Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Racism in our dating and marrying preferences

Even before I reached my teens, I knew that I was against the tradition of arranged marriage.  It did not seem right.  Into my teens and as I passed those years, I was all the more convinced that the arranged marriage was a screwed up system.  Looking back, I am all the happier that I have lived out a life in which there has not been any place for that tradition.

Even if I leave alone the emotions of love and going after what the heart wants, I could not understand how one could restrict the choice of a spouse in that arranged marriage context only to a suitable mate from similar backgrounds.  It was nothing but a rigid institutionalization of us-versus-them.  A Tamil Iyer Brahmin will be set to marry only a Tamil Brahmin Iyer because the others are inferior?  Not worth a look?  Isn't such a narrow-minded approach nothing but racism by another name?

 If we want to systematically associate ourselves only with people who are like us, well, isn't that racism?  Yes, in a way I am returning to the racism topic; you thought I will leave my dear grandmothers in peace, eh!

Back when I was still in graduate school, I once wrote to The Hindu that inter-marriage is the key to harmony in India--harmony among people who are otherwise defined by differences.  Marriages across caste lines. Marriages across religions. Of course, that was one of the many unpublished essays that I have authored.  Blogging has at least taken care of that problem--after all, I am my own publisher ;)

Now, I live in a different country.  Thankfully!  (No offense meant to the readers from the old country ... hehe)  A country in which racism is not anything new either.  A part of life here too, though most people think of themselves, especially here in the white Pacific Northwest, as beyond racism.  In my adopted country, could one ask whether it is "racist to date only people of your own race?"  Reihan Salam raises that very question and the byline gives away the answer: Yes.

First, about Salam.  I have been reading his commentaries for a few years now.  A sharp thinker.  Well informed.  And, of course, I am especially excited that he has made himself a name even when young for one reason--he is a fellow South Asian.  Well, his parents immigrated from Bangladesh.  BTW, is it racist to get excited about some stranger all because he comes from that part of the world?

Anyway, Salam seems to be slowly evolving in his own views.  It appears that he is not as sharply conservative as he once seemed to be.  Or am I imagining it?

So, back to the issue of racism and dating only people of your own race.  Salam writes:
Is a strong same-race preference something one ought to be ashamed of? Or is it enough to say that the heart wants what it wants and to leave it at that? This is a more important question than you might think.
Now, ask yourself this.  Our hearts might like whatever our hearts want, yes.  Perhaps the heart likes slim people. Or fat people. Or short people. Or tall people.  Notice how I have only referred to "people."  But, even before we allow the heart to fall for a person, if the brain is screening out people from "other" races, then, well, isn't that racism?

Salam writes:
To be sure, dating is about more than the sharing of bread, and OkCupid users who express strong racial preferences may well be doing the world a favor by being open and honest about their wants. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask those who do express such preferences, and those who live them in practice, to reflect on them, and on how there might be more to fighting racism than voting “the right way.”
My grandmothers lived long lives for their generation, but not long enough to witness the changes in the lives of some of their grandchildren, when it comes to this spousal issue.  It was well beyond an arranged marriage in my case.  One cousin wed an Oriya. Another is married to a Marathi. Yet another is married to a Christian.  A pretty darn good record, though the number of cousins with arranged marriages to Tamil Brahmin Iyer spouses outnumber those of us who did not care to remain in that box.  A healthy start, nonetheless.  If the rest of the Tamil Brahmin Iyers and entire world begins this practice ... hey, a man can dream, can't he?


Ramesh said...

Associating only within one's peer group and considering everybody else inferior, is of course racism (or whatever form it takes - elitism, class / caste consciousness, whatever). Actually they are the losers, for they miss the richness of experience of meeting different kinds of people with different backgrounds, culture, etc.

However I am not so sure that that tag can be easily applied when it comes to marriage. After all , we all seek spouses who have something in common with us - some of us want shared values; some of us want shared religion, some shared community, etc etc. To each his own - I wouldn't label somebody seeking a spouse from the same background as racist. Not my cup of tea, but I can understand the motivation. What I cannot accept at all is refusal to treat others in work places, in homes, in social gatherings, etc etc as equal. That is Racism, with a capital R.

Shachi said...

Some commonality is required in a marriage to keep harmony. Too many differences and it would be a life full of conflict...not just for the couple but also children as well as the family.

I have equal number of cousins who married out of caste - we have a Tamilian, Pakistani, Punjabi, Malayalee, Marathi, Romanian - everyone in our family. And there's always more issues they deal with.

Like Ramesh said, marriage aside, there should be no Racism in other places....I quite like living in the US as I've hardly faced it here. Not so much in India :)!

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, shared values and interests become key to any relationship, not only marriage. From what I know of you two, well, we are all similar in that we have friends from many backgrounds that are remarkably different from the backgrounds in which we were raised. And friendship that is not merely a hi-and-bye friendship but a deep and real one. When we know that a friendship to that extent is possible with a person who comes from a very different background, why should you assume that being married to one from a very different background won't work out well?

The reason of the welfare of children was a particularly strong argument that was made back in the days when people here in the US protested against white-black marriages. It was a huge argument in the historic Loving v. Virginia case from 1959. The ACLU notes about this case:
"Justice of the peace Keith Bardwell's justification for refusing to issue the license is especially troubling. Bardwell told the Daily Star of Hammond, LA, that he was not a racist but merely concerned about the welfare of any children the couple may have.

Racism veiled in concern for children is nothing new. No doubt this same sentiment was expressed by many seemingly well-intended people back in 1958 when a sheriff and two deputies stormed the bedroom of Mildred and Richard Loving in the early morning, and arrested the couple because it was illegal under Virginia law for Richard, who was white, to be married to Mildred, who was black and Native American."

The "problems" in the marriage and the future of the marriage is an issue that is raised even in the wonderful movie that explored the racial issues of a white and a black in love and wanting to get married--Guess who's coming to dinner. The reason of welfare of children is also a typical reason that the "elders" offer when it comes to inter-caste and inter-religion "love marriages" in India. I have never bought into this explanation.

As kids we grow up in contexts that we think is normal. The friendships and relationships are formed in this sense of normal. It is very, very easy to be completely comfortable within those familiar contexts. Into this normal, when a "difference" is introduced, of course it will create a completely new set of dynamics that will be unlike the peaceful and predictable normal of the past. The "problems" that could result were often presented as the wonderful reason for a separate but equal segregation. The problems that can arise were why even the supposedly enlightened elders in India used to, and even now, oppose inter-marriages. Separate but equal is nothing but racism.

BTW, here are two wonderful clips from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: