Why the Hell Are On-Screen Interracial Relationships Still a Big Deal?


We’re now in year six of sunny post-racial America, and things are going great, right!?! We have a biracial president, and, uh…Halle Berry won an Oscar that time…and…a vocal contingent of Americans will eagerly whip themselves into a racist frenzy over a kid having a white mom and a black dad in a fucking Cheerios commercial. Up top, people-who-say-racism-is-over!

So, sarcasm aside, why is it still a water-cooler-worthy novelty (and/or abominable horror) to see an interracial couple in a commercial, TV show, or movie? There’s been progress, sure—ordinary, healthy interracial couples show up from time to time nowadays; whereas I can’t remember any examples from my childhood that weren’t either exotified or used as cautionary tales. But considering the amount of lip service we, as a society, pay to the “normalcy” and “acceptability” of interracial relationships, why should on-screen interracial romance warrant even a blip at this point? Is it possible—just go with me on this, America—that we still have some racial issues we haven’t quite worked through?

Sophia Seawell at Bitch Magazine has a thoughtful round-up of the last few decades of progress in on-screen interracial couples:

I suspect that, in part, interracial couples in ads are less about being progressive and more about the aesthetics of such pairings, the contrast created by putting dark next to light or the humor of awkwardly mixing cultures. Advertisements have to be memorable and, as the Cheerios ad has shown, interracial pairings still cause a stir. Due perhaps to their historical hypersexualization, interracial ads have the ability, therefore, to not just be eye-catching but provocative.
…A University of Florida study of blockbuster Hollywood films between 1967 and 2005 concluded that the media is stuck on specific portrayals of interracial relationships: in the movies sampled, 42 percent of female characters in such pairings were victims of violence. “While white women in interracial relationships came across as either morally corrupt or socially inept or as victims of physical or sexual abuse, women of color who become involved with white men were often presented as erotic, exotic and possessing exceptional talents.” And although it is statistically more likely for black men to ‘marry out’ of their race, the movie industry seems less keen on interracial couples with black men. According to this informal accumulation of movies with interracial couples, there are twice as many films featuring white men with black women than black men with white women.

Seawell goes on to note that television shows—like Grey’s Anatomy and Parks & Rec—tend to be more progressive and less patronizing/exotifying when pairing up cast members of different races.

I’m in an interracial relationship (or, as I like to call it…a relationship) with a man who is the product of an interracial relationship. My parents are both white. My boyfriend is half white and half Nigerian (it seemed too perfect not to include that video of him, above, making one of my favorite points ever about interracial relationships in advertising). We live in one of the most diverse zip codes in the country. Mostly, our life is mundane. When we get looks on the street, which we sometimes do, I suspect it has less to do with our skin color than with the fact that I’m fat and he’s a conventionally attractive mega-hunk (#braggin).*

But when we interact with pop culture, there’s still always this lingering reminder that no matter how mundane we feel, our relationship is atypical. If you search for stock photos of “happy couple,” you get people who “match.” It’s an entrenched paradigm that throws out all of the subtle, personal, idiosyncratic ways that people can “match” (the ways that really build the foundation of a relationship) in favor of one superficial physical characteristic. That’s not to say that race, as a sociopolitical issue, is superficial (or that shared cultural experience based on race can’t enrich relationships), but to pair people up based on skin color is by definition superficial.

That’s why, when it comes to “correcting” issues like this—issues that uphold the destructive idea that certain families are normal and certain families are niche—mild progress isn’t enough. We can’t just make one Cheerios commercial and be like, “See? We did it! Now back to the white people.” To actually fix this problem, for the purposes of healing, we need a period of extreme overexposure to “nontraditional” families in media (interracial couples, LGBT couples, single parents, etc). For the same reason that you can’t put black robbers in security commercials—even though, yes, some robbers are black—you really have to go beyond the point of just being representative of society to actually begin to correct systemic imbalances.

Maybe it seems like a pain in the ass, but if we’re really a nation that has “no problem” with interracial relationships, then we have to go above and beyond to make them seem normal. Know why? BECAUSE THEY ARE NORMAL.

*Not that I personally subscribe to the “conventional attractiveness” paradigm (I’ve dated dudes who looked every which way), but a lot of people do—and holy shit are we ever a foreign concept to them. It’s incredible how many women (fans of mine, sometimes) hit on my boyfriend right in front of me, like they could just “have” him and he would be grateful and it would be the proper thing to do to correct the balance of the universe. They’re only slightly worse than the people who assume we’re together because of some fetish. You guys. Maybe we just find each other attractive because we are both awesome.

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