George Carlin famously pointed out that “Colin Powell is openly white, but happens to be black.” This line is funny because it enforces the stereotype that being “white” or “black” goes beyond skin color and reflects a set of values, mannerisms, and culture. Stereotypes are a part of what makes us human, and for better or worse, stereotypes are not going away. Nevertheless, there is a stereotype about interracial couples that I have never found to be true in real life; in fact it only seems to exist on television: the idea that one interracial partner has to adopt the “Colin Powell” role and act like the opposite of his or her race.
In “Napoléon Dynamite, “Napoléon’s extremely “white” nerdy brother starts dating a very stereotypically “black woman” who he eventually marries. As the movie progresses, he starts wearing gold jewelry, bandanas, and he changes the way he talks in order to sound “more black.” Again, this is meant for comic relief, but it only reinforces the idea that in an inter-racial relationship one of the partners needs to change sides. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a “white movie” or a “black movie,” the “Colin Powell” stereotype will rear its ugly head. In the movie “Barbershop” there is a powerful scene where Jane Fonda’s white son tells a co-worker he is “blacker than him” because of the way he talks, dresses, and the type of women he dates. This isn’t’ played for comic relief as it is in Napoléon Dynamite, instead the white guy tells his co-worker these things as a way of authenticating his entrance into an all-black barbershop. And it works. By the end of the movie the barbershop lets the white guy cut the hair of black patrons because they discover “he is one of them.” Of course, you would never want to make sure this guy knows what he’s doing by having him cut someone’s hair. No, it makes much more sense to have him recite some Jay-Z lyrics and name check a few video vixens.
These movies are trying to reflect a message of tolerance, but instead reinforce a stereotype that I have never found to be true. My interests are that of someone who is “openly white.” I appreciate a good bounce pass, I listen to Bon Jovi when I exercise, and I know every word to Don McLean’s “American Pie.” My girlfriend reads Bossip, yells in movie theaters , and went to a historically black college. By society’s standards, she would be “openly black,” but oftentimes when people find out her boyfriend is a white man, her blackness is taken away. All of sudden because we are a couple, any quirky bits of culture she might enjoy outside of what is stereotypically black culture makes her an “Oreo.” Her unique interests, and advanced college degrees makes her the partner who is accused of switching sides. When she mentions her love of “Dr. Who,” “Downton Abbey,” or “Stephen King” she is placed in the category of “acting white” because she dates a white guy. I guess this makes people feel better because it enforces the belief that in an inter-racial relationship, one person has issues with their own race, which is the only reason they would choose to date outside of their race.
Of course, this entire narrative fails on a number of levels. She liked sci-fi and Stephen King long before we started dating, yet she never was called an “Oreo.” It is absurd to accuse someone of “selling out” because of their partner, but this is the narrative that people choose to believe. I have other friends who are involved an interracial relationships and I’ve never thought that one of the partners in the relationship acted like the opposite of their race.
While this post has reflected some of the hurt I feel when my girlfriend is stereotyped in a hateful manner, my intention is not to condemn the world for holding on to such beliefs. Rather, I am hoping to dispel some of the fears that others may have about entering into an interracial relationship. Dating someone of a different race is not “selling out” nor does one have to “act black” or “act white” to attract a person of a different culture. Being in an inter-racial relationship can be difficult, and when the “Colin Powell” stereotype is forced on you or your partner, things become even more difficult. But the difficulty lies not with changing who you are, but having others accept that you are not going to change who you are. My girlfriend is not an “Oreo” and neither of us has taken on the “Colin Powell” role. We are loving couple enjoying each others’ similarities and differences like any other couple.