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Straight Talk on TV's New Love Affair with Interracial Relationships



You know you've been around a while when other critics start calling you for quotes.

The topic most recently was the new uptick in interracial relationships on prime time network TV shows. Given that I covered TV for eight years, have written about the issue before and are currently involved in an interracial marriage, I guess that made me the perfect expert for my friend Chuck Barney of the Contra Costa Times.

Chuck -- along with a TV critic pal in an interracial relationship, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Melanie McFarland -- noted a surge in such pairings on some high profile shows. Dean and Cassie from the WB's Supernatural. Joy and Darnell from NBC's My Name is Earl. Christina Yang and Preston Burke on ABC's Grey's Anatomy. Rose and Bernard on Lost (or Shanon and Sayid). Neela Rasgotra and Michael Gallant on ER. The list, these days, is long.

It's a wonderful turn, and an improvement from the days when the only interracial couples on TV were Lucy and Desi and The Jefferson's Tom and Helen Willis. I was disappointed, however, to see that Chuck only quoted part of my problem with the way current interracial relationships are portrayed on TV -- which is that race or culture is rarely a factor.

It's been my experience that race and culture differences come out in unexpected, subtle ways in modern-day interracial relationships. Rarely will you have racists say something to your face -- though two of my wife's brothers-in-law refused to sit in the same room with me when I attended my first Thanksgiving dinner at her mother's home a dozen years ago.

Instead, it's less obvious frictions: my wife encountering a woman at the grocery who refused to believe our caramel-skinned daughter could be her child by blood; the waiter who seemed to dote on the white couples around us but ignore our table for long periods; the black people in my life who would get a certain look on their face once they realized my wife is white (once had someone insist in an email discussion among black journalists that I couldn't possibly love my wife).

It's a truism that TV doesn't do subtle well. And TV especially doesn't do subtle and controversial too well. And so, most every interracial relationship on network TV unfolds as if the race and culture differences don't matter (on Lost, where producers paired a white, priviledged blonde American with a former member of the Iraqi Army, the dissonance was so great they wound up killing off her character).

There are some who see this as an advance -- a sign that we've gotten beyond the race politics which kept Star Trek from actually showing Capt. Kirk and Lt. Uhura's lips touching. Perhaps. But, as an ever-cynical observer of the media industry, I think it is more a sign of capitulation from television; an unwillingness by mostly-white TV writers to try navigating the tricky waters of America's race differences on such a visible platform.

(To see an interesting take on the black male/Asian woman coupling trend, check here. For Wikipedia's list of notable interracial couples, look here.)

The real edges of our frictions over these issues appear on some of the romantic/dating reality shows, which rarely feature interracial couples -- except on the trading spouses programs, where the ultimate message seems to be that stepping outside your culture only brings conflict. (ABC's creaky franchise The Bachelor has had one: Tampa's Mary Delgado with whatever blockhead was the bachelor that year).

Which is too bad. Because, even as many in the real world are testing the boundaries of convention while following their hearts, TV remains a step or two behind -- unwilling to walk in the deep water, for fear of getting too real for prime time.

Pundit Alert #1:

Looks like the good folks at CBS' Public Eye blog are really desperate for material: They actually published my take on their new Assignment America series and what it might mean for the new world of digital-influenced news coverage. Feel free to check it out, if only to snicker at the lousy head shot they used (not their fault; unfortunately, I only have lousy head shots available these days). Sigh.

Pundit Alert #2:

I'll also be inflicting my opinion on the notables at Rob Lorei's public affairs show for WEDU-Ch. 3, Florida This Week. So far, the issues at hand seem to be the United Arab Emirates connection to a deal at the Tampa Port Authority, polls showing Crist and Davis ahead in the Governor's race and legislation making it a crime to be an illegal immigrant. Check it out at 8:30 p.m. tonight, 12:30 p.m. Thursday or here.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:35pm]


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