Thursday, February 17, 2011

Interracial Dating and Our (Pre)Post-Racial Society

Are we living in a post-racial society? It's a question I hear often (or sometimes, stated in an affirmative "Clearly, we're in a post-racial society. We have a black president!") Yeah, not so much. But it does seem that most people you talk to recognize a post-racial society as a goal. It's just a goal we'd like to go ahead and get to, without any of this work, and definitely without talking about race.

A study out of UC Berkely looked at popular online dating sites and found that "More than 80 percent of the whites contacted whites and fewer than 5 percent of them contacted blacks, a disparity that held for young as well as for older participants." This in spite of the fact that many of the users checked a box declaring themselves open to dating outside of their race. As you can see from the student reactions in the video above, saying that you're willing to date outside of your race is pretty common when directly asked, especially among young people who have probably grown up with at least some diversity discussions in school and in the surrounding culture.

Anecdotally, I feel like I see quite a few interracial couples. I definitely see a lot of interracial friendships and groups. But I might be more attuned to noticing them, and I certainly live in a more diverse area than I did growing up, so I don't know how much weight to give these observations. At any rate, they're not translating statistically. Less than 1% of all marriages in the US are black-white interracial marriages.  

One of the (white) students in the video says that he's been attracted to black women, but assumes they'd prefer black men and doesn't approach them. But even if that's true, it doesn't explain this:

The researchers also tracked the rates of reciprocation among the pool of online daters, looking at how they responded once they received a message from an interested potential partner. Again, white men and women were most likely to respond to members of their own race, and only 5 percent of their responses went to blacks.
So even when the interested party made the first move, white users were less likely to respond to messages from black users. In addition, "[a]lthough black participants initiated contact to members of their own race more than to whites, they were ten times more likely to contact whites than vice versa, according the the study."


Then I came across this article. In it, Nadra Kareem Nittle asserts that opposition to interracial dating is not inherently racist. Here's her conclusion (which I site at length to ensure that I'm not taking anything out of context, the bolding is mine):
Dating a person of the same racial background can also come in handy when racism surfaces. African-Americans know exactly how it feels to be followed around in a store or treated condescendingly in the workplace because of race. When such incidents happen, they don’t want to have to explain just why these episodes were racist, and, no, they did not misinterpret the situation or jump to conclusions. Having a mate who knows what it’s like to be a victim of racism and who can prepare children to deal with racial oppression is yet another reason some people of color prefer not to date interracially.
 So, are such people racist? No. It’s not racist to want a mate who has experienced racial oppression and can pass down your cultural heritage to children with no egging on from you. If greens and ham hocks were served at your family meals, you may not want to end up with someone who ate green bean casserole instead and wants your children to follow suit because soul food clogs arteries. And if you’re successful and socially conscious, it may be important for you to marry within your race to make sure the resources you have end up in a community of color, which may not happen if you’re living with your spouse in a neighborhood where minorities are few and far between. 
Nittle cites cultural purity and shared oppressive experiences as the primary reasons for avoiding interracial relationships. Here are some of the problems I have with this.

1) I would never even pretend that I know first-hand what it is like to experience racial oppression, and I am the first to admit to being on the receiving end of white privilege in a racist society. It's something I strive daily to work against. Despite my not having first-hand knowledge of oppression, I am not devoid of sympathy or comprehension, and I would never accuse the victim of such racist incidents of "misinterpreting the situation" or "jumping to conclusions." Assuming that I would because of the color of my skin is problematic at best.

2) Cultural purity is the raison d'etre for many white supremacist groups. I find it a racist claim there, and I find it a racist claim here, as well. No two people are going to share identical cultures because culture is a combination of all of our life experiences and our personal perceptions of those experiences. While it may be true that a couple where both members are black will share some cultural experiences I don't have, it's also true that I have many cultural overlaps with my husband that many black women do not. Furthermore, Nittle claims that " In a romantic relationship, many African Americans don’t want to have to field questions about culture." But I think that having discussions about culture is essential parts of any healthy, intellectually-fulfilling relationship (romantic or otherwise). 

3) The claim about ensuring resources go to a community of color is much like the claim that a white partner would accuse a black partner of misinterpreting racist situations; it's a stereotype. It is very important to me that my biracial daughter grow up in a racially diverse environment. I am incredibly conscious of this in choosing schools, neighborhoods, and daycare. I also feel like Nittle's comment that living in a diverse neighborhood "may not happen if you’re living with your spouse in a neighborhood where minorities are few and far between" pits the minority partner in the relationship as subordinate, automatically assuming that the white partner will be the one to make the (very significant) decision about where to live. 

I don't think that people are racist if they haven't dated outside of their race, but I can't see how someone can be "opposed" to interracial dating without racism factoring in to that point of view. 

I also know firsthand how societal and familial pressures can imperil a budding interracial relationship, but I think that the fear Nittle discusses of not wanting to share culture is the largest contributing factor to those views. If we cannot treat each other as human beings--which inherently requires the sharing of culture, for it is in human interactions that culture is formed--then I don't see how we can even envision, let alone reach, a "post-racial" society, no matter how much we claim to want one.

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