On Interracial Relationships, The Sunken Place and Middle-Class Whiteness

When I was around eight years old, my parents, step-siblings and I went to a Jamaican festival in Toronto. We had spent the day at the (now closed) Ontario Place, and the festival was nearby so we decided to stop there for food and live music. When we walked into the festival, I noticed an immediate change in both of my parents’ dispositions. My Dad, visibly relaxed, expanded into his social self, chatting to strangers and bouncing through like he was finally at home. My Mum became the kind of uncomfortable that doesn’t want you to know that it’s uncomfortable. All around us almost everyone was black.

I should preface this with an explanation of my family portrait. My Mum is white. I am white. My Mum met my Dad when I was five; he is the man who raised me and is my only Father. He is black. They got married when I was eight. My Dad had three children from his previous marriage who are all biracial. Then, when I was nine, my Mum and Dad had my brother, who is also biracial. But it would take me a little while to truly understand the implications of such a portrait.

At the Jamaican festival, I remember noticing another white person and thinking he looked kind of funny. The backpack he was carrying had a Jamaican flag on it and it was hiked too high on his back. His grin looked like he had Vaseline on his teeth to stop him from closing his lips. He had a sunburn. I was too young to understand my Mum’s tension and why that man stuck out so sorely. I didn’t understand my own feeling of being out of place and didn’t want to acknowledge it. I didn’t want to be different, I wanted to feel comfortable the way my siblings seemed to be. When I got home I talked to my Mum about it and she said something that stayed with me: “Zoe, that’s exactly how your Dad must feel so much of the time in Milton.”

I started noticing all the times when my Dad and siblings were the only people of colour in a social group. I wondered if they always felt the way I’d felt at the Jamaican festival when we were in public together. I noticed the way white people talked to my Dad, and especially the way people watched us when he took me out alone. What is that young white girl doing with a black man? We never experienced any direct questioning, but I noticed the same uncomfortable that doesn’t want you to know that it’s uncomfortable on my Dad’s face when he and I went out alone. I became aware of race in a way that many white people never have to, because I am part of an interracial family.

On my Mum’s side of the family everyone is white, and everyone is married to or is dating someone white. When we gather together, my Dad and brother are the only people who are not. I wonder why my Mum was the only one to look outside of her own race for someone marriage-worthy. Was it simply “easier” to date other white people? I think the idea of a racial preference in potential partners is rooted in internalized racism, or at least a discomfort with difference, which we should be engaging with instead. While in some places, this homogeneity is as a result of lack of exposure to or interaction with other races, suggesting that one race is more attractive to you than another is racist. People’s looks can vary so widely within a racial group (and that’s disregarding all the non-aesthetic, hopefully more important reasons why you would date someone). Equally as damaging is insisting that everyone from a certain group is attractive. Just because you say something positive about a group doesn’t mean you aren’t actively reducing them and flattening their complexity. My brother is beautiful, but not because he is biracial. 

In contrast to my white side of the family, my Dad’s side is much more diverse. My Dad is one of eight siblings, all of whom have children. Some have black spouses, some have non-black spouses. Even before my parents got married, I never felt uncomfortable as part of a racial minority in the family. I never felt like the white kid at the party, but as someone who married into an all-white family, I wonder if my Dad has ever felt like the black guy at the party.

I recently watched a brilliant movie, Get Out, which comments on the black psyche in upper-middle class (North) America. Directed by Jordan Peele, the film is about a black man who goes up to his white girlfriend’s parents’ house for the weekend to meet her parents. I don’t want to spoil too much because if there’s one film you should watch this year it’s Get Out. But I do want to talk about an idea that the film invented, called the “sunken place”.

In the film, the sunken place is a state of being that the protagonist, Chris, and the other black characters are pushed into by the white family who seeks to control them. So much of what I’ve watched my Dad experience in middle class North America is explored in this film; white people calling him “man”, talking incessantly about Obama, treating blackness as something trendy. When people meet my Dad, the first thing they tend to say to me about him is that he’s cool, which seems like a compliment but is part of an incredibly reductive expectation that people have of black men.

The sunken place is a result of the black person’s internalization of the white gaze. It’s what happens when black people are forcibly stripped of their identity and are molded to fit white expectations. Their true self is shoved into obscurity, and they exist in a state of perpetually falling backwards. The sunken place is portrayed in the film in humorous ways at first, like when Chris tries to fist-bump a black character who is in the sunken place and that character tries to shake his fist. Later, we see how damaging that state is: when a white man asks Chris about what it means to be black in America, Chris enlists the help of another black character who says that overall his experience as an African-American has been very positive. When Chris temporarily gets him out of the sunken place with a camera flash, the black character grabs him, his nose bleeding, and screams at him to “get out, get out, get out.”

The character who unsettled me most in the film was Chris’ girlfriend, Rose, probably because I could see so much of myself in her. At one key moment in the beginning of the film, Rose and Chris are on the way to her parents’ home and they hit a deer. Rose is driving, she pulls over and she calls the police. After she explains what happened, the police officer asks to see Chris’ driver’s license, even though he wasn’t driving and the incident won’t even be reported. Chris is about to give the officer his license when Rose argues back, using her white privilege to call the police officer out for being racist. That’s what white people should be doing, standing up for the person who has less power and calling other white people out for being racist. Rose also recognises racism in her own family and she takes Chris’ side against her parents but [SPOILER] Rose turns out to be just as evil as her parents are. Arguably, Rose is the worst one because she seduces black people with friendship and romance only to have them be brainwashed and enslaved by her white family.

So is Get Out suggesting that all white people in interracial relationships ultimately shove their partner into the sunken place? Is it suggesting that interracial romance is impossible without exploitation of the race who has less power? Rose seems to do everything right, and you could even use her as a model in the first part of the movie for how you should try to act as a white person in an interracial relationship. But the relationship still fails and ends in trauma and bloodshed. Does this mean that my Dad is in the sunken place every time he is with my white side of the family? Are interracial relationships doomed to fail? And what does this mean for biracial children who operate in both worlds? Are they always going to be half-sunk?

I don’t think that this is the message Get Out is trying to tell its audience, despite the failure of the relationship between Chris and Rose. The film is instead engaging with an idea that is part of the black American literary canon. In 1979 Audre Lorde called on feminists to recognise intersectionality and to stop pretending to be blind to difference, whether it was in wealth, race or sexuality. She argued that the master’s tools can never be used to dismantle the master’s house. “Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic,” she tells us. In Get Out, Chris attempts to exist in the master’s house, and to survive it he is forced to burn the house down. The film criticises the white system of power in place, and as a piece of literature it too refuses to use the master’s tools, subverting them instead at every turn.

The idea of burning down white systems of power can seem terrifying to white people. What would happen if we lost all of our privilege? White people may be uncomfortable with this film because it reveals that even when you are politically correct, and even when everything seems peaceful on the surface, black people are being damaged and exploited in horrifying ways. The film does not advocate against engagement between races, and it is certainly not against interracial romance, but it suggests a burning down of the system. Nobody can survive in the current house of white privilege, no matter how much we try not to see it.

 

Artwork by Jermaine Rogers

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