BLACK AND WHITE

09.15.14 7:25 PM ET

The Ongoing Stigma of Interracial Dating

An actress’ arrest just sheds light on common challenges interracial couples face.

While many are outraged at the detainment of Django Unchained actress Daniele Watts, not all are shocked. Though she was not charged with any crime, police handcuffed the actress last week.

Why this happened isn’t clear. But her boyfriend, celebrity chef Brian Lucas, who was there, believes something else was amiss, namely that officers mistook the mixed-race couple for a prostitute and one of her clients. According to Lucas, (he is white, Watts is African-American) officers asked him, “How do you know her, what relationship,” he went on. “They were questions that quite frankly made me feel like that they were questioning me being like the client of a prostitute.”

A friend of mine said she has a stock reply ready whenever those who are not in uniform ask a similarly offensive question: “How did you two meet?”

It’s not the question itself that’s offensive, of course. Every couple, regardless of racial makeup, will hear this question countless times through the duration of their relationship. But when you are part of an interracial couple, it’s how it’s asked, where it’s asked and whom it’s asked by, that usually sends a signal that this isn’t just another nosy inquiry from your elderly aunt (who wants to make sure you’re not trying that new fangled online dating stuff).

When you’re in a group of relative strangers, such as at a cocktail party, with multiple couples, and someone singles you out and asks with arched eyebrow, “So how did you two meet?” the implication is usually not one of pure curiosity, but incredulity. The translation can often be read as: “I’m sorry but how on Earth did you two end up together? It just doesn’t make sense…at least not to me.”

Just as it apparently didn’t make sense to the police officers, and whichever witnesses allegedly sent them to the scene.

One of my friends said she and her husband got the question so frequently, often long before more traditional small talk—such as “How do you know the hosts?” or “What do you do?”—that depending on the setting and her sense of humor that night, she might reply with a straight face: “Strip club.” They are both successful executives. She is black and he is white. She would of course always come clean, after everyone enjoyed an awkward chuckle. (They didn’t meet at a strip club, but through their jobs, like most Americans.)

Having been together over a decade, the idea rankles her that they can still walk into a room and be viewed as an oddity, but a same-race couple on a first or second date are viewed as though they obviously fit together.

Despite all of the kumbaya anecdotes and data out there, such as the fact that mixed-race families are the fastest-growing demographic in America, there is not a single interracial couple I know who has been together for an extended period of time who has not experienced some awkwardness or indignity that same-race couples do not.

During a previous interview, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recounted that, while dating, he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, who is black, were surrounded and taunted by a group of teens shouting “Jungle Fever” at them. This was not the South in the 1960s but New York in the 1990s.

Such stories seem a world away when you consider the ubiquity of mixed-race couples in popular culture today, including Kim and Kanye, Tiger and Lindsey, and of course the New York Mayor and First Lady. Not to mention the fact the current president is the product of a mixed-race union. Consider the fact that half a century ago, Sammy Davis Jr. was excluded from his friend John F. Kennedy’s inaugural festivities due to his Swedish wife, May Britt.

We’ve come a long way as a country, but challenges for mixed-race couples remain. At a recent dinner party a white guest mentioned how frustrating it is to hear how his wife was treated one way at a store or in other customer service settings before his arrival, and another way once he appears. She is black. And there are still houses of worship in which interracial couples are not welcome. In 2009, in the second term of the country’s first mixed-race president, a justice of the peace declined to grant an interracial couple a marriage license.

Sometimes, it is not merely being in an interracial couple that can inspire such indignities but the mere appearance of being in one. Not too long ago I was walking with a close male friend who is white. A man actually slowed his car and shouted, “Hey, hon, when you’re ready to go back to black give me a call!”