Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Politics of Inter-racial Romance

Yesterday I shared a story with a student, "H," about why I wasn't attending a wedding that my husband and his family were at that very same afternoon. My husband and his brother had been asked, a month ago, by their father (my father-in-law if you will) to help work at the wedding of a close family friend--to act as bartenders essentially. I was invited to attend as a guest. Now, I've been with Southern Man going on 4 1/2 years and I have come to know and love his family. So I felt that it might be time to start voicing some of my more honest opinions and concerns with my in-laws.

[Aside: For non-regular readers of this blog, you should know that Southern Man and his family are white--Scotch-Irish on his father's side and southern Italian on his mother's side, which for the South means that my in-laws, when they were married in the 1960s, were actually seen to be in an inter-racial relationship! My mother-in-law was seen as being "ethnic,"--because her parents were immigrants, because she was darker complexioned, because she cooked with garlic, and because she was not from the South (she grew up outside of Pittsburgh).]

So when my father-in-law invited me to attend this wedding, which would be an hour away from our liberal college town in a more suburban and conservative area of the state, I said:

"'C,' I feel comfortable with you and hope you won't judge me too harshly for what I'm about to ask and confess. Here's the thing: I get racially paranoid around groups of all-white people I don't know. Will there be mostly white people at this wedding?"

My father in law was pretty taken aback, I think, although to his credit, he tried to not to act too surprised.

[Aside: my sister in law "L," who is engaged to an African American man, completely cracked up at my question, which made me feel better because she understood where I was coming from]

"C" (my father-in-law) assured me that there would be "diverse" people at the wedding--which was his way of saying that I wouldn't be the only spot of color among the 300 guests.

However, later that night, Southern Man said that he thought his father was being overly optimistic, so I should just stay home, especially since I wouldn't know anyone outside of my in-laws and because I wouldn't even be able to hang out with Southern Man since he would be tending bar.

When I told this story to my student, "H," she and I began talking about the politics of inter-racial romance--especially what it means to be a politically progressive Asian American woman interested in issues of social justice and aware of how Asian American men have been viewed in larger society, romantically speaking, who dates/marries white men.

In other words, how do I keep from being a walking cliche?

The truth is, I'm not sure I do. I mean, I am aware that when people see me and Southern Man, we do not upset the status quo--after all, an Asian American woman with a white man is a fairly standard pairing in real life and even in infrequent reflections in popular culture: Klinger dated a Korean woman on M*A*S*H, Sandra Oh's character on Grey's Anatomy first dated a black surgeon then a white surgeon, that Asian American best friend on The Gilmore Girls dated a white guy, and if I could think of more depictions of Asian American women in mainstream media I guarantee that if they're depicted as being romantically involved with someone it's not with a fellow Asian and usually with a white guy.

[Aside: Or at least I'd say this is true in cosmopolitan areas and college towns--the truth is, we've had our fair share of hard looks in West Virginia and more rural areas of the South--this is where the idea of Asian as honorary white really breaks down--you may be OK eating at their restaurants but you don't want your son and esp. your daughter marrying one of THOSE people]

I am a professor of Asian American literature who studies mixed-race issues--I KNOW the politics of inter-racial romance and especially the way that desire and race have been coded in the U.S.--the ways in which Asian men, in particular, have been feminized in and demonized, so that they are not seen as desirable sexual partners.

[Aside: If you don't believe me, check out the work of scholar Gina Marchetti and Darrell Hamamoto, among others--and the excellent documentaries: Slaying the Dragon (1988) and Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded (2011).]

So why am I married to Southern Man?


I love him. As I write this, I know that it's not that simple. I've written in the past about this very fact--the ways in which I, and others, are impacted by internalized notions of race and beauty. The way I, and others, are influenced by society and popular culture into thinking that there are certain partners who are more desirable and attractive than others. I know that part of my attraction to Southern Man is bound up in the many reasons I'm supposed to find white men attractive, above and beyond other men. And I know that on the surface we look like we are perpetuating certain stereotypes of inter-racial dating models, particularly those that have a history of neo-colonialism and imperialism in Asian nations where the U.S. military has invaded throughout the 20th C.

But I do love him. And there are things I love about him that aren't reducible to either his race or ethnicity or mine (our shared love of dogs, of cooking, of politics). And I think deciding that I couldn't or shouldn't date him because I want to be politically correct--because I want to live the political progressive politics that I espouse--wouldn't ring true.

I think what's difficult is that no one questions the same-raced couples. There is an assumption that if you are of the same racial group and you are dating or partnered, this makes sense. Because this is still seen as "the norm." So it's only when people fall outside of this pattern that questions of politics arise. But as with thinking of the term "ethnic" as referring not only to people of color but to encompass white Americans as well, I think we should begin asking what the politics of NON-inter-racial couples says about our society and culture--why, in a time of increased globalization and an attention to social justice issues--why wouldn't more people date across ethnic, cultural, and racial lines?


Anonymous said...

Great post!

Side note: I didn't know you and Southern Man were married. (I recall you referencing him as your partner in earlier posts, so if this is a recent development, congrats! If not, congrats anyway. :-P)

Even though I am not an Asian American female, so I can't relate in terms of being part of a "popular" interracial combination, I can relate in that I'm viewed as one of the "good Black women" who's involved with a White guy. I think the idea of IR as an upgrade, downgrade, response to rejection, etc. plays out differently in each interracial combination, but perhaps what we have in common is the standard of "race loyalty" placed upon women that doesn't hold the same power over men.

Awhile ago, I wrote a (somewhat) controversial post titled "Black Love Doesn't Exist", and it was based in part on the point you make here that no one questions motivations when someone is involved in a same-race relationship (even if the odds, numerically, of finding a same-race partner are low), so terms like "Black love" tend to be applied retroactively to make a political point. In fact, the vast majority of my family members are married/dating other Black people, and none of them have ever upheld themselves as paragons of Black love. I find the term (or to be more accurate, the people who use it) somewhat distasteful, because it sweeps a bunch of different people and circumstances under the rug in the name of a false solidarity.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for your comment! I love your point about "race loyalty"--because that's precisely what I think is questioned by people in inter-racial relationships--that somehow we have "betrayed" our race/ethnicity. And I agree with your distaste for the phrase "black love" (or corollaries like "Asia love" or "Latino love" or "white love")--it somehow implies that these types of "loves" are more "pure"--and we all know how problematic notions of racial purity are!

Finally, yes, Southern Man and I got married a year ago! Thanks for the congratulations!

Jen said...

Hi Jennifer--my name is Jen and I found your blog through a Blog search filter I have on my Google Reader account. This is a really great post! It reminds me a lot of some that I read recently about mixed relationships on It is interesting to think about some same race couples who aren't scrutinized at all even though they seem to be polar opposites; yet inter-racial relationships are often questioned. My husband is black and I am white. We discussed your post this evening after I read it and he gave this example (makes me lol a little) "Fifty Cent and Vivica Fox dated for a week or so. They are so totally different and no one batted an eye because they're both black!" That's a pretty basic comparison, but I do think it fits with your post. Same race = no scrutiny. Different races = persistent questions.

My husband and I have been together for 17 years now and I think people finally accept that we must have some commonalities despite our racial least I hope they do!

Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Jen said...

Hi Jennifer--my name is Jen and I found your blog through a Blog search filter I have on my Google Reader account. This is a really great post! It reminds me a lot of some that I read recently about mixed relationships on It is interesting to think about some same race couples who aren't scrutinized at all even though they seem to be polar opposites; yet inter-racial relationships are often questioned. My husband is black and I am white. We discussed your post this evening after I read it and he gave this example (makes me lol a little) "Fifty Cent and Vivica Fox dated for a week or so. They are so totally different and no one batted an eye because they're both black!" That's a pretty basic comparison, but I do think it fits with your post. Same race = no scrutiny. Different races = persistent questions.

My husband and I have been together for 17 years now and I think people finally accept that we must have some commonalities despite our racial least I hope they do!

Thanks for sharing your experiences.

Tinu said...

Really interesting post, especially with regard to the in-law dynamic. Kudos to you for feeling comfortable enough with your father-in-law to be so honest about your discomfort in certain social settings...

bigWOWO said...

Thanks, Jennifer. I found your post through Euraasian Sensation's blogroll.

I appreciate your heartfelt feelings, and I think that people have to marry whom they love, regardless of race.

However, I do have to comment from the other side. When you write, "I think what's difficult is that no one questions the same-raced couples," I think this is true for most people, but it's not true for Asian American women. I know a few (not many) successful Asian American women who have married Asian guys, and people always ask them why they didn't marry White. People question them all the time. White men are the default choice in Asian American culture. I'm not saying this to be facetious or to exaggerate a point, but it's an intense struggle on the other side of the coin. The media has done such a great job in slandering Asian men that even individuals who are aware have trouble countering it.

I don't believe there is much to be done on an individual level, but on a macro level, the best course of action is probably what you're already doing--promoting Asian American literature, getting people to talk about issues, and supporting Asian American ideas. Thanks again for your blog post, and it was a pleasure reading and commenting.

Jennifer said...

Jen, Tinu, Big WOWO,

Thanks for your comments--I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a post on inter-racial romance would garner interest and interesting comments from folks! I really appreciate all your perspectives. Also, Big WOWO, I find your comments about Asian American women having to justify dating/marrying Asian American men to be very sad--and also it doesn't seem to be the experiences of my own Asian American female or male friends partnered with other Asian Americans. I wonder if this is regional? More of the Asian American friends I have who are married to Asian Americans live in California or metropolitan areas--and actually here in the South I also have a few Asian American friends partnered with Asian Americans and to the best of my knowledge they don't get scrutinized, but maybe I should ask them!

Eurasian Sensation said...

It's funny and sad that you have to justify your relationship with a white man.
There is a fairly ugly strain of thought amongst some Asian-American guys that views Asian women as sellouts for dating or marrying white men.
Sure, the gender imbalance in Asian/white relationships does concern me as an overall trend; but at the end of the day, it may sound corny, but the key thing is love, as you say.
Of all the reasons why I love my own partner, I can't say that her ethnicity is particularly high on the list.

bigWOWO said...


Yes, I was referring to Asian American women in California and other big metro areas. I know a few who have been questioned.

Asian men NEVER get questioned for dating/marrying Asian, at least not that I'm aware of. It's expected that that's the direction we go, if we marry. We Asian dudes get a free pass!

For Asian women...

It could depend on region; it could also depend on area/industry. I've met few Asian female engineers who have ever been questioned for marrying Asian. Probably because there are lots of Asian men in that field, possibly because engineering is one of those silent jobs where one is not expected to be all that social or to have different kinds of interactions. People who hang out in Asian churches and interact mostly with Asian people also don't get questioned.

Asian women in law who marry Asian, on the other hand, get questioned all the time. I've heard it from many, many Asian female lawyers. The same with Asian women in entrepreneurship. It could be that people just speak from the cuff in those industries, or it could be that there just happen to be more social interactions and therefore more opportunities to question.

My sister is in an engineer and an exception to the no-questions-for-engineers rule. Her Chinese American female friend said something like, "Why are you dating an Asian man when there are SOOO MANY White men around?" This was in Boston, where there are also many Asian men, Black men, Latino men, etc.

Are most of your Asian female friends who married Asian in the engineering field? If so, that might explain the difference. I'm curious what they say.

Jennifer said...


Hmmmmm....I think you raise an interesting point about the different circles that people travel in, work related. When I think of the Asian American women I know married to Asian American men they are in the medical profession (nurses, doctors, public health), academics (fellow professors of humanities and social sciences as well as hard sciences), a few lawyers, a few working in business or government.

Although the caveat should be, none of them has ever voiced or complained that anyone has ever said such a thing to them--so it may very well be that perhaps they are being asked this, although in a few cases I'm pretty sure that they haven't (only because folks I'm close to know I work and blog about race and are always sharing anecdotes with me).

It's also interesting to think who is doing the questioning--in your one example it was a fellow Asian American woman. I would imagine that anyone who would ask this question would have to feel VERY COMFORTABLE with the person (or be very socially obtuse--and there are those folks out there as well) and/or would be an Asian American asking the question since it is too baldly a sign of white privilege to have a white person ask (but I'm sure that folks have asked).

Eurasian Sensation, thanks for stopping by! I think, analytically, I can think of all sorts of socio-historical reasons why people of different racial/ethnic groups inter-marry. But at the end of the day, I agree--it's cliche and corny but it's about love. And while I hate those t-shirts that say love sees no color (because what's wronging with recognizing race? Judging someone based on race is bad but seeing it just seems to be common sense--like seeing gender or recognizing someone's height), I do think that LOVE sees color as just one component (and as you note, not always the most important one).

Anonymous said...

I think this is really interesting because I'm at a point where I feel it's really common for Asian women to date white guys. I very rarely see asian women (and men) with non-white/asian partners. So I don't really question the dynamics of that relationship when I do see it.

But, I always assumed it was cultural vs anything else as I see more asians hang out with white people than any other race of person. Also, since whiteness is projected as being the epitome of beauty standards, I feel that asian men and women are more likely to find white people more attractive than anyone else. And I've found that white men (particularly in my experience) find asian women (especially if they're well-endowed) to be the most attractive. So they're sought after more so than other types of women, I think.

TwisterB said...

I hope my ignorance doesn't come off in the wrong way, but it's my *impression* that the United States is a very segregated place, with really well defined racial/cultural neighborhoods in all the major cities ect...So my question is how often do people of different races really mix in a meaningful way in America? How likely are people to have inter-racial relationships if all of their friends are the same race?

Is this an erroneous impression?

bigWOWO said...


Please ask them what they think. Feel free to reference the quote from my sister, and ask them specifically if they've ever heard anything similar. I don't know if the med people or academics will say anything--I think people are less intrusive in those fields--but I'm willing to bet that you'll get some surprising feedback from lawyers and business people.

I know that you've shared stories with these women before, but they may not feel comfortable sharing such unsolicited AF/AM info with you, given the whole..uneasiness of the topic. I've noticed that there happens to be a huge divide along that line. Women may not feel comfortable talking about it, especially with someone who is married to a White guy--not that there is anything wrong with marrying White, but there does exist that divide both in culture and understanding. Think about it--it's much easier to complain about racism from a White guy who called you a chink than it is to complain about racial innuendos coming from other Asian women. The first kind of racism is more clear cut--there is a crime and an enemy; the second is complex, given the race of the players and that racism is internal.

I think you've got it right in talking about the questioners. It's always other Asian women. White people can't say anything because of the White privilege thing, Asian men wouldn't question it (at least not out loud :) ), and no one else is really close enough to confide such racial thoughts except for other Asian women. I have heard one White guy saying racist things about an Asian woman's Asian boyfriend, but that was only because he got dumped and was angry. It was anger more than racism.

Yumi Wilson said...

I really appreciate your honesty and reflection in this piece. It's very powerful because of your willingness to share your candor on the page. I have had very similar experiences ... so thank you for helping me to explore them.

Jennifer said...

parisianfeline, twisterB, BigWOWO, and Yumi,

Thanks for leaving comments and asking questions. In some cases--like the question that twister B asked about meaningful mixings among people of different races and cultures, I think that warrants its own post (so please keep reading--I promise I will respond!) and I hope others will also respond, either on your own blogs or in my comments section.

I also think that parisian feline's comment about Asian female-white male pairings being more common is something that we take for granted in US society--but why? How did this come about? There is nothing more inherently attractive about Asian women--they are not an aesthetically more or less beautiful group of women than any other. And why are white men so desirable to Asian women? Again, white men are no more aesthetically attractive than any other men. But I think we are conditioned into believing that this is the case--how and why did this come about? I think I know some of the hows and whys, but I think asking this question is important to tease out the politics and power relations of inter-racial relationships. Not to say that love doesn't play a factor as well--just that it's almost never as simple as that--just like it's not that simple in same-race relationships (and by the way, I recognize that I haven't even touched on the dimension of sexuality--for folks who are bisexual or lesbian or gay who date inter-racially).

I don't really have answers so much as guesses and questions--it might be the academic/researcher in me, but I do like asking the questions and I really appreciate you all leaving comments and more questions!

bigWOWO said...


I just posted up a blog post and linked to our discussion.

"There is nothing more inherently attractive about Asian women--they are not an aesthetically more or less beautiful group of women than any other. And why are white men so desirable to Asian women?"

So if we're asking questions...what would you say to someone who asserts that there is a natural difference? Such as this guy:

In his essay, he thinks there is an evolutionary reason why guys like him (White) are more attractive than Asian men, and why gals like you (Asian) are more attractive than black women. How would you respond?

dawn said...

I'm a white woman in a relationship with an Asian man in a small city in the southern Midwest...

An Asian female friend recently told me how surprised she was that my bf and I were together. I really wanted to ask why, but we were at an event that didn't give me a chance to have a serious conversation. I didn't want to be confrontational, and she's a non-mother-tongue English speaker, which suggests the possibility of some kind of misunderstanding.
Another Asian female friend (South East Asian) in a relationship with an Indian guy also expressed some surprise about my relationship with an Asian guy. She also describes her bf as "really cute -- Indian" in such a way that may imply that others might not find him cute. But again, the fact that English is not her mother tongue may be an issue? (I don't think so though).
A few generational notes: The two friends I mentioned above are about our age (20s). What about Asian women of older generations? I've definitely noticed fond smiles...
My Asian guy friends don't say anything about my relationship, but they are guys, after all.

I suspect that many of my friends, even fairly close friends, are hesitant to say much to me about race in regard to my personal life. If they are in mono-racial relationships, they may feel that in order to be supportive, it's best not to bring it up, which is fine -- though when we're all hanging out in public together, they must notice that my bf and I are a bit conspicuous. They may not know about the whole AM dating disparity issue, or they may, which might make them feel awkward. This point makes me wonder about WM/AF relationships -- in what ways is it different / more difficult for them because of the issues you mentioned?

I also wonder what difference it makes that my bf is himself an immigrant, which is evident b/c he is fluent in English but it's not a mother tongue... We are dealing not only with race but with the politics of immigration.

I completely agree with the point that society tends to politicize ir relationships in a way that would be considered cynical and absurd in the case of mono-racial relationships, which are somehow always already about true love. In my observation, this issue also can come up for international couples of the same race, though in a less fraught way: In regard to white English / white American relationships for example, Americans may perceive other Americans in relationships with English people as tainted by the idea that the American individual was attracted by the English individual because the English are perceived as are more sophisticated, polished, interesting...

Wow -- sorry to go on so long! Your post made me articulate quite a few things that I've been thinking about for a while. Thanks for a great post.

Anton said...

If I may, I would like to propose a different viewpoint. That view is that just because we can intellectually see that a particular grouping is in fact influenced by racist views, does not mean that we can do anything to escape those views. We live in society and therefore our tastes were moulded by society before we realised they were based on racist concepts. The same thing happened to me and my wife. We are both very aware that a mixed Asian man marrying a brown girl is stereotypical for Jamaicans, none-the-less it happened. Attraction, very much, is to some extent culturally inculcated into the mind. Humans are social beings after all.

The fact that you can know and still choose or allow oneself to fall into such a pairing shows how insidious the racist culture caused by colonialism is. It needs something more than just head knowledge and fighting against the system to change it.

Ben Efsaneyim said...

Hi Jennifer

This is such a contentious subject within Asian-America!

I usually avoid participating in the so-called "IR debate" but I thought that your post raised some interesting questions.

First of all, I agree that politicizing personal relationships is unfair on individuals who just want to be able to live their lives. But we have to give credit where it’s due – interracial relationships are politicized in America because white America wanted it that way, and to some degree seemingly still wants it that way. As your post suggests America is still uncomfortable with mixed relationships particularly those involving white women and non-white men – the cultural attitudes that mainstream culture expresses reflect this.

Your posts suggest (and I agree) that interracial relationships involving white men and Asian women are culturally “normal” for America. This is just weird considering that just about every other type of mixed race pairing is largely invisible in mainstream American culture at the best of times, and is often met with negative attitudes in real life. That in itself is political. The fact that Asian women can enjoy almost complete cultural acceptance whilst every other ethnic minority remains the object of distrust or fear I think offers valid reason for people to question why this should be the case.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Asian women receive complete social acceptance, or that they don’t experience negative reactions to their race. I am saying that the media depiction of the pairing of white men and Asian women in mainstream American culture (and hence in society itself) is so normalized that we should even consider not calling it “interracial” because it in no way resembles the experiences of other minorities who struggle for this kind of cultural acceptance in America.

This answers the question of why same-race pairings are considered the norm – that isn’t the fault of minorities, but of white history and privilege. I think it would be fantastic if white culture was as inclusive of Asian men and other ethnic minorities as it is of Asian women, but as of yet, it isn’t – that isn’t our fault! Sure it would be great if everybody felt as though they could cross the racial dating line as effortlessly as Asian women and white men are able to – but, ironically, this has become possible only because of white male privilege. Sadly, the same white privilege that has elevated Asian women to almost cultural parity with whites, also strives to discredit and exclude everyone else.

So I think it is na├»ve to wonder why other people (white or not) do not find it as easy to cross the race line as an Asian woman might. It almost reminds me of those guys who wonder why poor minorities don’t just study harder in school or work harder to pull themselves out of poverty. As we all know, when the system is set up for you to fail, then most of the time you will.

thanks for this post - it was definitely thought provoking!

jedifreac said...

Though I don't know anyone who that has happened to personally, if BigWOWO is right and Asian women also get grilled for dating Asians, then it just means that Asian American women are in a lose-lose situation, being micromanaged by others into expectations placed on the race of the person you are supposed to date...

Olivia Emisar said...

I am so glad I found you. I have something to share with you and thank you for having this kind of blog. I'll gladly link to yours on any of my pieces. As the product of multi-national marriages, there is no place for the children to go.

I lost my calm with with comments made against President Obama Here:

And with the racial slurs here:

We need to come together and be more vocal and visible. I went to one of the sites you recommended, but it seems to be dead.

If you read the comments left on the article on Cornell West, you will see how much of a need there is for a place to gather, read and support each other. We have been marginalized and we are in the millions.

That is a lot of voting power.

I'll leave now, I am normally more calm, but I was shocked to have found you.

Thank you.