No matter where I live or whom I date, I will always be out of context.
Here’s how it all began: My mother and my maternal grandparents were born in Burma. My grandpa’s father was Chinese and my grandma’s father was British; both of their mothers were Burmese. Unlike many first generation Asian Americans, my mom’s first language was English. My paternal grandparents are first and second generation Americans of Eastern European ancestry with firmly established Jewish identities.
Because I was raised in the racially intolerant Southwest, the fact that I developed my own strong Asian American identity is somewhat of a miracle. After all, Phoenix, Arizona is home to the nation’s strictest anti-immigration policies and state university fraternities that host “dress like black people”- themed MLK celebrations. And unlike “majority-black” Washington, D.C., my current home of 14 years, nearly 70 percent of the Phoenician population self-identified as white as of the 2010 Census.
Fortunately for me, I was immersed in a loving community of Asian Americans as early as kindergarten. Outside of my immediate family, the most influential people in my young life were my Thai American best friend (26 years together now, and counting) and my Korean American dance teacher, a strong, handsome man who never raised his voice, showered me with love as if I were his own daughter, and taught me I should always reach across to open the car door for a man whenever he opens mine.
Fast forward to the recent present: I turned 30 last year and was single and freshly broken-hearted for the first time in ten years after investing half a decade in a relationship that did not end up in what I had hoped would be a lifelong commitment. After a decade of back-to-back monogamous relationships throughout my 20s—first with a white Frenchman (three years), then with a black Jamaican Belizean American (five years)—I went on an online dating binge to get over a bad breakup with the latter.
After many continuous, failed attempts at love in the digital space, I was left disappointed and slightly lonelier than when I began. But my yearlong experience of dating strangers (of all races) revealed something more unsettling than the process itself: I’ve never culturally aligned with anyone I’ve dated.
During the online dating binge, I met an exceptionally diverse cast of characters vying for my attention. But one gentleman in particular, a sartorial East Asian dandy, shattered my post-breakup confidence when he said abruptly one day: “I’m a romantic guy, despite what you think. I just don’t see myself falling in love with you.”
Though on the surface we may have looked like a same-race couple, I wondered whether the fact that this guy could not see himself falling in love with me was in part because I’m an ambiguous-looking mixed race woman. I’ll never fit the conventional mold of an “ideal” woman someone can “see” themselves with, because the vision of a Sino-Anglo-Burmese American woman simply isn’t possible without precedent.
Like many women of color in America, I grew up without anyone who looked like me to reaffirm my own self-image. The closest person in the public eye I could identify as looking remotely like my mother (and her ’80s perm) was Miles, a four-year-old black boy on Sesame Street. That’s a telling story: I was in preschool when my teacher asked me to fill in the blank, “My mom looks like ______,” and I wrote “Miles”.
Back in Arizona, the white boys I grew up with were mean to girls like me. As a young girl, I craved the affection of these boys, even when they rejected me. They would gladly kiss me in the dark, and then nitpick every part of my body. You missed a spot shaving behind your knee. You have such a beautiful face, if only you’d lose a little weight. I felt I was always failing to meet their white standards of beauty.
Eventually, they would end up asking a skinnier, prettier, blonder girl to prom while I was left resisting the acts of self-hate I saw my female peers committing. I refused to diet, develop an eating disorder, or loathe the brown girl in the mirror. By practicing self-love daily for all the “half as good” mixed girls who, like me, would never appear on the cover of Seventeen magazine, I eventually felt empowered in my otherness.
In the eighth grade, I began seeing my first African American boyfriend. Ever since then, people have insisted that I have a preference for dating black men, though an audit of my full romantic history says otherwise. I’ve never fully understood why it is that if I date more than a handful of black men it means I have a “thing” for black guys, as if dating white guys would somehow be more comfortable or natural for me.
Despite my longing to honor a partner whose struggles and triumphs mirror my own and those of my immigrant ancestors, there exists no blueprint for me to even imagine same-race love. And the truth is that I have gravitated toward black men above other races not because of any fetish or imagined cultural match but because, more often than not, I found myself drawn to relationships with them because they praised my imperfections, didn’t critique them.
So when Ernest Baker wrote “The Reality of Dating White Women When You’re Black,” posing the question – Why do I date white women? – I had to also ask myself, “Why do I date black men?” While Baker’s essay rehashed familiar and stale conversations about interracial dating, perpetuating single-race binaries, it also forced me to explore where my personal preferences for black male partners originated. Was it because the freckled redhead in grade school never gave me so much as a look while the brown boys awoke every cell in my body with just one glance? Or, was there something beyond personal history—an innate, borderline fetish I was denying or overlooking?
Recently, a friend put my desires under a magnifying glass:
“When you dream about your babies, they’re not Asian or white. They’re caramel, aren’t they?”
He was right.
Then again, how else could I dream of my future children? If only black men have ever truly celebrated my being, how could I envision any other shared future?
For me, love and acceptance came only when men of color started to court me.
Through the eyes of the black men who have cared for me, I have been able to internalize my true beauty. I began to see what reverence and passion are possible between two bodies, even when (and especially when) those same bodies will be judged harshly in the light of day based on the color of their skin. These uniquely special partnerships catalyzed the beginning of my faith in relationships where more expansive definitions of physical beauty could be uplifted.
In the arms of black men, I felt myself relax.
I was able to be nothing but my nerdy b-girl self when a man of color chose me.
Now this is the part where “the wince” from the Jill Scotts of the world always hurts most. I agree with Jill that white women have always been “unequivocally the standard of beauty in this country, firmly unattainable to anyone not of her race.” The sting is not that black women will side-eye me when I’m with a black man, it’s that they lump mixed-race women who do not share the same American history as white women but may be lighter or white-skinned into this category. These voices fail to recognize this third category of “another other” in which I fall.
As we creep toward the bi-centennial of Loving v. Virginia—the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case ruling all anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional—I challenge us all to consider: Why our conversations are still rooted in binaries like Black and White of Asian and Latino, with secondary race + white always being the more taboo coupling?
Because I have always felt tolerated rather than celebrated in Asian American circles as a Hapa (a half-Asian, half-white or other Asian/mixed race person), I yearn for something as harmonious as the “Black Love” ideal I see frequently articulated in Washington, D.C. Living in the city since 2001, I have envied the oft-celebrated “Black Love” couples I meet at poetry open mics and hip-hop shows. You know, the wooden Horn of Africa earrings (her), the perfectly groomed beard and tortoise-rimmed glasses (him), carrying a cooing brown baby in a fair trade cotton sling (him), selling organic body products at a music festival together while greeting the masses with their perfectly white teeth and glowing, blemish-free skin.
They’re special because they get each other: their extended families vibe and their values align.
At least that’s the narrative I project when I see them all cuddled up on Instagram.
The reality for mixed race folks like me in 2015 is this: Navigating the stigmas and challenges of “interracial dating” has always been different for us. Despite the awkward stares that persist today and the weight of the history that called our own parents’ love criminal, we have never stopped searching for our like-minded cultural fit.
Isn’t it time we acknowledge there is no such thing as not dating interracially if you’re already mixed-race? I might just put out an all points bulletin for an arranged marriage to a French-speaking, Sino-Anglo-Burmese American hip-hop head to create my own Hapa Love/Black Love equivalent. I’m pretty sure he’s nowhere to be found, but in the words of the okcupid questionnaires, it’s fun to think about.