I Am Not a Fish Dating a Bird
“A bird and a fish can fall in love,” a writing professor once told my class. “But where are they going to live?”
It was a dog-whistle sentiment tuned to a frequency one grudgingly learns to pick up in graduate school environments. I think the class was supposed to take the folksy aphorism to mean that terrestrial concerns can splash cold water on high romance. I noticed a number of my classmates nodding and tittering, as if my professor had just landed an unimpeachable mic drop. But what struck me about the offhanded comment was its implications about how we understand difference.
If birds and fish are metaphorical categories for types of humans, the implication is that some types of humans are so fundamentally different from one another that no single environment can simultaneously serve each party’s respective needs. Who could argue that birds and fish, regardless of their capacity to love one another, aren’t better served by remaining apart? In my professor’s formulation, the different categories that the two parties belong to guarantees their incompatibility; there’s a natural disharmony. If we assume that my professor doesn’t actually suppose that ichthyoids reach a point where they want to pick out curtains, it’s not hard to imagine that all the categories of human difference—race, class, religious affiliation, ability, etc.—are the assumed stand-ins for birds and fish.
If we accept intimate contact as the threshold for overcoming prejudice, all is already lost.
This truncated understanding of difference is especially ripe for examination in what we are told is an alarmingly polarized America, where questions of difference pervade the roiling debate over free speech on college campuses, the post-election spike in hate crimes, and even how to confront terrorism. I was reminded of the ill-fitting birds and fish metaphor when reading Sheryll Cashin’s New York Times op-ed “How Interracial Love is Saving America” (an adaptation from a forthcoming book), in which she argues that so-called interracial marriages and their rise can mend the country’s racial divide. Paging Audre Lorde. Isn’t the concept of “race mixing” itself a tool of white supremacy? All relationships involve the joining of heterogeneous parties. Is there a socially redeeming purpose to marking racial heterogeneity with an asterisk? The widely discredited notion that physical differences between skin, hair, and bone portend immutable differences in ability, character, and judgment is one of racism’s most resilient fictions, and framing a romance as “interracial” does more to reinscribe this fiction than to challenge it. Interracial lovers are no remedy to racial strife, particularly if they enter such relationships with overblown perceptions of the boundaries they’re transgressing.
What makes Cashin’s utilitarian view of interracial relationships yet more troubling is that she supposes that intimate contact is a means to persuade people of different races of their common humanity. If we accept intimate contact as the threshold for overcoming prejudice, all is already lost. The humanity of people of color is manifestly clear, so when it comes to the validation of prejudice, the burden of proof is on racists. To concede our humanity as something less than self-evident is to forfeit our right to call this country a civilization. We can only topple white supremacy when all racial minorities are recognized as equally worthy of inclusion and opportunity regardless of whom they date or choose to befriend. Insisting that there is a strategic anti-racist incentive to dating outside one’s race only compounds the obstacles some of us already face in the dating pool. Ascribing some kind of nobility to the choice not to date a black woman if you’re a black person or not to date an Asian man if you’re an Asian person is more likely to play into existing stigmas than ameliorate them.
I find nothing appealing about the vision of love as a cross-cultural exchange program.
As an unmarried thirty-year-old black New York City dweller, I can tell you that swiping right for a chance to be a testing ground for Richard Spencer’s worldview is a nonstarter. Interracial dating is maybe not quite a case of distinction without difference, but it is at the very least a case of distinction with overdetermined difference. To begin with, I tend to think of racial differences as definitely sociological, only possibly (but not certainly) cultural, and speciously biological. That is, when I meet another black person, I don’t assume that we have a love of soul food or impressive vertical leaps in common. All I take for granted is that we share the social experience of being black, allowing that even that connective thread can be a thin one when gender, class, family structure, geography, and education level (among so many defining others) are taken into account. Nonetheless, even when sociological differences are profound, I am wary of the inclination to view them as absolute.
I have been most conscious of “diversity” in my life when in rooms consisting entirely of black people. Attending black church services or events sponsored by the National Association of Black Journalists, I have noted the broad spectrum of differences in national identity, language, faith, color, cuisine, and moral outlook. Blackness as a banner heading comfortably houses all these variables of identity because among the descendants of slaves (and even those whose lineage may be traced elsewhere, but are presumed African American on the basis of their complexion), race is a traditional axis for consolidating political capital. But how one organizes politically and how one forms a self cannot be totally coextensive. When the concept of “identity politics” is such a battleground in the Trump era, it is particularly vital to recall that identity is a tapestry of myriad strands, some of which are made salient by traumatic history and some of which may only swing into stage center during a particularly illuminating third date conversation—but are nonetheless just as crucial to our inner lives.
It would be forgivable to mistake my awareness of difference as a hackneyed, futile grasping at post-racialism. Post-racialism prizes colorblindness and treats racism as an evil Tinkerbell that will vanish without a trace if we deny its existence. A more attainable possibility might be a post-racist understanding of so-called interracial dating. A post-racist discourse about race and dating could acknowledge and account for the intractable nature of racism without propagating essentialist or biological determinist notions of what race is. My aim is not to dismiss race’s importance but to pinpoint its specific importance, to account for race proportionately as one thing but not all things. I’m not questioning the pat and tidy notion of “interracial dating” because my own blackness is something I want to eschew. In fact, being black perhaps contributes to the urgency of understanding difference as a gradient. A great many choices I’ve made in my adult life have been buoyed by the conviction that blackness is sufficiently capacious to accommodate a vast range of tastes, behaviors, and inclinations—including those that run counter to the most visible, propagandized definitions of what blackness is. It seems only rational to recognize a comparable elasticity to Latinxness or queerness or womanhood.
The question of interracial love and its political ramifications is to some degree personal for me. I’m an African American man and my girlfriend is an Arab woman of Egyptian and Italian heritage. I reject the interracial label in part because I fail to see any legitimate support for the idea that I’m a fish dating a bird. Our shared understanding that rumors of our difference have been greatly exaggerated is no small part of what makes our relationship feasible. Though I am shaped by my experiences as a North America dweller, a male, and an inhabitant of a black body, dating someone who does not share those experiences does not, in my view, involve spanning a prodigious cultural gulf or defying some kind of primeval orthodoxy. Neither of us would tear up watching Disney’s Pocahontas and marvel at love’s potential to transcend racial divisions. We are both more the type to wonder why John Smith doesn’t recalibrate his breathtakingly colonial gaze as the butterflies creep in. The tropes and vocabulary of “interracial romance” are generally more a hindrance to than harbinger of the formation of a credible bond with someone. I find nothing appealing about the vision of love as a cross-cultural exchange program in which Sean Patrick Thomas teaches Julia Stiles a few slammin’ (do note the conspicuously black absence of the letter “g”) hip hop moves and picks up some ballet steps in return. Such time-worn scripts reduce multi-dimensional people into tokens, and while I expect that kind of marginalization at a societal level, I would think a more holistic visibility in the eyes of my partner is the least I can hope for.
I’ve spent more than a few afternoons consulting Wikipedia to put my girlfriend’s tales of living through the 2011 Egyptian revolution into context. There is a syllable of her last name that confounds my slovenly American tongue.
To be sure, there are differences between my partner and I that do stem from our varying backgrounds, but they’re of the reconcilable variety—not the kind of thing best emblematized by a fish learning to fly. I’ve spent more than a few afternoons consulting Wikipedia to put my girlfriend’s tales of living through the 2011 Egyptian revolution into context. There is a syllable of her last name that confounds my slovenly American tongue. But even though a culture of white supremacy maintains the centrality of race as a personal identifier, the parts of identity that are most integral to sustaining a romance may or may not correspond with the prevailing stereotypes or dominant narratives about one’s race. The first tenet of the “cultural dexterity” that Cashin touts as a reason to date “interracially” should probably involve the jettisoning of binary thinking. Apparent difference in terms of race may conceal formative similarities that escape skin-deep assessment, and vice versa. Both my and my girlfriend’s respective fathers are professors and authors. We were each raised in hyperliterate households that embraced the arts. We’re both products of strong, happy, interfaith marriages, which is a shared attribute that directly informs our mutual confidence that harmony does not require homogeneity.
Each of us would register quite differently on a census, but to me it is clear that we sought one another out because we’re both birds in the most significant respects. It is equally clear to me that dating “within our races” is neither a necessary nor sufficient path to a comparably simpatico partnership. This is not to say that being a black American is inconsequential to me, or that being Egyptian is of no importance to her. It is only to acknowledge our racial backgrounds as single components of our identities and thus consequential in particular ways, but not to the exclusion of all else. I suspect that my professor’s aphorism is meant to suggest that my and my girlfriend’s differences in racial and national identity portend practical obstacles to a tenable romance. To my ears, there is the same assumption of transgression—and corollary strain—in the term “interracial dating.” I’m comfortable calling the concept vestigial, even while allowing that race is of no less import today than it has ever been.
I felt this acutely as I walked out of the theatre following the movie Loving, a fictionalization of the watershed Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which struck down anti-miscegenation laws fifty years ago last week. The film’s lack of torque is illustrative of how irrational it is that anyone was ever especially hung up on so-called interracial dating. The dramatic tension feels faint and incorporeal because the forces working against the Lovings are almost exclusively dejure. The titular characters Mildred and Richard Loving share values, are familiar with one another’s families and grew up in geographical proximity. For all practical intents and purposes, their union is intuitive and advantageous. The discrepancy in hue aside, the couple consists of two people one could easily imagine being paired by a compatibility algorithm. Yes, there are the trite, “Mad Libs: Racism Edition” scenes in which the Lovings encounter mild resistance from their families, but the U.S. government looms as the central threat to Mr. and Mrs. Loving’s relationship.
Mr. and Mrs. Loving are two people one could easily imagine being paired by a compatibility algorithm.
I attended a talk back about the film held by a diversity advocacy group, where a history professor provided some critical background information about the plot. Left-leaning viewers of various ages, races and professions gathered in a Columbia University conference room to excavate some kind of socially constructive takeaway from the narrative we’d just absorbed. The intellectual heft and basic veracity of the country’s endless conversations on race could improve dramatically if having a historian on hand became standard procedure. Anti-miscegenation laws weren’t intended to prohibit interracial marriages per se; they were specifically designed to prevent the transfer of property from white owners to non-white inheritors. The laws were for the most part only applicable to interracial relationships in which one of the participants was white. Like the one-drop rule, anti-miscegenation laws were one of many mechanisms designed to maintain the exclusivity of whiteness. Referring to a relationship as interracial today reinforces the primacy of whiteness and capital. It is framing romantic relationships as levers for power and access rather than ends unto themselves. Even celebrating Loving Day this month seems to me a questionable allocation of bandwidth. It’s great that civilization did away with miscegenation bans, but it seems like we’re long overdue for a transition to the next step: dispelling the still pervasive myth that a relationship between consenting adults constitutes “miscegenation” in the first place.