To say that America is very touchy about race is an understatement. Although it has no biological significance, race remains a powerful social construct that Americans are woefully unprepared to discuss. If communicating in relationships wasn’t hard enough, imagine not having a shared ethnic experience to fall back on.
Best case scenario, you have a healthy, earnest, cultural exchange that leaves both parties more enlightened. Worst case scenario, you place your partner in harm’s way. The stakes are high. Alas, there’s no guide to answer those embarrassing-to-Google questions like Does my partner have a right to know that my grandfather was a Klansmen? All of my partner’s exes are Asian; is he fetishizing me? If my spouse and kids are BIPOC, can I still be racist? How can we find common ground?
This is an article about navigating interracial relationships in a racist society. However, Audre Lorde reminds us that, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” That means that stopping interpersonal racism requires us to address other issues that arise from the same constellation. Heterosexism and transphobia present additional obstacles for people in queer relationships who date outside of their race.
So, we spoke with a variety of couples to get an overdue lesson on how to make several kinds of interracial relationships work. The complexities of gender, race, and sexuality extend beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, these tips offer a starting point to learn about leveraging human differences for good.
Do not fetishize your partner.
E and Victor, 2 Years Dating, Queer, Closed Polyamorous
- E, 26, Korean American, Non-Binary, Pansexual (they/them)
- Victor, 25, Mexican American, Cisgender Man, Heterosexual (he/him)
E considered Victor’s dating history to be a potential red flag. Several of his exes were East Asian. Managing stereotypes when dating outside of your race is tricky. There’s a thin line between appreciating people from other cultures and fetishizing them. If someone is fixating on one aspect of your identity, you are probably being racially fetishized. “A person I went out on a date with talked to me the entire time about Japanese rope bondage,” said E. It’s because East Asian femmes like E are often stereotyped as edgy. “I’ve literally been told by people that I look like something cut out of a fetish magazine.” A series of similarly dehumanizing experiences made E very wary of suitors who seemed to only date East Asians. It wasn’t long before Victor proved he was different. “When I spoke to Victor, the conversation never focused on the ‘exotic’ pieces of my identity,” said E. Victor viewed them holistically, not in a way that reaffirmed racialized assumptions about East Asians. Such assumptions are usually rooted in colonialism and attempt to justify the mistreatment of non-white people.
However, white people can be fetishized too—albeit, not in the same way as people of color. Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver once declared, “There’s softness about a white woman, something delicate and soft inside of her. In the same statement, he said Black women were, “full of steel, granite-hard and resisting.” Cleaver’s internalized racism made him fixate on white women’s presumed femininity for the sole purpose of reducing Black women to undesirable symbols of enslavement. Nevertheless, fetishizing white women to espouse anti-Blackness does not serve Cleaver as a Black man. To have a healthy interracial relationship, your dating preferences should not be supported by self-hate or fetishism.
Establish respect before you start dating.
Elise and Chuck, Dating 5 Years, Cishet, Closed Monogamous
- Elise, 23, Black American, Cisgender Woman, Heterosexual (she/her)
- Chuck, 25, White American, Cisgender Man, Heterosexual (he/him)
Elise and Chuck’s first Tinder conversation was about the 2015 Freddie Gray protests. That’s pretty intense, but their strategy worked. By having the tough discussions early, Elise and Chuck quickly determined whether they respected one another. “An interracial relationship is built on the same foundation as every other relationship,” explained Chuck. “If you come from a place of mutual respect, trust, and understanding, then a good relationship will follow.” Dating someone with a shared racial experience increases the likelihood that you think in similar ways. People dating outside of their race may not have that luxury. “Is there an extra layer of communication that you have to deal with? Yes,” said Elise. “But it’s not that much work, as long as you’re cognizant of the fact that you have to do it.”
Elise and Chuck have been teased about their relationship. They say the bullying brought them closer together, but that’s because they were able to support one another. To truly support someone, you must see their humanity. Unfortunately, we are all being socialized into a deeply flawed society whose institutions withhold human rights on the basis of ability, age, gender, race, class, sexuality, and other factors. It’s easy to perpetuate these behaviors—especially if you are a privileged cishet white man like Chuck. Starting their courtship by talking about police brutality was Elise’s way of detecting whether his worldview was rooted in the devaluation of other people. Once Elise knew that Chuck saw her as his equal, it was smooth sailing. “There’s not a secret to it,” said Chuck. “I see you, I respect you as a person. I know that you’re not coming from a place of malice.”
Granted, these two are not strangers to intellectual debate. Elise studied Anthropology and Chuck is pursuing a degree in Political Science. “We’ve always been able to have civil conversations about politics,” said Elise. “I would say that my politics are slightly more liberal than his, but not to the extent that we can’t see where the other person is coming from.” By getting on the same page early in their relationship, Elise and Chuck learned how to communicate. Five years later, Elise still loves Chuck for his levelheadedness and he appreciates that she’s easy to talk to. Finding common ground is simple when nobody is being attacked. Establish mutual respect early on by talking about the important stuff.
Every critique is not an attack, prepare to learn.
Kai-Dee & Blayr, Married 4 Years, Queer, Closed Monogamous
- Kai-Dee, 31, White American, Trans Man, Heterosexual (he/him)
- Blayr, 28, Black American, Cisgender Woman, Pansexual (she/her)
Thanks to racism and transphobia, Kai-Dee and Blayr’s marriage hasn’t always been a walk in the park. Blayr was raised in a sheltered, military family as the daughter of a colonel. Kai-Dee said his family was “almost proud,” that their not-so-distant relative was a Klansman. Despite their backgrounds, one habit made all the difference in the world. “Remain honest,” said Kai-Dee. “Throughout our entire relationship, whether it was my transition or us being in an interracial relationship, or even when we first started dating being in a gay relationship, there was so much of a learning curve for the both of us.” Growth requires honesty with yourself and with your partner. “I was ignorant in the sense that I didn’t understand the difference between ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘All Lives Matter,’” said Kai-Dee. “I was very much one of those people that felt like that was an attack.” After being “randomly” searched a few times while driving with his wife, Kai-Dee’s worldview shifted. “Kai-Dee took it upon himself to learn about issues that are going on,” said Blayr.
After retiring his ego, Kai-Dee became a better person. He was the first trans person Blayr had ever dated. She was emotionally overwhelmed when Kai-Dee told her that he was trans. “She was scared of the unknown and how things were going to change,” said Kai-Dee. Blayr’s emotional response was important because Kai-Dee’s family wasn’t supportive of his queerness. “Blayr was all I really had,” said Kai-Dee. Rather than expecting Kai-Dee to shoulder the burden of explaining himself to her, Blayr researched independently. “I would randomly get text messages from her like, ‘Hey, I watched so and so’s YouTube Channel and this is what he and his wife did when he transitioned,’” recalled Kai-Dee. By being honest about her feelings, Blayr was able to address her insecurities and learn to be a better partner.
Keep in mind that your research will never be as authentic or nuanced as someone’s lived experience. You will make mistakes. Blayr is still getting used to Kai-Dee’s pronouns. When your partner holds you accountable for racist, sexist, or transphobic behavior, do not play the victim. “As a white person, you can’t go into things being defensive,” explained Kai-Dee. “When someone tells you that you’re ignorant because of what you were taught, you have to understand that you may have been taught completely wrong things.” Remember that your hurt [privileged] feelings pale in comparison to the harm caused by structural racism, heterosexism, and transphobia.
Protect your partner by addressing racism and transphobia when it happens.
Ben and Dandelion, 1 Year Engaged, Queer, Closed Monogamous
- Ben, 24, Bangladeshi, Trans Man, Sexually Fluid (he/him)
- Dandelion, 26, Kenyan (Maasai) American, Non-Binary, Demisexual (they/them)
When Ben first smiled at Dandelion, they were wearing a shirt that read: Pro Black, Pro Queer, Pro Hoe. In a way, that interaction epitomized the couple’s confrontational approach to protecting their partners. They both have immigrant backgrounds. “Asian immigrants tend to espouse very anti-Black rhetoric because of the desire to be white as a source of power,” said Ben. Dandelion acknowledges her mother’s transphobia. After meeting Ben, Dandelion’s mother said, “At least he’s good looking.” For context, Dandelion’s family “fell off the end of the earth,” after they came out as queer and established boundaries. “If someone says something in my family that’s anti-black, be comfortable with the idea of having an uncomfortable discussion,” said Ben. Challenging microaggressions in public as they happen is key. “If I do it privately and they’re not embarrassed, they won’t take it as seriously.” It’s a hard yet effective tactic that protects Dandelion and serves as a teachable moment for bystanders. When Dandelion’s mother asks questions that are geared towards Ben’s genitalia, they put a stop to it immediately—even when he’s not around. “I’m not going to give intimate, medical information about someone else’s body to you,” explained Dandelion.
While callout culture can be toxic, silence will not protect your partner. As explained by Robin DiAngelo, we are living in a society that’s more focused on the idea of morality than actually treating people fairly. It’s why people are more annoyed that you pointed out their bigotry than they are with themselves for collaborating with systems of oppression. As such, shame can be a useful tool when challenging prejudice within families. It’s our job to leverage our privileges to protect vulnerable people. It’s particularly important if your partner doesn’t have as much emotional support. “It’s something that is very genetically encoded in us as human beings to want to interact with our family,” said Dandelion. “I don’t have that, so I get lonely a lot.” Overall, Dandelion’s cultural competency has made them well-received by Ben’s family. Still, Dandelion wishes their family extended the same warmth to Ben. Despite how that racism and transphobia shapes their lives, Dandelion and Ben stressed staying true to yourself. Dandelion will be respectful of Ben’s culture, but they will never convert to Islam. Likewise, Ben will not allow people to misgender him. They are planning a wedding that will showcase the best of both of their cultures.
Be open to new experiences.
Lorenzo and Dohyn, 7 Months Dating, Queer, Open Polyamorous
- Lorenzo, 26, Multiracial (Thai, Black, and White), Cisgender Man, Queer (he/him)
- Dohyn, 29, Korean American, Cisgender Man, Queer (he/him)
Whoever said distance makes the heart grow fonder was definitely talking about Lorenzo and Dohyn. They began dating during COVID-19, but the pandemic wasn’t their greatest obstacle. Dohyn has previously dated other people, two of whom were outside his race. Lorenzo, on the other hand, doesn’t have as much relationship experience. “Being new to and exploring polyamory, a challenge for me is getting over jealousy,” said Lorenzo. To adjust, he’s had to be open to new experiences. It’s tough, especially in a culture that teaches us to express love through possession. “Love isn’t something that’s constrained to one partnership or one person at a time,” explained Dohyn. “I think love should be wider than that.” Dohyn really appreciates that Lorenzo is really open to exploring polyamory. Lorenzo said Dohyn’s honesty has made a world of difference. “He’s been really vulnerable with me in talking about his emotions,” said Lorenzo. “He’s let me in really easily.” There are two people who Dohyn isn’t as open with: his parents. His dad is homophobic. “I don’t try to keep it hidden,” explained Dohyn, “But they also live on the other side of the world.” In contrast, Lorenzo’s family knows he’s queer. The idea of being exposed to Dohyn’s prejudiced relatives is daunting. Remember, Dohyn doesn’t know how his parents feel about interracial dating because he’s never brought anyone home. To have successful interracial relationships, you must be open to new challenges and experiences.
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