The tricky business of love, race and white privilege

The Takeaway
More than 5.3 million marriages in the U.S. are between couples of different races or ethnicities.

More than 5.3 million marriages in the US are between couples of different races or ethnicities.

Filippo Bacci / Getty

Is love colorblind? According to the US Census Bureau, there are more than 5.3 million interracial and interethnic couples in the United States, and that number continues to grow.

Though the modern couple is growing more and more diverse, conversations about race and relationships can still be complicated.

“The challenges with interracial dating, in a way, have gotten easier,” says Joshua Johnson, host of Truth Be Told, a new show about race in America show from KQED and PRI. “It used to be illegal to date someone outside of your race, so in that regard, life has gotten better. But the increased visibility, in some ways, has kind of forced us to look at each other in the eye and go, ‘Oh, I don’t really know what to do with you.’”

Though interracial and interethnic couples are free to date more openly, Johnson says individuals in these relationships must navigate stereotypes, myths, preconceptions and misconceptions.

“In a way it’s gotten harder because we realize how little we know about each other,” he says. “Generationally, it’s been interesting to watch people, even from the same race or same culture, deal with social mores about interracial relationships changing over time.”

Amber, a young black woman from Pittsburgh, is married to a white man. Before she tied the knot, Amber confessed that her grandmother encouraged her to marry someone within her race.

“My grandmother and her girlfriend were sitting in the living room, and she was just like, ‘Amber, when are you going to get married?’ I was like, ‘Never, I don't wanna deal with that,’” she says with a laugh. “She's like, ‘It's time for you to start going to a church with lots of young, single black men.’ I could not stop laughing. I was like, ‘Grandma what does that even mean? I guess Tony and I are dating.’ And she was like, ‘Don’t you wanna date someone who is like you?’”

Because black women tend to marry at lower rates than white women, Johnson says that many people in African American communities are concerned about the future of the black family.

“Culturally, there’s an understandable interest in preserving the nature of black families and black communities, and keeping a certain connection between black men and black women,” he says. “Now in this era of interracial dating, feels much more visceral.”

Issues of race and romance also extend to other communities. Ravi, an Indian-American man from San Francisco, says that he’s had trouble dating other Asian women.

“A Korean-American woman said, ‘I wouldn’t date you,’ or ‘I've only dated white men because I would want my children to have privilege and status,” Ravi says.

In this situation, Johnson says that Ravi is up against two racial fronts that are hard to compete with.

“The stereotypes about Asian men — that they’re not as virile, that they’re not as well endowed, that they’re not as manly as some of the other ‘manly men’ that one could be dating — Ravi comes into the American dating with an inherent disadvantage based on cultural stereotypes,” says Johnson. “That’s independent of the race of whoever he might be attempting to court.”

In addition to unfair stereotypes, Ravi is also competing with white privilege.

“This is a super touchy subject, and a lot of people don’t like talking about white privilege,” says Johnson. “Let me define that term before we keep going: White privilege refers to the unearned advantages, through no fault or action of their own, that whites enjoy as a result of legacy racism in the US. It does not mean that if you are white today and you are privileged that you’re a racist — that you did something awful to get that.”

Those that enjoy white privilege don’t have to worry about race and dating, Johnson says, something that is itself a privilege.

“To not think about this racial game that you have to play in the US — that’s probably the biggest privilege of all,” he says.

Johnson says that the Korean-American woman that turned Ravi down was simply making a calculation about acquiring privilege and status.

“Yes it sucks, no it’s not fair, yes it’s real,” says Johnson. “For her to say that her children would enjoy that may or not be so — it depends on how people perceive her kids. If she marries someone who’s white and their kids look more Korean than white, they may not benefit from that privilege.”

He continues: “On the other hand, marrying someone who’s white means someone who has benefited from those privileges historically. For instance, having more wealth and more disposable income — that could argue well for her kids in terms of being able to build a life for them. This is awful stuff to have to talk about. To try to build a relationship on this — it’s crazy making. But there’s some reality to it. I don’t know what I would do if I was in Ravi’s situation, but I see it from both sides.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.