By Liz Brazile
There is a pervasive misconception that interracial relationships—both romantic and friendly—are the solution to America’s race problem. This narrative is frequently presented in the media and in literature, to the point where many of us cling to it for dear life whenever uncomfortable dialogues about racism arise. While this philosophy looks great on paper and onscreen upon first glance, many folks’ real-world experiences would contradict this notion. Yes, establishing relationships with people of different backgrounds is a wonderful start to gaining new understanding and perspective. However, it takes a conscious, deliberate effort to learn about each other’s experiences if a sincere bond is to develop.
We all know—or at least ought to know—the narrative of the token person of color. I know this story quite well, considering I spent years of my life existing in this role. Here we have the person of color—a black one for the sake of this example—who is embedded in a white social circle. Their presence is regarded as a signifier of both the circle’s progressiveness and the token’s superb assimilation skills.
While friendly, interracial dealings may be considered a slap in the face to racism for those who seek to do the bare minimum in mending race relations, this scenario upholds the fallacy that physical proximity to amicable white people is an end-all for the racism people of color experience. This doctrine is a relic of Jim Crow era segregation, wherein the rhetoric on racial justice was centered around two main objectives: ending racialized violence toward people of color and allowing them to integrate into white spaces.
Yet, the token black friend’s acceptance into a white crew is often conditional on the basis that their blackness isn’t too visible, aside from their obvious physical traits and the occasional racially insensitive comment they are expected to take on the chin. They must maintain a high level of respectability and mustn’t say or do anything that would make their peers feel uncomfortable about their whiteness, despite the constant micro-aggressions they are subjected to. Let the friend in question suddenly adopt an unapologetically, Afrocentric aesthetic or champion a cause for black people, and watch the tension ensue.
Many white folks are quick to flaunt their “colorblindness” when questioned about their associations with people of color. What seems to be missed, though, is the fact that they are inadvertently indicting the racial identities of their “friends” as being an attribute that should be looked past, rather than embraced. You don’t earn a “not racist” card for having friends of color, but you can earn decent human being points for making real efforts to acknowledge your friends’ identities and experiences.
Beyond the sphere of platonic friendships, one’s involvement in interracial romances is also inaccurately deemed evidence of their liberal race politics. Again, I’ve been down this road and know from personal experiences that just because a person is attracted to people of another race, it doesn’t mean they aren’t problematic when it comes to their racial ethics.
We are all familiar with the American “forbidden love” narrative. In these scenarios, a person of color—typically a black man—has an intimate relationship with a white person—usually a woman— and the two must overcome the hardships society has placed on them as an interracial couple. The story usually goes like this: the man takes on the burden of trying to prove that he is worthy of his white woman, to both meddling strangers and his lover’s disapproving relatives, while she reassures him that they will endure.
While the black man is busy trying to “earn” the respect of white folks enough for them to overlook his blackness, his partner is rarely seen doing any significant labor to truly understand his life experiences and get to know his heritage. In her eyes, the fate of the relationship rides on getting her folks to become colorblind, rather than truly unpack the anti-black dating standards they have imposed on her.
In the event that the forbidden love narrative does involve prejudice coming from the man’s kinfolk, it is usually seen as juxtaposition to the racism in the woman’s family. Thus, we see prejudice coming from all angles to keep the couple apart. Once again, we see racial conflict reduced to people having an aversion to a particular skin color, with little regard for historical context.
Black people are perfectly capable of having unhealthy racial biases. However, in these situations, a black family’s hypothetical prejudice is rarely born of a superiority complex. Rather, it is a visceral reaction to history. Interpersonal relationships between black men and white women—both real and imagined—have carried literal death sentences for black men, carried out by white men incensed by perceived insults to the purity that is white womanhood. Furthermore, any prejudice coming from the black man’s family usually comes in the form of quiet disapproval for the trouble he is putting himself through, rather than protests made on behalf of maintaining the family’s racial honor.
These narratives of interpersonal relationships do little to explore the dynamics of race relations, beyond the scope of tolerating another person’s ethnic phenotype. Little time is spent addressing the need for people to connect with their lovers and friends on a more socially conscious level. These relationships are portrayed as examples of people “coming together”, but don’t effectively address the larger picture of working through blind spots and fostering emotionally sustainable bonds, built on a foundation of mutual understanding. Proximity and faux-colorblindness are not adequate solutions to resolving racial conflict. But educating yourself and paying close attention to how race shapes other people’s day-to-day experiences so you can minimize harm are.