I recently watched Barry, a biographical film about Barack Obama’s early life at Columbia that depicts his struggle with coming to terms with his own identity as a Black man raised by a White mother. The film focuses rather heavily on Obama’s interracial relationship in college, taking the viewers on a journey from the initial attraction to meeting the parents to the ultimate unraveling of the relationship in the face of his growing uncertainty around his own identity. As a friend and I discussed the film, we wondered whether it essentially puts the nail in the coffin on the long term prognosis for interracial relationships.
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There are certainly a LOT of opinions on interracial relationships. If you simply google the term, you can find countless articles with little pearls of wisdom highlighting 7 things everyone should understand about interracial relationships or the 12 best things about being in an interracial relationship. On one end of the spectrum, you have people who argue that interracial relationships can never work, while on the opposite extreme, you have those who passionately call for interracial relationships as the solution to systemic racism.
As an Indian man dating a Japanese American woman, I feel blessed to experience the joys and the troubles associated with interracial relationships firsthand. Unfortunately, I can quickly dispel at least one common myth: despite our adorable relationship goals, we have had zero impact on institutional racism, and little to no control over quizzical stares in our direction or comical questions over our identities. There are, however, a few areas where I do hope we can promote change. As my better half finishes her Peace Corps term on a remote island in the Western Pacific and arrives in India, we will inevitably force all previous generations of Nairs to come to terms with welcoming a non-Indian into their family. The family is going to have to adopt its very own “Look East” or “Asia Pivot” policy. My extended family is used to change and to modernizing influences, but this will still be a paradigm shift for them. You see, my father and mother are from South India and North India respectively, and their love story resembles a Bollywood love saga: boy and girl meet at work, fall in love, boy and girl marry against parents’ wishes, but parents eventually come around when the first child comes into the picture. This was the drama around what was then a scandalous, inter-caste, inter-regional marriage. I have no idea what to expect in our case, but thanks to changing times, at least the parents seem to be cautiously on board with the idea. This gives me some solace as we unravel the stitches on old wounds.
I have more than a little fear at what lies ahead with the potential experiment of living together in India, even assuming things go very smoothly in family matters. There is the subtle and occasionally blatant racism experienced by individuals who look like they are from Northeast India, the curious and occasionally hostile staring, and, of course, the safety concerns that apply to any and all women navigating an unknown territory. After having been long distance for over 2.5 years though, I can safely say the excitement overpowers the anxiety.
My partner once showed me an article that anecdotally mentioned how interracial couples have to put in twice as much effort to make the relationship work. Otherwise, the judgment, both internalized and external, begins to unravel the relationship. I think back to Barry and ask myself what went wrong and what lessons we can learn from this romanticized story (assuming the depiction is at least somewhat accurate). The one lesson that jumps out is that when two consenting individuals enter into a relationship based on different cultural backgrounds or identities, it becomes difficult to isolate yourself and start questioning your own identity without involving the partner in the process. The hostile stares, the uncomfortable family probes, and the quizzical questions from strangers start piercing deeper and deeper the minute you isolate your partner from the equation.
In the end, interracial, and, in my case, intercontinental, relationships have the power to bridge cultural gaps and combine the best of both communities into one harmonious union. And yet, attitudes and systems are both sticky and vulnerable to internalized racism. While I have neither the qualifications nor the foresight to offer advice for other couples navigating this tenuous yet rewarding space, I look forward to seeing where our own process takes us and hesitantly remind myself that circumstances vary and Barry isn’t an automatic death sentence for all interracial couples.