Having racial preferences is nothing new, nor is it particularly scandalous. Back in the 80s, my mother recalls black women kissing their teeth as they walked past her and my father in the street, an active acknowledgement of his betrayal to his race. Now, despite certain prejudices about miscegenation remaining if not gradually decaying, it is rare if even an eyelid is batted towards my parents’ display of interracial affection.
In this day and age, having a racial preference of romantic partner might simply mean you find that particular race more attractive, is perhaps of the only race you’ve ever been actively exposed to, or hey, maybe you guys just fell in love over a shared love of overpriced coffee. There’s probably a movie about that last one.
The innocence in adopting a romantic racial preference, however, is made complicated when one or both individuals are of mixed-raced heritage. It should first be acknowledged that sexuality and gender are ultimately racialised, in a deformed kind of theoretical triad which one can spend their whole lives trying to navigate their way around. This being the undisputable case, there is plenty of evidence of how our romantic choices are indications of racial allegiances, particularly for the biracial individual. “A biracial person’s choice of lover and spouse serves for many observers as yet another racial litmus test. The choice is seen as an affirmation of the biracial person’s own racial affiliation.” (Funderberg, 1994)
Prior to writing this article, I was reading Frances Winddance Twine’s study of heterosexual racial alliances in preparation for that dissertation I should really be doing, and found myself doing a lot more soul searching than I had bargained for. In her study, she interviews students who identify as biracial, and ultimately concludes that despite their racial identities being subject to shifting from multiracial to monoracial, all informants identified their attraction to romantic partners from a preferred racial background as an expression of their allegiance to a specific racial community. (Twine, 1996)
Having always identified myself as biracial, at least in the superficial sense, I dug up my own romantic history, which admittedly, is no more dramatic than it is dusty. There was a lot of finger counting, a lot of ‘wait, does he count?’ and trailing back through periods of drunken amnesia, but I ultimately came to the same conclusion: I have never been with a black guy.
Before you go and order me to stand in the Starbucks queue with all the other basics, I insist upon the clarification of my statement. By ‘been,’ I mean to strictly include sexual encounters or dating, in the traditional, non-Tinder sense of the word. Furthermore, I restrict the racial category to ‘black’ because it makes up the other segment of my racial identity and is thus relevant, and also the guys I have been with have not always been exclusively ‘white.’
Semantics out of the way, we can all crawl under my bed covers, which are perfectly clean, by the way. In Twine’s study, one student, Alex, who grew up identifying himself as biracial, recalls actively avoiding black girls in high school: “[…] I think it’s not just a coincidence that I never dated any black girls in high school. Looking back I definitely avoided it. I remember a [black] girl in my high school who had her mother ask my mother if I would be her escort for the coalition…I do realise that I was running away just because it would have been dating a black girl. And she was pretty too, nice, stylish, popular. Irrelevant. Totally irrelevant.” (Twine, 1996)
I’m aware that Alex is speaking from a male and American perspective, the latter of where racial categories hold significantly more social importance, however, his fundamental status of being mixed-raced certainly has resonance with me.
Despite being raised in equal measure by my black and white parents, I will be the first to admit that I grew up, socially at least, as white. We live in a suburban, majority middle-class white neighbourhood and I was the only ‘coloured’ girl in my school right up until I transferred to the sixth form aged 16. All my girlfriends were white and we gossiped about the guys in our year, and I remember pining after one boy who, despite sitting next to me every science class, would clearly never realise our potential as the greatest couple ever. “I feel like guys don’t want to go out with me because of my skin colour,” I confessed to my friends at a sleepover. I had clearly put a downer on the whole evening’s festivities of truth or dare, and they waved off my concerns with hugs and Haribo sweets.
In hindsight, being 14, white and attending an all-white school, their opinions about race and relationships were largely irrelevant. I felt then as I still partly feel now- no matter how much I sought their approval, white boys would never like me. Choosing me as a romantic partner would have just too catastrophic a social consequence. No white teenage boy, as far as I was aware, wanted to be known as ‘the guy with the black girlfriend,’ and be at the butt-end of racial slurs disguised as jokes among his friends.
Venturing into adulthood, I shed off some of my insecurities in the hope that the guys I dated would also rid themselves of their racial pettiness. At university, I was suddenly getting more attention than ever before from guys of all races. This is not vanity, but merely a consequential hazard of being in a drunken, often claustrophobic environment full of sexually starved young people. I remember having a charming chat with a black guy in the smoking area of a club, only to later be watched in complete bewilderment by my friends as I chose perhaps the only white guy in the hip-hop orientated club.
I always walked away from these encounters feeling numb. Any chance at a further relationship was completely out of the question in their eyes. They got their coat from my house the next morning and never called back. I was an eroticized trophy, a story to ring home about, at best. As I overheard one guy telling his friend, “Dude, I hooked up with a nigger!”
I laid on my bedroom floor trying to figure out why my love life kept going around in circles, why I still had learnt nothing. Of course, there were many external factors that influenced my choice in partner, including the demographic of the area I grew up in and in the TV shows I watched and magazines I read; all the ‘hot’ characters and cut out posters were white boys. But the truth of the matter was still the same, and something I’ve spent a long time trying to avoid admitting to myself. My romantic relationships, no matter how toxic I knew they were, manifested out of a necessity to assert an identity that was white, biracial or anything that wasn’t just ‘black.’
I laid on my bedroom floor, trying to figure out why my love life kept going around in these racially exclusive circles.
It is only recently, as I continue to grow as an individual and learn more about my racial heritage and its history, that my horizons have broadened, if not a little sceptically. I went on a series of dates with a perfectly fine black guy. It was so refreshing to talk about black lives matter, hip-hop, black literature, and other things that are so integral to black culture freely without fear of misunderstanding. But at times, it felt like I was being tested. I didn’t know all of Kendrick Lamar’s songs, I didn’t go to church and I couldn’t associate with the ‘black family problems’ which he pointed out. I realise that these by no means encapsulate the diversities of black identity, but it would be ignorant of me to ignore their significance to it.
If I had to say which race I found most attractive, it would be someone of mixed-raced. Finding these people just becomes that little bit more difficult considering that contrary to popular belief; we do not congregate in large groups and do not have a university society dedicated to our very existence. I’m attracted to mixed-raced people, whether sexually or otherwise because I know they are likely to have similar experiences to my own, and on a more psychological level, they act as a medium through which I can confidently assert my biracial identity.
My best friend is both male and mixed race, and we are spookily spiritually and emotionally in sync. As much as I would like to think our fast friendship is the work of some higher power, I cannot deny his race or his gender as appealing factors. First and foremost, I love him for who he is as a person, but perhaps he also fills a much longed for space of male companionship which is both mutually understandable and socially justifiable.
As it stands, I am open to anyone and everything, fleetingly or long-term, sexually or platonic. My parents are proof that race may play an integral factor in social relationships, but it never will when it comes to matters of the heart. But I still have that insecurity in the back of my mind that my racial identity will be branded upon the space where my heart is depending on the colour of the hand that is holding mine. This shouldn’t be the way things are, but it is. I don’t plan to have the answers because then we would have to argue whether anything I’ve talked about can really be considered a problem. We all long for some sense of identity, but perhaps we need to be sure of ourselves before we can allow others to assert it for us.
Twine, Frances Winddance, ‘Heterosexual Alliances’ in The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier, ed. Maria P.P. Root, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996) p 291-305
Funderburg, L. Black, white, other: Biracial Americans talk about race and identity, (New York: William Morrow, 1994) p. 197