Yes, Interracial Couples Can Handle '12 Years a Slave'

Race Manners: Go ahead, invite 'em: They probably figured out how to deal -- or not deal -- with America's racial history long before the film came out. 

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Erica Chito Childs -- associate professor of sociology at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, and author of Navigating Interracial Borders: Black-White Couples and Their Social Worlds -- who is behind much of that research, agrees.

She acknowledges that she has interviewed some interracial couples in which the black partner might simply choose to go solo to events like the professional gathering of an African-American professional association (or, in a situation that more clearly mirrors this one, a Spike Lee movie) for various reasons involving comfort and perception.

But mostly, she says, the couples she has studied are on the same page in a way that makes situations in which race is on the surface perfectly manageable for them. In 15 years of research, she says, she's found that while black-and-white interracial couples in the U.S. come in all different types, there are two main frameworks under which most of them operate.

On the one hand, she says, you have the type that's all about thinking and talking about race and racism. Here, she says, "the black partner is race-conscious, and the white partner tends to adopt that same perspective -- maybe they've majored in a discipline like sociology, maybe they engage in anti-racist work or engage in social-justice work generally." Thus, they end up seeing the world pretty similarly.

This is probably the right category for one black reader who responded to my Facebook query about the topic of seeing 12 Years with a white partner. "Haven't seen it yet, but I think it will spark a conversation about the complexities of these issues," she predicted.

On the other hand, you have couples that aspire to colorblindness. Childs says you can spot these pairs because the black partner might say things like, "I don’t like to be defined by a race. I'm a human being. I've never encountered racial problems." And the white partner will agree, denying that racial identity is salient in their relationship or society at large.

That's probably the category into which another reader of The Root, who essentially dismissed the question of how interracial couples would feel after seeing 12 Years a Slave, falls: "No better or worse than how we feel after any other irrelevance. We are married to each other, not to fixing humans," he wrote.

Childs says that the race-conscious couple would be more likely to welcome the experience of seeing this film, embracing its lessons, along with the concept that whites and blacks have and have always had such different experiences that reality to one person can be totally foreign to someone else.

The colorblind couple, she predicts, would likely see less benefit. ("I'm not sure we should even watch a movie like that. That's not the way we are; all it does is bring up painful history that we've overcome and don't need to address," they might say.)

But the bottom line is, if they agree to see this movie, you can bet they already have an agreement -- spoken or not -- to process it in one of these ways.  

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