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In my early dating career, any time I'd mention a female name in front of my parents their knee-jerk reaction was, "Is she Jewish?" But gradually, as a pattern started to emerge, their first question took a step back to "Is she white?"
In the opinion of my friends, if I'm dating a white woman--which has happened--it's an aberration, a break from my African-American and Asian "fetishes." Usually I laugh off those kinds of comments. "Yes, I'm that guy who dates interracially. There's one in every group!" I'll call myself an "equal-opportunity dater" and claim that I'm simply leaving myself open to more options.
Inwardly though, I have struggled to understand why I'm usually more attracted to women of other races than to my own. I've experienced first hand the social stigma of interracial dating: the nasty looks, the verbal insults. But I believe that attraction is a subconscious process. You can't pre-determine whom you find beautiful or enticing, you can either just ignore it or act upon it. The fact that I won't limit my dating to one racial or religious group has allowed me to meet some amazingly wonderful individuals. It has also caused considerable angst between my parents and myself.
One episode of particular hurt came not long after my graduation from college. At school, I had fallen madly in love with an African-American woman named Doretta and spent my entire senior year with her. But I moved back home to New York afterwards and she stayed in Michigan, her home. We told each other we were breaking up due to the distance and the different courses we expected our lives to take. Still, doing so was not as easy as planned. We both felt as if a hole had been ripped in our hearts. So I went back to Michigan for a short visit, and then invited her to New York for a visit. I was still living with my parents however, while job searching, and learned the hard way that the invitation was apparently not mine to extend.
My parents had met Doretta during graduation weekend, when they took us for a cordial yet somewhat stilted dinner out. Because they had always emphasized their desire for me to marry a Jewish woman, and because I had naively shared that information with Doretta, she very palpably felt their disapproval during that meal. Still, I imagined that once my parents got to know her as an individual, they would see in her the incredibly intelligent, strong, and funny woman that I loved.
I was wrong. My parents had no intention of getting to know her as an individual because they had already concluded that my relationship with her was "unhealthy." So when I mentioned that she was coming for a visit, I was told to uninvite her. They would not condone the relationship by letting her sleep under their roof.
I felt intense anger and outrage at them. Granted, I should have asked their permission before inviting her, but what was their goal? Did they think their actions would end my relationship? Doretta and I were already going through the difficult process of breaking up. If they were worried that I might marry her, was banning her from our home supposed to make it clear that I would have to choose between her and them? I'm sure they'd already seen Fiddler on the Roof a thousand times. Were they preparing to sit shiva (mourn me as if I were dead) if I married her?
I was twenty-two years old at that time. The opportunity for my parents to teach me lessons had come and gone; now it was time for them to trust my instincts and treat me like an adult. Instead, they panicked, revealing an ugly side I did not want to see, and in the process only hurt their relationship with me, not mine with Doretta.
That was ten years ago. My parents and I have since been able to talk through that episode, but it took several years and forever changed my view of them.
One year after I had uninvited Doretta from visiting, my younger sister graduated college and invited her non-Jewish boyfriend to stay at my parents' house. Remarkably, my parents had no problem with it! I will never forget the long and torturous conversation with them (over a greasy-spoon diner meal) in which I proved how hypocritical they were and had them admit to their own biases.
They felt that my sister was less serious with this guy than I was with Doretta. But how could they know, when my sister is much less open with them than I am? Perhaps I should have clammed up, like my sister did, and shared less with my folks.
Although my parents claimed that Doretta's skin color had nothing to do with barring her from our home--that they were only concerned with her not being Jewish--Doretta never bought that, and felt painfully humiliated as a black woman not being "allowed" to sleep in my white parents' home. I spent much wasted breath defending my parents as non-racist. So when my sister's white non-Jewish boyfriend was allowed to stay over, I felt especially betrayed. During that discussion at the greasy spoon, they admitted to being concerned about the "special difficulties" interracial couples faced. I didn't push them on how they would feel introducing my black girlfriend to their friends.
Perhaps some people read interfaith and/or interracial dating as a form of rebellion against one's parents or society. Maybe these are the same people who believe being gay is a "choice" a person makes. Is my attraction to dark skin really any different than my friends who prefer blondes or only date large-bosomed women? All are simply initial attractions that lead to further exploration, to find out if there's compatibility on a personal and individual level, beyond mere looks.
I certainly did not fall in love with Doretta to cause my parents pain. In fact, it was they who instilled my egalitarian life-view in the first place--that people should be judged by their character and not their race or religion. So it was especially disappointing to learn that they would rather have me keep it a theory than put it into practice.
When I inter-date, I never feel that I'm giving up my Jewish identity. In fact, my sense of Jewish responsibility has always been strong, in part because I know the horrors my grandmother endured in the Holocaust, losing her entire family to the Nazis. I've been involved in the Jewish community most of my life. I know that my children will be Jewish, no matter whom I eventually marry.
And lately, my parents are finally starting to believe that as well.