes (not really) Amy Padot, a 29-year-old web developer in Atlanta. "She justifies it as a way to preserve our culture, but I'm American-born and I don't agree. But I do admit that I date Filipino men to make things a little easier."

Even my own parents, as progressive as hippies from California get, surprised me when they expressed to my fiancé and I, a month before our wedding, that they had reservations about us getting married. The jist of their worries: "It's just going to be a lot harder for you two, and your children."

It's still not enough to just love and be loved.

Of course, not every couple struggles. Some, in fact, are sick of hearing that their relationship is even considered "different" or "taboo." Author Carine Fabius (Sex, Cheese and French Fries: Women are Perfect, Men are France) has made a career talking about the differences between men and women, sometimes focusing on her own interracial/cross-cultural relationship (she is Haitian-American; her husband is French). But all the attention still makes her scratch her head.

"I'm in [an interracial relationship] and it isn't hard at all," she says. "My husband doesn't think of me as black so much as a woman and a human being; and I certainly don't spend time thinking about the color of his skin as much as I ponder the reasons why he doesn't clean up after himself!"

And that's just it. Couples are still couples, no matter their color makeup. At the end of the day, men and women are attracted to each other and bicker with each other more because of the differences between the sexes than anything else. "The reason so many find it so hard to be in interracial relationships is because, in my opinion, there is still entirely too much emphasis on and preoccupation with race," says Fabius. "Obviously, racism still exists, but everything isn't about race -- unless we continue to make it so."

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