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6 TV Shows that Spark Discussions of Race Relations in America

Many remember the racist backlash of the notorious Cheerios commercial that featured a mixed-race family.  Although it depicted many families across the United States, the racist reaction to it reminded us of the struggling race relations we continue to face.

This racism is perhaps most obvious in the world of casual dating, long term relationships, and marriage. Since Americans continue to predominantly marry within their own races, racially defined perceptions of beauty are commonly discussed and regarded as acceptable.

Some would argue that such biases about beauty and attraction are natural; however, a 2008 study entitled “Racial Preferences in Dating” in Review of Economic Studies found that racial preferences are dictated largely by upbringing. U.S participants raised in states with high rates of support for interracial marriage bans, were found to have a much higher rate of same-race preference. Additionally, women tended to have much stronger same-race preferences than men, and more participants that were rated more attractive by subjects tended to have weaker same-race preference.

Here are some of TVs most interesting interracial couples.

1. Lucy & Ricky Ricardo, I Love Lucy

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Lucy Ricardo (Lucielle Ball), an American white woman, and her Cuban husband Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) first appeared on television screens in 1951 as one of the first interracial couples to appear on television. I Love Lucy stole America’s heart with crazy antics and humor, but we must recognize that Ricky Ricardo, a Cuban man, was not distinguishably non-white. In fact, if Ricky had never revealed his Cuban accent, perhaps we would have never realized that an interracial couple had graced our television screens. Historically, interracial couples featuring two individuals of similar skin tones are more widely accepted than those with stark contrast. Still, homage must be paid to I Love Lucy and the framework it created for more interracial couples to appear on TV.

2. Tom & Helen Willis, The Jeffersons

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The Jeffersons was the first television show featuring a black family and also the first to feature a relationship between a white American man, Tom Willis (Franklin Cover), and an African American woman, Helen Willis (Roxie Roker). George Jefferson, the show’s main character spoke candidly and sometimes crudely about race. He often joked about the relationship between his neighbors, the Willis’, calling their adult children “zebras.” Mr. Jefferson’s harsh commentary about race opened space for discussion of race relations in America and allowed for more interracial relationships to appear on television.

3. Glenn Rhee & Maggie Greene, The Walking Dead

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As more interracial couples become prominent, a few couples stand out. The Walking Dead’s Glenn Rhee, a Korean American man, (Steven Yeun) & Maggie Greene, a white American woman, (Lauren Cohan), found each other in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. Their relationship and marriage is widely loved partially because Glenn debunks the de-sexualization of East Asian men in western media. Glenn’s relationship with Maggie (who is totally badass by the way) is a rare portrayal of a relationship between an East Asian man and white woman. This bodes the question: would Glenn and Maggie have been a plausible couple in a non-apocalyptic Georgia or would racial lines have kept them apart? While this is an interesting aspect of the relationship to consider, we must appreciate the deep love and devotion displayed between the couple. Their relationship is an example of what a world that isn’t limited by race would look like.

4. Callie Torres & Arizona Robbins, Grey’s Anatomy

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Like many of the characters in the world of Grey’s Anatomy Dr. Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez), a Latin American woman, is at the forefront of many complicated relationships. During a separation from Dr. Arizona Robbins, a white American woman (Jessica Capshaw), Dr. Torres becomes pregnant by Dr. Mark Sloan (Eric Dane), a white American man. Dr. Torres and Dr. Robbins eventually reconcile and the trio decides to raise the child together. While interracial relationships and same-sex relationships are becoming more prevalent on television, interracial same-sex relationships are still widely unseen. The marriage between Dr. Torres and Dr. Robbins is one of the first of this nature to appear and hopefully indicates a trend towards more diversity in television. Moreover, the unconventional interracial family unit is also a refreshing addition to television. It undermines traditional ideas of families consisting of two heterosexual parents and children of a single race. And the relationship of the couple as parents to Dr. Sloan represents the ability of relationships and families to appear in all shapes, sizes, and colors.

5. Cristina Yang & Preston Burke, Grey’s Anatomy


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Most interracial couples on television feature a person of color and a white person, but the relationship between Dr. Yang (Sandra Oh), a Korean American woman and Dr. Burke (Isaiah Washington), a black American man, brings attention to interracial relationships between two people of color. The pair’s relationship is not without complications. Early on, Yang became pregnant after a sexual encounter with Burke. She scheduled an abortion without telling him about the pregnancy, but suffered a miscarriage due to an ectopic pregnancy that caused her to collapse when her left fallopian tube burst. Burke discovered the miscarriage, but rather than asking Yang about concealing the pregnancy, he simply held her in her time of need. Later, Yang and Burke were to be married, but Burke called off the wedding realizing that he was forcing Yang to become someone she was not. The respect Dr. Burke displayed for Dr. Yang, even when their status was rocky, is something we can all appreciate. The relationship between Yang and Burke is in no way defined by race, but it is a refreshing portrayal of an interracial couple.

6. Poussey Washington & Franziska, Orange is the New Black

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While Orange is the New Black does not appear on television, the Netflix show is still widely popular and featured a relationship between Poussey, a black American woman, and Franziska, a white German woman who emerged for only one episode of the show. The pair was suggested to have been in love during their teenage years. We all have seen Romeo and Juliet-esque love stories consisting of straight teen couples. Poussey and Franziska are the interracial same-sex equivalent. When Franziska’s father, a German Commander, discovers the relationship between the girls, he has Poussey’s father relocated to the U.S. as a means to end the affair. Heartbroken, Poussey storms after the Commander with a gun. Her intentions are unknown as her father quickly intervened, but we can imagine. While same-sex couples are making their way onto television screens, they are usually consist of two adults. The appearance of a young and desperately in love interracial, same-sex couple on a popular show allows for the visibility of queer teens in the media.

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The rise of interracial couples on and off screen is indicative of increased acceptance and slowly declining racism, but we must continue to consider the implications of the portrayals of these characters and their relationships. How does Glenn Rhee’s portrayal and relationship with Maggie change the future for Asian American men in the entertainment industry? Will Dr. Torres and Dr. Robbins clear the path for more interracial same-sex couples on television? Asking questions like these ensures that we, as viewers, do not complacently accept media produced ideologies of race.

 

Have a thought about this piece? We encourage your civil communication with our writers. Tweet us at @fembotmag or reach out to us on our Facebook page.

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Written by Varsha Pandey

Writer Varsha Pandey's passion for social justice spurred her to join the Fembot team in 2014. She recently earned a degree in Biology and intends to pursue a doctorate in Pharmacy. Varsha hopes her interest in medicine combined with her enthusiasm for cultural politics will benefit her as a patient advocate throughout her career.

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