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Column: The dynamics of interracial relationships

I have to admit: I'm not an outspoken advocate for interracial dating.

We live in a country where individual identity has been constricted by race for nearly 400 years. Although slavery was nothing like the holocaust in terms of the Nazi's short-term, systematized killing of the Jews, in many ways it was much worse--over centuries, slavery relegated an entire race of people to a world without connection to family or culture, where being "black" meant an existence filled with emptiness and questions about what truly constitutes one's persona. Slavery was unique in its awesome power to wrest the privilege of self-identification away from the individual and place it in the hands of outside observers who knew absolutely nothing of the individual's personality. The most frightening aspect of this power is slavery's enduring ability to make people actually believe in the identity, however hurtful or self-destructive, that has been projected onto them by others. Thus, what has arisen out of this "peculiar institution" is profoundly troubling: a society in which rights and freedoms can not only be restricted by others, but by oneself.

Like many issues concerning race in America, the discussion almost requires itself to be framed in a black-white dichotomy, not for a desire of exclusion but for a need for clarity. There are problems peculiar to the relationship between the black and white communities that do not exist between Asian and white, or Latino and white. Part of this reality is the legacy of slavery shared by those living in America, and another part is the different challenges faced by different minority communities in the United States. All voices need to be heard, but it is crucial that realities are not ignored in the process.

I write about the struggles our country has faced in the wake of slavery because, although you may not realize it, these struggles affect you or people you know, in overwhelming ways, daily. It is no longer overt racism that we have to worry about so much, but rather the pervasive restrictions that we feel placed on who we are. And it's not as simple as getting it out of our heads or forgetting about it; just as numerous black people feel that achievement or educational success somehow takes away from their blackness, many white people feel that their "lack of culture" or experience with racism prevents them from fully partaking in discussions about race and ethnicity.

Which brings us back to the discussion about interracial relationships. For many communities, the act of dating or marriage represents the supreme acceptance of another human being into the family; for some, it represents a religious vow. In this manner, then, the increasing frequency of interracial marriages can be seen as a move in the positive direction for race relations in America. On the other hand, the ways in which many of these relationships are grounded in stereotypes and disingenuous motives can be more destructive than helpful.

We all remain cognizant of the problematic stereotypes about the over-sexualized black male and the submissive white female, or perhaps the exotic Asian woman or the asexual Asian man, yet the scary truth is that we as scholars submit to these stereotypes in our personal lives. It is for this reason, and to a lesser degree the notion that someone might force along an interracial relationship only for "political" reasons, that makes me wary of trumpeting the arrival of the interracial dating bandwagon. For, as long as we view our potential mates solely as members of a particular race, we are ingraining the same ideas about ethnicity that we so desperately must escape.

Further, complications arise when the communities with which the individuals identify have serious problems with the relationship, particularly when those people are family members. Almost instinctively, most students would imagine an upper-middle-class white family aghast at the thought of their young daughter engaging in a sexual relationship with a black male, or even worse bringing that young man over to the house for dinner. However, it is at this juncture that the black community differs most starkly from other minority communities in its openness to interracial relationships.

By equating interracial dating with losing one's black identity, the black community places more pressures on black men to avoid dating white women than I have witnessed in any other racial group; black women, however, are spared this requirement because of slavery's implicit acceptance of the white male's sexual exploitation of the black female, the disdain generally placed on black females by white standards of beauty and the overall rarity in the present day of the white male-black female sexual relationship. For example, take Clarence Thomas, the black Supreme Court justice married to a white woman, who is constantly ridiculed by the black community for both his political ideology and lack of black identity.

With a history so marked by violent acts of institutionalized racism and a parent generation still wondering if desegregation was the best step forward for the community, many black students today would (quite understandably) regard dating a white person as anathema. Moreover, some might argue that "diluting" the already politically weak black voting block via interracial marriage would only serve to hinder the development and uplift of American blacks. In addition, the opponents of interracial relationships could feasibly argue that it is extraordinarily difficult for a white person to teach a child perceived as "black" about how to cope with the realities of anti-black racism in America. If the goal for the black community, then, is separate and equal, interracial dating is definitely not the way to go.

However, those who have lived through the civil rights movement, and those that have benefited from the wave of reforms after Brown v. Board of Education, know intimately that separate can never be equal. Sadly, though everyone must be involved in refusing race as a shortcut to understand people, the burden falls squarely on the shoulders of black Americans to negotiate a double reality: to remain dedicated to the struggle for racial equality while recognizing that racism in response to anti-black racism is no form of justice, and that being defined or defining others by an outmoded understanding of blackness can never be right. I don't offer easy answers to the question of interracial relationships, but rather more questions that will hopefully inspire people to shun any sort of complacency with the contemporary ways in which we construct race. Like in the rest of our lives, we cannot continue to be held back by the boundaries of the past; we can only forge a brighter future by imagining what could be.

Philip Kurian is a Trinity junior. His column appears every other Monday.


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