Recently, I was out to dinner at a local pan-Asian restaurant with my husband and kids when I observed the following: A young mixed race couple, a black woman and a white man, entered and were seated at a table for two. I would have guessed their age as mid-twenties. Just a few minutes later, another young mixed race couple, another black woman and white man, entered and were seated at a table near the first couple, with a table or two separating them. Both women were seated on the bench against the wall, the men sitting opposite with their backs to me. From their body language, I surmised that neither couple was on their first date, and neither couple seemed in the heady throes of early love when you only have eyes for each other.
I had a clear view of both tables and I watched as each couple tried not to look at the other. The women were cooler about it than the men, their eyes on their menus or their partners, neither of them betraying any interest. Meanwhile, each guy turned his head several times, as if to survey the room, and occasionally stole glances at the other table. I tried not to stare, but it was like watching a silent play and I didn’t want to miss any of the subtle dynamics.
I’ve been married to my white husband for nearly 20 years and the scene playing out in front of me was immediately recognizable. When you’re in a mixed race relationship and you encounter another couple of the same racial mix out in public, it’s as if there are unwritten rules of non-engagement that all parties know to follow. I mean, you are instantly aware of each other, but just as instantly you pretend that the other people don’t exist, because my god, how awkward to acknowledge race among strangers, especially when those strangers could be perceived as similar to you by other strangers based on race alone! The non-engagement is thus a preemptive response to a stereotype threat.
My husband and I met in Southern California in our mid-twenties, where white/Asian couples were more common because of the large Asian American population in the region. You’d think this would mean it would be no big deal, and we could all be cool about the beautiful melting pot that is America. But the impact of stereotype threat is real. When I asked my husband about those early days, he said, “yeah, I was conscious of not wanting people to assume things about us,” but now, he said, he doesn’t really notice if other white/Asian couples are around. I still tend to notice, but it’s true that I’m not self-conscious so much as curious. I want to ask the other couples about their experiences, I want to compare notes. I wanted to ask those two young couples in the restaurant, “so, how does race play out in your relationship? Do you also feel the weight of stereotypes when you’re out in the world together or are you in the “love has no color” camp? What kinds of comments and questions do you get?
What assumptions, what stereotypes, you might ask? In our case: mail order brides; Asian fetish; white men not manly enough to score with white women; Asian women as simultaneously exotic and sex-crazed and docile, submissive, and quiet. We always have a hearty laugh about that submissive and quiet bit. Black/white couples have their own list of racist ideas to contend with, of course; and depending on where you live, not just ideas, but actions (attacks, death threats, exclusion, murder). Not wanting to acknowledge other mixed race couples because you might be lumped in as a group under some ugly stereotype reveals the power of those stereotypes, the insidious ways they get into your head.
According to the latest Pew research, although rates of interracial marriage have increased for all racial groups since 1967 (Loving v. Virginia), as a total percentage of marriages, it’s still not that common. Asian Americans have the highest percentage of “marrying out” (29% of newlyweds in 2015), but the latest numbers from 2008 show only 3.9% of all marriages are between people of different races. Exogamy, then, is still not the norm, and among some people, seen as a betrayal of one’s racial group.
At a university dinner celebrating faculty achievements where my husband was one of the honorees, I was seated next to a senior faculty member, a Chinese American man probably in his 60’s. I was visibly pregnant with our second child; we introduced ourselves to each other and I explained I was here with my husband, sitting across the table. After a few minutes of chit chat, the professor talked about his son, who was still unmarried and who was of the opinion that it was hard to date Asian American women because they were all pairing up with white men. I took this in and nodded politely, making a mental note to tell my husband this latest in the annals of interracial marriage. There were so many things I wish I could have said: “maybe your son needs a better personality” or “maybe he’s just an asshole” or “you say that like it’s my problem, but it’s not.” In any case, this faculty member sharing his son’s views with me felt like a judgment.
I kind of get it, though. Asian American men have to contend with a different set of pernicious stereotypes than Asian American women. Maybe blaming couples like us for his dating woes was this guy’s way of fending off stereotype threat. But misogyny doesn’t fix racism – women don’t owe this guy anything. At the same time, that’s how race works—whatever idiosyncratic and individual reasons brought us together, our relationship is racially marked because we don’t “match”; race shapes the terms of our engagement with each other and with others who view us from the outside. Couples who think “love conquers all,” white people who think they can’t be racist because they’re married to a not white person are living in denial.
Over the years, the stereotypes have come to matter less and less in our daily life. We were lucky that our families were accepting. We got used to the occasional side eyes we got from the Korean ajummas at the local H-Mart. Where we live now, we don’t stand out. We have friends and acquaintances in interracial relationships, and once we had kids, I was glad that they could see themselves and their family reflected in others. Once, a white friend J and his Chinese American wife, K, came to town with their two boys, and over dinner we talked about raising biracial kids and laughed at K’s joke about “hybrid vigor.” It’s important to have a sense of humor about it all. Speaking of hybrid vigor, perhaps my favorite story is when we were at a departmental reception at a different university, pre-kids. A senior French professor said in his lovely French accent, “Are you going to have children? You should; Eurasian babies are the cutest!” My husband and I both laughed, agreed that they are awfully cute, but kept our plans to ourselves. His comments surprised, but didn’t offend me; in that white-dominant space they felt affirming of our relationship rather than alienating. And we did go on to make the cutest babies.