Exclusive Interview: Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn (“Lovers in Their Right Mind”)

Lovers in Their Right Mind is a film looking to change the conversation about interracial and interfaith relationships. Much of the interracial conversation revolves around the black-white dynamic, even though there are tons of other types of interracial, intercultural, and interfaith relationships out there. Lovers in Their Right Mind, written by journalist-author Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn and screenwriter Barrington Smith-Seetachitt, focuses on the love between a black woman and an Iranian immigrant and the learning curves both go through in the relationship.

I’ve already covered Lovers in Their Right Mind on JUST ADD COLOR, so I was excited to speak with Littlejohn about the film and how her experiences influenced the film. Lovers in Their Right Mind is still in pre-production. A crowdfunding campaign will be announced later this summer. Keep up with Lovers in Their Right Mind on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

How did you come up with the story for Lovers in their Right Mind

I had co-authored a book [with Christelyn Karazin] called Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate, Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, which was on interracial, intercultural and interfaith dating and relationships. It had been optioned by a company and they offered me an opportunity to write my vision. As I was trying to come up with the character that spoke to both the three factors of race, culture, and religion, I was looking for a singular couple that would inhabit that. While [with] that particular [book] option, they decided to go in a different direction with everybody swirling, I felt like what I had created spoke to what I wanted to see on screen, which was a different kind of conversation about black women and who they have opportunities to date. I felt like we had seen so much of black women and white men in television and film that we never get sense of black women outside of the black and white coupling. The options for black women are so much more vast…and from my own experience, that was true.

I began to look at my own dating habits…I had been dating a Persian man and the conversation of meeting families had come up. The thing he said was, they wouldn’t have a problem with you because you’re black, but because you’re American, you don’t speak Farsi, and various other things. So that’s where the idea for the outline came from, and when it was turned down, there was an actor who I knew and had interviewed, and I was talking to him about it because he was asking me what was swirling (because it was in my signature in my email account). I told him I was trying to explore this idea of an African American woman with a Persian man, and his comment was, “Well, am Persian!” So we had a really good conversation.

I had dated some Persian men before, and…when I began to look back on my own dating [experiences], it became a really great source of narrative tension and drama, comedy and romance. As I continued to research, there are a lot of wonderful similarities between the two cultures and, at least here in southern California, Iranian Americans tend to be more insular, black people live in their communities and never the ‘twain meet, it became a really great story to talk about my city that I grew up in and people in my city that never get seen on screen.

You mentioned Swirling; since the book discusses interracial relationships, what do you think America needs to know to become more educated about interracial relationships?

I think that swirling has become a hot topic because we are seeing the demographic shifts of our people. We are more a multicultural, multiracial America and globally, people are intermixing and intermarrying. You look at films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and how that was really popular; it’s not lost on pop culture that these things are happening in our own world. I think the thing I wanted to bring to the table was a different dynamic that you haven’t seen. I think with Swirling as a book, it became interesting in that it invited black women to open up their options. Many times, the books we had read previously and that I had seen were very regal-focused or focused on biology or the dearth of black men.

What I wanted to bring was a different discussion…what are some of the reasons black women don’t [date outside of their race] because black women are still the least likely to date outside of their race or culture out of any other ethnic group. What were some of the factors that were keeping black women from reaching outside of their comfort zone? I think those discussions are important to have, particularly when we look at issues like black love and black lives matter. All these things are interconnected with us socially, but what does it mean when we are looking for a mate, for someone who speaks to our heart’s desire?

Oftentimes, that social construct of race doesn’t hold up when you’re looking for someone to partner with. It’s important to look at factors beyond race when considering a mate, and I wanted to present a non-apologetic narrative that it’s okay for black women to date [outside of their race], because of the hundreds of women I spoke with, it was always [discussed] with shame, or controversy, or “My momma won’t jive with this,” or “My daddy won’t think this is great” or “My cousins will think I’m crazy.” It’s very rooted in fear. So the thing that is important to me about the book and about this movie is to see how we can reach beyond the lines of fear, beyond even the rhetoric of our own cultures and explore who we are as people and what we want; what fulfills us as people instead of subscribing to a group-think mentality.

One thing you said reminded me of Jungle Fever; in one part of the movie; you have Wesley Snipes’ character’s girlfriend hanging out with her friends, and they’re talking amongst themselves about whether they would date outside of their race. Wesley Snipes’ girlfriend says that she wouldn’t because she’s a strong black woman and feels that she should only date strong black men. It seems like she puts a very racially-charged focus on why she only dates black men, as if to prove her blackness, not whoever I might like if they aren’t black. With that said, how do you feel about some black women who feel like they need to date inside the race to prove their blackness to themselves and to the world?

Well, we [Littlejohn and Smith-Seetachitt] address this in the book and in the film. I do think that there is an identity concern among black women, that if they’re dating someone that’s not black that it somehow negates or dilutes their blackness, but that’s overwhelmingly not true. The black women that we spoke to for the book and interviewed for the film are, very definitely, black women, and own their blackness and blackness is not given or taken based on who you’re partnered with. Blackness is who you are, and they bring that sense of who they are into their relationships and give that sense of themselves into their children, they pass along that history to their children.

Rarely have I encountered women who completely buy into or absorb into another cultural…or racial construct because they have now partnered with a man who is non-black. You are who you are, and you bring that into your relationship. That’s an important thing with a relationship with anybody, whether they’re black, Latino, Persian, what have you. When you’re in a relationship, it’s not that you’re negating who you are racially. It’s that you’re sharing a part of yourself with someone. The thing that I find really exciting about interracial and intercultural dating, both personally and writing, about it is that people learn to appreciate people as people. They learn to understand different cultural traditions and understanding. There was a woman I was interviewing for the book, and she was dating a Swedish man. They eventually married and she learned how to speak Swedish and they now live in Sweden. She learned a lot about another culture that has broadened her, both in her life and work experiences.

I think there’s value in that. If we’re going to be this global community we keep saying we are, if we’re going to be this post-racial community we say we want to be, then we need to learn how to talk to people, and address people and learn about people who are different than us, in ways that allow us to appreciate people as people instead of under this blanket of colorblindness. You see my color when you see me; it’s not about being colorblind. I’m quoting Mellody Hobson here–it’s really about being color brave. It’s about looking at my color, my experiences, my heritage, my people, and getting to know that as a part of who I am. This black construct isn’t all of who I am; there are so many other things about me that are worth getting to know and that’s an important part of loosening the shackles of fear and being able to open yourself and your mind to something different. It doesn’t change who you are; it just gives you an opportunity to know who somebody else is.

Now I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate—

Sure, go ahead!

What about fetish? Because I’ve been several online forums and Facebook groups about interracial dating and experiences with interracial dating, and a topic that always comes up is when some fetishize another race. For some, it seems like the line between fetish and a regular relationship is muddied. What do you make of this issue and how it comes into the discussion?

Well, if you find that your partner is fetishizing you, then that’s a relationship you don’t want. Then to say, I’ve dated a white man, an Italian man, a Mexican man, and they fetishized me, therefore I’m not going to date any more white or Italian or Mexican men, is pretty sad! You may be missing out on some white or Italian or Mexican man somewhere down the line that adores you for who you are.

I think any kind of new experience, if there is something you’re concerned about—be it a same-race relationship or an interracial relationship—you need to talk about it. If you don’t get the answers you need or deserve, then that’s not the type of relationship you should be in with that person instead of [labeling] that race of people. I was married to a black man, but that wasn’t my cue to then say, “I will no longer date any black men.” I date men of all races and of all cultures. I date people who I find appealing and attractive, interesting, invigorating, and worthwhile. A lot of the relationships I’ve had have led me to this particular moment and to this particular story. Had I not had those experiences and turned them down, not only would I have not had those experiences, but I’d also be sitting around saying, “I don’t have any love in my life.”

Men have fetishes, women have fetishes, that’s not cool; if you feel like that’s what’s happening to you in your relationship, then move on from that relationship; don’t label the whole race of people, the whole culture of people as such and such because you’ve had one bad experience. You never know what wonderful experiences you could have with someone who appreciates you for you.

(L-R) Barrington Smith-Seetachitt and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. Picture courtesy Littlejohn
(L-R) Barrington Smith-Seetachitt and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. Picture courtesy Littlejohn

Since Lovers in their Right Mind also includes the interfaith element, how would you suggest people approach tackling interfaith issues in relationships?

I think for all of these questions, it can be summed up to talk about it [with your partner]. My religious needs and wants may be different from someone else’s, and it’s a part of being upfront in that relationships. I know a lot of Jewish-Christian relationships, a lot of Muslim-Christian relationships. It’s about what you want and need from your religion, your faith, your relationship, and what you want for your children.

I’m not going to say that I’m a dating expert–I’m a filmmaker and a journalist who’s writing about a situation that I find intriguing, and after a ton of research and this is what I came up with–but the throughline in all of it is communication. Talk about it. I think we’re so fearful of having those conversations. The same conversation you need to have with your partner about STDs and how you want to have sexual practice are the same type of conversations you need to have with your partner about faith and what your faith means to you.

I go back to My Big Fat Greek Wedding; Ian wanted [Toula], and she wanted to be married in a Greek Orthodox Church and he got that done; they got married in a Greek Orthodox Church because he felt like it was worth it for him. For other couples, it goes further; will we celebrate Christmas or will we celebrate Jewish holidays and how do we do that with our children? I think those are very individual, personal discussions, and once the couple has had them and comes to terms with what they want in their marriage, that’s between them, their God, their marriage, and their children, and nobody else really has any say in that because that’s what they decided as a couple.

…This conversation comes up for same-race people as well because they may be from different cultures. When we talk about this issue of interracial, interfaith, and intercultural, you can have intercultural experiences with people who are racially the same with you. These are conversations are still things you’d have to have.

Lovers in their Right Mind was chosen to be part of the DreamAgo’s 2016 Plume & Pellicule screenwriting atelier. How does it feel to have been chosen for that?

I’m still happy dancing! It’s a wonderful validation of the work we wanted to do. It’s really gratifying that an international workshop believed there was something valid in the story we wanted to tell. Here’s the wonderful thing; as we’ve been going through the process and getting all of our updates on things we needed to do, one of the gentlemen we’d been corresponding with…said he was very intrigued to read our script because he’s a French man married to a Persian woman.

It said to me a couple of things; that this was not an isolated story or just a cute little love story. This was something that resonated not only in the bounds of where it’s set, in Los Angeles, but it reached someone in France and the folks of DreamAgo in Switzerland. It’s not just an LA story. It’s not just a U.S. story. It’s a global story. It goes back to what I was saying; if we’re going to be this global nation of people who understand one another and work together…it makes sense to know who we are. It’s a super special honor. Hopefully, it’ll take us far. ♦