“When mixed-race gets talked about in the media, it’s often automatically celebrated as a marker of socio-political progress, completely disconnected from the racial trauma of being deemed inauthentic by others, the wounds of self-questioning, and the reality of racialized violence and fetishization.”
Being mixed-race and dating is more than just “oh, you’re gorgeous!” and “mixed babies are so cute!” Adebe DeRango-Adem takes a moment to unpack the baggage of dating and fetishization when dating interracially.
“Show me whom to desire”
induction / induction
The loved being is desired because another or others have shown the subject that such a being is desirable: however particular, amorous desire is discovered by induction.
– from A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.
I don’t have enough hands to count how many times people have asked me if my parents are “still together” and upon hearing that yes, they have been together for over 25 years, expressed sincere surprise at this fact. Interracial marriages are apparently not supposed to work; the miscegenation taboo prevails. I guess whoever says race doesn’t exist is not only color-blind but sleep-walking.
I remember reading an article a while ago on how, according to higher education research, mixed-race people are perceived as “more attractive.” Conducted by Dr. Michael Lewis of Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, the research involved a collection of 1205 randomly-chosen black, white, and mixed-race faces (a limited choice of representative faces altogether). Each face was then rated for its perceived attractiveness, and it was found that mixed-race faces took the cake. The findings were then presented to the British Psychological Society.
On the subject of interracial dating, this study has much larger implications than the “cultural” fact that racial hybrids are perceived as better looking than monoracial populations. What is the point of coming up with such research if so many people will vehemently deny that they aren’t racist yet still see dating “outside of their race” as ultimately taboo? I remember talking to a girl in grade 6 about boys, when she confessed the following to me: “I wish when I grew up I could have children who look like you, but I can’t ‘cuz my mom says I have to date someone who looks like me. So, like, I don’t know. What do your parents think?”
The topic of interracial dating isn’t so sensitive for me personally, since I’ve dated people Black, white, both, neither; and again, my parents are (gasp) still together. An element of cultural connection—whether on the basis of ethnicity, family values, or favorite books—has usually been an important aspect of deciding who is worth my time. But articles that make a fetish out of mixed-race figures is a bit alarming—I know I date people for who they are but does it mean that the people I date are in it more for what I look like?
Contrary to popular opinion, I am not flattered by the fact that studies are interested in my face, because frankly, they don’t really see me at all. When mixed-race gets talked about in the media, it’s often automatically celebrated as a marker of socio-political progress, completely disconnected from the racial trauma of being deemed inauthentic by others, the wounds of self-questioning, and the reality of racialized violence and fetishization. I have been asked by previous partners if my hair, eyes, and even skin color were “real” as if I were a specimen to be poked and prodded at; as if my personhood were dependent upon the undressing of some enigma. The point was not if I colored my hair or if it were naturally this or that hue; the point lied in the question, the strange liberty people have found in dissecting what I am.
I am quite troubled about this, which is why the topic of “interracial dating” for me is less about promoting interracial dating as, like, totally the best of multiple worlds than it is unpacking the interracial figure as a site of sexualized and even scientific interest. More striking than the actual “research” that has been coming out—on how interracial marriage is flourishing in U.S. (omg miscegenation is for real?) or a revived interest in documenting the presence of mixed-race communities (for example, the NYT Race Remixed series)—is a rather curious and incredibly recent addition to the overall history of media disengagement from critical discussions on race, interraciality, and racial divides.
The divides were clearly apparent in 1967, the year when the Sidney Poitier film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—a comedy built around parents’ acceptance of an interracial couple—was considered groundbreaking. Spending my time between Canada and the U.S., I have developed an acute sense of how race has different nuances depending on where you are (some kind of race radar almost, absurd as that sounds). I set foot in my hometown of Toronto and the familiar sensation of bienvenue is quickly felt—both in terms of its familiarity, as well as general friendliness and openness to ethno-cultural mixing. I set foot back south and the reality of college blackface parties and cross burnings are still hot topics. Then again we *do* have a Black/mixed-race President. I guess there is just less politicization of the color line going on in Canada which, I think, is ultimately unattractive.
Alright, so we’re not in Kansas anymore; that is, we’ve come a long way, and in-your-face racism is pretty rare. But that’s just it—it’s not all about faces, or facing your oppressor. It’s about realizing how racism functions systemically and sometimes subconsciously, affecting not only your friend or dating choices but your most interior sense of self.
I am not generally offended if someone calls me exotic-looking, or asks me if I’m really half-Black, but after a while it does get annoying. It seems as though the fetishizing of mixed-race figures happens because they are perceived as lesser, inauthentic derivatives of an original racial identity and so there’s room for appropriation in there. In the case of a woman’s experience, for example, systems of oppression and domination that create difference and separate people into categories parallel strategies that have been used to dominate women both seek to organize bodies into a monopoly so that particular needs are satisfied (i.e. mixed-race people would be more satisfying as partners) in the same moment at which those bodies are produced as commodities (i.e. the mixed-race body as fetish).
In her essay, “The Mulatto Millenium,” Danzy Senna writes ironically about the ascendant “Mulatto Nation,” and how she has “found it’s not so bad being a fetishized object, an exotic bird soaring above the racial landscape.” While I enjoy the imagery of soaring above, and am a huge fan of Senna’s writings, I am not so sure I feel the same. To enjoy being fetishized without a clear sense and outward expression of irony upon such an explication is to say yes to vulnerability and objectification.
I am eager to continue exploring the images of mixed-race men and women and how they have come to bear particular meanings in the public eye, and how these images might relate to our personal, private dating choices. I will continue to do this in some capacity in my role as Culture Editor for Race-Talk.org. The surge in interracial marriages and multiracial families has been embraced across North America, and this is obviously a good thing. Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy addresses the topic in his book, Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption, where he writes, “Malignant racial biases can and do reside in interracial liaisons, but against the tragic backdrop of American history, the flowering of multiracial intimacy is a profoundly moving and encouraging development.” I think it is very important to rethink our investments in the traditional sense of what dating is, or what the nuclear family is; I applaud our social progress in that a blended family is becoming more ubiquitous in households across the continent. Still, we need to continue to rethink investments in a racialized and gendered role system that inscribes the mixed-race body in both the economy of pleasure and desire and the economy of discourse, domination and power so that this body is essentially made docile (which is what I guess makes it hypersexual).
As for dating tips or guidelines, mine are more old-fashioned than revolutionary. When I was younger I told my parents that I had to marry a mixed-race man because ultimately, he would be the only one to understand me. I continue to question the validity of this statement, and I think a lot of mixed-race women are in this cultural moment. With a bit more experience under my belt now, I’d just say to find someone who will value you instead of throw you into what might feel like a marketplace where you will ask yourself if you are good enough. In love we sometimes become exigent beings, unable to give ourselves over to the possibility of freedom we initially foresaw as possible in the idolized other. Let your partner idolize you as their other, definitely; but not as their Other, please, racial or otherwise.
Senna, Danzy. “The Mulatto Millennium.” In Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial or Bicultural. Ed. Claudine Chiawei O’Hearn. New York: Pantheon, 1998.
Randall, Kennedy. Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.