It is not easy for a white woman to write a book about her experience in an interracial relationship without inspiring a few eye rolls. More than a few when she opens Chapter 1 with a delightful anecdote about picking up her Korean-American husband by making this Miley Cyrus face in what she describes as “the international sign for ‘Yes, Charlie Chan… I mean you.’” Diane Farr, author of Kissing Outside the Lines: A True Story of Love and Race and Happily Ever After, seems rightly mortified by her admittedly drunken conduct. But the rest of that fateful evening’s behavior, which she describes as “pretty charming,” seems equally off. “I immediately said something about Korea being the only place in Asia I hadn’t been yet and maybe he could show me around someday,” she writes, “Seung was so flabbergasted that I knew his origins… that I just kept going with the ‘I feel your people’ theme.” Funny, a stranger once tried to pick me up by seductively whispering, “Are you Indian? I could tell you were Indian from all the way across the club.” I recall being less than charmed.
Kissing Outside the Lines isn’t just a story about Farr and her husband. In an irritating fashion reminiscent of The Help, Farr’s tale is interwoven with those of minorities facing discrimination from the families of the men and women they love. When I met with Farr, I thought my qualms with her book would be best conveyed by discussing some of my family’s own concerns. My mom, for example, had once warned me that it would be almost impossible to find a white partner who didn’t fetishize my culture to a certain degree. She had enough faith in me to know I’d never pick out a racist who belittled my background. But the white guy who visited India and blogged about how “vibrant” and “colorful” it is, who texts me every time he eats curry, or who proudly informs me that he has an Indian friend isn’t quite as easy to spot. And in the America of my parents, those are the tolerant white people.
And could his family ever really accept me, she wondered. After all, I’m young. I haven’t had to encounter the kind of racism she has. And I shouldn’t ever have to. Do I really want to set myself up to be someone’s disappointment? These concerns were all invalid, and when discussing Farr’s book with my mom it didn’t take much to convince her of as much. But they were different, not just in degree, but in kind, from the concerns of the white woman Farr describes who still hasn’t fully accepted her son’s Nubian fiancée. And truthfully, when Farr indignantly writes “I am given lessons on ‘why I must understand how hard life has been for Korean people and how much I should value their culture’,” I can’t help but think that the in-law she quotes has a point.
When I explained this, Farr wasn’t angry or offended. She didn’t leap to defend herself or try to reframe her argument. She didn’t, as she easily could have, hide behind her family portrait. (Cord Jefferson terms this kind of knee-jerk reaction the “But I’m a Vegan” defense, used by progressives when they are called out for instances of intolerance.) Instead, she responded genuinely with a simple “Let me think about that.” And she did. And then she threw me entirely off guard by acknowledging her sense of white privilege. I responded in turn the only way I could: “That’s fair.”
The rest of the evening went rather smoothly. We talked for hours about race, relationships and subjects completely unrelated to the two. At the end of the night we promised to stay in touch as we hugged goodbye like old friends.
Farr and I didn’t agree about everything. There were times I was surely being too sensitive, and there were times she wasn’t being sensitive enough. But we had an open, honest, productive dialogue. One that it’s taken hours to get to when I’ve expressed hurt at perceived slights in the past, even with close friends. In retrospect, my surprise at her reaction proves that my own expectations were unfair. Farr’s book, after all, navigated the space between mean-spirited racism and unintentional bigotry. When family members whom you love, and who love you, say things you deem offensive, you can’t simply write them off as prejudiced and sever all ties. This space is virtually nonexistent in our popular culture, so much so that it’s easy to forget how vast it is. But Farr knows it well.
And our realities are as different as our skin color. I’m a second-generation immigrant. The most common form of racism I encounter is people asking where I’m really from. (“Well I was born in Canada,” I casually explain, “but I moved to Jersey when I was only eight, so that’s really home.”) My life would be easier if I married a white man. People would look at me, hand in hand with someone they readily identify as American, and they would perceive me as American, too. And the cold hard fact is that his life would inevitably be harder.
This is the world that Farr has been living in for the past six years. The problems she describes to me — worrying that her in-laws are whitewashing their culture in her presence, gently urging them not to be embarrassed about Korean cuisine, patiently explaining to a co-worker that no, her husband does not smell — are ones with which I’m deeply familiar at the age of twenty-three. Farr is picking them up as she goes along. As her kids grow older, Farr’s vested interest in eradicating prejudice will only grow stronger. Only, unlike me, she wasn’t born with hers.
There are people for whom I’m sure Farr’s book will be comforting. Eye-opening, even. Just as there are some readers who will be shocked to discover that these kinds of problems still exist in our country. There are couples, unsure of how to find their way forward, who will doubtlessly take solace in the stories it relays. I suspect many a disapproving relative will be the recipient of a not-so-subtle hint in the form of this memoir turned self-help manual. I can’t say I was any of those people. But I will say that trudging through this realm until we all have a stake in creating a more tolerant society is undoubtedly the only way forward. I can’t help but admire Farr for taking diving into it headfirst. And I’m more than happy to meet her halfway.