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?