The way we talk about interracial relationships in the U.S. — especially in media, entertainment, and social media — is often reductive and harmful. In these discussions, the focus is usually on interracial relationships between non-white people and white people, so whiteness is constantly centered and anything outside of that is “othered.”
In a world that places so much value on representation, it’s important to point out when the representation we’re given is shallow or toxic. To me, it’s pretty clear that depictions of interracial relationships in pop culture and conversations surrounding these pairings are failures because they are binary and almost laughably predictable — like white partners asking their racialized partners to accept them for being white, or even using their relationship as a shield against accusations of racism.
Currently, interracial relationships are portrayed as social phenomenons to be fetishized and commodified. And perhaps most unforgivingly, this outlook strips the conversation of the only thing worth discussing: how power operates in our most intimate spaces. As a society, we’ve grown accustomed to viewing interracial relationships of all kinds through a lens of consumption and commodification. And proper recognition of power dynamics is completely at odds with the mission of commodification. Interracial relationship influencers on TikTok and Instagram are a prime example of this. Under #mixedfamily and #interracialcouple, one can find the most subtly noxious — and frankly, incredibly cringeworthy — discourse about race.
Interracial relationships are potrayed as social phenomenons to be fetishized and commodified. And perhaps most unforgivingly, this outlook strips the conversation of the only thing worth discussing: how power operates in our most intimate spaces.
In these videos, it’s common to magnify the “othered” experiences of the white partner. For example, a white woman married to a South Asian man might create an online identity as an interracial relationship counselor, discussing all the problems she had adjusting to his “conservative” culture, which erases the harm she’s capable of causing as a white person and reifies stereotypes people already have about Desi people. She might talk about how she felt like she wasn’t ever going to be a “perfect Indian wife” but that her husband assured her that he “accepted her just the way [she] is.”
It seems innocent, but racism and colorism are forces too powerful and widespread in our society for white partners to consistently equate their experiences of “adjusting” to their partner’s culture to their non-white partner’s experience of having an intimate relationship with someone whose very identity represents oppressive power structures that threaten them every day.
Not only are relationships between white people and people of color the focus of most conversations about interracial dating, there is a focus on the non-white partner being Black. Brianna Holt, an NYC-based author and writer who penned a New York Times article on how many Black people feel they need to code-switch in interracial relationships, points out that “we tend to focus on relationships between Black and white people because that’s where the power disparity seems to be the greatest.”
In many cases, that’s true. But unequal — and intricate — racial or ethnic power dynamics can exist between any two people of different identities. When we erase the realities of non-white people in relationships, those power dynamics and instances of harm are allowed to flourish because they are often unexamined, unchallenged, and ignored.
Layla*, a Black woman who has been in a relationship with a Native American man for the past year says that although she and her partner found common ground in their experiences as racialized people, navigating race with him has been difficult. She’s never seen a relationship like hers represented in media or even discussed much in real life. “People assume it will be easier than a Black and white pairing, and that isn’t true. It’s more complicated; familiar and complicated,” she tells R29Unbothered.
For some people, that familiarity can make the power dynamics that do arise easier to navigate. Aditi Juneja, a South Asian lawyer and activist in New York City, says that she’s almost exclusively been in interracial relationships with people of varying races and ethnicities, but never a white person. These relationships have shown her that shared experiences matter a great deal.
Media commonly makes the mistake of portraying interracial relationships with white people as shining examples of racial progress [and] assuming interracial relationships between people of color are devoid of any need for progress, or even learning.
“I think that a big thing people in interracial relationships — including friendships — have in common when neither are white are their experiences of racism and marginalization by white people. The experiences are different but we can talk about colonization, colorism, white beauty standards and respectability,” Juneja says. Layla agrees. “There is a sense of familiarity given the history of Black folks and Indigenous folks in this country,” she says.
Drawing from my own romantic and platonic relationships with non-Black people of color, I know that sharing experiences of racism do provide us with common ground. But so do more positive things like cultural traditions, habits, and memories around family. However, it is those same shared experiences that make it harder to discuss problematic or hurtful things that might come up. It feels almost like turning your back on something that previously bonded you together.
Radhika G, a South Asian university student, says that in her previous relationship with a Filipino and Uruguayan man, she wasn’t prepared to have to deal with issues of race, but they did come up. “I feel like there are dynamics between various ethnic groups that sometimes complicate things. With white people you may assume and prepare for some backlash, but I was not prepared for that from my partner’s family, especially the Filipino side,” she says, noting that she was shocked when his step-grandmother commented on how dark-skinned Radhika was.
If media commonly makes the mistake of portraying interracial relationships with white people as shining examples of racial progress, then it also makes the mistake of assuming interracial relationships between people of color are devoid of any need for progress, or even learning. It’s assumed that the two people are coming to the table with enough shared history of oppression to overcome any harm that might arise.
So when problematic things are said, it can be difficult to know whether we should give more grace, because isn’t this person dealing with the same internalized racism due to white supremacy and colonization that we are? With white people, it feels more cut and dry. The intimacy of interracial relationships between people of color can lead to more complex and fulfilling discussions, but also more conflict over how to deal with it.
In her relationship, Layla sometimes feels this tension and doesn’t always know how to handle it. Her partner’s parents intentionally distanced themselves from their Indigenous community and passed as white, and her partner grew up in an anti-Black household. “As a teenager, when he tried to date a Black girl, his dad beat the shit out of him,” Layla says, adding that their relationship taught her how pervasive anti-Blackness can be in many Indigenous communities, something she was previously unaware of due to lack of public discussion around it. Although her partner has reclaimed himself in many ways, he’s still unlearning things from his upbringing.
Aisha is a Black woman married to an Indian-American man, and she says that she and her husband never see themselves represented in the media. “Most of the discourse is about Black men and white women,” she tells R29Unbothered. Because of that, she feels a lot of the challenges Black people face in relationships with non-Black people of color can be erased by the public. “I think that the amount of anti-Blackness [in those communities] is usually glossed over,” Aisha says.
It’s painfully obvious that we’re not given much of a road map when it comes to navigating interracial relationships with non-white people. But even in social media and pop culture representation of interracial relationships with white people, white racism is heavily sanitized or ignored. Often, the burden of prejudice is laid on the non-white partner’s shoulders through stereotypes, e.g. a Desi family that is too conservative, an East Asian family that is too emotionally withholding, or a Black family that is too ignorantly suspcious of white people. Or even, in perhaps the most egregious example, an Indigenous family that’s too resistant to their own genocide.
There is also the festishization of interracial relationships on full display on Instagram, where there are “mixed baby” accounts where parents can submit photos of their children with details about the parent’s ethnicities. Here, biracial children — and particularly those without white parents — are exotified. When they exist outside of whiteness, people in interracial relationships and multiracial people are often denied their humanity. However, from my observation, the people harmed most by our current discourse around interracial relationships are often dark-skinned, monoracial Black women, whether they’re in interracial relationships or not.
Take for example, the show mixed-ish. For Wear Your Voice Magazine, I pointed out that the family the show centered is “shown as frustratingly innocent and never capable of causing harm, because their very existence” as a mixed couple — a white man and a Black woman — “is shown as the ultimate good deed.” Whereas Aunt Denise (Christina Anthony), a monoracial, dark-skinned Black woman on the show, was consistently portrayed as ignorant because of her hesitancy about relationships with white people.
Perhaps the most harmful fiction the media has pushed is that interracial relationships are special. At their core, interracial relationships are deeply boring.
When we hold up relationships with white people as a sign of radical social change — they most definitely are not — we position Black women with no proximity to whiteness and no distance from Blackness as the enemy of racial progress. Black women’s distrust of others’ white partners — especially if they are women — is recast as a combination of hate, ignorance, and bitter jealousy. I’ve seen countless Black women teased and harassed online if they dared to say anything that might be seen as hostile towards interracial relationships, and this harassment has often devolved into anti-Black insults about their appearance or intelligence. Black women become the obstacle holding everyone back, a figure to be mocked and derided and ultimately ignored, even though it is Black women’s particularly keen understanding of gender and racial power dynamics that often causes their wariness in the first place.
“I felt really invisible,” Evan Lewis, a Black queer writer, tells R29Unbothered about growing up watching unhealthy depictions of interracial relationships like the ones in Scandal or How To Get Away With Murder. “Positive representation for me is anything that portrays a relationship that is actually supportive of the Black woman, where she’s able to be vulnerable,” they continue. Race, Evan Lewis says, doesn’t even have to be a factor in TV representation of Black women in relationships. And if they’re in interracial relationships, positive representation is still when “human problems or even race problems [exist to] add spice to the conflict, they aren’t the whole conflict. Because that’s real life.”
And perhaps the most harmful fiction the media has pushed is that interracial relationships are special. At their core, interracial relationships are deeply boring. They can be a different lens to examine and reflect on power, but after that, all you’re left with is a couple like any other. These relationships won’t eliminate racial bias. Implying that interracial relationships are revolutionary, inspirational, or enlightened is “silly.” Latina journalist Nicole Fiore, says, “My individual choice to date a white person isn’t actually changing things on a structural level. I am just a person living my life with my partner, and to say all of that is a political act or that it’s anti-racist, is really lacking in nuance.”
Seeking freedom and acceptance within your own romance is something we all must do, but seeking a world that extends freedom and acceptance to the most vulnerable people requires moving away from the myopia often present in these relationship dynamics and being willing to have actual conversations about power, accountability, and revolution. And you definitely don’t need to be in an interracial relationship to have these conversations.
The revolution will not happen in the bedroom. It will not happen if we learn a new language or a new recipe. It won’t happen if we learn how to address our partner’s parents or what kind of music their family likes to listen to at reunions. Those are all nice and often necessary things, but to have real discussions, we have to start getting serious about discussing power and decentering whiteness.
*Names have been changed for privacy.
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