Many of my friends and family were surprised when I, a black woman, started dating a white guy. No one was more surprised than I was. I’ve been completely immersed in black and Latino culture my entire life, from childhood to school to what I cook and even a good chunk of what I read and watch in my free time.
When my boyfriend and I started dating, it was was all fun and video games (we’re both painfully geeky, which is what kicked this thing off in the first place) until talk turned to race, and we saw just how much ground we’d have to cover. Race is more than just a conversational topic; it can be pretty crucial to shaping your identity, your politics, and your daily freaking experience. So, being in an interracial relationship can mean a lot (and I mean, a lot) of talking, reading, listening, and just generally working like crazy to try to understand where each other is coming from.
Books are a great place to start. This list probably isn’t going to be what you’re expecting, but you don’t have to go out and read a bunch of self-helpy (probably super-boring), couples therapy books to make your relationship work. What makes an interracial relationship happy, no matter what heritages you’re working with, is just being open, understanding, and willing to learn. Although it’s important to read books that give you the facts, history, stats, and philosophies of different cultures, it’s also important to read books that let you take a walk in the shoes of someone who’s totally different than you.
Here are few books that just might help you do that, or at the very least, help you come up with your own (maybe more culturally specific) list:
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
Essays are a really great way to see the society-level issues on a more personal level, and James Baldwin is one of the best social critics and essayists of all time. Notes of a Native Son is a collection of essays, so you get to look at a bunch of different social and personal issues of race in one book. You’ll walk away from Notes understanding just how important it is to know the big picture stuff in order to understand the person those issues might affect everyday.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
In the case of white-POC relationships you might think that the cultural sharing is one-sided. But race isn’t just about “people of color.” White people aren’t somehow “race-less,” and they certainly aren’t immune to the causes and effects of racial issues in the world. The History of White People is a great primer to begin with because it helps you to start talking the issue of race in general — what it is, where it comes from, how it’s changed over the centuries — as well as asking what it means to be white and what whiteness has meant throughout history.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow
Heidi Durrow’s semi-autobiographical novel is probably one of the most popular books about mixed-race experiences. The book tells the story of a mixed girl, who was raised to think of herself as white, but whose light-brown skin comes with the expectation that she’ll “act Black” when she’s suddenly growing up in a Black neighborhood. Durrow plays with the boundaries between races, and in the process raises some seriously interesting questions about race and social expectations. It’s also probably a pretty good read for any interracial couples who are on the track to having mixed babies.
Caucasia by Danzy Senna
Completely different from Heidi Durrow’s take on multiracialism, Danzy Senna’s Caucasia tells a story about two sisters, one who physically looks black, like their father, and one who physically looks white, like their mother. In this story appearance is everything. While Durrow’s tale makes you think about the importance of personal identity, Senna reminds you that the color of your skin still matters in a racialized society and has a seriously significant impact on your daily experience.
The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein
This suggestion comes straight from my own boyfriend, who says that it helped him understand that race doesn’t begin and end at the color of your skin, but is all sorts of tangled up in everything from history and politics to education, economics and even corporations. This is the book, he says, that broke his brain wide open and helped him to see just how complicated race is on a social scale, and so how insanely complicated it must be on a personal one.
Never Come Morning by Nelson Algren
Speaking of economics, Nelson Algren is unique among writers for his honest, up-close-and-personal look at the lives of America’s “other half” — the poor. Algren’s stories get deep into the lives of the poor without falling into the all-too-common stereotypes or making all his characters sad little victims. Instead, you get a very realistic, very diverse look at the very real lives of the people at the bottom rungs of society, and Algren pulls this off with some seriously beautiful storytelling, too. Race and economics are all too connected on a social scale, and understanding the culture and psychology of poverty can be just as crucial to an interracial relationship as anything.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
History can be seriously personal, and Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao does a great job of showing how. Through the story of an overweight Dominican nerd growing up in New Jersey, Diaz gives you a sense of just how much the political history of your heritage can be inextricably tied to your family, your culture, your language… all the good stuff that makes a person who she is.
Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano
Never fear, this isn’t just a boring history book. Open Veins of Latin America is of the most poetic nonfiction books you’ll ever read. Telling the history of Latin America through the exploitation of its resources, Open Veins is a strong reminder of how no culture exists in a vacuum. You’ll get a detailed picture of how Europe and the U.S are as important to the history of Latin America as the Aztecs. The social and political situation of a country or culture today often has everything to do with a long history of exchange, dominance, and exploitation with other cultures. To really know more about any one culture, you’ve gotta think globally.
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
This one’s on here for pretty much the same reason as Open Veins of Latin America, except Guns, Germs, and Steel is a whole lot broader in scope. It puts all of world history in the context of the resources and global interactions that made the geopolitical and social situation of every region of the world what it is today. Getting an idea of the roots of why our cultures are different can be just as important as learning to appreciate his grandma’s menudo.
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
Fantasy is a fantastic (tee hee) way of having fun while thinking creatively about race. Using different metaphors and imaginary worlds or circumstances to talk about the issues facing us today it what sci-fi and fantasy do best, and The Intuitionist is one of the best examples of exploring race through fantastical fiction.
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan
OK, this one is mostly on here for fun, and because it is the absolute opposite of a “self-helpy, couples therapy book.” But don’t write it off completely. Every couple needs to have some laughs, and this comic, besides being absolutely brilliant, also features an interracial (interspecies?) couple as it’s main characters. And, it turns out, even an interracial alien couple adventuring through space faces some of the same challenges as the rest of us. Fair warning: Saga is a comic book, which a lot of people think means “kid friendly.” Saga is sooo not anywhere near being for children.
Images: Matt Raddick/Flickr