Interracial relationships have their challenges. But what might surprise people is that these shared challenges and differences can be transformative gifts.
“What did his parents say?”
“Do you guys think it’s more difficult being together in the South?”
“Have you found churches to be welcoming?”
“The fact that you guys are dating says a lot about his character.”
From the time Clark and I began dating, the comments and questions have remained endless. But the one that sticks with me the most came from a 15-year-old boy at the Methodist Church where Clark had volunteered as a youth counselor. We had been dating for a while when I went to church with Clark one Sunday. Apparently one of the kids had seen us holding hands after the service and was bewildered. Later that evening, during youth group he had pulled his youth director, Peter, aside and asked in earnest curiosity, “Is it OK with God that Clark has a black girlfriend?”
If you haven’t guessed by now, here’s the scandal — I am a young Christian black woman who happens to be dating a young Christian white man. This is both my first interracial relationship and the first time I’ve seriously contemplated marrying someone.
Based on the range of comments and questions directed at Clark and me, I know some of the different opinions that people have about interracial dating. Some think that because children of mixed race are often physically attractive it must be a sign of God’s blessing on mixed racial unions. Some people feel that the biggest compliment they can offer is to say that we are the couple being cheered for the most. Others think it’s a compliment to tell me that I’ve found quite a catch of a man because, as a white man, he’s willing to date me, a black woman, without any noticeable concerns about what others think.
And yet still others choose to focus on the potential challenges of such a match, wondering about our personal difficulties and assuming that the root of any problems we might have would stem from our differences in race.
Formed by Cultural Norms
The truth inferred in all these perspectives is that interracial relationships definitely have their challenges. But what might surprise people is that these shared challenges and differences are actually beautiful transformative gifts that in their wake can open our eyes to sin, both personal and communal. They help to refocus our spiritual vision from the standards lauded by the world to the standards revealed in Christ — standards that deepen our understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image and what it could mean to be called a reconciled Christian community invested in the honest and challenging work necessary to continually grow into the faithful and life-giving body of Christ.
I’ll be the first one to admit that being with Clark has been tricky at times. Our seemingly trivial differences and preferences have forced us to ask new questions about our constructed realities. Given the choice, I’d rather watch a 30-minute sitcom about black families or go to a romantic comedy featuring black actors and actresses. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy shows or movies with actors who are not black. I’m exposed to those all the time because those make up the majority of options for the general public.
But for Clark, because of the free-floating idea that such entertainment has a “target audience,” tuning into one of “my shows or movies” is not a regular occurrence.
TV and movies are not the root of our problems. The normative standards of popular culture, however, do point to a deeper reality of our individual and shared lives. It has led Clark and me to thought-provoking and confessional dialogue about how we are so easily formed by cultural norms — norms that can blind us to the new vision Christ has for us.
One recently-released movie is an excellent example. The plot centers on a young black professional woman who’s trying to figure out how she feels about potentially dating a young white man. Movies about interracial relationships between blacks and whites are rare enough, let alone one filmed from the perspective of a black woman and her community of friends and family.
After Clark and I saw this movie together we had some fresh discussions about interracial relationships and cultural expectations that we had never really talked about before. For instance, we talked about how it feels to always be aware on some semi-conscious level that one is a racial minority in a room. And how it feels being reminded through the media that there exist cultural constructions for the standards of “blackness” and “whiteness,” such as the clothes you wear, the music you listen to and even to the extent that you experience worship.
Re-Identified Through Baptism
So what is the sin in all this? Adhering to the cultural norm is not always a bad thing, of course, nor is it wrong to appreciate images that reflect one’s own likeness. But when these constructed norms and personal preferences threaten to limit our Christian imagination for what it means to be created in God’s image and baptized into new life in Christ, I can only consider it sinful. One of the most challenging impediments to refocusing our vision is that often we cannot even name the source of our distorted imagination.
But we do know the source of our shared Christian imagination — baptism. There is no “race norm” for those made in God’s image and baptized in Christ. And so opportunities abound, for us as an interracial couple, which challenge us to re-identify ourselves as new creations housed in clay jars.
This is not in any way to obscure our racial heritage or ethnic differences. In fact I didn’t realize how important it was for me to remain rooted in my West African heritage until I started dating someone outside my race. I had to address my fears of being completely subsumed into a white world, even in marriage and family, knowing that the black person usually adapts to the “majority culture” better than the white person to a minority culture, just as a result of having had more practice. So as Christians, the struggle is to learn how baptism both trumps any other identifying characteristic and invites us still to re-envision and appreciate our racial and cultural differences anew.
In order for us to live in the reconciled community God has created for us, our vision must be altered, yes, but also our gestures — the practices we use to locate our social and political spaces in the world.
Our failings and imperfections notwithstanding, we begin with seemingly inconsequential steps. Clark shows up and helps me lead a public workshop on African folktales at a local museum. Clark attends activities hosted by the Black Seminarians Union and intentionally seeks out books by West African and African American authors. We make a conscious choice to see a black female counselor for pre-engagement counseling. We choose to participate in mission trips to Latin American countries and to serve as youth counselors together at a predominately white church.
Maybe I’m getting at the fact that interracial couple hood is not just about black and white race mixing. It is a beautiful gift of blending traditions and cultures and learning novel ways and opportunities to navigate and engage life.
With all these gestures comes the awareness that our friends and families are affected by our choices and actions. I might be the first black woman that Clark’s best friend, Scott, has ever formed a growing friendship with. And as a result perhaps his definition of “black” has been expanded.
What About the Children?
And of course, there is always the pleading inquiry … “But what about the children?” Usually people mean what about our future children who will have to deal with having parents of different races.
This question assumes that negotiating race in the sociopolitical world is more important than understanding it through Christian lenses. To the question, “What would you raise them as?” I respond, “Christian.”
But I too can assume that raising biracial children is rarely easy. No matter how amazing the parenting skills, society still will place unrealistic and unfair expectations and judgments upon mixed children. This is true for any racially blended family. As soon as there is an “other” in the family, whether by adoption or birth, the family becomes multicultural and all relevant cultures need be appreciated and embraced.
Yet I have the same nagging question in my own mind, “What ABOUT the children?” How are we raising children in the church to still ask the burning question, “Is it OK with God that Clark has a black girlfriend?” Perhaps instead of just worrying so much over how biracial children are raised, we might also rethink how children are raised in our churches.
To be perfectly honest, as Clark and I struggle to have a strong and faithful relationship that seeks to glorify God, we both recognize that being an interracial couple might always be an affront to some members of society, the church included.
I guess I don’t know if being Christian can ever really trump being black or white in our broken world. But I do know we have to raise Christian children to believe in the possibility.
Copyright 2006 Enuma Okoro. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Enuma Okoro is a first generation American raised in the United States, Africa and England. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School where she directs the Center for Theological Writing and serves as a spiritual formation leader for Duke seminarians. She is interested in the role of the arts in spiritual formation and theological education and leads workshops and retreats on such topics as Theology & Poetry, The Arts as a Mirror for the Divine, Writing as a Spiritual Practice, and Engaging the Spiritual Disciplines for Discernment.