A few days before I boarded a flight to move to New Delhi in June of 2011, I declared to my friends that I was going to meet a white dude in India. Many of them had practically moved into my barren mint-green room at my parent’s house, banking as much together time as we could. I would pack as they lounged on my limp mattress, and we would deliberate on all the possible paths and outcomes this seminal change could bring. Before moving, I had dated a handful of South Asian men; a streak that ended after my university on-again, off-again, temporarily long-distance, and always in flux relationship that we all assumed would turn into an engagement, ended for good after 5 years.
The declaration towards whiteness came after finding myself in relationships that resembled only a mildly upgraded version of my parents, the patriarchy now disguised by ‘supporting my career,’ so as long as I wasn’t more ambitious or made more money. In one conversation, my then-partner told me that the ideal career for his future wife was a teacher, ‘so she can cover the mortgage, and take care of the kids in the summer,’ naturally. Another definitively said, ‘I’m not just going to get up and move to Africa with you for your work.’ Many expressed they wanted relationships that resembled their own parents, where the gender roles were clear and largely status quo.
In all of these ‘dating within’ relationships, we fought ritually and violently, used jealousy as evidence of our desire for one another, and gave ultimatums, lacking any sense of what it meant to be in a ‘healthy relationship.’ The chaos was the most normal thing we knew, and when our trauma of rejection, abandonment, unworthiness, and abuse of power collided in a storm, the relationship was a place to commiserate. We would lick our wounds until the next flare-up, finding an intoxicating closeness in getting each other and sharing the secret realities of our home life that if discovered, had the potential to destroy our family’s honor and community standing. But, we had little to no idea on how to break the intergenerational patterns bestowed on us. It all sounds grating even now, but as third culture kids in our early twenties, swimming in pools of unprocessed trauma, and bouncing between conceptions of tradition and preservation, of progress and self-definition, we were doing our sloppy best.
The declaration was a half-joke, but 6 months after moving to New Delhi, I did meet a white dude and proceeded to date him for 3 years. Of course, the love and connection were eventually genuine, but the intention was horrifyingly simplistic. The solution to feeling trapped within the paradigm of South Asian love, was whiteness. Even more, I figured that if I met a white guy in India, he would obviously already be into the culture, meaning I could have my Gulab Jaman, and eat it too.
I was very well aware of what the stakes were in bringing home a white dude. The preparation for marriage was imposed on most of my life — right from learning how to roll roti’s at 10 years old for my future husband to being reminded that having a messy room was not marriage material. The controlling and oppressive sasu or mother-in-law who longed for an agreeable daughter-in-law was a story reinforced across all forms of South Asian media and sometimes, was not far from reality. It became clear to me all the ways I would need to behave to avoid what sounded like a death sentence: be loud, messy, disagreeable, unskilled, and undesirable.
At our temple, the girls would joke about all the ways in which their moms were preparing for their eventual nuptials — storing extra sets of CorningWare and pots on sale, scheming potential introductions, and dangling the potential of 24K and diamond adornments if ‘a good boy was found.’ When we went to bow to our elders, they would greet us by sharing their excitement for our eventual marriage. Of course, we would laugh it off, shake our heads and roll our eyes at the sheer confusion between what felt absurd to us and normal to them until a final sigh would vocalize how unnerving it all was to accept this predetermined fate.
Of course, in our parent's minds, they were being ‘progressive,’ evolving from meeting their partners through arranged marriages, to offering their children some choice. At first, the requirement was to marry within the Gujarati community and Jain faith. But, as the years went by and my parent’s desperation rose, the standards were lowered to just Gujarati, and then eventually just South Asian. Realistically, dating and now being engaged to a white dude nudged our structure of enclosure by a foot. Would the conversation have been much different if I brought home a Black dude, a dude of Muslim faith, or a PoC woman? Absolutely. And that is the uncomfortable truth of our communities relationship to whiteness.
Living in India gave me some freedom to explore an interracial relationship, without the fear of my parents hearing the lie in my voice, or worse, being spotted by the informal community watch squad. When I finally told them, I was trembling. To my surprise, their response was, ‘that’s okay. is he vegetarian?’ (he was), revealing their priorities. I suspect their immediate acceptance was a consequence of our distance, and how it made the heart fonder, softer. Age was likely a factor too (I was 27), and the panic of my pending ineligibility. Further, I don’t discount the impact of my parents leaving their families in London for Toronto, weakening the threads to our matriarch’s cultural code, as well as their subconscious comfort with whiteness having been brought up through British and Catholic school systems in East Africa. Though they did eventually discombobulate, I give them credit for evolving too.
Interracial relationships aren’t really that radical anymore within the mainstream and account for about ~5% of the Canadian population — though South Asians are still the least likely cultural group to intermarry. This isn’t that surprising given our rich cultural histories, community infrastructure, and the recognition that cultural preservation in the West happens in the home and through the marriage between two families. It’s partly practical too - since communities are the infrastructure that can hold us accountable to our commitments if we so choose to make them. Yet, reactions to interracial relationships in South Asian families can be wholly unpredictable - ranging from discomfort to eventual acceptance to disowning and honour killings and likely intersect with class position and religious beliefs. Gagan Khera and Muninder Ahluwalia liken the experience of some South Asian Americans hiding an interracial relationship to that of folks that identify as LGBTQ2+, calling it being in the ‘cultural closet.’ Similarly, fears of rejection and internalized shame become a constant mental health stressor.
But things have changed as our racial consciousness has grown. What used to have the perfume of a bit of edge and intrigue in marrying a white dude, is now the tired and worn pursuit of earning white love. Being with a white dude can now be seen as living within the stereotypes of ‘ethnic’ fetishization and a betrayal to the cause of dismantling racism and white supremacy. When Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, and Kumail Nanjiani all pursued white love in their respective Netflix shows and films a few years ago, viewers were markedly disappointed in their decision to satisfy Hollywood’s propensity to profit off diversity, while preserving whiteness. Despite being initially defensive to the critique, Kaling went on to produce Never Have I Ever, which chronicles the complicated life of an Indian-American teenager, and Ansari co-wrote the last season of Master of None, which centres Black Queer love, changing their initial tunes.
Scholars studying interracial marriage often laud it as positively contributing to changing race relations, which makes sense since a new family member can and will break down some racial distances. In interracial marriages between South Asian and white folks, the presumption is that the white families are the open and accepting party, less threatened by the presence of a racialized person, and sometimes, genuinely eager to learn about a new culture. The openness is not a measure of tolerance, but rather the continued assumption that assimilation will flow in their direction as it has in the dominant culture. By contrast, cultural sharing would flow the other way, in a performative fawning of white folks for trying ‘ethnic food,’ wearing ‘ethnic clothes,’ and terribly dancing to ‘ethnic music,’ adulating their acceptance for years to come.
But these perfunctory gestures of cultural exchange are changing, as racialized folks, often women, are performing the labour of asking their white in-laws to actually confront their whiteness. On more than one occasion, friends in interracial relationships and marriages have shared the fractures that have occured in the last year, when discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, police abolition, and the power structures that keep whiteness in place. The myth of Canadian multiculturalism, representation and diversity, and inclusion is found in families too - where white folks are delighted to try chole bhature, as long as it’s not too spicy for the status quo.
In 2015, Simranpreet Badesha published a thesis that specifically focused on the experiences of South Asian women in interracial marriages in Canada, with a particular interest in the process of reconstituting one’s identity. In my own experience of dating two white dudes, what is lost in cultural intimacy, references, language, and community accountability, was gained in the agency to redefine gender roles and a relationship with my body beyond its capacity for domestic, family, and reproductive labour. When the white dude I dated in India strayed and unceremoniously broke up with me, he was careless towards the remolding we had all done when I introduced him to my parents, publicly posted pictures about him, and brought him on a family trip before we were engaged. Given our families lived on opposite coasts, had never met, and lacked cultural networks — there was no mechanism to hold him accountable for his actions. To him, I was just another person in his rolodex of individualist dating. To me, he was a leap of faith to my family and community. Perhaps that is not his problem, but the cultural gap was palpable.
When Ciaran and I started dating 4 years ago, he had been a migrant rights political organizer for almost 6 years, with a strong foundation on systemic oppression and over a decade of internal work challenging his own narratives of whiteness and masculinity. He has taught me more about collective power than anyone else I know. Being Irish, and raised in Northern Ireland, meant he had an acute sense of the reproductions of the colonial state. I often tell him his parents have the most egalitarian relationship I have ever witnessed; a model of partnership he personally aims for. Unsurprisingly, he has embraced the Indian culture, finding a connection through his own passion for food and cooking, learning recipes from my mom. I’ve learned a lot about Irish history and now go camping (lol). Sharing my cultural practices and artifacts with him is so gratifying, and still, sometimes, I long for just being in it, relating to the quirks of being Gujarati and Indian, and having support in keeping it alive and breathing. In the rare times, I am home alone, I make a point to blast Bollywood music, do bhangra in the mirror, and binge the latest Hinglish TV shows with my own company. It’s not much, but I cherish it.
Unlike my past relationships with South Asian men, the rising of my trauma found no place for commiseration. If your partner is a mirror, Ciaran bounces my shit right back to me, forcing me to look and reckon with all the experiences and stories that regularly unleashed a vicious rage in me. On one weepy evening, he bared that he would never be able to understand what I went through, which is not far from the truth of relationships in general, but perhaps, our distance is one level deeper. Still, his Pisces spirit has shown up for me with a relentless capacity for holding space for that which he does not fully understand. It has been profoundly healing.
In an interview with Serena Williams in Essence Magazine, she shares she never thought she would marry a white dude, going on to reflect that ‘love truly has no colour,’ which I tend to disagree with. Who we choose to love is deeply political and it offers us the opportunity to transcend and reimagine the constructs we were born into. There are times when I know I have seen Ciaran’s soul when his white bodysuit is just weird. But, in this reality, he is still a white dude, and I am still a South Asian woman, and we are still in an interracial relationship. It might not matter in 10, 20, or 100 years, but it matters now. I’m not self-congratulatory on going against the grain and being in an interracial relationship, because, despite my shallow initiation into dating a white dude, I trust that our union is what we both need for our spiritual growth. I trust that our spirit finds the love that will set us free.