Interracial Relationships on Television

resident Fitzgerald Grant vowed to throw away his career and his marriage so he could "earn" Olivia on ABC's soapy drama "Scandal." In turn, female viewers of all races swooned as Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sang "You're All I Need to Get By" to punctuate the moment. Sure: Fitz (played by Tony Goldwyn) is the married leader of the free world and Olivia (star Kerry Washington) is a professional fixer with a lot to lose, but love is love and these two-no matter how star-crossed-truly love each other.

As viewers discussed the episode and Fitz's unforgettable one liner "watch me earn you" from beauty and barber shops to Twitter and Facebook, back when the episode aired in May, a cultural shift took place. This is a relationship-no matter how doomed-between a Black woman and a White man and, amazingly, the characters' races were secondary, if mentioned at all. Perhaps one of the reasons is because the number of pairings between Black women and White men are increasing on television and can be seen on Showtime's "Shameless," "Parenthood" on NBC, HBO's "True Blood" and "The Haves and the Have Nots" on OWN, just to name a few.

On one hand, not mentioning race or not making it the focus is progress. Perhaps a good portion of America is reaching a post-racial mindset and love stories can be bigger than the race of the people in love. "We've come a long way since Loving v. Virginia in 1967," says Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. 

In the landmark civil rights case, the Supreme Court invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and the Lovings-Mildred Loving who was Black and Richard Loving who was White-were finally able to enjoy their marriage legally.

"It's shocking how recent that was," Thompson says of the case. "In high schools and middle schools all over America, the race of the person you're dating isn't an issue. Television is trying to be modern and embrace that reality on a number of shows. TV doesn't push envelopes, but it's good at licking them."



But on the other hand, race still matters, and as much as fans love Olivia and Fitz, Olivia is still the mistress and not the wife.

"The affair on 'Scandal' feeds into the stereotype that interracial relationships between Black women and White men are still a dirty little secret," says Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn, one of the authors behind "Swirling: How to Date, Mate and Relate Mixing Race, Culture and Creed" (Atria Books, $15). 

Littlejohn points to the racist backlash the recent Cheerios ad featuring a biracial girl and her Black father and White mother received. Coincidentally, the ad debuted just weeks after the "earn you" episode of "Scandal." "As far as we've come in this country, we still have a ways to go," she says.

"I'm excited that more roles are opening up for African-American actresses, and I understand why African-American women are cheering for Olivia and Fitz," Littlejohn says. "But it really doesn't do us any service to feel like finally one of our women is taking one of their men. Ultimately, it's still feeding into the perception that this Black woman has to wait for something she may never have."

For the small minority of viewers who wonder what "Scandal" would've been like had Fitz been played by a Black actor, such a hypothetical scenario is just that.

"Mainstream broadcast networks are always wary that White audiences will think a show isn't for them if too many major characters are non-White," says Eric Deggans, the outgoing TV/media critic for the Tampa Bay Times and newly hired TV critic at NPR. "Talk to producers on NBC's 'Homicide' or HBO's 'The Wire,' and you will hear them blame that dynamic for each show's low ratings, despite how beloved both were critically."

Deggans, who also wrote the book "Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation" (Palgrave/Macmillan, $20.87), says Shonda Rhimes, the African-American woman, creator and executive producer behind "Scandal," knew it was hard enough convincing ABC to let a Black woman lead a show-something that hadn't happened since Diahann Carroll's "Julia" ended in 1971. Rhimes presumably didn't want to doom the show with two Black leads or have a Black president serve as an unintentional proxy for President Barack Obama.

"Shonda Rhimes seems to have been very careful about how she has diversified her casts in the shows leading up to 'Scandal' – always featuring just enough diversity to make the casts interesting, breaking ground in subtle, less-threatening ways," Deggans says. "Now, in 'Scandal,' she has a series with a Black female lead, and I can guess that casting her opposite a Black male president would have been extremely risky. And even though some people have grumbled about how the most visible Black female character on TV is still pining after a man-and a White man at that-I think Black women have embraced the show and White audiences like it, too."


To be clear, there are White men who prefer Black women and vice versa in real life and not just on the big and small screens. In the documentary "Dark Girls," White hip-hop author and journalist Soren Baker says he knew he was attracted to Black women.

"I remember distinctly a conversation I had with my father when I was in elementary school," Baker says. "I did realize that I was attracted to-in more than a social way-women of all ethnicities. I remember distinctly going to my father and saying, 'Dad, would you mind if I did marry a Black woman one day?' His response to me was, 'As long as she looks good, I don't care what color she is.'"

An extreme example of such attraction can be seen in the movie "12 Years a Slave," in which an obsessed slave master (Michael Fassbender) stalks and tortures his Black slave (Lupita Nyong'o).

In some circles, a social assumption exists that if a White man is attracted to a Black woman, a master-and-slave fetish is at work.
In that regard, some consider Olivia Pope a modern-day Sally Hemings (President Thomas Jefferson's Black slave lover). Olivia's even remarked on the show that she is not.

Meanwhile, Shanola Hampton, who plays Veronica on "Shameless," says she has received a small handful of hateful messages on Facebook calling her "the White man's slave." Her character is married to a White man named Kevin (Steve Howey) on the show. But she says fans are supportive overall.

"They respect and love each other and they are sexually attracted to each other," Hampton says of Veronica and Kevin. "It's all about them loving each other. They are the healthiest couple on the show, and the reddest of rednecks and the blackest of militant Black viewers root for Veronica and Kevin because they're relatable." Hampton says Veronica and Kevin's relationship would've been a bigger deal a decade ago, but "fans don't focus on the fact that Veronica and Kevin are different races," she says.

The actress is also excited because Veronica and Kevin are dealing with issues of infertility. When the dramatic comedy returns for a fourth season next year, Veronica's mom (guest star Vanessa Bell Calloway) is a surrogate for the couple and pregnant with Kevin's baby. Meanwhile, Veronica might be pregnant, too.

"Infertility is not a racial issue. It's a human issue," says Hampton, a self-described lover of "Scandal." "In real life and on TV, we see more Black men with White women. Hopefully, 'Shameless,' 'Scandal' and other shows, movies and books will open people's minds and encourage single Black women to expand their dating pools. These are just TV shows. But it's a start."


Progress also was made when the movie version of "Parenthood" was adapted for TV. In the original 1989 film, the mother of Larry Buckman's child was an absentee Black woman. On the show, which is entering its fifth season, Crosby Braverman (Dax Shepard) married the Black woman who birthed his child and they're making it work. They're even expecting a second child.

"We shouldn't ignore the differences," says Joy Bryant, who co-stars as Jasmine Trussell Braverman on "Parenthood." "We have mixed kids. Let's celebrate them. Let's acknowledge them. Twenty years (ago), the story would've been 'I'm Black and he's White' every episode. Now, they're shown as a couple going through the same things all couples go through. They have cultural differences, but at least there's progress."

Bryant says she was especially pleased the writers chose to pursue the use of the "N-word" in season four.

"I was very proud of them," Bryant says of the family drama's scribes. "I've been wanting that type of dialogue on this show because that's real. I didn't push for that specifically but I wanted them to address race and they did."

Humor is another way to deal with interracial dating between Black women and White men. At least that's how it's handled on FX's animated hit "Archer."

"What I like about it is that we both don't make an issue of it and we do make an issue of it," says Aisha Tyler, the actress behind the Lana character, a Black spy who dates White men, including the show's title character. Tyler's real-life husband is also White.

"There are both extreme expressions of ethnic awareness and then none," Tyler says of "Archer." "But when (Archer) was dating Lana, it wasn't like, 'Oh, they're a mixed couple.' But Archer also has a 'Mulatto Butts' ringtone."

Detroit native and filmmaker Joe Doughrity thinks having a biracial president and an African-American first lady has given TV producers and networks the courage to invest in on-screen romances between African-American women and non-Black people-not just men. For instance, CBS' hit summer show "Under the Dome" features a lesbian couple with a Black woman and White woman.

"Michelle Obama is the truth, and what man of any race wouldn't want an Ivy League-educated, in shape, articulate and passionate woman by his side?" says Doughrity, whose 2007 film "Akira's Hip Hop Shop" explored a courtship between an African-American woman and a Japanese-American man. "Mrs. Obama is all that and more."

Doughrity says TV viewers can expect even more Black women/White men pairings. "The big rumor out of San Diego Comic-Con is that on the upcoming season of 'The Walking Dead,' Danai Gurira's samurai sword-wielding Michonne character might be getting together with either Rick or Daryl, two of the show's popular White leads," Doughrity says. "And no one's batting an eye or raising a controversy. It's becoming more socially acceptable, and I think it works both ways. Black women still date more proportionally within their race than Asian, Latin and White women, but as that changes, I think we will see even more pairings across color lines."

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