Four things to consider when dating another black person outside your specific cultural group.
"All my skinfolk ain't kinfolk." - Zora Neale Hurston
The idea of a perfect black union, one that ignores things like ethnicity and culture, has always felt like an antidote against the rigid Eurocentric standard of beauty that has historically taken precedence over the smeared images of black humanity. But the strong cry for collectivism (ubuntu) that surrounds black courtship can also romanticize black homogeneity and limit our understanding of human relationships.
Most of us accept this myth as a matter of convenience—a necessary evil. I believe, however, that the pan-African goal to increase solidarity and dignity among people of African descent must include a deeper understanding of the ethnolinguistic, cultural, and regional differences.
Cementing cross-cultural connections is near impossible without internalizing complex, multifaceted black representation in mainstream film and media. This week we're finally seeing this play out on a massive scale in the critically acclaimed international blockbuster Black Panther—a superhero origin film that will showcase the regional politics surrounding the fictional African country of Wakanda.
Wakanda is bordered by Mohannda, Canaan, Azania, Narobia, and Niganda––each fictional country, like the real-life African continent and its diaspora, has its own distinct language, culture, and customs. The film is already a cultural watershed in the history of world cinema and it may spark an international dialogue about ethnocentrism and the drastically different lived experiences of black people. You know, a real life probe of why it isn't easy for, say, a Nigerian to marry an Eritrean or why it was extremely difficult for first and second generation Haitians to assimilate with the African-American community in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. But there are enough black coming-of-age stories rife with indifference to go around.
Let's imagine for a moment that you've met the love of your life at an Afropunk festival or at Uncle Bobbie's Coffee & Books in Philly or at a Caribbean Carnival: It's incumbent on both parties to recognize that there are competing interests that will either mold the relationship into a cultural fusion of love -OR- melt it down to something unrecognizable. So, if you consider yourself black, I've written 5 sociopolitical things to consider before entering an interethnic relationship.
1. Avoid Passive-Aggressive Assumptions: "Oh, you're Haitian? You don't look Haitian."
Basic in-group–out-group bias shape boundaries that make it difficult for romantic unions, especially if one group is desperately fighting for socioeconomic status and cultural capital. Be wary of tired black pathological debates and respectability politics. Be humble. Sit down. It's better to engage with our differences by listening attentively, asking genuine interpersonal questions, and having solution-based conversations. Besides, according to the Pew Research Center, "one-in-seven new U.S. marriages is interracial or interethnic." You're not alone.
2. Interethnic discrimination is not exclusive to black people.
At one point in American history other whites considered the Irish as "Negroes turned inside-out." Look at the Irish and Italian love-hate relationship or the Joseon-jok in South Korea or the Untouchables in India or the Latin American caste system or the Balkanization of Yugoslavia—a process that led to the Bosnian genocide. Now you can add human context to the tired “black crab in the barrel" mentality quip.
3. American assimilation may mean something entirely different to your date.
Know where you both stand by examining your places in capitalist society. Ask yourselves: How does a black interethnic couple measure their proximity to the dominant culture, American whiteness, and colorism? What does patriotism look like to your partner? And if you both have foreign-born parents, it's likely you both relate to navigating cultural in-betweenness––especially since American society forces you to forgo your ethnic identity and compete for social and cultural capital. An open discussion is vital because American assimilation means to become white, almost in the literal sense. Take the time to read Nell Irvin Painter as she examines the “history of white people" and digest this James Baldwin quote: “The very word America remains a new, almost completely undefined and extremely controversial proper noun. No one in the world seems to know exactly what it describes, not even we motley millions who call ourselves Americans."
4. Irreconcilable religious differences may end your relationship before it begins
Heterosexual or LGBTQ love does not conquer all. And no amount of black solidarity can quell unresolved interfaith differences because religious affiliation and dogma can shape ones entire system of reality. All levels of tolerance are challenged when rituals like baptism, children upbringing, religious holidays, arranged marriages, and unaccommodating family expectations takes center stage. A lack of a respect and understanding for one's sense of spiritual identity can't possibly be a path for a long-term commitment.
It's important to distinguish dating from courtship; in other words, it's probably best to touch on all of these topics before inviting your lover to the family cookout, especially after a royal night of watching Black Panther as you were decked out in the most afrocentric outfit you've worn all year.