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Southern Blend: A Dating Experiment

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Sometimes it was a prolonged glance. Other times, it was a sideways stare ... or a tilted head. Whatever the reaction was, we noticed it. "I mean, this is 2006, right?" we would ask ourselves.Then we would joke that maybe all the attention was because we were so good-looking. Sarcasm aside, my ex-husband and I both knew the real reason behind the curiosity. He was white. I was black. And we were together.

Even in 2011, the concept of interracial dating is still taboo in some circles and just plain alien in others — but why? Have the age-old (and vomit-inducing) stereotypes never gone away? Like, black men who date white women want a "trophy" on their arm; that white guys who date black women are just "curious" (you know, that whole slave-master thing); that Asian women are good mates because they are submissive; that Hispanics are ultra-passionate lovers; that white women date African-American guys because of ... well, you know.

Spike Lee's classic film Jungle Fever explored the controversy of interracial dating in New York City and got everybody all worked up 20 years ago. But, today, the topic still makes many people cringe. For his film project Southern Blend: A Dating Experiment, Charlotte-based producer Rod Garvin wanted to re-explore this phenomenon, except base it in the South (where there are some other issues around race that were not covered in Spike Lee's famed joint).

Having lived in the Queen City since 1993, Garvin has participated in a number of local diversity and race-relations initiatives with various local organizations — but he was starting to feel like people were having the same conversations over and over. As far as he was concerned, they never touched on the subject of interracial relationships and what that looks like in this city, given the history of our particular region. So, he concluded that he could be the person to make it happen. And happening it is.

At its core, Southern Blend — a reality-style documentary that Garvin is currently working to complete (more on that later) — follows individuals who have never dated outside their race as they do it for the first time. It also looks at people who may have dated interracially before but pairs them with people of races they've never dated.

"So, that's the reality component," Garvin explained. "What will happen when you put these people in these situations? Will it be a positive experience? Negative experience? Will there be some sparks? Could there be some possible love connections, or will people confirm that they prefer to remain within their own race?"

Among the stories told in the film is that of a black male from a racially charged small town in South Carolina where he faced blatant racism growing up; however, his experiences did not prevent him from dating white women. Another story focuses on an American Indian woman who primarily dates African-American men because they are the ones who approach her. She says she would date whites, Hispanics or Asians but, for whatever reason, they don't ask her out.

A Pew Research Center survey published last summer found that there are more interracial marriages than ever and that people have generally become more open to their family members dating interracially. In fact, African-American men and Asian women were reported to be most likely to marry outside of their races. Still, a large percentage of people are not as accepting.

"What's really interesting to me is even the people who say that they're open to it or they're not opposed to it, when you raise the question of would you personally do it, that's when it gets interesting. And that's what this film really wants to get at," said Garvin.

Sound interesting to you? We thought so, too. So, in conjunction with Garvin's upcoming film, we decided to conduct our own little experiment — pairing up men and women from different races, sending them on dates and then watching what happens.

Date One

Mike Press, a 25-year-old black male from Mount Vernon, N.Y., contends that where he's from, people don't bat an eye at interracial couples. Moving down here in 2004, however, it was a different story.

"The first time I saw [an interracial couple in Charlotte] it didn't surprise me at all," said Press, "but you could see it in other people's faces that it wasn't acceptable yet."

While the idea of interracial relationships is not foreign to him, Press admits to having had some preconceived notions when he was younger. For instance, he used to think that white women were going to be "scared" of him. He also admits to previously thinking that Indian women would be hairy and that Asian women would put off a certain odor.

Though Press has dated interracially before, it was not often with white women. He says he'll approach a white woman if she appears to have an "open" personality but admits to being "cautious." His past experiences may explain why.

While dating interracially for the first time in high school, he was referred to as "a stupid nigger" by his girl's father. Another instance, which happened just a month ago with a white woman (whom Press said was just a friend), involved her being kicked out of her house when her "Confederate guy" uncle found out Press had been over for a visit.

Then there's the pressure from the other side. When Press speaks to his first cousin about someone new he's dating, she quips: "She better be able to use our comb!" Interestingly, his father, who previously married interracially himself, now tells Press, "Oh you gotta be careful with them!" when it comes to his son dating anyone outside his race.

From Press' perspective, there are some white people who want to retain the "integrity" of their heritage and who feel that interracial relationships may cause their race to "lessen" — or that their family legacy will not continue as they would like it to. Despite all of this, there didn't seem to be too much apprehension on his part when we hooked him up with his date, Mary Shelby.

Shelby is a 25-year-old white Charlotte native who never considered dating interracially until she went to college. There, she casually dated the one and only black guy she'd ever been out with. She has friends, however, who say they would never date a black person, and her extended family wouldn't be thrilled about it either.

"I have mixed emotions about it, growing up in the South," she said. "There definitely is still racism, and you see it a lot growing up here. But I feel like, as I've gotten older, it's better hidden, and people aren't up front with it — which I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing."

Shelby, who attended a predominately white private K-12 school, says there were always a few black students, but it was "very rare" that the races mixed; the segregation was more a result of people flocking to groups they were more comfortable with than actual racism. Her attraction to people is based on getting to know them versus judging their exterior. While interracial dating in Charlotte has become more acceptable in her view, and a person is not made to feel as much of an "outcast" as in years prior, the issue is still taboo on both sides and tension still exists.

"I think it goes back to those underlying race issues that nobody really wants to talk about," she said. "I think people are touchy about it because they don't want to come off one way or the other. They don't want to come off as a racist or they don't want to come off as somebody that only dates a certain ethnicity ... I think for most people, it's not a comfortable conversation. At least in the South, you talk with your close friends, but you're not going to talk about that kind of stuff in a room with strangers."

So ... we put her in a room with a stranger.

With clasped hands, folded arms and a conversation running in and out of typical first-date fare (Where are you from? What do you like to do? Do you have any pets? Blah, blah, blah.), one would think that this meeting — a dinner at Bask on Seaboard, located at the N.C. Music Factory — would lumber down an awkward and mundane path. Press and Shelby, however, quickly loosened up, laughing genuinely and conversing with ease. The topics were relatively safe initially, save this entertaining exchange early on:

Shelby: "Every time I go there [the nightclub Butter], people always tell me who someone is, although I never know."

Press: "I was there Tuesday night, and Denny Hamlin was there."

Shelby: "Who's that?"

Press: "You don't follow racing?"

Shelby: "No."

Press: "How could you not follow racing?!"

Shelby: "Do you follow racing?!"

Press: "Yeah, but don't tell anybody."

Shelby: "I'm from Charlotte, and I'm a firm believer in not following racing!"

Press: "Wow. That's a first."

Shelby: "It's just not my thing."

Draw your own conclusions.

Shelby was full of conversation, making direct eye contact and fluctuating between resting her chin in her hand and talking with her hands, while Press leaned forward with his elbows on the table, not moving much when he spoke, but seeming engaged and sincere. But, about 45 minutes into the date, the conversation got decidedly meatier when the topic turned to relationships, and Press asked Shelby about dating interracially.

It was around this time that Shelby's bubbly personality deflated a smidge and Press' cool demeanor became somewhat more animated. Shelby went back to crossing her wrists, her eyes darting back and forth. Press leaned back in his chair, straightening his posture and speaking in a more elevated tone. A body language expert might say this shift wouldn't bode well for the remainder of the date, but the two seemed willing to have the talk.

Shelby maintained she has "no qualms about people's race" but admitted she's never had a serious relationship with a black guy. The reason seemed more geographical, adding that she hasn't made black friends in Charlotte since moving back after college. Both agreed Charlotte is still very segregated, but Press stated he's dated more Latinas and women of mixed heritage than black or white women.

"It's interesting because as much I think that people say they're open, they're not — on both sides," Shelby said. "I think people do not like to step outside their comfort zone for whatever reason. The color of people's skin is a comfort zone."

Shelby's sister, who exclusively dates black men, is a university basketball coach, and the majority of people in her field are black. Shelby said people of all races "act funny" about her sister dating black men. She opened up about an experience with bigotry at age 13 when she and her family traveled to Oklahoma for one of her sister's basketball tournaments. Her sister was the only white player on the team, and she recalled how no one would seat the team anywhere they went to eat. It was a "bizarre" experience, but it allowed her to experience racism from a different perspective.

After the date, Press said that although he wasn't nervous, he didn't expect the conversation to go as well as it did. There was never "a weird, awkward pause," as has been the case for him on previous dates, regardless of race. He admitted he has to be careful sometimes about what he says when he's out with a white woman because "they may take something that you say the wrong way" and that he usually poses specific questions [like asking Shelby her opinion on the use of "black" vs. "African-American"] to see how comfortable a person is with certain topics.

And Press added that, even if his eyes were closed, he would've known he was talking to a white woman by the "personality in her voice." Shelby, on the other hand, said she felt like she was talking to just another person and has no "guidelines for physicality" when it comes to potential dates. She agreed that the conversation was two-sided, said that she felt comfortable, and that although she feels that everybone generally wants to be politically correct, their interaction stemmed from a position of honesty.

Based on their experience, both agreed that they would go out with each other, or someone similar, again. In the end, it was apparently the colorful personalities that stood out — and not the skin color.

Date Two

Carrie Cook, a 27-year-old African-American woman from Charlotte, has never dated outside of her race — but not for lack of opportunity; a couple of white men have asked her out, but they were "not her type," specifying that it had nothing to do with race. While her preference is to be in a relationship with a "wonderful black man," she's not "closed off" to the idea of dating other races. A problem she notices is there still seems to be a chasm between the races, mentioning that, even at professional networking events, different groups seem only to congregate with each other.

While Cook feels Charlotte has progressed with race relations in the business world, the city still has a long way to go for her "with opening up the minds of folks who have that traditional Bible-Belt, Southern mentality."

"I don't think it's necessarily that interracial dating is the issue. I think that race relations are still the issue. It's more of an issue of getting beyond fear ... obviously, the historical implications of where our society has been — through discrimination, through oppression, through various means of disenfranchisement for different ethnic groups — rears its head, and it still plays a very large part in what happens today," said Cook, adding that she is turned off by "extremists" — such as black men who say they only date white women.

"I don't get that logic, especially because the woman whom he came from is not of that descent," she said. "... because if you don't like a black woman, you don't like who you are."

She contends this premise can apply to any race. And like most, she has heard her share of the stereotypes, such as: a white man will take good care of you, but he might be a psycho; a black guy may end up being lazy; and a Mexican will work hard, but you might be living in a house full of people. Still, stereotypes haven't kept her from dating interracially; she simply is not approached by men of other races. Though doing so would not be foreign to Cook's family because they are progressive and interracial relationships already exist there.

David Arroyo-Garay's family, however, was not quite as tolerant.

The 24-year-old Puerto Rican male says he actually rarely dates within his race. Growing up in his neighborhood in Fayetteville, N.C., he regularly associated with black people and attended a predominately white school. He didn't spend time with many Hispanics while growing up; therefore, his serious relationships were usually with people from other ethnic groups. Though he experienced the initial "shock" when meeting a date's parents and has been questioned by some of them about his legal status in America, much of the major pushback was from his own family.

"They definitely had a problem with it early on," he said, explaining that they wondered what he saw in other races that he didn't see in his own — and if the other races respected his heritage.

He contends that dating outside his race was never an issue of shunning his own, but that he simply feels his culture is not the only one that can produce an adequate woman for him to date. He admits that his family is coming around now because he embraces his culture more than they do, in that he is earning his master's in Latin American studies, working for the Latin American Coalition and has become fluent in Spanish.

For Arroyo-Garay, the racial issue can lend itself to socio-economic and class-division issues as well and that a learning curve definitely exists between cultures. He cited an instance where a white former girlfriend was stressed out that they were going to be late to a friend's house, and he was stressed out that they would be too early. In white America, he said, punctuality is respectful; in Latin culture, it can be considered rude. This time around, however, he was the first to arrive for the date at Bask, and he and Cook wasted no time getting to the good stuff.

Race was addressed right away, with Cook inquiring about Arroyo-Garay's ethnicity, and him admitting he hasn't dated women of his own race. Their body language appeared a bit stiff at first, with Arroyo-Garay rubbing his hands under the table and Cook keeping one arm in her lap. They would both later say that any initial anxiety they felt was due more to the blind-date component rather than any racial element. In fact, Arroyo-Garay said he felt comfortable enough to drop the term "African-American" almost immediately and revert to using "black" for the duration of their date — but he was P.C. at the start to be sure.

Cook disclosed conversations she's had with her girlfriends about the disparity between black men and black women regarding education levels and how it makes dating frustrating. But, for her part, she said she doesn't necessarily need a mate with a Ph.D and wouldn't mind having him be in control of the home.

The flow seemed natural despite a few brief lulls and them even joking about what else they could talk about. With the elephant decidedly escorted out of the room, the conversation progressed steadily, dabbling in politics, family, career and hobbies. The talk turning to relationships helped drive the momentum, though not much else was discussed in terms of race.

In the end, Cook was surprised by their commonalities — such as their love for grassroots, service-oriented initiatives. She said it was definitely "not what she expected" — to be able to relate on so many levels to someone outside of her race. Similarly, one thing that impressed Arroyo-Garay about Cook was her closeness with her family, which he said he was not used to hearing from people he's dated of any race.

Arroyo-Garay added that since he and Cook are both minorities, there was an added level of comfort and understanding, unlike his dates with white women. For example, he feels he can freely discuss the issue of racial profiling and being unduly pulled over by the police with a black woman without worrying about dubious reactions.

Cook said she didn't feel like she was talking to a Hispanic man. She felt comfortable in their conversation about race and didn't feel like she had to walk on eggshells.

"It definitely made me think that talking to people is just talking to people at the end of the day," she said. "Some people you're going to have something in common with and some people you're not. I think it's more dictated along other lines, namely socio-economic and other factors more so than predicated by race alone."

"The truth of the matter is, race is going to be seen ... no matter how you pretend to ignore it," said Arroyo-Garay. "The fact that we're even on this project shows that it's going to be noted."

Enter the film

Garvin's film, Southern Blend, promises to offer some edu-tainment, if you will. Along with setting up folks on dates (like the ones we chronicled in this story), the project will toss in some traditional documentary elements — like historical context, factoids, commentary from "edu" types and everyday perspectives from the community. And he plans to take the project to other Southern locales — like Birmingham, Mississippi and South Carolina — to compare and contrast against Charlotte. But all that will depend on funds.

Garvin is currently raising money to finish his film via a campaign on the website Kickstarter.com. But it's an all or nothing deal, so he has to reach his goal of $12,500 to get all the pledges.

"I think it's an important project, and I think it's definitely overdue that we have this conversation," Garvin said. "I think it can be a big step in helping us become the city that we claim it to be and that I believe most of us want it to be."

For more information about the project, including how to invest, visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/160599591/southern-blend-a-dating-experiment.


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