Love Doesn’t Conquer Shit: The Odd Obsession with Oppressive Interracial Relationships

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Where Hands Touch, a feature film by director Amma Asante

Television and film are perilous landscapes for Black women.

Black women characters are either underrepresented or very poorly represented. They are often stripped of all agency/character development; sometimes, they only exist to support their white counterparts.

And they are hardly ever given love interests.

When it comes to Black women, sex and love are two things that many creators can’t seem to figure out. In a lot of films and t.v. shows, Black women are either portrayed as hyper-sexual or totally non-sexual/desexualized. And neither hypersexualization nor desexualization offer any room for romantic love, affection and tenderness.

Hyper-sexualization, also known as the “Jezebel trope,” depicts Black women as aggressively or overtly sexual and often reduce Black women to salacious jokes and creepy shots of their bodies. The hyper-sexualized Black women is not one that you will see in an actual relationship. She’s a perpetually single woman who has a lot of casual sex and then tells you about it in the most crude, inappropriate way possible.

On the flip side, you have the desexualized Black woman, the one who seems to have never heard of sex at all. This woman is also usually a variation of the “Mammy:” she really only exists to take care of her white counterparts, often helping them with their sexcapades and relationships while never having any of her own. Of course she’s not in a relationship: no one even looks her direction.

There have been some glimmers of hope in this depressing ass landscape. The 90's and 2000's gave us shows like “Girlfriends” and “Living Single,” which were both groundbreaking in their portrayal of Black women with full professional, personal and love lives.

Recent shows like “Insecure” and “Queen Sugar” have followed in their footsteps, giving us Black women with complicated, dynamic lives that include actual romance.

Spike Lee’s 1986 joint She’s Gotta Have It, which was considered revolutionary for the way it depicted a Black woman’s sexual and romantic experiences with her three suitors, was adapted into a Netflix series that transforms its protagonist into a pansexual, poly-amorous woman.

So, yeah, there are changes on the horizon. We can see progress. But, in the midst of this progress, there seems to be a troublesome trope developing, one that baffles me.

So, um, lately there’s been this highly-specific trope of Black women being in interracial relationships during extremely oppressive time periods, specially the 1600’s through early 1900’s. You know, the time periods where Black people were either considered non-human or sub-human.

I think it’s a part of some sort of “love conquers all” conspiracy: creators seem to think that these ~unlikely pairings~ send a poignant message about how love can triumph over anything, including hatred or ignorance, and that society just needs a little bit more race-mixing to solve our problems.

My problem is that this is a ridiculous ass message to send.

I don’t care how much you adore someone of a difference race. Your sexual/romantic attraction to them isn’t going to magically reverse the effects of systemic anti-Black racism. To suggest otherwise is silly and insulting.

I recently came into contact with two projects that were perfect examples of this bizarre ass phenomenon: Netflix’s new original series “Siempre Bruja” and Amma Asante’s latest feature film Where Hands Touch.

Both projects feature Black women in sexual/romantic relationships with a white man that either owned her or had a shit ton more rights than her.

And as a result of these romantic relationships, both stories are thematically awkward and irksome as hell; they distort potentially interesting stories to offer audiences ahistoric, fetishistic fan fiction instead.

Siempre Bruja

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Angely Gaviria as Carmen in Netflix’s original series “Siempre Bruja”

“Siempre Bruja” is a Netflix original series that premiered on February 1, 2019. The show follows Carmen, an Afro-Colombian witch living in Cartagena. Carmen gets burned at the stake in 1646. But instead of dying, Carmen wakes up in the year 2019.

I was really excited about this show when I first heard about it. An Afro-Colombian witch surviving persecution in 1646 and waking up in 2019 is right up my alley. I was expecting a magical fish-out-of-water story featuring a drop-dead gorgeous, dark-skinned lead.

Unfortunately, that is NOT what I got.

As it turns out, “Siempre Bruja” is about an enslaved Afro-Colombian witch who falls in love with the son of her slaver.

The slaver’s son is called Cristobal, and they literally meet when Carmen’s being auctioned off. The auctioneer starts to physically abuse her, and Cristobal tells him to stop. After which, Cristobal’s father buys Carmen, and she becomes a slave in his house.

Carmen and Cristobal carry on a secret relationship until they are discovered by Cristobal’s mother. Carmen is sentenced to death for withcraft. And Cristobal’s father is so appalled by Cristobal’s relationship with Carmen that he literally shoots him in front of everyone.

While Carmen is in jail, crying about her presumably dead white slaver owner’s son, she meets a white immortal wizard called Aldemeer who offers to give her whatever she wants. She tells him she wants Cristobal. Not her freedom, or protection from persecution, but her white slaver boyfriend.

So, Aldemeer tells her that if she travels to the future and completes a mission for him, he’ll return her to 1646 so that she can prevent Cristobal’s murder. Carmen readily agrees, and that’s why she wakes up in 2019.

The entire reason for Carmen’s journey to the future is so that she can travel back into slavery times and protect the son of her slaver because they’re in love.

And I sat there watching this shit, wondering how the hell I’d been so bamboozled.

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Look, I’ll just be very real: I don’t understand why the fuck a Black woman would willing time travel back to 1646 for any reason whatsoever.

I have an extremely hard time wrapping my head around the idea that a woman who has endured the horrors of slavery would willing leave a future where she is FREE and go back to a past where she is enslaved.

I suppose the show was attempting to highlight an element of selflessness in Carmen, but it really just comes off as inanity.

And to be willing to travel back in time to be in a relationship with the son of a slaver?? BRUH.

It is absolutely mind-boggling to me that the writers behind “Siempre Bruja” seem to think that it’s appropriate to craft a ~romance~ between a Black slave woman and the son of her slave owner, a man who would’ve eventually inherited her.

When you take the sexual abuse of enslaved Black women into account, this relationship becomes gross as fuck.

A Black enslaved woman would not have been allowed to deny her master’s advances: as she was considered “property,” she had no rights to her own body. Any sexual contact would’ve been inherently non-consensual.

Black enslaved women endured horrific sexual and physical abuse at the hands of their owners/owners’ family members. So the idea that Carmen would be (or even could be) in a loving relationship with Cristobal is repulsive to me.

The way the writers have crafted Carmen and Cristobal’s relationship reminds me of the revisionism surrounding Thomas Jefferson’s rape of Sally Hemings.

Sally Hemings was a biracial enslaved teenage girl who was owned by Thomas Jefferson. Around the time she was 14, Hemings had gone to Paris with Jefferson’s daughter Mary, where she legally considered free. Jefferson manipulated Hemings into returning to Monticello by promising freedom for her unborn children (a promise he never made good on.)

Hemings returned, and Jefferson repeatedly raped her. She eventually gave birth to six of his children.

History has been extremely dishonest when it comes to Hemings’s experience with Jefferson: she has often been recast as his “mistress” or “concubine,” implying that she was willing participant in this relationship when she wasn’t.

When we tell the story of Sally Hemings, we should be telling the story of a survivor. Not a fucking “mistress.”

But that’s another casualty of these ahistoric ass “romances:” Black women’s stories. These women’s journeys are often flattened or distorted in some way so that they can be fitted to these romantic arcs. Sally Hemings’s story is no longer hers. Carmen’s story is no longer about Carmen: it’s really about Cristobal.

And that vexes me so, because Carmen’s story actually has a lot of potential if you remove Cristobal and the slaver-swirl relationship.

In the first episode of “Siempre Bruja,” we learn that there is a man called Lucien who is murdering witches by burning them alive. Imagine if Carmen had journeyed to the future on her own because she wanted to escape persecution in 1646, only to find that witches are still being hunted and killed in 2019. Her story could’ve about her realization that she can’t run from persecution: she must face it and fight.

Or imagine that Carmen escaped 1646 and felt survivor’s remorse for leaving her family and other witches behind. If that had been the case, we could’ve gotten a story of Carmen willingly returning to save those women and bring them into the future as well.

But naaaaaaaaaah. We don’t get those stories. Instead, we get some anti-Black tomfoolery. Because “love conquers all” or whatever.

And that’s my problem with the other project I mentioned, the Amma Asante film Where Hands Touch.

Where Hands Touch

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Amandla Stenberg as Leyna in Where Hands Touch

I first heard about Where Hands Touch in 2016, when Amandla Stenberg posted about the story on their Instagram account. At the time, they described the movie as the story of the “Rhineland Bastards” — a group of biracial Black children who grew up in Nazi Germany.

That would be a fascinating and powerful story. These children would’ve been dealing with the complexities of their race and nationality in a society that not only devalues them, but is actively working to eradicate them.

A Black woman in this time would’ve been dealing with the intersections of her race and gender, making her even more vulnerable to the climate around her. That story could’ve been incredibly nuanced and informative.

SIKE. That ain’t what this story is about.

Later on that year, Amandla revealed the actual plot of the movie, and I was dumbfounded.

Where Hands Touch is actually about a Black teenage girl named Leyna who falls in love with a member of Nazi Youth.

The Black girl. Falls in love. With a Nazi. During the height of World War II. During the actual fucking Holocaust.

But it’s supposed to be okay, because Lutz — Nazi Bae — isn’t a full Nazi yet. He’s just an awkward teen who would eventually grow up to be a Nazi.

Sure Nazi Bae spews all the same anti-Semitism and racism that his Nazi ass father does, and he really only seems to care about Leyna because he’s sexually attracted to her. And he’s definitely being raised to help orchestrate a genocide that will effectively murder everyone like her.

But they’re in ~love~ and their love will conquer racism!!!

Amandla Stenberg as Leyna and George MacKay as Lutz in Where Hands Touch

I feel like I don’t really have to explain why this relationship is sideways af. The power imbalance between these two is so huge that it’s actually difficult to put into words.

There’s an article on Vulture that helps capture just how confounding Where Hands Touch is. Vulture writer Hunter Harris has a discussion with Haaniyah Angus, editor-in-chief of Nerdy POC and brave soul who actually stood on the front lines and live-tweeted Where Hands Touch so that the rest of us didn’t have to.

Hunter and Haaniyah point out that Leyna’s character is oddly anti-Semitic and unaware of her own race in this film. Not only does this feel inaccurate as hell, it’s also feels incredibly offensive to craft a Black female character who is completely detached from her own race while others like her are literally being murdered by the state.

As baffling as that is, it also makes sense to me in a strange way. I mean, the only way Leyna could possibly fall “in love” with someone like Lutz is if she had no concept of how his position in society would eventually lead to her demise. If Asante had written her with an ounce of realism, a romance wouldn’t have been possible.

Which begs the question of why do this shit in the first place?!

It’s like Asante expected the audience to be completely clueless about the fact that Black people were also killed in the Holocaust. I’d like to ask Asante about her creative decisions, but the last time I checked, she was blocking anyone who questioned any aspect of this movie.

I feel as though it could’ve been very, very easy to not make these projects so terrible. Like I said, they both had the potential to tell strong, creative stories that could’ve sent positive messages. But by putting these Black female characters in inherently oppressive interracial relationships, these stories just end up doing more harm than good.

I love seeing Black women getting loved up, I really do. But, uh, I’d rather not see any more projects where they’re forced into relationships with their oppressors. Interracial relationships are not the cure for deeply-rooted societal ills.

Love doesn’t conquer all. As a matter of fact, love doesn’t conquer shit.

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