The lucrative, complicated world of TikTok's interracial couples

·12 min read

Amber Wallin can pinpoint the moment when she and her husband Ben took off as an interracial couple on TikTok.

In the video she posted to the platform in January 2021, Amber meanders sleepily down the hall to the living room, mumbling profanely about how it's time to go to bed. Next, the camera turns to Ben, sprawled on the couch in front of a TV, crying because the character in the video game "Ghost of Tsushima" that he thought was dead had returned to life.

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It was a funny clip gamers could relate to. But many of Amber's followers - likely thinking Amber was about to dress down her kids instead of her husband - were delightfully surprised to see that the loud Black woman with the Georgia accent was chastising a nerdy White guy from Long Island.

The likes and comments started rolling in.

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"People were like 'Who's that? Are they together? Wait, say more,'" said Amber, 31, a comedienne who launched the TikTok to showcase her own talents and has now amassed 1.3 million followers with Ben.

"Then I just rode the wave of people's interest in who I was married to. There's something that's just gold for people in seeing this unconventional couple."

The Wallins are among TikTok's "interracial influencers," who, unwittingly or not, are benefiting in part from the nation's long history and not-always-healthy fascination with mixed-race couples and children. For them, two forces - the pandemic and the racial reckoning after George Floyd's murder - proved propitious as hordes of cooped-up Americans turned to TikTok for entertainment and brands sought to connect with multiracial audiences by partnering with diverse creators.

The influencers are just the latest pop culture depiction of interracial romance, beginning with the groundbreaking 1967 film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," right up through the racial pairings on television shows like "Scandal" and "Bridgerton."

This time, however, real-world interracial couples like the Wallins are able to present the narratives of their lives directly to the masses.

"That's what's so dynamic about social media," said Jonathan Schroeder, a communications professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who researches the ethics of gender and racial representation in commercial imagery, including digital media. "Ordinary people without access to power are able to build worldwide audiences with millions of followers. They grab the mic and tell their own stories."

In a country where interracial marriage was illegal in 16 states before the 1967 Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, that shift is profound.

Yet as much as the couples may attempt to positively influence their followers' perceptions of race, the nation's long-tortured relationship with the topic often hijacks the script. The narrative tension born of slavery and segregation is embedded in the images even before the couples speak, Schroeder noted.

"Even if we went on a nice date" with no references to race at all "there will be some comments about that that would be race-based," said Amber, who lives in Chicago. "So you kind of get used to that, you know?"

As a performer, Amber said she is used to handling occasional hostility, usually by ignoring it. Others report reeling from the insults.

Alyssa Fluellen, a White woman who lives with her African American husband, Gerard, and their three children in her hometown of Victorville, Calif., said she didn't consider the possibility of harassment when she launched her family TikTok in 2020.

"Race was not a factor when we met or fell in love with each other," and their families were mostly accepting, she said.

Then she encountered the vitriol, largely spewed by older White men, although sometimes from Black women - the groups that historically have been most critical of Black male/White female relationships.

When Alyssa, 29, was pregnant with the couple's youngest son Emmett, now 1, one White man wrote that he'd like to shake her upside down to abort the "monkey" in her uterus, she said. Another wished cancer on her offspring.

After she and Gerard posted a video mocking the skin care routines she'd need to stay youthful as a White woman because "Black don't crack," some Black women admonished Gerard that he should have stuck to dating within his race.

Gerard, who said he developed thick skin while growing up in Redlands, a predominantly White Southern California city about 50 miles from Victorville, counseled Alyssa on how not to let others' opinions bother her.

In the case of Black women, "I feel like historically, [they] have gotten the short end of the stick," and seeing him with a White wife could be perceived as an affront, Gerard, 31, said, echoing his own sister's first reaction to their romance. "We all express our pain in different ways."

"I still don't think it's right, but it helped me understand," Alyssa said.

Lately, she's been trying harder to focus on the fact that the positive comments are more plentiful (even more so after the couple tweaked the platform's settings to weed out the worst.) "I was telling Gerard the other day that I get emotional when I think about the amount of support I get from Black women," particularly the first time she braided her daughters' hair, Alyssa said.

The income - from brand partnerships and TikTok's Creator Fund, which pays creators a small amount based on viewership and other factors - helps balance the insults. The Fluellens, who now have 3.2 million followers, said they made in the low six figures in 2021 and this year they foresee topping $1 million. Alyssa quit her job as a registered nurse to focus on the family TikTok full-time. Not long after, Gerald left his position as a UPS truck driver, as brands including Pottery Barn, Athleta and Walmart forged partnerships with the couple.

Alyssa said she is astonished that her vlog has become such a moneymaker. Still, she bristled when a viewer recently commented that "mixed families become famous for being mixed families," not an uncommon perception among minority creators and users.

"I am offended by that," she said. "I worked my butt off to get where we are. I think that's rude." Gerald backed her up.

The amount that creators make by demographic are not publicly shared by social media sites, including TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, according to Jasmine Enberg, a principal analyst at digital marketing research Insider Intelligence.

The lack of transparency has been a rising source of frustration for minority creators in particular, she said. Black creators, who share anecdotal evidence of discrimination, complain of making less than White creators, and some presume that interracial families do better than Black creators in the lifestyle category as well. Amber Wallin guesses this is true, but thinks they also probably make less than White families.

Long before social media, mixed-race relationships have attracted public curiosity and prejudice. And mixed-race children have by turns been spurned, exoticized and fetishized during centuries of colonialism, slavery, and legal bans on interracial marriage, said Francesca Sobande, senior lecturer in digital media studies at Cardiff University in South Wales and author of a published study on interracial couples on YouTube.

Sobande acknowledges the significance of interracial couples' new ability to directly convey their experiences. But she also thinks the dictates of advertisers limit the freedom of influencers to fully express themselves on social media. They and their audiences are entangled in a centuries-old system of oppression driven by racist ideas that they often fail to recognize as such.

Interracial influencers sometimes play into this by accentuating differences in skin color, facial features and hair that society perceives to be racial, Sobande said. An example might be the flip deck-like presentation that quickly superimposes the images of the partners in the couple on each other or the children on either parent, asking the viewer to consider whether they look alike.

"The focus on phenological differences in these cases can harken back to race science, which is at the root of historical racism," Sobande said.

Often White followers perceive the lives of interracial couples as speaking to a "post-racial point in time . . . where racism has been overcome," a false notion that draws advertisers who seek to benefit by proximity without actually taking action to solve racial inequities, she said. The presence of mixed-race children can serve to underscore this post-racial narrative that puts White consumers at ease.

While the percentage of intermarried couples has more than tripled since 1967 to about one in six U.S. marriages, according to Pew research, the largest share - 42% - are between Hispanics and non-Hispanic Whites. Black-White marriages account for just 11% of the total.

Jeena Wilder, 32, a first-generation Haitian American woman, said she has experienced the post-racial fantasy firsthand.

Wilder met her White husband-to-be, Drue, at a church camp in Gainesville, Ga., when they were both 17. She launched the family vlog on TikTok in 2019 after scouring social media to connect with families like hers: an interracial couple with biological children who had also adopted a White child - in this case, her husband's niece. When she couldn't find such a community, "I decided to start it myself."

The low six-figure income and the 715,000 followers came as a bonus, said Wilder, a stay-at-home mother, who now lives with Drue, a traveling nurse, and their children in Atlanta.

Her largest group of followers, she said, view interracial families "as beautiful and think it's great and are 'colorblind.' " They love to look, she said, yet many of them, mostly White women, complain when she raises race explicitly.

As she felt compelled to speak out more in the months after Floyd's murder, Wilder said some of her followers would say things like "Why do you need to talk about race all the time?"

In her cross-posts on Instagram, she observes "a huge mass exodus . . . usually about 300 to 400 people who will automatically unfollow me," whenever she broaches what remains a third rail of American conversation.

"A lot of people only want to see the positive," she said. "They don't want to see people who have to deal with racism, even in 2022."

Interracial couples from other countries recount their own experiences with racism, which like social media, crosses geographical boundaries.

Lu Lee Kombe, a first-generation Canadian of Taiwanese descent, met her husband, Simon Kombe, in his native Tanzania in 2010 on a safari for which he was a guide. They married two years later. Lee Kombe began her TikTok featuring her marriage and two children in 2020 to promote a memoir about her travels, which included falling in love with Kombe.

"I think I'm very idealistic. I hadn't anticipated all of the challenges," said Lee Kombe, who with 50,500 followers is known as a "micro-influencer."

In the real world, the couple, both in their mid-30s, occasionally gets curious stares from older Asian strangers at home in British Columbia or clueless comments from relatives and friends. They are no match, however, for her TikTok hecklers, she said.

Asians would ask her if Kombe was after money or had other wives, based on stereotypes of Africans. Others have asked Lee why she would "do that" to her Asian bloodline.

Some of the harshest responses have come from White men, who suggest she only married her husband because - racist myth alert - he must be well-endowed. "It's just so common to see Asian women with White men that it kind of throws them off," she said. "They think you should be with them."

Yet Lee Kombe said that when she is attacked, her followers will often come to her aid, an experience shared by other interracial influencers. "They'll say, like, this is the 21st century, what's wrong with races mixing?"

Behind the polished scenes of the Wallins' TikTok lies a serious desire to challenge beliefs about interracial couples, they said.

"One of the big assumptions is that one culture sort of has to assimilate for it to work," Amber said. "But I think you can have two people who are really grounded in who they are and still have a functional relationship."

In some videos, Amber gives Ben funny Black culture lessons - like Saturday house cleaning to the gospel singing of Kirk Franklin or pointers before going home to visit her family in Georgia. She's naturally loud and doesn't try to suppress it. "Bey-n!" she calls out to her husband with her Southern accent, everything unfolding through her own perspective.

Ben, a bespectacled, sometimes bumbling public high school teacher, is also clearly not trying to "act Black." As the straight man to Amber's dramatic character, he relishes his supporting role.

"Because a lot of our content is Amber being loud, and being firm, and putting her foot down, and also being funny, I think we're sort of combating that narrative" that Black women are single because they're not subservient, said Ben, who is 32.

They're aware of the risk of appearing to reinforce stereotypes but Ben said that, as seasoned improv performers, they follow the "Yes, and.." rule. Amber will be loud and bossy and she will also sing Disney princess songs and show a more emotional side, particularly during her recent and highly relatable pregnancy. It's harder to stereotype somebody who is not a caricature, Ben suggested. As self-described queers, they also push against married-couple stereotypes, which their LGBTQ followers seem to appreciate, they said.

Amber is reluctant to promote the idea that interracial couples and their children represent some kind of post-racial nirvana.

"I just don't even see a post-racial world ever happening," she said. "I just want my content to remind Black people that you can make your own choices and love who you want and eat at Michelin-starred restaurants and cry when things are sad."

Ben couldn't resist: "I tell every Black woman I know, 'Never date a White man. I can't vouch for my people.' "

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