Unraveling the mystery around interracial relationships

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.

Source: Google Images

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.

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Disrupting our discomfort with Blackness

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the fairness cream industry in India and how it exploits pre-existing caste, class, and skin color norms. The causes prove elusive. Perhaps, as a country and people, we Indians suffer from some twisted form of post-colonial separation anxiety, having been taught to value White as being superior. Whatever the reasons, it is clear that we are far from transcending stereotypes and perceptions based on nothing more than the color of one’s skin.

I was recently having chai with an Indian American family friend of ours in Mumbai. As we talked and sipped, the conversation drifted to her experiences with her friends in the U.S. She was telling us how she is an anomaly in her family, because the vast majority of her friends in the U.S. happen to be Black. When her extended family and Indian friends heard about this, they warned her repeatedly to be “careful of the Blacks” and that “it’s best to avoid them altogether.” What feeds these perceptions? Among my admittedly limited sample size of Indian American friends, there seems to be a noticeable preference for immersing ourselves in the company and culture of White or Asian friends. Sometimes, this manifests in actively avoiding Black culture. Is it simply a cultural difference based on what we are familiar with? Or is it mixed in with our preconceived notions of what is considered worthy, safe and desirable company? 

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Source: Google Images

Back in the motherland, these pre-conceived notions can often play out in dark ways. In 2016 alone, there have been five arrests over assaults on African citizens in India. In response to the justified anger and caution by African ambassadors, some officials have responded by claiming that there is “no element of racism in these attacks” and that these are “isolated incidents.” When similar heinous crimes are committed abroad where Indians are the minority (such as in Australia in 2010 and against Sikhs in America in 2014), we are quick to identify racism as the culprit, demand justice, and ask for a national level conversation around racism. Why get defensive and turn a blind eye when Indians end up in the driver’s seat? When we write off such behavior as isolated or unavoidable, we create an atmosphere of tolerance toward intolerance. I commonly hear peers reflecting on how racism towards Black citizens is rampant in the United States, but the same level of insight and introspection is not applied to our own country. If we demand and advocate for the protection of our citizens abroad as we should, we have an equal responsibility to protect minorities on our home turf.

Beyond protection, the larger question remains of how we shift cultural perceptions of our discomfort with Blackness. The first step is recognition: recognition of our biases and our shortcomings, rather than defending our thought processes on auto-pilot. Shun those fairness creams and demand that people value you for who you are rather than the color of your skin on a picture on some matrimonial site. If you are Indian American, learn about Black history and Black culture in the United States and make an effort to get to know people you might consider alien to your own culture- as my friend said, you’d be surprised at how similar some of our cultural norms and practices are! It is only by actively recognizing and calling out our society’s discomfort with Blackness that we can begin to address the racism embedded within our own caste and class norms. 

Gandhi, despite all his greatness, used to hold strong convictions about Indians being superior to native Africans in this mythical hierarchy among the oppressed. Even the mahatma had his flaws, and there is no shame in admitting them along with his redeeming qualities. There is shame, however, in reverting back to these outmoded notions of racial superiority in the 21st century. We can and we must do better.