hen Sabeena Shah brought Joe Hubbard home to her parents, they knew she was serious. But they had questions. Would Hubbard fit into their Pakistani American extended family? Would he be able to fully embrace Islam? Shah’s father told Hubbard it wouldn’t work.
This was ironic—primarily because, Shah’s mother, a white American, expressed some of the same ambivalence that her father did. “It was definitely a double standard,” says Shah. “After marriage, my mother had adapted herself to my dad’s culture, religion, language. They said that people like my mother were few and far between.” Hubbard’s family were well established Swedish Americans in the Chicago area and very active in the Lutheran church. “His grandmother had always said he should find a nice Lutheran girl for himself,” says Shah.
While Shah’s might not be the typical South Asian American family, the reactions to her interracial relationship aren’t that surprising, given that interracial marriage is a fairly new phenomenon. Marrying outside one’s race in the United States was forbidden by miscegenation laws till as recently as 1967, even as furtive interracial marriages had been occurring as early as the late 1600s (Mary Fisher, born to an Indian father and an Irish mother, is considered the first biracial American desi—see the sidebar). Ever since the archaic laws were struck down, one thing seems obvious—interracial marriages have exploded, a fact confirmed by the 2000 U.S. census.
That census was unique in the fact that—for the first time—respondents could choose more than one race to identify themselves with. The results? 11.9 million people consider themselves Asian Americans; 10.2 million of them see themselves as Asian only; but a whopping 1.7 million reported that they are part Asian; that is, mixed. And among all Asians, Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Indian Americans were most likely to consider themselves as having mixed racial origins. Another interesting fact: Among Asians, Indian American males were most likely to marry black women, and Indian American females were most likely to marry within their own race.
The First American Desi
Historically, South Asian cultures have had plenty of experiences with interracial marriages. From Alexander the Great who married the Persian princess Roxanne to the Portuguese settlers in Goa, India, who were encouraged by their government to marry into the local populace, there are several examples in South Asian history to show for racial mixing. Records show Sikh workers emigrating to the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century also married Mexican or African American women.
But who was the first biracial American of desi origin? Research by Francis C. Assisi reveals that the first Indian American was possibly Mary Fisher, born in 1680 to an Indian father and an Irish mother. Miscegenation laws at the time dictated that Fisher be classified and sold as a slave. She later married an African American, and her descendants have been identified as African Americans. Present day descendants live in Anne Arundel County, Maryland.
Those are the statistics the census reveals; contrast that with how interracial marriage fares in pop culture. Susan Koshy, in her book Sexual Naturalization: Asian Americans and Miscegenation, explores how “Asian woman” equaled “model sexual minority” in both film and literature. A common trope in South Asian American cinema has been the successful pairing of an Asian woman and a white man. Bend it Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice and Mistress of Spices (based on Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s book of the same name), all exemplify this trend. Compare that to the way Asian men are portrayed: University of Massachusetts’ sociology professor C.N. Le explains, “Asian men are popularly portrayed as weak, effeminate and/or asexual which serves to make them less attractive to both Asian and white women.”
And anecdotal evidence seems to show that while East Asians value assimilation to a higher extent—leading more women from those cultures to marry outside their own race—the same is not true for women from the Subcontinent. Take the case of Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar, who moved to the U.S. as a child. She recalls the subtle ways in which her father would bring up the idea of difference. “He would say, in America, the divorce rates are so high, they have no sense of family. Growing up I saw my friends’ parents—Americans who were married to each other for 20 to 30 years, the same as my parents. I understood what my father was saying, but I still saw the other side of the picture.”
And while her parents were aware of her white American college boyfriend, that relationship didn’t work out. So the parents of then-26 Rajakumar began to panic. They set her up on date after date with Indian men. Eventually, her father even asked if he could put out a matrimonial ad. Laughing, Rajakumar says, “I said if I have to go through it, it better be something I write.” So she wrote her own—even then, nothing quite worked out. When she got a job abroad in the Qatar campus of Georgetown University, she was ready to move beyond the whole marriage scene. That’s when she met David Phongsavan, a Thai American who was also working at the university. This relationship did work out, and Rajakumar remarks that their families were glad that they had both found mates with Asian values such as respect for family, tradition and elders. She adds, “The fact that both families are immigrants makes for common ground and understanding.”
This commonality was also an important factor for Menaka Sanwal’s family accepting her fiancé Alex Chang. “His family was also extremely happy that their son had met someone he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. I married a Taiwanese guy who came from a similar background as myself, which is why it was so easy for us.”
Professor Le thinks that many more will join Rajkumar and Sanwal. On his Asian Nation Web site, Le predicts that mixed Asian marriages (Asian married to another Asian outside his/her own endogamous group) will be on the rise in the next few years.
Shabana Mir had always assumed she would marry a desi. But, Mir adds, only half-jokingly, that desi men wouldn’t be able to handle her. Mir met Svend White at an Islamic conference where they were both presenting papers. But in spite of a shared faith, Mir’s family was ambivalent. “They weren’t sure how much he was a Muslim ‘like us’,” she says, though White had been raised Muslim from birth. Ambivalence turned to opposition—but after meeting him, they finally came around.
Racism in South Asian communities also plays a part in opposition. Nisha Kutty, a New York-based fashion photographer, married African American Al-Khabir Richman. And sometimes, when she’s meeting “the more traditional Indians,” she won’t mention that she lives in Brooklyn—or that her husband is black. “Most of the time, their question is why. They’re horrified—they can’t understand why I would have married a black man.”
But it’s not just American-born desis who marry outside of their race. Hema Ganapathy, an adjunct professor of child psychology at the University of Indiana, has been married to Kevin Coleman since 2004. The couple met in Baltimore, where Coleman was working on his master’s degree; Ganapathy on her doctorate. She had moved to the US a couple of years before with her 4-year-old daughter after separating from her first husband. But “being with Kevin never felt like I was with an American,” says Ganapathy. Coleman had served overseas in the Peace Corps and “was very respectful. He knew not to hug or be over friendly. It progressed very naturally.” Still, their families were concerned—how would never-married Coleman go from being a student to a stepfather? But in some ways, being a divorcée helped Ganapathy: “There is a sense that you can make up the rules as you go along, because they didn’t really work the first time around.”
Interracial couples don’t just have to deal with the pressures that every relationship faces—they also have to deal with how the world perceives them. As Ganapathy explains, more challenges stem “from outside our relationship than frictions between us as a couple. Society is still not conditioned to seeing a white man and an Indian woman. Several times when we go out, people just assume we have come separately. At the grocery store, I might be in the check-out line and Kevin right behind me, but the clerk will try to bill us separately. We have to point out that no, we’re together, it’s one single bill.” Mir states candidly that she is tired of being the poster child for interracial harmony. Like most other couples, Mir and White have their arguments—such as a Ramadan tiff about where to eat.
There are smaller problems, as well: Mir misses the fact that she cannot share her Urdu literary heritage with White. He, on the other hand, gets ornery when dealing with the typical demands and pressures that come bundled with desi relationships. And that’s a sentiment echoed by Nicole Markley Bagchi.
The Ohio high school teacher met husband Gautam Bagchi through her brother. And while race wasn’t a big deal, the concept of family was: “His family is huge. Any adult who happens to be a friend is revered as an aunt or uncle who requires a visit whenever he goes within 100 miles of that person’s house,” jokes Nicole. “My family is simply not that close.” And as Sabeena Shah explains, in Asian cultures, marriage is between families. That need to respect elders’ requests led her and Hubbard to have an additional church ceremony for his grandparents’ sake, almost a year after their nikah.
While interracial marriages among desis are often fraught with unique problems, they don’t seem to be much different from most relationships in general. And then, there are always the perks of being in a blended marriage. “It’s good for me to see the comfort and love a truly loving, accepting family like Gautam’s can provide,” says Bagchi. “They are more affectionate and loving toward me than my own extended family in many cases, and I know when we have children they will grow up with a solid understanding of what family is.”