The Color of Romance:
Exploring (Mis)Representations of Interracial Relationships in Contemporary Television Media
Kelsey A. Woods
This study examines attitudes of college students at the
Interracial relationships are increasingly budding social phenomena that do not receive accurate representation in today's media institutions. Deemed unconstitutional by the federal government for the better part of the twentieth century, interracial romances and their “taboos” are abandoned by television programming and remain largely undiscussed by current academic race discourse. Researchers who address interdating (interracial dating) and intermarriage (interracial marriage) in their work largely focus on the social and environmental factors present in interracial relationships that allow them to exist and progress. While these theorists debate the social influences of propinquity and environmental norms on interracial romance, they dismiss how the above hypotheses are portrayed in contemporary television media. The first section of this research paper therefore investigates social proximity and socio-environmental theories as they are (mis)represented in television; the second section takes an interested and explorative look at the social consequences of this (mis)representation and examines associated inaccuracies of the interracial romance dynamic.
Propinquity, a psychological concept defined by George Yancy as the physical distance between individuals in a
social environment, “plays a major role in who matches up with whom,”
(Fujino, 1992, 32). In his study, “Who
interracially dates: an examination of characteristics of those who have
interracially dated,” Yancy (2002) identifies
propinquity of potential romantic partners as the dominant facilitator of
interrelationships. His findings suggest that one determinate for an “interdater” is his or her perception of an available
and ample population of “datees” who
identify as racially different. This, he argues, may explain why there is a
higher incidence of interdating by African Americans
than by European Americans in predominantly white geographical settings. Diane Fujino (1992) also references the propinquity theory in her
dissertation, Extending exchange theory: effects of ethnicity and gender on asian american heterosexual relationships, but
additionally notes its Sociological counterpart, “group size relativity”,
by Blau. While Fujino contends
that propinquity aids in determining one's romantic partner, she emphasizes
that “a group's size is inversely related to its outmarriage
(intermarriage) rate” (1992, 32). Utilizing group size relativity, Fujino explains why Asian Americans in
Antagonizing theories of social proximity are academics who believe societal norms shape the practice of interracial marriage. Rather than appropriate occurrences of interdating and intermarriage to propinquity and group size relativity, they attribute interracial relationships to existing levels of environmental acceptance. In their study, “A note on family acceptance involving interracial friendships and romantic relationships” John Mills, Jennifer Daly, Amy Longmore, and Gina Kilbride (1995) examine how perceptions of family acceptance of interracial friendships and romantic relationships affect participation in interracial romance. Concluding positive correlations between high levels of perceived familial acceptance of interracial relationships and interdating, Mills et al. suggest environmental norms (in this case, family opinion), not social proximity factors, are the greatest social indicators of interrelationship allowance. Fujino notes: “attraction towards individuals of different ethnic groups is influenced by direct experience with those groups and by indirect exposure through parental attitudes and prejudices [toward] minority groups in American society” (1992, 26). Though incompatible with her findings supporting social proximity, her words (above) are consistent with “social environmental” academics who believe accepting environments are paramount for healthy and successful racial exogamy.
Academic research regarding interracial relationships is both scant and incomplete. While theorization of interrelationships explains why people interdate, it does not explore the dynamic of interracial romance as represented by the media, specifically television programming. In his essay, “Media as a social institution”, Art Silverblatt asserts media as more than a collection of ascribed social norms, but as a device from which community values are socialized and maintained. This study's analysis investigates the represented inaccuracies of televised interdatig/marraige and examines public opinion with regard to potential and associated social affects.
Description of the study
conducted (5) 15-20 minute interviews between
Participants were not recruited based on race/ethnicity or romantic involvement with a partner of a different race, nor were they financially compensated for their time.
Description of the sample
This study's sample population consisted of 5 college students, aged 21 and 22. All students attended the University of California at Santa Barbara and 4 were undergraduates, pursuing Bachelor of Arts degrees in the College of Letters and Science. One interviewee was a Ph.D. student, attempting his doctorate in Nueropsychology. 2 interviewees were male and 3 were female. Of the participants, 4 personally identified as racial minorities: 2 first generation American students of Middle Eastern decent identified as Persian American and Assyrian American. 1 second generation American student of South Asian heritage identified as East Indian American, and 1 second generation American Pacific Islander student identified as Pilipino. The interviewee who identified as White also considered himself Jewish American. Of the 5 participants, 3 identified religiously as Christian, Muslim, and Jewish. 2 interviewees did not disclose any religious background.
The sample is not meant to represent the general population.
Interview responses suggested participants spent all or part of their
respective childhoods in
Interviews with study participants found interracial relationships, as contextualized within theories of social proximity, vastly underrepresented by contemporary television media. When asked to describe media's interpretation of this phenomenon, the sample was unanimously unable to recall even one accurate or inaccurate representation. According to interviewee statements, interdating and intermarriage, let alone their respective theoretical explanations, were not illustrated in television media's portrayal of life.
One interviewee's response to this study's main inquiry reflected the group's overall sentiment:
“Well, I guess [interracial relationships] are not so much represented [in television media today]. I start thinking about the last things I've seen on T.V., like commercials and stuff, and I can't think of the last television program I saw with an interracial couple.”
Cat's reaction (above) was reverberated by Camille's succinct reply: “I can't think of an interracial relationship on television.”
Thus, for Cat, Camille, and other interview participants, interracial relationships and associated theoretical explorations were principally felt to be misrepresented in television media because these romances were underrepresented altogether.
Though I had originally gathered demographic data from interviewees for the purpose of making connections between participants' experiences and attitudes toward representations of propinquity in interracial romance on television, establishing a corollary link between these variables proved impossible, considering all participants agreed to the misrepresentation of interrelationships by television media. Nevertheless, demographics provided for more interesting analysis related to, though not in direct conjunction with, the main focus of this study. The following section of this research paper examines sample attitudes toward television's misrepresentation of interrelationship issues.
In order to fully understand participant attitudes toward media representation of the interrelationship dynamic, the reader must first familiarize herself with common and evidentiary trends found within interviewee childhood socio experiences:
Participants indicated themselves to be highly educated and tolerant individuals. The entire sample experienced racially diverse schools and neighborhoods growing up and conveyed that they were unused to, if not uncomfortable with, the Caucasian majority at UCSB. Participants commonly expressed feelings of “group disbelonging” and voiced interest in joining ethic and religiously based campus clubs and organizations.
One interviewee, Pete, age 22, was born in
“ [at] UCSB, I don't really feel like I have a community. I [had] to work at fitting into and [identifying with] a certain ethnic group [on campus]. There aren't many Assyrians [here]. I [usually] have to generalize my ethnic identity to any person of color in order to relate [to other students] in a student support group, whereas, at my high school, that wasn't the case. [However], [in] just being physically collocated with other [minorities], [I] feel like I can let my guard down and be more at home.”
Pete's assimilation issue was not an unusual problem for minority students at UCSB. An overwhelming and seemingly uninviting dominant white majority daunted students who already experience feelings of uneasiness in this new college environment. Camille, 21, a Pilipino American and the youngest of seven children, attended elementary and middle schools that were predominantly Latino/a. She elaborated on the racial acclimatization paradox that Pete and other minority students struggled with during their first few weeks on campus:
“In the beginning, when I first moved to [UCSB], it was very intimidating, and I was very shy. I had two white roommates [in the dorms] and it seemed like they were [already] best friends. So, I kind of felt left out and [felt myself] just searching for any Asians. I'm more comfortable with white people now.”
Not surprisingly, interviewees like Pete and Camille who had faced initial racial acclamation anxieties were more likely to feel that television seriously misrepresented interracial relationships. The under representation of their respective racial groups in television programming heightened their attitudes toward media as homogenizing love with respect to interracial romance. Pete related that television media both generalized race and stereotyped interracial love as neither sincere nor true, but as comedic and overtly sexual.
“The media's out to get interracial relationships it seems to me. BET (Black Entertainment Television) comics poke fun at how white girls like black guys and how black guys are always after white girls. [This type of media] perpetuates stereotypes, because it's what people want to hear; [people] want to have their stereotypes reinforced. Because there aren't too many persecuted Christian Assyrians out there, I [mostly] identify as a person of color, [and would say] that those stereotypes effect me. When I see a black comedian talking about `Oh, these white girls love him,' I [generalize] whatever he says about people of color to represent me too.”
Pete’s statement expressed possible social implications connected to the misrepresentation of interracial romance in television programming. In juxtaposition with T.V.'s almost nonexistent Middle Eastern American population, perversion of black/white interracial relationships in the media seemed ultimately to have affected social interpretation of all interracial romances involving underrepresented minorities in the media.
Cat, 22, a Persian American, explained how the lack of Middle Eastern American representation in television media affected her own classification of her relationship with her Caucasian boyfriend Jeremy, 23:
“I'm curious as to why I never really considered me and Jeremy interracial. If you go by race, I'm Persian [American] and he's White, so we are [in an interracial relationship]. Maybe it was because I just didn't see much of [our situation] in the media; [I] didn't see my face at all. I mean, I know I'm not white, but I didn't consider us interracial because maybe [Middle Eastern Americans] are underrepresented.”
Cat's epiphanic insight particularly specified how media misrepresentation of Middle Eastern American/white interracial relationships affected her personal identification with and categorization of race. Romance among Persian Americans and Caucasians remained unexplored by television programming, resulting in Cat's augmentation of her own relationship with Jeremy to fit media's white/white coupling norm.
Other interviewees expressed television media's depiction of these relationships as totally lacking in social complexity. Mariya, 21, noted the nonrealistic portrait of interracial “love” painted by contemporary programming.
“On T.V., I think, a lot of times, it just seems too easy like `oh, love is going to conquer all' and that's it. `No matter, [love] can get through any obstacle.' But that's not necessarily real life. In real life, there are other issues. I don't look at ethnicity when [I date someone] but my family does. It has to be an issue for me.”
Mariya's family adhered to religious regulations set by a very strict Indian sect of Islam and forbid her to interdate/marry. Therefore, she always had to weigh the repercussions of her family's disappointment against her own happiness when dating someone of a different race.
“I made the decision a long time ago that I'm [going] to marry who I'm in love with but at the same time [I know] it's going to cause a huge family rift and that part is going to be hard to deal with.”
Familial disapproval was a common side effect of interracial romance that was not addressed sufficiently in television programming. Disownment was a serious potential of Mariya's reality, should she have chosen to date outside her race/Islamic sect.
Julius, 22, a white Jewish American, elaborated on Mariya's criticism that interracial romance was oversimplified by today's television media:
“There is an incredible cultural divide [between me and my girlfriend], and a religious divide also. There are other substantial differences, [even though] I don't really see any problems with race per se in my relationship.”
Cultural and religious differences, however subtle or substantial, were frequently discussed by participants in interdating situations as contributing to the complexity of interrelationships. As Mariya and Julius suggested, religion and ethnic concerns remained unexplored by current programming, depriving viewers of the phenomenon's plethora of sophisticated social issues.
It is important to note that an overwhelming majority of the sample population identified racially as minority, which may have skewed this study's findings (above). Minority sample participants conceded that this racial identification influenced both the way they interpreted media representation of interracial relationships and how they recognized pertinent social issues facing today's interracial romance. The conclusions made by my research paper therefore reflect only this study's findings and rely totally upon a very unique sample population’s responses.
The overwhelming scarcity of interracial relationships in television media contributed immensely to notions that interracial romance was vastly misrepresented in contemporary television programming. However, lack of illustrative propinquity and social proximity theory in T.V. prevented participants from opinionating media's accuracy as to why people interdate. Further research should examine representations of this social phenomenon in other media--in movies or in print ads.
Perhaps this study's most interesting research reflects participant attitudes toward television media's misrepresentation of the ongoing interracial romance. According to interviewees, television programming simplified the interrelationship dynamic both by its “Love conquers all!” motif and through its blatant disclusion of religious and cultural related issues. This lack of complexity facilitated a loss of participant identification with television characterization and may have lead to feelings of confusion and self depreciation. Participants often wondered why the problems they had suffered in their interrelationships were not reflected by television's characterization of interdating/marriage. This misrepresentation of interracial romance in media life dramatization thus denormalized interracial romance for interviewees as “realistic love”.
For participants, television misrepresentation of interrelationships
exemplified, by theoretical extension, the lack of minorities in media today.
As Pete and Cat evidenced in excerpts from their interviews, this under representation
effected self-identification by racial minorities, and either accelerated minority
assimilation into white culture or facilitated the generalization of minority
racial identity into “person of color.” Resulting social
implications included the broadening of social disparities between white
Americans and minority Americans and could indirectly have enhanced racism with
the creation of televised racial “teams” in the
Misrepresentation of interracial relationships in television media negatively impacts the American social environment today. Programming is nonreflective of actual romantic interaction, and, as a result, affects the normalization of interracial romance. The social implications of a more racially inclusive media toward representation of interracial relationships, (pending positive survey responses), may thus prove a worthy agent for normalizing American exogamy.
Fujino, D. (1992). Extended exchange theory: Effects of ethnicity and gender on asian american heterosexual relationships. Los Angeles: University of California.
Mills, J., Longmore, A., Kilbride, G. (1995). A note on family acceptance involving interracial friendships and romantic relationships [electronic version].
Silverblatt, A. (2004). Media as a social institution. American Behavioral Scientist, 35 (6).
Wilensky, J. (2002, March). What factors affect the occurrence of interracial and interethnic relationships among adolescents? Social demographer Kara Joyner is focusing on this and related questions, paying close attention to the social structure of schools [electronic version]. Human Ecology, 16 (3).
Yang, G. (2002). Who interracially dates: An examination of the characteristics of those who have interracially dated [electronic version]. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 179 (17).