The fight for interracial marriage stands as one of the most drawn-out civil rights battles in American history. Begun in 1787, the same year the Constitution was first ratified, it would be another 180 years until Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court case that finally abolished antimiscegenation laws across the country. This month’s Loving, the awards-contending film about the rural Virginian couple that teamed up with the ACLU to assert their prerogative to be husband and wife, serves as a necessary reminder that their struggle took place less than five decades ago.
Postwar pop culture reflects the racist anxieties of those times. Hollywood’s first mixed-race kiss was in the 1957 drama Island in the Sun, which features two black-white couples on a fictional Caribbean island. Dorothy Dandridge locks lips with the white John Justin, but Harry Belafonte’s kiss with Joan Fontaine — originally in the script — was removed. (The film was protested and boycotted by theaters regardless.) Lucy and Ricky pecked and smooched more than they kissed on I Love Lucy despite being a real-life married couple, and the 1968 lip-lock between Captain Kirk and Uhura on Star Trek — generally considered TV’s first black-white buss — took place against their will, their mouths pressed together by a magic spell.
Things are undoubtedly better today. And yet, at a time when pop culture has never been more diverse, movies and television seem to be lagging behind reality in depicting interracial love. In 2013, around one in eight marriages were interracial. If you haven’t been in a mixed-race relationship, you probably know at least one longterm couple who is. But the closest that 2016’s top 20 movies come to an interracial romance involving the main characters are between a rabbit and a fox in Zootopia. None of this year’s biggest romances or romantic thrillers — Me Before You, Bridget Jones’s Baby, and The Girl on the Train — have people of color in the core cast. (And it’s important that these mixed-race relationships involve protagonists, i.e., the characters most likely to receive development and thus have their romances given nuance and depth.) The situation looks slightly better for Oscar hopefuls, with Loving and Lion entangling its central characters in interracial relationships. But those are both biopics — meaning they had to feature mixed-race romances. You can’t say the same for the white-on-white casting of La La Land.
As greater representation becomes a bigger part of our culture, it’s worth asking how we want that inclusion to look. Interracial love should be a key part of how we see and imagine diversity, not only to reflect a fundamental part of who we are as a people now, but also because romance plays such a crucial role in who we think of as desirable, as fuckable, as lovable, as threatening (or not), as sensitive (or not), as who we perceive as “one of us” versus “one of them.” And it’s important that every group gets the chance to see themselves as worthy of love and worthy of sex and worthy of being called beautiful, especially when American history has taught racial and sexual minorities for so long that they are beneath such considerations.
As with nearly all forms of inclusiveness, TV has done a lot better. A number of shows feature its protagonists in serious interracial relationships, including Jessica Jones, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Brooklyn 99, Quantico, and How to Get Away With Murder. A few standouts have used a couple’s disparate backgrounds for cross-cultural conflicts or simply differences that make lovers’ quarrels feel fresh. On Jane the Virgin and The Mindy Project, the protagonists clash with the fathers of their children over their babies’ future religious upbringing. On Scandal, Olivia Pope’s exacting dad-ocrat disapproves of a silver-spooned white man who’s had the presidency stolen for him as a romantic partner for his daughter, whom he’s encouraged all her life to work twice as much as anybody else, if only for half the recognition. And on Master of None, Aziz Ansari’s Dev explains to his white girlfriend that he can’t have the kind of relationship with his grandmother that the young woman has with hers, since Dev’s grandmother lives in India and he doesn’t speak Tamil. Asked why he doesn’t learn the language, he flips the question back on her: Has she tried learning Tamil? It’s really hard!
But these shows — most of them repeatedly cited for their history-making diversity and not coincidentally created by writers of color — tend to be the exception, not the rule. Which is why Ross and Joey and Ted and Barney and Jerry and George and Hannah and Marnie can all live in one of the most multiracial cities on the planet and, excepting a token here and there, only date — or even see — other white people. But if we don’t want future generations cringing at our culture the way we flinch at the prejudices of the past, we should make and promote more work that showcases the ways we love — not the ways we we fear.