Today, June 12, is Loving Day, a time to remember Mildred and Richard Loving and their groundbreaking 1967 Supreme Court case. Mildred, a Black and Rappahannock woman, and Richard, a White man, married in Washington, D.C. in 1958. A few weeks after they returned to their home state of Virginia they were arrested for having violated the state’s anti-miscegenation law, which made interracial marriage a felony. It was the Lovings’ ACLU-led lawsuit that resulted in the June 12, 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision unanimously ruling that anti-miscegenation laws violated the 14th Amendment. The Loving decision knocked down interracial marriage bans in 16 states, and it later provided precedent for the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional.
Fifty-two years later, the legalization of interracial marriage has not resulted in a more liberating environment for interracial relationships. Being able to have sex with and marry someone who identifies as racially different than you can only go so far when the racist systems, ideologies, and practices that European settlers exported to the colonies are still thriving in our communities. To move past legalization and towards liberation, we must decolonize love.
Of course, marriage and monogamy are not the only means by which we express and manifest romantic love. The institution of marriage has remained an important vehicle for partners to access benefits from the state that support their partnership and their families. Because of this, it has been a site for organizing for quite some time.
I can’t imagine that my life and my family would exist in the ways we do today without the Loving case. My mother is a third-generation Japanese-American cis woman, and my father is a White cis man. Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980s and 1990s, I was told that my family was a sign of racial progress, and yet little to nothing was said about what we were progressing from and towards. In my adolescence, I became more engaged in piecing together an understanding of my identity and my family history. I spent days in Berkeley rummaging through my Japanese grandparents’ mementos from their incarceration in World War II. I witnessed my parents navigate White, neoliberal suburbia—how different it was for each of them as individuals, and how it was for them as a couple. I navigated that same, disorienting landscape as an ethnically ambiguous girl with almond-shaped eyes, freckles, and a penchant for asking questions that didn’t have easy answers.
In college, you may have heard me say that I am “half-Asian and half White,” but I don’t believe in fragmented identities like that for myself anymore. I take a page (literally) out of Dr. Maria P. P. Root’s work and assert my right as a multiracial person to identify myself and, in so doing, a right to refuse to uncritically accept “the very concepts that have made some of us casualties of race wars” waged by and for White supremacy.
I identify as a multiracial Asian. I am also yonsei, a fourth-generation Japanese American, and I am an Asian person with proximity to Whiteness. I have a White parent, White family members, European features mixed with East Asian ones, and I “talk White.” I have the relative privilege that comes with these inheritances. I am not White, nor am I half-White. I refuse to be Whitewashed into a history of defining multiracial people in ways that further White supremacy. I affirm myself, by and for myself.
The history of White supremacists codifying multiracial people’s racial identities is long. People with mixed racial heritage have existed since the early years of what settlers later called the United States. Our lives and the lives of our ancestors tell a history of oppression enacted through government policies like the one-drop rule, which created incentives for White people to commit sexual violence against Black people, especially against Black women. This history also illuminates how European settlers created a racial codification regime for Indigenous people known as blood quantum laws. These laws were designed to create more White people and fewer Native people with claims to Native citizenship and therefore sovereignty and land. The history of multiracial identity in the United States is a history of White supremacy’s campaign to control our families, our rights, and our bodies.
Our capacity to love interracially is intricately bound up in this racist history of slavery, genocide, exploitation, militarism and displacement—a history that has informed how we make sense of love, beauty, sex, marriage and family with respect to race. We all have internalized racism, and that looks different for us based on how we have been racialized. More specifically, Black, Indigenous, and people of color have internalized racial inferiority and oppression, and White people have internalized racial superiority. An integral part of challenging a racist system is dismantling these internalization processes. (If the concept of internalized racism is new to you, there are workshops available that can help you explore it further.)
American society has not contended with this history, and we can witness troubling dynamics in how people celebrate interracial love today. There’s the colorblind assertion that, “Love doesn’t see color.” The mutation of one’s racial identity into a commodity on dating apps. The assumption that White people dating outside their race makes them “progressive” (read: not racist). The assumption that interracial romance is about White people dating people of color, and not about Black, Indigenous and other people of color dating each other. The White racial fantasies about the most desirable race to procreate with in order to have cute/exotic/beautiful offspring.
In all these “celebrations,” I see no vision or roadmap for addressing how we have internalized racist notions of who is worthy of our love and how. In these “celebrations,” I see our culture centering Whiteness and White people’s racial desires. In these “celebrations,” I see White supremacy sitting pretty, conning us again and again.
I’ll give you a concrete example. Recently I witnessed a White man racially profile a Black man at work. The White man was working security at an event and checking for tickets. He was trying to identify people whose tickets were fraudulently obtained. He approached a Black man and quickly and violently took the Black man’s pass away, saying that it had “been tampered with.” The White man was not approaching White patrons with the same assumption of guilt or level of aggression. When a few of us confronted him about his behavior, the White man insisted that he wasn’t being racist because, he said, “my fiancée is Black.” In his eyes, his love for a Black woman meant that he couldn’t possibly be anti-Black. It meant that he couldn’t possibly have internalized racist ideologies that assume Black criminality and White innocence, and then act on those ideas. To him, his love meant that he couldn’t possibly be racist.
For the record, being in a relationship with someone who is racialized differently than ourselves does not absolve us of the fact that we have internalized White supremacy. Psychology doesn’t work that way. Implicit racial biases don’t work that way. Our history is rife with White people having sexual relationships with people of color and behaving in a hella racist manner. Relatedly, we need people of color in relationships with other people of color to understand how we have internalized White supremacist ideology about ourselves and that we can easily perpetuate those ideas through thought and action. Our (White people and people of color’s) internalization of White supremacy then gets compounded by the fact that we have inherited narratives, structures, and institutions that continue to fuel racism.
On love, bell hooks has given us a clear imperative: “Imagine how much easier it would be for us to learn how to love if we began with a shared definition.” It’s been a journey, building my understanding of love and seeking a definition that is more liberating than the one I inherited from American society. It’s a journey I am still on, and today I am blessed to be in an interracial relationship where myself and my partner support each other in decolonizing our practice as lovers, friends and partners.
In this call to decolonize love, I offer a working definition. Decolonizing love is a process that requires us, as individuals and a collective, to:
- Learn about and analyze our history of race, multiracial identity and interracial relationships;
- Identify and unpack the ways in which each of us (as White people, or as people of color) have internalized White supremacy;
- Apply what we learn about our history and ourselves to how we practice intimacy, support and connection with our partners;
- Create language to talk about our partnerships that affirms the self-determination of Black, Indigenous and other people of color and that resists colonial ideology about identity, beauty, love and sexuality;
- Engage with our romantic and sexual partners in race-explicit, intersectional conversations about how we are racialized and how we relate to ourselves, each other and the geographies around us as racialized bodies; and
- Build a community around our partnerships that is also practicing decolonizing love.
This call to decolonize love is not just for people in interracial romances. I believe a more liberated way of loving each other and ourselves as racialized people will contribute to more liberated love for “intraracial” partnerships as well. And I believe that decolonizing love must be a collaborative effort, involving the knowledge and creative forces of anti-racist, queer, Indigenous, and disabled perspectives. Decolonizing love must be for all of us, or it will be for none of us.
I seek companions on this quest. As a cis, straight, non-disabled, and multiracial Asian woman, I do not purport to have all the answers, nor all the questions we’ll need to explore on this journey. There is a future—perhaps an alternate universe—we can create where love can more fully contribute to and sustain our collective liberation. I hope to meet you on the path to that place.
Michele Kumi Baer is a Los Angeles-based social justice practitioner and philanthropy project director at Race Forward, Colorlines’ parent organization. Follow her on Twitter at @michelekumibaer.