Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I can’t be racist because I have a [insert non-white ethnicity] girlfriend

Nomade is a 23-year-old Mauritian graduate student living in the United States. She is interested in the areas of Francophone culture, bilingual identity and post-colonialism. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, painting and writing fiction.    
 
Interracial couples would have you believe that they have reached a post-colonial utopia through their relationship with each other. In their blissful “swirl”, many insist that they have not only overcome racial problems but that, in fact, they are devoid of racist tendencies; “I don’t see color” is a popular phrase.  While this is all well and rosy, my experience in interracial relationships and with interracial couples suggests otherwise.

One of my most memorable experiences was at a bar in a poor Irish neighborhood. I had wandered in there to kill time during a power cut at my place and one of the locals started chatting me up. I was friendly – though uninterested – until he started talking about his sister’s husband, “that damn towel head”. While trying to grope me discreetly and mumbling about what a pretty mouth I had, he continued ranting about his sister’s husband and using a variety of slurs against Arabs. I was so disgusted that I left the bar and returned to the darkness of my flat.

How dare he be so blatantly racist and still think that he had a chance with me? It seemed that he thought that since his slurs didn’t apply to my ethnicity, they didn’t matter. However, I also had another experience on a date with a Jewish college student, who seemed good fun until he started making fun of Indian men. It seemed that he believed that insulting men who look like my grandfather is fine, because I’m a woman, the object of his desire.

I have come to the conclusion that there are plenty of racist White men who are quite happy to date, have sex with and even marry women of color because while they disdain men of color, they fetishize1 the women and enjoy them as they would an unusual flavor of ice-cream. Worse, many interracial relationships thrive on racist stereotypes and power dynamics. Do a quick search and you’ll find White Western men whining about “fat feminists” and dreaming of the mythical submissive Thai bride. Look at ads from women willing to live up to these stereotypes. Listen to a group of White middle-class college girls giggling about the size of Black men and hear men encourage them. To some extent, we have all internalized patriarchy and letting go of the stereotypes – not only about others, but also ourselves – is a constant work in progress.

Interracial relationships are also used to engage in sexism. All too often, I see all races of men using their interracial relationship to provoke women of their race. How many times have I heard White men tell White women to stop being so “spoiled” and “fat”, or else they’ll go and get themselves a “tight little Asian”? They will idealize their Other-race partner, and make sure to construct the women who share their features as the complete opposite, as Fallen.

To be clear, this is not an attack on interracial relationships. I have been in happy ones. However, there many potential difficulties relating to the way racial stereotypes are enacted in these relationships, and I think that it’s fair to discuss them and important to challenge the “Interracial=post-racial” meme.

Here are a few signs of a problematic interracial relationship -
  1.     My Asian/Black/Indian/Latina girlfriend…why is her ethnicity her defining feature?
  2.     I love my wife…but why do those Indian relatives have to be so weird?
  3.     I’m so glad that I found an Asian woman. White women are no good; they are fat, lazy and ugly.
Loving interracial relationships and mixed children are a fantastic slap to the face of patriarchy. I think a sign that the relationship is a sincere, loving and equal one is when you don’t think of it as your “interracial relationship”, but just as a relationship. People who go on about their “interracial lover”, getting their “swirl” on and who idolize their “caramel goddess”?  Seems to be a case of fetishism and exploitation, not love.

1 Fetishize: What’s the difference between appreciating the beauty typical to certain ethnicities and “fetishizing” it? Well, when you actually know and like a person, even if you have a “type” that they fit, you also recognize their unique individual features and allow them to veer from the stereotype. When you fetishize someone, you tend only to see the stereotypical features and ignore the person as a complete human being. Fetishism tends to be physical; fixation on certain features likes skin color, height, genitals, etc, but can be about character traits (“submissive” Asian women, “traditional” Indian women).