Does having a white boyfriend make me less black?

Serena Williams faced backlash when she got engaged to Alexis Ohanian.
Serena Williams faced backlash when she got engaged to Alexis Ohanian.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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I wouldn’t have been surprised if my partner’s parents had objected to our relationship.

In fact, when I first set out to meet his white, British family, I asked if he had told them I was black. His reply—”no, I don’t think they’d care”—filled me with dread.  And when he admitted that I’d be the first non-white woman to meet them, I almost jumped off the train. I was also nervous about introducing him to my Somali-Yemeni family. It wouldn’t have surprised me if they balked: Families forbidding dating outside the clan is a story much older than Romeo and Juliet.

But as it turned out, both our families have welcomed and supported our relationship. The criticism—direct and implied—that I’ve felt most keenly comes from a less expected demographic: woke millennials of color.

I felt this most acutely in communities I’ve developed as a feminist. I can almost see the disappointment radiating off people who find out that my partner is white. One person told me she was “tired” of seeing black and brown people dating white people. And I’m not alone: several black and Asian friends tell me they’ve reached a point that they feel awkward introducing their white partners.

Hollywood is finally beginning to tell meaningful stories by and about people of color—from TV shows such as ABC’s Scandal and Netflix’s Master of None to films including The Big Sick. But many of these stories have provoked strong reactions from audiences critical of characters of color having white love interests.

“Why are brown men so infatuated with White women onscreen?” one article bluntly asks. “By earning white love,” we’re told in another think piece, a nonwhite character “gains acceptance in a society that has thwarted them from the very beginning.” In the hit US network show Scandal, the love triangle between the indomitable Olivia Pope and two powerful white men has been subject to intense scrutiny over the last five years, with some now having to defend Pope (who is literally portrayed as the de facto leader of the free world) from accusations that the show reduces her to “a white man’s whore.”

Real people have also faced harsh criticism for their romantic choices. When tennis star Serena Williams, a black woman and arguably the greatest athlete of our time, announced her engagement to Alexis Ohanian, the white co-founder and executive chairman of Reddit, she was hit by a furious backlash. When the Grey’s Anatomy actor Jesse Williams, who is black, announced he was ending his 13-year relationship with his black wife Aryn Drake-Lee—and confirmed he was dating a white co-star—many jumped at the chance to question Williams’ dedication to social justice and, more specifically, black women.

Should someone’s dedication to fighting oppression be defined by the race of their partner? Does dating a white person make you any less black? The answer to both these questions, for me, is no.

But it’s a complicated issue, one that British author Zadie Smith (author of White Teeth, On Beauty, and Swing Time) tackled in 2015 during a conversation with Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah).

Smith asks Adichie to reflect upon the pleasure they both feel in the fact that US president Barack Obama married Michelle Obama, a dark-skinned black woman. “But then I have to ask myself, well if he married a mixed-race woman, would that in some way be a lesser marriage?” asks Smith, who is herself mixed-race. “If it was a white woman, would we feel differently?”

“Yes, we would,” Adichie responds without hesitation, to a chorus of approving laughter.

Smith persists. “When I think of my own family: I’m married to a white man and my brother is married to a white woman. My little brother has a black girlfriend, dark-skinned. My mother has been married to a white man, then a Ghanaian man, very dark-skinned, now a Jamaican man, of medium-skin. Each time she marries, is she in a different status with her own blackness? Like, what? How does that work? That can’t work.”

I’ve been forced to ask myself the same question. Does my partner’s whiteness have any effect on my blackness? His whiteness hasn’t prevented the microaggressions and presumptions I face daily. It doesn’t make my family immune to structural racism and state violence. I know this for sure: The person that called me a nigger on the street a few months ago wouldn’t be appeased by knowing that my boyfriend is white.

This might be an obvious point to make, but it’s one that feels especially important right now. At the heart of the “woke” objections to interracial dating is the belief that people of color date white people in an attempt to assimilate, or out of an aspiration to whiteness.

As a black woman who’s with a white man, I can attest that nothing about the situation makes me feel more white. In fact, I never feel blacker than when I’m the only black person in the room, having dinner with my white in-laws (lovely as they are).

Others who bash men of color for dating white women have argued that the dynamic of women of color dating white men is an entirely different ball game. Some have gone so far as to suggest that when black or brown women date white men, the act is exempt from their criticism because it can be an attempt to avoid abusive dynamics present in their own communities. This is a dubious argument at best, and downright dangerous in a time when the far right is smearing whole categories of black or brown men by calling them rapists and abusers.

I understand the overarching point of much of this criticism: Portrayal of black or brown characters in popular culture is often terrible. People of color are not seen as desirable, funny, or smart. And we’re not past the point where a white co-star or love interest is sometimes necessary to get the funding for movies telling the stories of people of color.

But attacking interracial relationships is not the way to get better representation. On screen, we should be demanding better roles for people of color, period—as lovers, teachers, comedians, friends, and flawed heroes in shows and moves that tackle race, in those that don’t, and in everything in-between.

While I appreciate some of the nuanced discussion on how race intersects with dating preferences, there’s something quite stinging about reducing the choices we make in romance to just wanting to be white. As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates noted in 2010, there’s a real danger of taking something as intensely private as someone’s relationship, marriage, or family, and criticizing it with the same zeal as we would a social institution. As Coates points out, “relationships are not (anymore, at least) a collectivist act. They really come down to two individuals doing business in ways that we will never be privy to.”

In her conversation with Zadie Smith, Adichie concedes that it’s an impossibly complicated issue: “I’m not interested in policing blackness,” she eventually says.

And indeed, those quantifying another’s blackness by the darkness of her skin or the race of the person he loves might do well to remember that race is, ultimately, a social construct, not a biological fact. “The only reason race matters,” Adichie points out, “is because of racism.”