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

Fox Searchlight
Fox Searchlight

I'm planning to get a group of friends together to go see 12 Years a Slave, and most of us have read the reviews and are prepared for how harrowing it will be and the way it will depict the horrors of slavery. However, I've seen from what black friends and acquaintances share on Facebook and Twitter that they leave the theater finding themselves upset at white people in a general way that takes some time to get over. Some have said they have looked at interracial (black-and-white) couples and wondered how strange they must feel seeing such a movie together because of all the issues it raises.

Which brings me to the question. My older brother's longtime girlfriend is white, and I'm struggling with whether to include them because I care about both of them and don't want them to feel uncomfortable. Is there anything we should be concerned about how this might affect them as a couple? Is it insensitive or inappropriate to include them and risk the discomfort it might bring up? Or is it worse to leave them out? —Film fretting

(The Root)  —  I think it's safe to say that couples in interracial relationships, just like any other romantic partners, have taken stock of all their feelings for each other, as well as all the available data about their compatibility, and made a decision to go for it.


In other words, the assumption that your brother and his girlfriend haven't considered how they'll manage discussions and depictions of racism and all its manifestations likely doesn't give them enough credit.

That said, as a fellow anticipator and avoider of potentially awkward social situations, I do see where you're coming from. I'd do just about anything to avoid having an uncomfortable moment or watching other people experience one. Add that on top of a film that's already emotionally draining? I couldn't handle it. And Marcia Dawkins, who has scrutinized data on the psychological impact of interracial relationships, tells me, "The writer of this question is to be commended for her sensitivity to this issue and to not wanting to add to any pressure that brother may be experiencing."

You're not just being sensitive — you're also being very perceptive about the early reactions to this movie about a man abducted and sold into slavery. In fact, "pressure" is putting it mildly when it comes to the impact of 12 Years a Slave on audiences. It's been called a "blistering portrait of the human capacity for cruelty," with parts that are "unbearable to watch" for people of all backgrounds. 

 Of course, there's a very race-specific angle to the issues it raises. "An expanded reading of 12 Years reveals a historical phenomenon rarely portrayed so explicitly on the silver screen: the pathology of white racism," wrote one reviewer. And that's not all in the past." The toxic racial environment depicted in 12 Years, in which blacks are daily assaulted, remains embedded in the nation's psyche," observed The Root's Peniel Joseph.  


Thus, it's reasonable to think about how we might react to the film in race-specific ways, as Shadow and Act's Frances Bodomo did as he "rose with the largely white, upper-class audience" and "wondered if we were feeling the same kind of catharsis."

So, it's not going to be an experience free from difficult emotions about America's past or present for anyone.


But beyond the obvious (that your brother and his girlfriend are adults who can decide for themselves whether they want to accept your invitation to see the film), Dawkins reassures me that chances are they will be just fine on this outing. "Research suggests that the successful interracial couples will not find situations like the one presented here ultimately uncomfortable," she told me.

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.  

And what if they can't? What if your brother thinks it's the most important movie of the decade and his girlfriend thinks it's a snooze? Worse, if they can't look at each other the same way afterward? That's unlikely. But if it happens, they'll have this film about America's past to thank for the reality check that they don't see eye to eye, and their relationship just might be history, too.


The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.

Need race-related advice? Send your questions to

Previously in Race Manners: "White Women Entitled to 'Natural Hair' Claim"

Share This Story

Get our newsletter