What do portrayals of interracial relationships reveal about attitudes toward race?

The play I wrote, Tulpa, or Anne&Me, has at its emotional center an interracial friendship and possible romance between a queer Black artist and Anne Hathaway*.

(*In the sense that Being John Malkovich is really about John Malkovich.)

Strangely enough, it’s only been recently that I’ve started thinking about how that core relationship fits into the portrayals of interracial relationships in film, TV, and other media. Representations of interracial relationships are particularly revealing when it comes to how people understand race.

For now, I’m going to limit myself to original works that take place more or less in the real world. While ghosts, demons, and such may exist and interact with people, the story happens in what we can recognize as a world similar to ours.

Putting on my playwright hat for a moment, I’m going to frame things in dramatic terms then apply a race analysis to what I find. For each type of representation, I asked three questions:

  • What is the core need or desire?
  • Where is the conflict?
  • How is that conflict resolved?

With these questions in mind, I came up with 4 different categories of representation. Nothing about them is exclusive or absolute. They’re just a way to make sense of basic elements.

First up – the colorblind relationship. The colorblind relationship shows race as having no significant impact on the relationship whatsoever. It’s just two people who are in love and want to be together. You see it in stuff like Rachel Getting Married. You have this story takes place in Whitebread, Connecticut. The bride is Wonderbread White; the groom is Wesley Snipes Black; the decor is Hindu, and nobody says shit.

If there is a conflict in the colorblind relationship, it comes from the outside world – especially family and society. There’s a real Romeo and Juliet vibe to the obstacles the couple faces. The successful resolution to this conflict depends upon whether or not the outside world can learn to ignore the differences between the lovebirds and accept that their love is real.

Does this remind you of other things you’ve come across when talking about race? Like the idea that the real problem with race is people noticing or bringing up differences? Who benefits from this point of view?

Next is the multicultural relationship. This time, lovebirds do notice race and how it makes them different. Yes, they want to be together. But they also want to understand each other. This usually boils down to eating “exotic” cuisine like soul food and learning “strange” customs like the electric slide. Guess Who, for example, where goofy-ass Ashton Kutcher must negotiate getting along with the father (Bernie Mac) of his bride-to-be (Zoe Saldana).

Naturally, the central conflict is about benign ignorance that results in misunderstanding. At some point, the wrong words comes out of someone’s mouth – a bad joke, an inappropriate question, a thoughtless comment – and somebody doesn’t take it well. Resolving this conflict, of course, requires greater cultural sensitivity.

The multicultural relationship says that the problem of race is a lack of knowledge, especially knowledge about what is and is not appropriate in other cultures. Is that really the case? Who benefits from this understanding of the problem?

Now for the objectifying relationship (need a better word). Unlike the previous two types, affection and intimacy are not the core needs of the relationship. Instead, the desire for power, entertainment, escape, status, etc. become racialized for one or both partners. For instance, the bored suburban housewife starting an affair with a Black groundskeeper as a way of escaping the confines of White femininity. Or the Black guy chasing Asian women because they make him feel like more of a man. Case in point: Jungle Fever, where Flip and Angie have an affair based in the desire for novelty rather than any real love or lust.

The source of conflict in objectifying relationships is delusion. People who are in objectifying relationships are deluded about who they are, why they’re together, and what that means. That’s the charitable way of putting it. The less charitable way of putting is is that one or both parties are self-hating sellouts and/or abused and exploited victims.

Interestingly enough, there is not necessarily any resolution to the objectifying relationship, as its basis is dysfunctional from the get-go. Successfully solving the problem and maintaining the connection would mean transforming the nature of the relationship itself.

The objectifying relationship says that the problem of race is the brokenness of individuals, particularly in the form of self-hatred or excessive self-regard. To what extent is this true? Who gains from seeing things this way?

Finally, we have the conscious relationship.Like the objectifying relationship, there is an awareness of race. But the conscious relationship race-awareness further from merely its existence (as with the multicultural relationship) to deliberately examine the role that race plays in the relationship.

The goal of the conscious relationship is authentic connection – true love and/or lust; real passion, intimacy, and affection. The main conflict comes from the ways that power and privilege undermine the genuine needs and desires of the relationship. The resolution is transforming the power dynamics of the relationship.

The conscious relationship says that the problem of race is the use of power. Of the relationship portrayals described so far, the conscious relationship is the only one that can challenge and undermine internalized racial oppression.

Not surprisingly, there are few examples of conscious relationships. I strive for this in Tulpa, or Anne&Me*. But The (Sexual) Liberation of Mammy enters this territory as well. It may be worthwhile to note that the interracial relationships portrayed in both works is between queer women, and both are created by queer women of color. What does this mean? What possibilities does this suggest?

(*Which really needs your support. Click here to find out more.)

What are some things you notice about the way interracial relationships are portrayed in arts and entertainment? What do you believe that says about race?

12 thoughts on “What do portrayals of interracial relationships reveal about attitudes toward race?

  1. Ugh, that colourbliond one I’ve seen far too much – the endless portrayals of “racism doesn’t actually exist but black people keep seeing it!” is just plain nasty. I think i’ve seen a special extra one with interracial relationshops in that the (white) people around are happy dappy joyous about the marriage but it’s the black person’s parents who are losing their shit over it. uh-huh.

    And the multi-cultural one often has so much “comedy” as well “lookit what them folks do!” And then with a big lump of “see if you just sit and educate then racism will goooo away. honest”

  2. “The bride is Wonderbread White; the groom is Wesley Snipes Black; the decor is Hindu, and nobody says shit.”

    LOL! They’re too busy being srsly rich and having srs problems.

  3. This is an awesome post.

    I did have it pointed out to me recently that in heterosexual interracial relationships, it was much more common to see black woman/white man than black man/white woman. After the examples of Rachel Getting Married and Love Actually, I was only able to had Leverage. This is a whole other problem from white men being terrified of men of color stealing their women.

    But all of those three are “colorblind” relationships, and two of which written by white men.

    I’m trying to think of other conscious relationships, and can only suggest that DC Comics Kate/Renee showed hints of it in its brief appearance in Elegy – Renee’s reaction to Kate’s privilege is explained in words when she snaps at Maggie Sawyer in Gotham Central. Both scenes written by the same white straight dude.

    But for the life of me I can think of no others.

    I’d love to see more examples of conscious relationships, but I think what you point out about their dynamics and creators is telling: the kyriarchy doesn’t want to admit racism exists as a systematic thing: if you show it causing tension in a conscious relationship, then that’d be admitting your white heroic character is a *gasp* racist and we can’t have that, right? So when a white person sits down to write an interracial relationship, they’re going to pretend that racism doesn’t actually exist, because they want the ally cookies, but they don’t want to bother with actually exploring racial dynamics.

    And don’t even get started on interracial relationships between two people of color – because apparently all races are indistinguishable.

  4. I think most of the examples cited here (with the exception of objectifying/fetish) can handle race in a positive light, if handled with intelligence and respect (yes, a tall order I grant you).

    I’m okay with YA stories and stories aimed at kids being colorblind if it’s teaching young people to treat POCs with respect and judge them by the content of their character (within reason obviously). Because God knows they’ll learn about the evils of racism without the media. For instance, the Archie & Valerie storyline was “colorblind” but I loved the fact that it was a non-issue. Everyone supported the relationship and it showcased to the audience that this is what the world could be like if people dropped their BS. Not Kumbaya or anything but it was nice to think a young white child reading this and thinking there’s nothing wrong or sinful about liking that cute black girl in their class.

    Multicultural relationships can be an opportunity for people to learn that while cultures have their differences, they actually have more in common than anything else. In the New Karate Kid for instance, Jaden Smith’s character had to learn that the Chinese had a way of doing things and they had their beliefs for valid reasons. Whereas a lot of stories will show the white westerner coming in, shaking things up and showing why the west side is the best side, I liked that he was humble enough to learn their culture and respect where they came from.

    Conscious relationships is pretty obvious why they can enlighten, if handled right.

    The trend I’ve noticed is that the ones who seem to get it right is because they treat characters of color with respect as opposed to many examples I’ve seen where POC love interests are used as the jumpoff/the sapphire/the exotic temptress/the noble savage/November sweeps, etc. And let’s not forget my favorite, pairing off the black chick with the alien, the animal, or the ugliest white guy on the cast.

    Interracial pairings is a consistent theme and a conscious theme in my work. Because I do believe illustrating interracial pairings (especially between whites and POCs) can make a profound impact when portrayed correctly. Too often I see writers play the game of pair up the Negro, or pair off the POCs to keep the white characters pure and pristine from the icky coloreds and have a seperate but equal dynamic in their storytelling.

    I think (again if done right) showing a white heroine fall in love with a three-dimensional black man will allow the audience to reflect on their views on race.
    Seeing a white father dote and love on his biracial black daughter will remind the audience that POCs are human just like whites and I think that ALSO goes a long way.

    Two POCs in a perfectly happy interracial relationship speaks volumes in itself.

    With Hollowstone, I tackled racism and took aim with both barrels. With Empyrea, racism, homophobia, sexism (at least as we know it) doesn’t exist. The former makes a critique on the state of the world as it is now while the latter illustrates what the world could be like if the learning and the work gets done.

    • “Multicultural relationships can be an opportunity for people to learn that while cultures have their differences, they actually have more in common than anything else. In the New Karate Kid for instance, Jaden Smith’s character had to learn that the Chinese had a way of doing things and they had their beliefs for valid reasons. Whereas a lot of stories will show the white westerner coming in, shaking things up and showing why the west side is the best side, I liked that he was humble enough to learn their culture and respect where they came from.”

      That’s why i respected the movie. I didn’t like it because it falls into dances with wolves line, but I respected it. Also it’s funny how Some white people can shove thier ideas down in people’s throats and some Black people and other POCs respect other cultures.

      case in point: Obama and the His Majesty Akihito. He bowed out of respect and White people were complaining about that.

  5. I’m the Acquisitions Editor for Parker Publishing, the company that was thrilled to have brought Dennis Upkins’ Hollowstone to life. Our bread and butter has always been romance, especially interracial romance, which are our bestselling books. Most of the interracial books we publish would probably fall into the colorblind/conscious category, and most readers (being black women) prefer it that way. The problem being that for some, the whole issue of race tends to be handled in such a heavy-handed fashion and with some books in that vein, makes me wonder why the hell these two people are even getting together in the first place when everything is about race and nothing else. Having said that, I don’t see our books as treating race as some kumbaya thing, but being that I am in an interracial relationship in real life, there are just so many other issues that IR couples face and our readership wants to explore those aspects as well.

  6. Oh wow, this is both an awesome post and a truly complex issue… not that any other of your posts are anything but complex…

    Speaking from personal experience, I’ve had people put me in the objectifying relationship right from the get go as soon as they learned I was going to either Japan or South Korea, because to them, Asian women just LOVE big white guys like me. It was definitely the case of making Asian Women the exotic and the prize to get just for traveling to other countries rather than anything based off of mutual respect and love. It was annoying and disrespectful and I pointed this out to them, and when i did travel overseas, I did my best to learn the language and the culture, because I was living in their country and it was up to me to be respectful (which I always try to be, no matter where I am).

    I’ve read blogs of Asian women who have entered into relationships with white men who do face criticism from their families based on how Western men view Asian women, which I could see as coming from a genuine view of concern for the daughters. However, it’d be a sweeping generalization to say that not all straight white dudes are so selfish and shallow and wouldn’t want to be with someone of colour based on love and respect. I know a friend of mine who married a woman from South Korea once told me that yes, there are some challenges to be faced, as she moved from South Korea to be with him, but she also goes back to see her family fairly often and that’s the challenge that they face, and it’s worth it because they truly are in a loving relationship.

    I saw the ad for Guess Who, and as soon as that song “Ebony and Ivory” came on, I knew not to see the movie because it would be played up for laughs for all the wrong reasons. Multicultural, Colourblind, and Conscious relationships all have the potential for great storylines and the evolution of characters, but that movie was not one of them.

    As for how people would react… well, we all know how fans got when the super awesome Agetha Freeman played Martha Jones on Doctor Who, not to mention when Uhura was shown to be in a relationship with Spock. People (read straight white female fans) lost their shit over that, and both were examples of women of colour in a relationship with an alien, even if they did look like straight white guys. And if they went nuts over FICTIONAL people of colour in relationships with their white male fantasies, then you know they were than likely to be harbour the same feelings about real life people.

    One positive example I saw of fans enjoying relationships between POC is with Avatar: The Last Airbender. None of the people in there were white and they had some great relationships done up between Aang and Katara, Suki and Sokka, and Zuko and Mai. The relationships weren’t the central thread in the series, but it was well done and blended into an overall fantastic story of adventure.

    • As for Asian relationships goes: I was talking to a Korean War vet. He told me that when he was stationed in Japan that some of the white soldiers was telling the Japanese people about black people and that they were the ones that drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now thinking back, I’ve always known that white/WOC is more likely to be accepted than the other way around or WOC/Black men. Like some Asians at the time preferred white over black. (Have to look over at Blasian Narrative). That one of my problems with some of the Anime, that they are quick to go to the White people than to black people. It reflects on TV. Like name one male character of color that interact with the other race that this do in a respectful tone.

      Another note: with interracial couples, sometimes it has to do with who is writing the damn story. It matters. There is a difference between a person who has done research and hard work into interracial relationships and some hack in Hollywood who just figure it’s a good idea for some cookies

  7. I think the Colorblind approach begins in the best of places, but fails to go anywhere productive because the writers, or more likely the directors, don’t understand interracial relationships from the inside. They don’t recognize the difference between two people lacking inter-ethnic and cross-cultural tensions within their relationship, but still discussing ethnic and cultural differences and coming into contact with a world that is going to have a conflicting view.

    There’s the idea that subtle racism, is absent racism, and identification and discussion of racism is somehow perpetuating racism. The entire concept is naive at best, and intentionally ignorant at worst, but the approach is clearly meant to put love within a non-racist context.

    Now I know that every inter-ethnic relationship is different. The amount of overt racism we’ve encountered in our fifteen years together, I can count on one hand and still have fingers left. But that is directly due to the friends we have, the community we lived in, where we live now and our own indifference to what people think, (we don’t come off like “benign” ignorance will go unchallenged, so we encounter less of is). You change any one of those elements, and that entire dynamic changes, as evidenced by the racist commentary we’ve each encountered separately, and the subtle racism I use to have to point out to him, but that he clearly sees all on his own now.

    I think the very idea of touching on the external racism and how it is dealt with within the relationship, and the societal commentary it creates, frightens directors and writers who can’t understand how a relationship survives it. So they erase it altogether, rather than risk the Conscious Relationship and unraveling their love story on a level they can’t understand how to fix.

    ~X

    • “I think the Colorblind approach begins in the best of places, but fails to go anywhere productive because the writers, or more likely the directors, don’t understand interracial relationships from the inside. They don’t recognize the difference between two people lacking inter-ethnic and cross-cultural tensions within their relationship, but still discussing ethnic and cultural differences and coming into contact with a world that is going to have a conflicting view.”

      They fell that “you don’t need to be Cesar in order to see Cesar” But it fall short. I always wanted to see a interracial couple in movies without being so bland.

  8. Pingback: Interracial relationships from the inside « almulhida

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