White Fragility and the Death of Interracial Couples in Fiction
Warning: TV Spoilers and Identity Politics To Follow, gross triggering photos of television death scenes.
I often blog about black identity, and less often do I speak on biracial identity and interracial marriage. However, with the 50th Anniversary of Loving vs Virginia this coming summer, and the Republican pushback against same sex marriage legislation, I think it’s an important time to have this conversation. Like President Obama, I saw a lot of parallels between the fight for same sex marriage and the fight for interracial marriage. If they come at them first, they might come at us next.
Growing up as a biracial child in the 1970s, some people treated me like I was a space alien. Strangers came up to me on the streets, or on the city bus, wanting to touch my hair or ask my mother nosy, rude questions about me, my brother and our parentage. The first time I saw a television program mention the existence of biracial children was the Jeffersons, and even there, the actors who portrayed the so-call mixed children were one white and one black, not mixed at all.
They used derogatory slurs to describe us, “zebras.”
June 12, 1967 will be the 50th Anniversary of Loving vs Virginia, the landmark decision that made interracial marriage legal on the federal level here in the United States. This summer will also be the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love. I’ll be 49 on March 20. I was conceived during the Summer of Love. My parents married on May 11, 1967– a month before Loving vs. Virginia became law.
Fifty years isn’t a long time. A lot has changed. The United States has had its black president, and although some people cracked jokes about his biracial heritage back in 2007 on the campaign trail, no one would dare call Barrack Obama a zebra. In other ways, we haven’t come that far at all, and we most definitely aren’t post-racial.
I pay a lot of attention to how biracial people and interracial couples are portrayed in fiction, and over the past fifteen years since 9/11, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. The old cuckolding fear of the biracial child has resurfaced with vengeance.
If you know the origin of the term cuckolding, you understand that it was the fear of an interloper, someone from a different gene pool, taking over a man’s family blood line and usurping his children’s inheritance by impregnating his wife. It comes from the cuckoo bird that leaves her egg in another bird’s nest. The cuckoo is raised by the unwitting family, only to push the other young birds out of the nest and take over.
There have been some famous stories about this kind of fear. Modern motion pictures based on the Emily Bronte classic Wuthering Heights tend to obscure Heathcliff’s race, but the text uses terms like swarthy that were typically used to describe people from India at that time. The text suggests that Heathcliff was an Indian orphan adopted by an English colonial family. When he grew up and expressed romantic interest in his foster sister, Katherine, all of the innocence of childhood turned ugly because this foreign man could not be allowed to inherit.
In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester keeps a dark secret: a creole wife named Bertha Mason, who has lost her mind and is illegally imprisoned inside his house while he spends her dowry and inheritance. Dominican author Jean Rhys wrote her 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea as a prequel to Jane Eyre. It tells the tragic story of Antoinette, a young creole heiress imprisoned and driven to madness by her abusive English husband, who renames her Bertha.
These are older stories, but modern narratives mimic the same colonialist views of protagonists of color. The fear of an interloper of color is very much at work in a number of modern television plots.
Before I get into some very obvious cases of this kind of thing occurring in Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, I’d like to take a little side trip into the case of the unfortunate Rhonda Lyon, the token white girl on the television show Empire. The minute Andre and Rhonda Lyon announced her pregnancy, the character was doomed. She’s already taken a lot of shit about her race from the philandering light skinned Luscious Lyon. Now, Luscious’ even lighter skinned evil as hell creole side chick Anika is pregnant. While all of this colorism is at work, there’s a side plot about bipolar disorder. Luscious is ashamed of his crazy mother. His crazy mother says Luscious is just as nutty as she is, and there is a lot of evidence supporting that. Andre is crazy, and Luscious probably doesn’t want his defective genes passed on anyway. Evil light skin boo book kitty Anika first kills off the unborn biracial child, then gets rid of Rhonda, her white competition.
Now that we are done talking about how killed off the biracial baby and its white mother on Empire, hopefully I can talk about WTF happened to Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead, Talisa Stark and Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones, Cordelia Chase on Angel, and Lily Tyler on the 4400 without too many white tears. Before I go any further, can anyone explain to me how Connor and Cordelia’s offspring ended up being a full-grown AfroLatina demon portrayed by Gina Torres? Cordelia is Latino, I get that part, but are we sure Connor is the real father? Moving right along…
The cuckolding fear expressed in Wuthering Heights got a new, even more blatantly racist update when TWD decided that the best way to make everyone hate Negan was to force the ever-bland protagonist Rick to choose between his biological son, aka boy-in-refrigerator Carl, and his foster child, the spunky but unfortunately unrelated and non-white Glenn Rhee. Glenn has recently committed a sin that Negan, who doesn’t “want to seem racist” in the comic, is unlikely to be able to forgive. He’s impregnated white farm girl Maggie Green, thereby ensuring there will be another generation of Korean genes in the Atlanta section of the zombie apocalypse. Rather than allowing the two to marry, so that Glenn can further pollute the Aryan genetic pool, Negan bashes his brains out in the comic and on the television show.
Now, some people say that particularly brutal deaths are saved for characters of color on these television programs. In Valerie Estelle Frankel’s 2014 book Women in the Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance there is some discussion of this in regards to the death of Talisa Stark. Although all fans of the George RR Martin series “Song of Fire and Ice” were already familiar with The Red Wedding, the television show decided to up the ante by having the already pregnant Talisa point to her obvious pregnancy and her unborn son as evidence that her marriage to Rob Stark had been consummated. This resulted in a particularly brutal death for her and her unborn child.
On a television show where brutal deaths are common, the impact of her death alone is easy to overlook. However, continual references to white empowerment, white savio
rhood, and repeated brutal deaths for colored cast members cannot be continually overlooked. The Khalessi Daenerys Targaryen, an uber-white, uber-blonde young virgin is impregnated by the brown skinned Khal Drogo, played by Jason Momoa, an actor of Hawaiian heritage. Subsequently, he dies, and his unborn offspring turn into handy dragons so that the white queen can reign without the threat of actual colored heirs. She goes on to recruit and army of castrated black men who can’t impregnate anyone, protecting the white fragility and genetic purity of the Targaryen line and colonialism everywhere!
Meanwhile, Oona Chaplin, an actress of Columbian heritage, plays the ill-fated Talisa. The character was portrayed as a woman of color on the show. Oberyn Martell, pl
ayed by Pedro Pascal, dies a particularly gruesome (albeit heroic) death after he shows up, reminding everyone that Myrcella Baratheon, now betrothed to and in love with non-white prince Prince Trystane Martell, is the rightful heir to Joffrey. Myrcella is poisoned, and Trystane is stabbed in the neck. Draw your own conclusions. Needless to say, one of Joffrey’s other super-blond, inbred siblings took the throne under the secret rule of super-white Cersei, the anti-Daenerys. Cersei is going to make sure lily white Lannisters stay in power while Daenerys white saviors the known Westeros to death. I know what you’re thinking: lots of white people who aren’t Dany are dying horribly on GOT. I should be grateful that Dany is rescuing the safely neutered black men on GOT. What am I complaining about, really?
I’ve often bitched about the continual slaughter of people of color on The Walking Dead. I can’t even get started on the deaths of members of the LGBT community, since they rarely allow them to leave the comics and get on the show to begin with. They seem to kill off a black person every time a new black person gets on the show. It’s tedious. They had about three different dudes who looked like T-Dog, the last of which was the sensitive Tyreese, who like everyone else, had to protect the darling white baby Judith. He dies trying to save white baby Judith. The last I heard, Negan was creeping up on sweet innocent baby Judith. Who cares about Tyreese or Glenn, as long as baby zombie bait is living? I hope Glenn’s non-white baby doesn’t think she’s going to take any valuable screen time away from baby Judith, who represents the virginal white girl who lives at the end of every horror film. Luckily, the television show used the ever-popular Daryl as a plot device to avoid race baiting the television viewership with Negan’s horribly bigoted comic book speeches.
Michonne has taken to sleeping with Rick. That may or may not protect her from dying horribly to protect Carl or baby Judith – that and the fact that she’s still more popular than Rick and possibly Daryl. Although they can spend two or three seasons trying to get people to forget she exists, like they did with Glenn before wiping him out. Or they could make terrible things happen to her the way they did with Lori and Glenn and do with Carl and anyone else with the misfortune of getting too close to Rick. Last I heard she’s taken time off from being Rick’s bed wench to try and kill Negan. She is probably sick of Rick whining about how Judith is not his real child. She probably has to save Judith from Negan now. We all need to save Judith. It’s all about Judith, really.
It’s been a long time since the 4400 and Angel went off the air, but I think these two deserve special mention because they embody the particular fear of a biracial planet that struck a safe distance after 9/11.
Immediately after 9/11, a surge towards nationalism made it so that interracial couples like Richard Tyler and Lily Moore Tyler were incredibly popular as a part of the usual United Colors of Benneton, GAP kids, Old Navy commercialized ode to unity biracial people and our families usually are in times of strife. Whenever there is tension, they look upon us to become a walking billboard. We epitomize what MLK’s Dream speech means to white liberal hippies, and not-so-liberal folks who want to get out of discussing race by claiming we are post-racial. Then, when mixed kids start declaring their alliance with their colored parents, and we get closer to things like an Obama presidency, that old fear of cuckolding and the Heathcliff-like non-white interloper who comes up through your white educational and inheritance systems and then declares a sudden, frightening allegiance to community colors rears its head. The cute couple that was Richard and Lily in 2004 becomes a dead Lily and an evil biracial kid named Isabelle Tyler by 2007. Like most evil biracial offspring, Isabelle instantly ages to threatening puberty before going full on evil.
You might almost think Joss Whedon was just fucking with people when you saw Connor murder a virgin so that Cordelia Chase could deliver, by disgusting supernatural caesarean section from hell, a fully grown and totally new age evil Jasmine (played by Gina Torres). Cordelia had been portraying Jasmine as an alternate personality in her own not-that-white body with her loathed, uppity, bougie Latina mean girl character for a while before she gave birth to Jasmine. Although it was likely an attempt to get rid of some unpopular characters, namely Cordelia and Connor, it comes off like a joke-version of the later exchange on the 4400.
The Jasmine storyline took place between 2003 and 2004, a safe distance away from the fear of offending colored people that embraced America during the wave of out-and-out Islamophobia and colorism that we experienced in the wake of 9/11. The fake-assed multicultural unity haze wore off. Now we were back to the age-old story pertaining to white fear of colored people sneak popping into their bloodlines and taking away their inheritance.
With Obama out of office, the anti-race mixing hate might tone down a little bit. Like I said, these kinds of storylines are about latent racism. You see less of them when you are living in a world with more open bigotry. I was going to say “with Trump in office,” but the reality of the situation is that these kinds of fears relate to unspoken or unacknowledged biases, not blatant, in your face bigotry. That’s why you get so much pushback from the pseudo-liberal fandom when you mention the obvious political implications of killing off characters in interracial relationships the minute they make a biracial baby – or even threaten to sit a biracial heir on a throne.
For same sex couples, it’s even worse. In the television miniseries of Stephen King’s Under the Dome, married same-sex interracial couple Carolyn Hill and Alice Calvert barely get any screen time together before Alice is killed off, leaving Carolyn as the butch black nanny/stepmother to wayward white teen Norrie. Not only does it put Carolyn in the same black mammy/nanny bag they shoved poor Tyreese in before wiping him out on The Walking Dead, but it insulates bigoted audiences from having to be offended by any displays of actual physical affection between Carolyn and Alice, or suggestions that they might be getting it on with each other.