One of the big questions society must answer right now is whether or not we live in a post-racial society. Some would say yes, but the vast majority (many of whom would be considered ethnic minorities in the UK and America) would disagree vehemently. Although we have come a very long way since the 1950s and 1960s in both America and the UK, interracial dating is still an issue of contention. For some, the very thought of dating outside their own race is still scandalous and for those who do, they discover that race can be a bigger issue than they would like to admit. It seems that even today, the realm of love and relationships is not exempt from the political. In this post, Rhianna Ilube gives us a very intimate and personal insight into the experiences and, sometimes the politics of, interracial dating ‘then’ and ‘now’.
My nana married a black man in the 1960s. She grew up in the serene white middle-class surroundings of Richmond, attended the local Catholic school and had been married once before, with three kids. My granddad died in February and I met him only once. He grew up in Afuze, a poor village in mid-West Nigeria. He moved to England for the British military and was a lodger in my nana’s house. After having my dad in 1963, a half-Nigerian and half-English son, her world changed unalterably. She left her life behind her in Richmond and moved to Nigeria for thirteen years.
My nana told me that she used to look at her hand linked in his, and thought it was the most beautiful thing that she had ever seen. Fifty years later, she still feels the same.
Before I set to writing this, I spoke to my nana about her experiences. She recounted how she was spat at on buses on the streets of Richmond, how family members and friends cut themselves out of hers and my grandfather’s lives. Others awkwardly avoided the ‘race issue’ completely, preferring instead to make indirect comments. 1960s Britain was an incredibly tough place for a mixed race couple, but in Nigeria things were just as uncomfortable. Nana’s white skin was discussed in front of her as if she was not there and she could hardly retort in a society where women were often seen and not heard. Her skin was also a status symbol for my granddad. She spoke of being driven around the villages in the jeep so people could see him with his “White Wife”. At times, she enjoyed this and at times she resented it. As a wife, there were expectations in Nigeria that she would have not have accepted at home. When she was particularly annoyed, she wondered whether she was being used as a kind of “fuck you” to the British government following Independence. Due to the colour of her skin, she was both a trophy in Nigeria and a scandal in England – an object to be discussed and judged. She was a woman who dared trespass the stringent norms of the time.
But despite all this, the first thing my nana remembers was the beauty of her hand in his.
My ex-boyfriend, who is now one of my closest friends, is white and after speaking to my nana, I feel lucky we were together last year and not during the time of my grandparents’ relationship. Most days, race was not an issue. It was, however, a factor in our relationship that we both experienced differently. I recently asked him to reflect on things and I was surprised by how much the mixed-race element of our relationship had affected him. On many occasions, he had been met with shock when he told people he had a… God forbid…”black” girlfriend. People have said he didn’t ‘seem’ like the ‘type’ of person who would date interracially. What does this even mean? Was he too middle-class, too conservative to date a ‘mixed’ or ‘black’ girl? It is true that sometimes I felt that he enjoyed breaking his own stereotype by having me by his side, which made me feel awkward. On the other hand and to my dismay, even my mother said recently that she would be “very very surprised” if my brother came home with a black girl. She said there are stereotypes about black girls that are ‘difficult to shake’ for young boys growing up in the UK, that black girls were often loud and sassy, and had an ‘attitude’? But what “type” of person, then, does date a black girl? Because we are not all the same – a point these stereotypes inevitably miss.
Unlike my ex-boyfriend’s experiences, I have never had someone ask to see photos to prove I had a “white” boyfriend, nor did I ever feel awkward about the colour of my skin when I was with his family. I was, however, surprised that we ended up in a relationship at all. Before him, no white guy had expressed an interest in me and I had internalized the mantra that said “White guys don’t like brown girls”. Together, my beautiful Indian best friend and I received so many comments during our school years that reaffirmed this notion. This went from being told explicitly that we were unattractive to being the only two names consistently neglected in the classic year nine game In this room, I would get with…[note: every white girl in room]”.
I would watch TV waiting for mixed-race couples to appear and it rarely happened. I rarely saw pictures in magazines of white men and black women; if mixed race couples were on TV, it was usually the opposite scenario – black men with white women. So for a long time, I thought that my skin was ugly. I spoke to a friend about this very subject just recently and he said, “Rhianna, black just isn’t beautiful”. Interestingly, this friend is black himself, and mainly goes for white girls. For him, black doesn’t fit the “aesthetic ideal of beauty” he is looking for, that he has been taught to love. An idea that excludes many women. He said that at his university, some black girls realise this and make themselves easy, and guys will joke about using them for the “black experience”. A lot of what he said sounded like bullshit, but the sad fact is that there is some truth in what he is saying: there is a common misperception that black females are undateable. There are black men who openly share this sentiment with their brothers of different races, as well as amongst themselves. I’ve spent the summer working with young people from China and from all over Africa, and the view that dark skin isn’t beautiful has been repeated to me so many times (reinforced by the constant skin lightening adverts I have seen). This is a feminist issue that is often overlooked. This is an experience directly linked to racial politics. Yes, women (and men) are often expected to conform to expected notions of ‘beauty’, but this is so much more difficult when the very colour of your skin is a constant reminder that you just won’t ‘make it’, at least according to mainstream Euro-centric ideals of ‘beauty’.
So with this in mind, I was surprised that a white guy saw past my skin and actually liked me. He would tell me my skin was beautiful and I would cringe, and tell him to stop lying and to stop drawing attention to it, to my difference. Eventually, though, he made me stop being so self-conscious in my skin. But before we reached that stage, another issue that concerned my family about our relationship was that my boyfriend before him was black and I was relaxed when it came to introducing him to them. They suspected I was not fully comfortable with the situation. I was cautious about bringing him (the recent boyfriend in question) into my family life. I spent most of my time with his family, at his house. The few times he did come over, I think he felt uneasy – unusually aware of his being white and experiencing what it is like to be a minority. The sand out moments I can remember were when we all sat together watching a Malcolm X DVD and he said nothing, or the time we sat in the sun during the Olympics, oblivious as he scorched away in silence. When he now tries to understand my reluctance to introduce him to my family, and compares how I acted with my first boyfriend, he can only see our contrasting skin colours. And he attributes my actions to that. As much as I remind him that half of my family is white, I can’t find a real reason to explain why I was, comparatively, so closed-off and cautious with him; this is something I regret.
I realised now that he wasn’t seeing past my skin, he was just seeing me for who I am.
I’m proud of my skin now and of my family history, but I wish I hadn’t needed to rely on someone else to tell me what I should have already known.
At a FLY meeting at Cambridge University, a feminist discussion group for ethnic minority women, we talked about times when we have felt exoticised. I had never thought about it properly, and I was shocked by the amount of stories that were shared. Quite the opposite of feeling ugly in ones’ own skin, there is the feeling of being admired solely because of how ‘exotic’ you look, to the point of creepiness. It’s something most girls of colour (and increasingly white women also) have had to deal with at some point in their lives. My nana, as a white woman in Nigeria, must have experienced this. The first time my close friend of Eritrean descent dated a white guy, it soon became clear he had an incongruous love for black culture and black women. As much as it is nice to be appreciated, his was to the point of making her feel very uncomfortable. For her it seemed like her race was being appreciated above the other (many) parts of her identity. Interestingly, speaking to both my Eritrean and Indian friends, a common theme arose about the difficulties of interracial marriage also. For both of them, it would be ideal to marry within their own cultures, especially when it comes to religion and language, because they believe that cultural clashes arise that go deeper than the colour of ones’ skin. This is something that should be explored further in a separate post, but some families have different spheres of expectation for dating and marriage, which can often change the way individuals perceive themselves and others.
In truth, I hate the words ‘race’ and ‘interracial dating’. They draw attention to the apparent fact that someone is stepping outside of their prescribed ‘box’ and mixing with the ‘other’. What really is this ‘race’ thing anyway? I have never really known what to call myself. White, black, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, mixed-race? In the end, these are just words that create impressions in our minds of homogeneous groupings, stereotypes and cultures. Life doesn’t work like that. It may seem obvious, but we are all just individuals with our own stories, cultures and different backgrounds. We shouldn’t be defined by our ‘race’, or by any of the labels we are assigned at birth. If I really love someone, it doesn’t matter what colour, gender or religion they are. And I love how colourful my family is. When we are all together, it is beautiful.
At present, categories such as ‘gender’ and ‘race’ are misleading because they appear to divide the world into categories that should not exist. The experience of being a “woman” cannot be generalised. Please, let’s recognise diversity when it comes to dating, race and movements such as feminism, because individual experiences are much more interesting and much more important than generalisations and assumptions. And as for my nana? Well, I love and admire her a lot, and although we’ve come a long way since then, there is still a way to go now.