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Saturday, June 04, 2005

Media Betrays Society’s Ambivalence Toward Interracial Relationships

By Carmen Van Kerckhove
Director of Mixed Media Watch and New Demographic
carmen@newdemographic.com

June 2005 - If you’re not sure whether crossing the color line for sex, love, or marriage is still taboo in this country, just think back to November 2004. ABC put together a corny little segment to cross-promote then-new series “Desperate Housewives” on “Monday Night Football.” The segment featured Nicollette Sheridan clad in only a towel, flirting with Philadelphia Eagle Terrell Owens in the locker room. Sure, the spot was suggestive (she drops her towel and jumps into his arms), but it was more cheesy than it was raunchy. Nevertheless, complaints poured in and ABC rushed to apologize for airing the “inappropriate and unsuitable” promo.

Would the segment have received such an extreme reaction if Sheridan had leapt into the arms of say, white football player Jeremy Shockey instead? I doubt it. “CSI” and its various spin-offs regularly explore topics like incest, child prostitution, infantilism, and “furry” fetishes, often in the same primetime timeslot as “Monday Night Football.” Yet there’s no outcry over these shows. It wasn’t the sexual content of the ABC promo that offended viewers so much, but rather, the brazen act of miscegenation that was about to take place on their television sets.

Yes, fear of miscegenation is still alive today and much of the time, the media is doing its best to fan the flames of this fear. The most obvious examples can be found on the daytime talk show circuit. “The Larry Elder Show” has been absolutely obsessed with this topic. In the course of six months, they have done almost ten episodes on interracial relationships--each one more sensationalistic than the next. In one episode, a white husband was racist against his own Latina wife, using racial slurs to address her, even in front of their young daughter. In another episode, a white woman broke it off with her black boyfriend after his jealous “baby mama” came after her with a baseball bat. The underlying message is always the same. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white. Entering an interracial relationship will cause you nothing but heartache, social isolation, and even physical trauma.

These cautionary messages also manifest themselves in far subtler ways. Take, for example, recent articles about Oscar nominee (“Hotel Rwanda”) Sophie Okonedo. Almost all of them tell the same story: the half Nigerian, half Jewish girl was raised by her single white mother in England’s version of the projects. She struggled with her mixed identity because she was not fully accepted by either blacks or Jews. But finally, against all odds, she rose above this tortured, poverty-stricken childhood to achieve fame and fortune in Hollywood. The problem with this story is that it’s just not true. In many interviews, Okonedo has insisted that she is and has always been very much at ease with her mixed identity. But still, the media insists on painting her as a tragic mulatto.

This tragic-mulatto-raised-by-single-white-mother story pops up again and again (Halle Berry and Alicia Keys are two more examples), and most of the time it’s a complete distortion of the truth. And it’s not just the black/white celebrities who get the tragic makeover. Many articles dwell on how Keanu Reeves’ white mother raised him alone after divorcing his Hawaiian-Chinese dad, who later went to jail for drug dealing. The media also played up the fact that Norah Jones’s white mother raised her alone after breaking up with Norah’s father, famed sitar player Ravi Shankar. Are you starting to see the pattern here? These contemporary tragic mulatto stories are subtle cautionary tales against interracial relationships. The message is clear: if you’re a white woman who gets involved with a man of color, there are three things you can count on. 1) He will abandon you. 2) You will be left to raise this yellow or brown child on your own. 3) Your child will have major identity issues.

There is some good news though. We’re starting to see more realistic, three-dimensional depictions of interracial relationships. Shows like “Girlfriends” and films like “Guess Who?” look at the dynamics of these relationships through a comedic lens, while dramatic series like “The L Word” and “Six Feet Under” have done a great job exploring the intersection between race and sexuality in same-sex interracial relationships.

Also, the sheer number of interracial couples portrayed in the media is rising rapidly. It’s good to see that more and more often, the “interracialism” is presented in a matter-of-fact, non-sensationalistic manner, and it’s not commented upon by anyone. The couple just happens to be interracial, but their backgrounds play no role in the plot. This is a positive development because it gives people an opportunity to see interracial couples not as abnormalities or anomalies, but as a normal part of the American social fabric.

However, it’s important to remain critical of the circumstances under which an interracial couple comes to be included in a film or TV show because sometimes, it’s happening for all the wrong reasons. It seems, for example, that once actresses of color reach a certain stratum of success in Hollywood, they will never again be paired with an “ethnic” leading man. Take Halle Berry. The films in which she plays against white leads ("Die Another Day," "Monster’s Ball," "Swordfish," "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” “Bulworth,” “The Wedding,” “The Rich Man’s Wife”) far outnumber those in which she plays against black leads (“Gothika,” “Their Eyes Were Watching God”). The same pattern can be seen with actresses like Jennifer Lopez and Lucy Liu. Why? Because Hollywood believes that unlike say, Julia Roberts or Nicole Kidman, these leading ladies don’t have what it takes to carry a movie on their own, and they need a white actor to play alongside them.

Will Smith recently gave the public an inside look at how race gets factored into casting decisions in Hollywood. While doing press for “Hitch” overseas, he admitted that Eva Mendes was cast opposite him because the producers were worried about the public’s reaction if the part was given to either a white woman or a black woman. “There’s sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don’t want to see it,” Smith told the British paper the Birmingham Post. “We spend $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up--that’ll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S.” In the end, they came to the Goldilocks solution of casting the Cuban-American Mendes: not too white, not too black, just right.

So what can the media do to improve its depiction of interracial couples? Well for one, let’s get over the idea that a couple only counts as “interracial” if one partner is white, and the other black. If you look at statistics from the 2000 census, you’ll see that black/white pairings actually make up a tiny proportion of interracial couples. While only 6% of African-American husbands and 2% of African-American wives are in interracial marriages, the intermarriage rate among other groups is much, much higher. In some segments of the Asian-American population, almost half are marrying outside their ethnicity.

Let’s also have the courage to show interracial pairings other than the black man + white woman, and Asian woman + white man combos. It’s true that census statistics reveal a distinct gender imbalance when it comes to interracial relationships. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to have white wives than black women are to have white husbands. Similarly, Asian women have white husbands 3 times more often than Asian men have white wives. But just because this is the case, doesn’t mean that there aren’t other stories worth telling. There are plenty of black women who are choosing to date or marry white men (recent celebrity examples include Venus Williams with Brett Ratner, Naomi Campbell with Tommy Lee). And let’s give our Asian brothers a break huh? Actors like Jet Li and Jackie Chan kick ass on the screen, but never get so much as a peck on the cheek from their leading ladies. And don’t forget about “double minority” couples. Not every interracial couple is made up of one white and one non-white person. “Mississippi Masala” was made fourteen years ago, people! It’s about time we had some more films that explore Black/Asian, or Latino/Black, or Asian/Latino relationships.

Finally, let’s see more stories that explore both the ups and the downs of interracial relationships. Contrary to popular belief, not every interracial couple is doomed to a life of tragedy, nor is every couple a happy, smiley United Colors of Benetton ad. The truth lies somewhere in between, but that’s something we rarely get to see in the media.

Media plays an instrumental role in shaping how we think and talk about race, ethnicity, culture and identity. In 1999, Children Now--a non-profit that works to improve the quality of media for children--released a study of 1,200 children that demonstrated what a deep impact media had on their perception of race. In their minds, race and social class were tightly connected, with white characters seen as having more money, and minority characters seen as struggling financially. Across all races, children agreed that the news media tended to portray black and Latino people more negatively than white and Asian people. However, the report also demonstrated that children have great faith in the media’s ability to send positive messages about race. Over 80% of children--across races--said that media has the power to show kids “that people of their race are important.”

Let’s prove these kids are right about the positive potential of the media.

About the Author
Carmen Van Kerckhove is a public speaker, writer and community organizer who has lectured and written extensively about mixed race identity and interracial relationships. In 2004 she co-founded Mixed Media Watch, an organization that tracks representations of mixed race people and families in the media. She is also Co-Director of New Demographic, a consultancy that offers workshops on issues related to mixed identity and interracial relationships. Carmen sits on the planning committee of Swirl, Inc., a national non-profit organization that serves the mixed heritage community. You can reach her at carmen@newdemographic.com.

New Demographic
http://www.newdemographic.com

Mixed Media Watch
http://www.mixedmediawatch.com

Swirl, Inc.
http://www.swirlinc.org

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