A Recipe for Love: My Love Story, Part 2 Colorism
As I sit here contemplating how to begin discussing the personal aspect of my experiences with racial tensions being in an interracial marriage, I feel at a loss of where to begin. How do I discuss something so close to heart without hurting the loved ones around me who may not have realized the impact of those subtle comments and behaviors? And so I begin by reiterating what Part 1 discussed: that implicit racism are the subtle actions, language, and support of policies that may not have ill will but treat certain racial groups as less than. And that my purpose for writing this is not to "call out" individuals or behaviors, but to create a space where we can come together to reflect and grow, to foster a healthier environment.
My love story begins not just with my husband, Juma, but with my own process of growth and the experiences that led to our serendipitous meeting. As a practicing Muslim, dating for me was a process of intentionality, of meeting individuals with a set purpose and goal in mind of seeing if there was compatibility for a life long committed partnership together. We still had a good time together, but the explicit intentionality was always there.
Prior to meeting Juma, in my parents' household, they stressed the foundational values that were important within our family culture: education, a strong relationship with God and spirituality, a positive relationship with their family, respect, and good character. They were very explicit in these points and stressed that those were their hopes for our future life partners.
And so I met countless individuals from all walks of life as I moved from city to city through my journey in adulthood. My friend circle grew, my network of acquaintances expanded, and my life experiences evolved each step of the way. Regardless of where I lived, the conversations with friends of immigrant descent around the topic of dating always included one question asked in a few different ways: what racial groups are you open to dating? What racial groups would your parents permit you to date? Do you prefer to marry someone from your "own culture"?
And the conversations always varied, from city to city the pattern remained relatively similar. Some mentioning that it didn't factor into their decision making process, others mentioning that their parents wouldn't feel comfortable with XYZ groups. Then a discussion of attractiveness would follow, certain groups being deemed not as masculine, some groups deemed attractive, and others pegged as too different for them to relate to.
Within these discussions, which I know is not unique to my own experience, I ask us to take pause when we think about how we define masculinity, attractiveness, and familiarity. The repeated overture often times revolved around having had a crush on a White classmate, the White high school football captain, a White musician, a White actor who was the main character of a favorite adolescent show and so on. Already in this process of considering who is attractive as racial categories, it is not about the individual's personal traits that are at hand, but a generalization that White men are attractive.
And so I ask us to think back on the academic discussion of part one, and how immigrant communities who enter the US think of themselves relative to the racial order. How nearness to Whiteness means true assimilation, belonging, acceptance, and signals high socioeconomic success, and so forth. And so when we make broad generalizations about which racial groups we find "attractive" or "acceptable" as life partners, these generalizations about that group's placement on the racial order and in relation to positive attributed stereotypes is often a significant guiding factor in how we think about or discuss these matters.
The strangest thing to me was discovering how invested others who are distant in your life can have strong opinions about your life decisions. I grew up in a home where my parents' actively had discussions about race with us. Their small business is located in a neighborhood that primarily serves Black and Brown working class individuals, and so from as early as our first days in the US, they became deeply embedded within our broader community in Ohio. My mother herself having faced intense discrimination in simple life processes, from getting a driver's license to how her children were treated in public schools by faculty and staff.
I appreciate their awareness of the environment we were living in, and emphasis that values were the essential components necessary for a healthy marriage. This didn't mean that they "didn't see color," they saw and understood that there were people who came from all walks of life. But that race had nothing to do with our values, and thus was not a pertinent part of who would make a good spouse for us. Their "progressive" mindset stuck out like a sore thumb in contrast to even the closest of family members around them, but they held firm onto this belief and foundation.
And so when I finally mentioned to my parents that I had met someone very special to me that I was serious about, their questions were about his character and values. What's his relationship with his mother like? What is his educational background and life goals? What is his relationship with God like? Does he treat even strangers with respect and kindness? I knew I had a unique situation, very much so aware of the insular way the Afghan community tended to be. After all, I had introduced Juma to my parents after I had completed my in-depth research study of the Afghan American community. So what I knew now was not just my personal experience, but broader trends, challenges, and norms within the community itself.
This is not to say that I showed them his photo and said nothing about where he was from. I told them he was Kenyan and explained what his relationship to his own culture was like. I gave them my understanding of how his family functioned and how he was raised. I told them what languages he knew and how we interacted with one another. But what I didn't hear from them were comments wondering "well, what if your children turn out to be dark?" questions that I heard in various different forms unfortunately from others.
Similar to many other societies that had undergone colonialism, though Afghanistan was not colonized, it had undergone enough exposure through the Anglo-Afghan wars and relationships to Western countries that it too had taken on ideals of colorism. Colorism means a valuing of paler, fair complexion, and a belief that deeper complexions are less desirable and attractive. I grew up hearing endless "compliments" from my own community and other immigrant communities, elders and peers, praising my "fair skin." It felt awkward and uneasy, especially as I had been aggressively taught otherwise at home.
My brother and sister are close in age to me, and we grew up as a tight-knit trio. My sister and I looked similar to one another, while my brother has a deeper olive complexion. Growing up, I heard him called several revolting terms, from Sand N****r to similar words in both English and Dari/Farsi, terms that denoted him less than simply for the color of his complexion. And each time, my parents emphasized the ridiculousness of these statements, how denigrating such a mentality is, and how abhorrent such a mindset is. They emphasized this any time we received compliments for our "fair skin" or he received negativity for his olive complexion.
The compliments on my skin tone expanded beyond my own person as I grew older, to comments on what how beautiful my future non-existent children will be like. Again, this extended beyond just Afghans, to other colonized communities, elders and peers of my own age. And so I can to some extent understand how coming from this mindset, my decision to marry someone so "different" to them was a surprise. Because to them, skin color had a high premium, whereas to me, content and character was important.
And so repeatedly, I heard the surprise that someone with "fair skin" like myself was marrying someone with Black complexion and would "risk" having "dark babies." And the different ways this was insinuated or spoken, "oh but what about your beautiful fair skin" or how lucky my husband was to have me as his wife and the potential that it would be okay, it's possible our children could look like me. But it was not just colorism, but having adapted into the racial social structure of the US that was surprising for me to witness.
They took on the views that certain racial groups denoted certain negative stereotypes, ranging from low socioeconomic class affiliation to undesirable family structures to negative behaviors such as an assumption of drug use, criminality, and violence. More than the tropes of colorism, what was immensely hurtful was experiencing how these perceptions were taken on as fact by even individuals who I had such immense respect for prior to the awkward commentary that revealed their beliefs.
In my next and final post in this series, I'll share how we announced our engagement and the racial tensions that became apparent through our engagement, wedding, and now marriage.
Follow along on my Instagram page: @imanistan as I continue the discussion there in stories, posts, and an upcoming live conversation.