I love horror films because they are an experiment in taking someone’s ordinary – maybe even insignificant – fears, and raising them to the heights of possibility or the edges of reality, just to see how that ordinary human might respond.
When I watched Jordan Peele’s debut horror film Get Out recently, though, I had no idea what I was in for. “I think it’s about how white people are terrifying,” I told my partner who had accompanied me to the horror film festival.
I should clarify – My partner is white, and I am unmistakably not.
Get Out’s premise is basically a horror-genre take on Meet the Parents, except the spoilt daughter brings home a black man instead of Ben Stiller, after which things start to get disturbing (yes, even more disturbing than Meet The Parents).
I won’t ruin it too much for you, but the movie did reveal that some white people are indeed quite terrifying – no spoiler alert needed there – however, while most viewers and reviewers saw a cautionary tale on the evils of white liberalism excused by eight years of Obama, I saw my greatest fears of dating outside my culture plastered on screen.
While the mostly white audience around me cringed their way through the movie at the thought of their own parents or grandparents (but never themselves) being casually racist, my own eyes widened in horror as I watched my biggest anxieties around interracial dating unfold before me.
I should state that I while I cannot relate to the particular politics and trauma surrounding African-American people in mixed-race relationships in the US, or in general, the dynamic of white/non-white relationships would be recognisable to anyone in a similar situation. I found myself glancing sideways at my partner, who was groaning at all the right places, and yet I wondered if he knew just how close-to-home these scenes were.
It felt like the movie was checking off my Reasons Why I Worry About Dating White People list. I’ve read troubling accounts of interracial relationships, of partners being mistaken for friends or nannies, of unaccepting families, and of mixed-race children navigating a world that loves to compartmentalise everything like someone who just discovered bento boxes. Although I’m aware of the external hitches to such a relationship, I wasn’t prepared for some of the obstacles to come from within, for some of those obstacles to be my own demons.
When I found out my partner had told his parents about me, I remember inquiring whether he had also told them I was brown. “I guess I did, yeah,” he said. After noticing my concerned look, he added: “It doesn’t bother them! They live in a very Mexican town.” (I’m Sri Lankan.)
I can’t bring myself to eat at south Asian restaurants with my partner if it’s just the two of us, and will drop his hand like a hot naan if we happen to walk past one. Every time we climb into a taxi and the driver is south Asian, I am embarrassed and mortified, because my brain has replaced the face of the (often completely oblivious or indifferent) driver with one of my disapproving aunts or uncles.
I’m not saying there’s a brown person mafia out there, making sure we stick to our own, but that doesn’t mean my insecurities about what it means to be proud of your identity and where you come from won’t create a culture-enforcing bogeyman out of every brown person I pass on the street. Similarly, if we’re somewhere surrounded by mostly white folk, like at a gig or yoga class, I worry that they think I’m only there because of him. What’s someone like me doing at a sad-lonely-white-boy music gig?
When I met his parents, it was nicer than I could have imagined. It was almost too nice and too welcoming. As a “third culture kid” oscillating between four different cultures and identities, and having to reckon with all of them, it was scary just how tempting, and easy, it would be to assimilate myself into that perfect white, suburban scene. I could ignore my parents in Sri Lanka and their expectations of me being a cultural flag-bearer for their future generations, forget the Middle Eastern country where I grew up and learnt to celebrate people of all faiths and backgrounds, or disregard the identity I’ve spent several Australian seasons sculpting.
Will dating a white person make me want to erase myself, because it’s sometimes easier than containing and observing multitudes? Do I dump my white partner as an act of resistance? (I promise I’m fun to date.) The questions crescendo as the monster draws closer.
Of course, like a good horror film, I was taking my fears too far, into the panic-inducing realms of speculation and fantasy. It is entirely possible to date outside your cultural upbringing while holding fast to your own. Many people prove that every single day. Of course, not all white people are out to rework me in their own image (certain face-morphing apps excluded). But that doesn’t mean I’m not occasionally overwhelmed or incapacitated by such thoughts.
I don’t think it will ever be possible for me to suppress these anxieties completely. They are a product of my upbringing, of the life I’ve chosen for myself here, but also of a society that still unapologetically misunderstands, demonises, or seeks to erase non-white identities. Watching a film that acknowledged this was incredibly cathartic. I’m proud of my autonomy, of who I am, and where I’ve come from, and only hope that one day the rest of society might be too. Maybe then I won’t be so afraid any more.