On a Friday night, the thud of plastic dance beats pulses through a multiculti crowd at Tracks nightclub. In one corner, two white Tommy Hilfiger boys vie for the attention of a pretty Latina. Close by, at the center of a gawking circle, Asian, Latino, and black break-dancers take turns spinning on their heads.

On top of a lava-lighted stage, a shirtless guy who resembles the Puerto Rican dancer in Fame grinds his pelvis back and forth, writhing about like a giant sperm. He moves as if he’s just discovered puberty. And from the looks of it, he thinks it’s a wonderful thing.

In this picture, at this moment, it’s as if the color lines Washingtonians embrace during the day have faded away in the smoky shadows of a colorblind orgy. Here, in the melting-pot moment, allegiances to race, color, and culture fade into the background.

Sure looks like a love fest. Love is blind and all that. But turn the music down and the lights up, and the stew becomes the same old D.C. racial meltdown: Chocolate City and the nation’s capital, black and white, separate and suspicous. The two worlds don’t marry just because there’s a whiff of jungle fever in the air.

Anybody who chooses to date across color lines in D.C. had better be about something, because the toll is high on the bridge between the races. The few who do cross the color line stumble upon land mines at work, on their parents’ doorsteps, in the homes of their closest friends. Some couples pull it off, beautifully, but they are exceptions and exceptional.

In matters of romance, the District is a city of consummately Southern sensibilities. The hard stares, rolling eyes, and clucking tongues are just the most visible manifestations of a city that doesn’t want to get along.

People want to believe otherwise. They start spewing clichés and oozing bullshit to explain their choices: “I don’t see color”; “It’s about love.” Fine. More power to you, brother. But dig deeper, go hang out at Tracks and Crazy Horse as we did, talk to the regulars, and you’ll hear a lot of young couples still buying into trumped-up, bogus sexual stereotypes. For them, there’s just no aphrodisiac like the unknown, no perfume more tantilizing than eau de Other. You’ll find still others trying to climb that colonial ladder of social mobility, hoping the reflection of their lovers will render them less black or less white—more respectable or more down, somehow different and certainly better.

Sure, sometimes lasting love transcends all, breaks through the barriers. Sometimes. But even then, race plays a powerful role, coloring the relationship, if not from the inside then from all other sides. And for a lot of casually dating couples, the truth is far more basic: It is about color. Little else matters.

Mary loves black men. She’s been dating them ever since she was a teenager, leaving her safe Northern Virginia haven at night to meet men in Anacostia. It’s not a phase, she says; it’s a permanent preference. “I prefer black men. They’re better all the way ’round,” she asserts. “They look better. They’re freer with their money. They like to go out and do things.”

Mary is a 23-year-old Northern Virginia resident who runs her own business. She’s also the single mother of a 5-year-old daughter, whose father is black.

For all intents and purposes, Mary looks white. Native American and Hawaiian by birth, she was adopted by white parents, and people have always assumed she’s white, too. But she resents the classification.

“Race has no meaning to me. It doesn’t matter. A human being is a human being,” she says, sounding almost disgusted by the question.

The rest of the world may see her as white, but Mary is culturally black. She talks black, she works with black people; even her black friends say she’s black—and all her friends are black. She does her hair in an African-American style and she goes to a black church. Her biggest problem with black men? What she describes as their constant nagging for sex. But it beats the alternative: “White men don’t want to talk to me because I’ve got a big butt and I’m loud,” Mary says.

Despite her brutal generalizations, Mary sounds confused more than anything else. She says race means nothing to her and then uses the same breath to tell you that black men are better. Then she rails against black men who play the “oppression” card. For Mary, there is no Man, no system holding black people down. If anything, she says, the system is designed to help black people with affirmative action and other set-asides.

Mary’s pronouncements about self-determination march on like mail-order self-help tapes: “Everything you do is a mental decision. If you decide to make a million dollars, you can make a million dollars.”

For all her identification with black people, Mary holds plenty of negative stereotypes. She criticizes what she sees as elements of black culture: the backstabbing and pettiness she sees in blacks around her, many of whom she says have low aspirations and few goals because of their poverty.

“[African-Americans] are so afraid of change, they hold themselves down,” she says. “My whole team in my office is black, and every now and then that old lazy bug comes through and they hold themselves back. They’re so afraid. When they think they’ve got something so good, they’re afraid to reach for the next bite.”

Mary tries to exist outside black and white, but she can’t. There are days when her black friends accuse her of making passes at their boyfriends, or when her white co-workers tell her all the black men she dates are losers. Dig beneath the we-are-the-world proclamations, and Mary is just as riven with facile generalizations as the next person. She dates because of stereotypes, not in spite of them.

And she is not alone. Last month, a Gallup/USA Today poll found that 57 percent of American teens have dated interracially, up from 17 percent in 1980. The poll asked teens for the major reasons they date interracially. A full three-quarters of the 602 teenagers surveyed said curiosity drove them into the arms of the Other. Over half said they were “trying to be different.” And 47 percent reported they were “rebelling against parents.” About the same percentage said they were just “trying to be cool.”

Yet the USA Today headline announcing the poll results was jarringly cheery: “For today’s teens, race ‘not an issue anymore.’” Say what? How can this be, when the results clearly reflect a population that’s eroticizing skin color and calling it a relationship?

“What you’ve got here is a situation of denial,” says Jules P. Harrell, a Howard University psychology professor. “In this society, factors related to racism still determine who we see as attractive,” he says.

“In statistics, we would say these choices are beyond chance. Many men are simply swallowing this notion that a white woman is still some sort of prize. They have not really struggled against the prevailing presumption that the ultimate beauty is a white woman,” says Harrell.

“People will state to you one reason for interracial dating, but they have no clue about what preferences they develop, because these cognitive processes take place outside of our awareness,” he says. “What you have to do is dig deeper. You have to dive below that glib statement they make to find out what is really going on.”

More often than not, what’s going on is the nasty. You can’t have a conversation about interracial dating for more than 30 seconds before sex dominates the discussion. Nowhere is the denial among many interracial couples more raw than in the bedroom. All the ethnic stereotypes come out: the Mandingo warrior, the ice goddess, the gotta-get-me-some-of-that-other-flava. For many people, interracial dating is just a euphemism for interracial intercourse.

The bedroom was the only place Derrick and Becky really connected after they met at Tracks six years ago. Derrick, who is black, says he has never had any qualms about dating white women. He grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, the son of a Baptist cop who taught him to love all colors. But he never came across very many willing to cross the color line—that was, until eight years ago, when the Marines brought him to D.C. “It’s all started up here…,” he says, pausing for a moment. “My jungle fever,” he blurts out, erupting into laughter.

Derrick dated several white women when he came here in 1989. But it was the 16-month relationship with Becky that lasted the longest.

Then 20 years old, Derrick met 19-year-old Becky while moonlighting at the movie theater at Pentagon City, where she was an assistant manager. Overall, Derrick concedes that the relationship really didn’t go that deep. “To be honest, it was a very sexual relationship. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the public eye. It was very sexual. I really never talked to her about deep things.”

Just because they didn’t talk about much doesn’t mean that their relationship didn’t include its share of complications. Derrick vividly remembers coming out of a Safeway in Wheaton with Becky and getting stared down. “A black girl was looking at me, snarling her nose as if to say, ‘You have some nerve.’ It kind of angered me, but that’s just her ignorance,” says Derrick.

He somehow manages to laugh about a Halloween costume party at Becky’s brother’s house in Montgomery County. On the way to the party, Derrick’s Ku Klux Klan costume startled a black woman and her son. He took off his cape and assured the woman that he was no redneck-in-white. After arriving at the party, despite feeling like “a fly in buttermilk” as the only black person, his first-place award for best costume made him feel right at home. The partygoers certainly got the irony, even if a deeper one was lost on Derrick.

Then the boyfriend of a white woman in a baby costume thought Derrick was checking his girlfriend out. The boyfriend stormed downstairs and called Derrick a nigger. To this day, Derrick believes the white woman wanted him. The confrontation didn’t come to blows, but it definitely put a damper on the party.

The relationship ended when the Marines briefly transferred Derrick to California. And he didn’t exactly break the news to Becky gently. “It was a cold-blooded move. I did it over the phone,” he says. He readily admits he remembers the sex and little else. When it came time to marry, Derrick chose a black woman, casting his lot with someone in his own image.

Derrick’s hormonally defined trip over the fence is not uncommon. Eric, a 23-year-old black Southeast native, hadn’t really dated any white women before he found himself consoling a white co-worker over a lost boyfriend. Next thing he knew, he was taking her to a movie at the Courthouse theater—by design, a theater in a predominantly white area. He didn’t want anyone to recognize him. “I have my spots where I can have fun, where no one knows me,” he explains.

After the movie, he took his brokenhearted colleague to the seductive vista he takes all women to when he’s ready to make his move: the glittery monuments of D.C. And, as usual, the Mall had the desired romantic effect.

The following weekend, they went to the same secluded theater and groped each other all through the movie. “She was very open with her sexuality,” Eric remembers fondly. Conversely, it had taken him three whole years to become that free in public with the black woman he had previously dated—because black women are more prudish, he says, especially on the first or second date. After the movie, they went to a Days Inn, and Eric “fucked the shit out of her.” He said she had never been with a black man before, and she was very impressed.

They went at it for a few hours, and he marveled at her staying power. “Actually, she had more endurance than most black women I’ve dealt with. Most black women, after the second time they are done, but she went off, like, four or five times.”

Their lusty rendezvous continued every weekend for nearly two months; then he called it off. Nobly, Eric decided the pleasure they shared wasn’t as important as being in love, and he didn’t want to jeopardize missing “the one” he wanted to be with forever. “The person I marry will have to do X amount of things emotionally for me—and there’s that color barrier. I’m not going to put myself through it if I don’t think that connection is already there. Racism is alive.”

One place where Eric never ventured with his white girlfriend was his home in Southeast. The neighborhoods east of the river are probably among the least likely places to find whites and blacks walking arm and arm. Almost any neighborhood outside Dupont Circle, Georgetown, and Adams Morgan is just not a cozy place for interracial couples. Mixed couples wandering into diners south or east of Georgia Avenue NW will be met with clanging silverware and the slow-burn stares of strangers.

And even inside the racial demilitarized zone, the scene can be frigid. Archie, another black man in his 20s, remembers standing at the corner of M and Wisconsin with his Italian girlfriend when a group of shouting black girls called him an Uncle Tom.

And about a year and a half ago, Archie was hanging out with some friends at the McDonald’s near Howard University—laughing and joking around with his black and Puerto Rican friends—when a white female friend came to pick him up. “Everybody just got quiet. It was like she was a spy. People started whispering,” he says. He doesn’t take dates near Howard anymore: “It’s just not worth the trouble.”

Archie is OK with the idea of ethnic identity, but not with the racial possessiveness that sometimes goes with it.

“If a black guy sees a black girl with a white guy, he gets pissed off because he feels like [the white guy is] taking his woman,” Archie says. He takes issue with what he sees as an irrationally possessive mind-set: “In all actuality, she was never his to begin with. It’s an ownership situation. It’s the same thing with black women: They think that they own every black man on this earth.”

There are practical imperatives behind the fear. Because of black males’ higher death and incarceration rates, the pool of men available to black women dwindles yearly. But Archie says that doesn’t give black women the right to take it personally when an eligible black man chooses to date a white woman. And they certainly shouldn’t take their insecurities out on black men.

“The black girls that I’ve dated have been real protective. It was terrible. They wanted to know where I was all times of the day. I don’t even tell my mom where I am all day. It just makes you feel like you’re married. Then you have the people who want you to be with them 24 hours a day,” Archie says.

Even when you take gender politics out of the equation, dating outside your race is a sketchy business in the District. Marc, a 40-year-old gay white man, says D.C. is nowhere near as accepting as the other cities he’s called home. Marc describes the race scene here as frighteningly polarized. It’s not an issue of being out, which Marc isn’t. Interracial relationships, whether romantic, professional, or friendly, draw a seething glance in this city, Marc says. And he gets those looks, letting him know he’s being watched and judged, all over the place: in Rosslyn, in Georgetown, on the Mall.

“There just seems to be a lot of pressure,” says Marc, who until recently had been seeing a black man for two years. “I had this distinct feeling that because I was a white man who happened to be walking down the street with a black person, I was an oddity.”

Marc’s descriptions of his former life in the Pacific Northwest are almost utopian. He paints a picture of a misty, boho love fest where Asians, blacks, Latinos, and whites all sip Starbucks at the same table. He admits that racism exists everywhere, even in Portland and Seattle, but he insists there’s nothing like the tension he feels in D.C.

In D.C., Marc sees foreign cabbies pass by his former boyfriend, who is in many cases no darker than the drivers. Marc is there to console. He says he understands.

Marc sets down his rose-colored glasses long enough to acknowledge that backgrounds—ethnic or otherwise—play a critical role in relationships. “You take somebody from Appalachia and put them with somebody from Harvard. Even though there may be incredible sexual attraction between the two, there’s nothing there to sustain them because there’s nothing there to ground them. For most black and white couples in D.C., they don’t have enough to get them started,” Marc says.

Trying to sustain a relationship in such a racially charged environment has worn Marc out. He will be leaving the District very soon.

At the Crazy Horse nightclub on M Street NW, the sign reads, “Hip Hop and Go Go Saturday Night.” In Georgetown? Yeah, right. But there it is: Rare Essence blasting from crackling subwoofers, and a motley assortment of Washington youth playing Othello on the dance floor.

A reverse Oreo sandwich consisting of two meaty white women and a geeky-looking black man are grinding in sync. The scene is repeated everywhere on the dance floor, at the bar, and against the wall: White dudes pushing up against black girls, brothas sweet-talking white chicks with twangy voices. The place is packed like a meat cellar and smells like one as well. Inebriated from the liquor and rhythm, mixed-race couples sway together, each self-absorbed, oblivious to anything about the person enjoined to them save the raw sensuality and the inverted skin color.

Everyone here is playing the part, but mostly it’s the Black Buck who’s entreating the eager white girl to dance. Most won’t meet again until next week. Some exchange names and numbers in matchbooks, and some just hook up. Nothing meaningful. Nothing serious.

Interracial couples say this side of Northwest, with its blended ethnicity and pretensions of hip, is probably the safest place in town to date outside one’s race. No eyeballs. Black and white hand-holding merits no second glance.

So say Sean and Darion, 24-year-olds who share a bachelor pad near Dunbar High School in Northwest and have their own taxonomy to describe white women. They divide them into two groups: the yo-yo girls and the Georgetown girls. “It’s like Vanilla Ice vs. Barbara Striesand,” says Darion. Yo-yo girls, they say, like to co-opt black motifs, fashion, and lingo. “Those are the ones who go to the Crazy Horse and they got on their DDTP shirts looking just as ghetto as anybody else,” says Darion.

For the Georgetown white girl, “ghetto” is a place she never goes. “I’d say a bit more refined, who just grew up in white America, who has no idea what goes on this side of the town, who’s not trying to play a role or fit into one,” Darion pontificates.

Darion is more comfortable dating someone who knows who she is. “The ones that seemingly act black, I don’t even deal with them,” he says.

“These chicks don’t even want somebody who’s black like me,” Darion continues. “They’re looking for some old ruffian, 40-drinking niggas, with key chains around their necks, with a pair of gray New Balances on. Driving the station wagon with the temp tags on, looking mean for no reason. That’s what they’re about.”

“They’re all from Clinton, Md., or some rural-ass place. They watch too much BET,” says Darion, kind of smugly.

“Yeah, they watch BET and go…’homeboy,’ ‘What’s up, dawg,’” says Sean, imitating a yo-yo girl’s delight at having glommed onto a new word from the hiphop vernacular.

Darion and Sean at first seem ambivalent about the whole issue of interracial dating. They’ve both been on their share of dates with white women, and when the topic of marriage is brought up neither of them rules out the possibility that his kids might some day be mixed.

Their third roommate, Carl, thinks they’re dreaming. Interracial mingling rarely makes it beyond the superficial, he says. The gap is just too wide and deep. “You can’t explain to somebody, like, when you get a dirty look from people in Eddie Bauer,” says Carl. “She can’t fathom that, no matter how politically correct she tries to be or sympathetic. She can’t understand how we feel in certain situations. It’s impossible.”

Darion, who has dated white women all over the country, admits there are high hurdles to jump. A black man can adjust to dating white women, he says, but he can’t really afford to settle in.

Differences, even little ones, always rise to the surface. “Like, the way we cook our food is different,” Darion says. “While we’re all spiced up, she’s about to get an ulcer off a piece of chicken. I go with her to her aunt’s house, and food is bland as all hell.”

“These types of things become irritating after a while. Even though you feel like this person has good qualities. If you really want that, I think you can iron those things out. In my case, it just became annoying, so I had to cut it off. More than once,” Darion says.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t go back for more; Darion is currently dating a white woman. A couple of days earlier, she came by the house with three other white women from the other side of town. “The dudes across the street looked at me like, ‘What are you fucking with that white girl for?’” says Darion. “They don’t know her.”

Carl interjects with the bottom line: “All these white girls, they listen to rap and they dress like black girls. I think it’s superficial when dude comes home and is like, ‘I can’t get a job because of this,’” he says, pointing at his brown skin.

“I don’t think they can comprehend what he’s saying even if she’s like, ‘Well, you know the black man has been put down,’” says Carl. “I don’t think she could fathom it like a black girl.”

Charles Byrd, the editor of Interracial Voice and a full-time rainbow warrior, doesn’t buy the immutability of color. In his New Jersey-based online and print publications, Byrd has been spreading his gospel of biracialness for several years now. He’s frequently quoted on national television and in newspapers, spouting on about the necessity of a multiracial category to recognize the growing number of people who, like himself, are the products of an interracial union.

But Byrd’s commentary comes straight from the hip, and he frequently bloodies clarity on his way to making his case.

Byrd spent the first 14 years of his life in Northern Virginia, and he attributes the racial tension in D.C. to what he considers a self-segregated black community that is strongly possessive of its people and backward in its view of race.

“I don’t think people should have allegiance to the black community. I don’t believe people should have allegiance to the white community. I think allegiance should be to humanity. Anything short of that is senseless. If we no longer agree race is real, then that’s when things will start changing,” says Byrd.

“You’re an individual first. You’re a family member second. And third, group affiliation is voluntary, not mandatory. Stop listening to Kweisi Mfume and do for yourself, and this will better yourself and your race in the long run.”

Byrd doesn’t deny that interracial couples face hard issues, struggling with their children’s racial identity, their families’ acceptance, and finding a place to live. But he says that black people’s insistence on asserting their identity is a big part of the problem.

“I think America is basically all one culture. If you want to couch it in terms of race, then we’re one multiracial culture,” Byrd says. “Culturally, there’s no difference. We can’t see that because we’re so close to the problem. We want to maintain black culture.”

Byrd can dream all he wants of a mundane homogeny, but Louis Steadwell has been married to a white woman long enough to know that he is swimming upstream against some fairly strong currents. A local realtor, Steadwell has been married to his white wife, a hospital administrator, for 18 years. Even now, he says the hardest issue to deal with is the isolation and ostracism from the black community he has experienced in D.C.

“I feel like I’ve had to sacrifice a bit of my identity. I certainly felt when I got married that it was more important to be happy and that my social identity was less important,” Steadwell says.

To help cope with that isolation, Steadwell and his wife joined the Interracial Family Circle, a 250-member group of which he is vice president. The group puts out a monthly newsletter on the Internet and features pictures of the rainbow families.

Steadwell met his wife in California, a place he believes is far more accepting of interracial unions than D.C. But they also lived as a couple in Boston, which is no headquarters of racial enlightenment. While in Boston, they endured countless slurs and insults, mostly from white people. In D.C., the reception has been less hostile but no less painful for Steadwell, with black people sucking their teeth at him everywhere he goes. “In Boston, the threat was on the white side. In D.C., there is social ostracism on the black side,” Steadwell says.

He has concluded that no matter what decisions he has made in his life, some people will always judge them to be wrong. “They don’t even get a chance to…get to know me. Their minds are made. When [black] people meet you in a different setting, when they find out, they tend to think of you as confused,” he says.

Even within the family, the racial fault line never entirely disappears. When his 18-year-old daughter, whom he describes as being cafe au lait in color, was a child, she always reached for the dolls with blue eyes and blond locks.

“That really offended me. But what could I say? That is what her mother looked like, and she had to choose for herself,” Steadwell continues. “The social isolation becomes more important when the kids meet puberty. She had plenty of friends, and around puberty things start sorting out. She had to choose to be white or black.”

Steadwell says his daughter resolved the issue by choosing to go to Spelman College, a historically black university in Atlanta. Steadwell says his younger daughter, who is 16, is an alternative type and, although she is darker than her older sister, is “culturally white.”

Two years ago, Steadwell cherished a rare moment of unconditional unity during the Million Man March on the Mall. “I was in a sea of black men who looked like my uncle and my father, and I had nothing to prove to anybody,” he says. “There is a self-consciousness that arises, because people make you feel it—black people and white people. You can overcome that, but it is really, really hard for you to be completely natural. After 18 years, it has diminished some, but never totally.”

There is a sadness in Steadwell’s voice, a sadness you don’t detect in the glib dismissals of couples who say we can all just get along. Steadwell has made a hard choice that has brought him much joy, a choice he does not regret. But in his sadness lies sincerity. Granted, Steadwell is an adult through and through. He has little in common with the crowd at Tracks and Crazy Horse, where intentions rarely go beyond the evening in question.

But when the dance-floor mingling evolves into a relationship in the cold light of day, the racial realities are inescapable. “Their family will remind them, their friends will remind them, institutions will remind them that color has boundaries,” says Philipia Hillman, a sociology professor at American University, who is black. “In D.C., we know it’s true. In America most people marry within their race and class.”

Most young couples don’t want to talk about the painful realities of sidelong stares and racial isolation—issues that would push them beyond the bedroom and force them to take their relationships to the next level.

“Does she truly understand him when he says, ‘I went to go buy you a gift and they followed me around the store’? When does he feel confident that he can tell her and she truly understands what he means? How do they deal with people who see her as a nigger-lover or him as the black guy trying to rape the white girl?” Hillman asks.

“It’s a very stressful and strainful thing for interracial couples to live their life colorblind,” Hillman says. “They have to talk about how they feel about race, and how they feel about discrimination. For two individuals who can sustain a relationship with all that, it’s going to be a special kind of love.”CP

More from WCP