I am a 35 year mixed race woman of black Jamaican, Nigerian and white British heritage from, and currently living in, England. I know from my own personal experience that being mixed race and dating/ in a relationship can be a bit of minefield at times, so I want to provide a few pointers on how you can be in a good and healthy relationship with a mixed race person. Obviously there are many different ways that a person can be racially mixed and ultimately we are all individuals so I can’t provide a perfect guide, but I’m hoping I can at least cover the general basics.
First of all I just want to share a few of my experiences with you so you can get an idea of some of different kinds of issues that can come up when you are dating or in a long-term relationship, and mixed race. I have quite a few horror stories! Two really stand out in particular though. I think they both have had a lot to do with me staying single for long stretches of time.
The first was in my early twenties when I had a relationship with a white British man. Initially everything was fantastic but as time went on the relationship started to feel more and more oppressive. One of the main issues was that he was overly pre-occupied with the fact that I was mixed race. There were constant comments about my skin tone, my mixed race features and my mixed identity in general. Now I love compliments but it became too much. At this point I had no idea what racial fetishism was, and I had never thought of myself as particularly attractive (quite the opposite in fact), so for a long time, although it made my uneasy, I convinced myself his obsession with my mixed race appearance was a good thing. Inevitably though I came to resent it, and him, because it revealed that his interest was superficial and completely built around my racial identity.
I was also uneasy about comments in the bedroom where I was referred to as a ‘sex slave’. This may seem innocent between lovers but bear in mind that due to my Jamaican heritage it’s quite possible my ancestors really were slaves for white people and expected to perform sexual acts. It’s hard to dismiss this as a racist projection considering the racial differences between myself and my ex-partner, as well other aspects of his behaviour when I was dating him. Such comments combined with my ex-partner’s high sense of sexual entitlement did not do wonders for our relationship, it’s fair to say.
Matters were complicated further by the fact that when I did try to discuss issues concerning race I was told things like ‘you are wrong’ and ‘you don’t know what you are talking about’. I remember trying to explain why it was not ok for white people to use the word ‘nigger’ and having my comments dismissed here, as well as when I tried to explain why black people created their own spaces specifically for black people (because they are regularly marginalized and excluded in a white majority society). In the end I stopped talking about race because I knew my views on it were not valued. It was also obvious I had disappointed him by not living up to his stereotypes of black culture (I wasn’t into reggae music, hip hop etc.).
The second experience I want to share is from when I dated a black American man in my mid-twenties when I was living in Australia. Again, initially everything was exciting and interesting, but ultimately I ended up feeling I was not allowed to fully express myself. Although it was obvious this man liked my appearance as a mixed race woman, it emerged over time that he had no interest at all in accepting my white British identity. I was constantly told I was ‘acting white’ or doing something ‘white’ and I felt that my ‘blackness’ was being tested at every turn. Why didn’t I like hip hop? Why was I listening to white music? Why was I dancing like a white girl? Why didn’t I know this about black culture? Why didn’t I know that about black culture? It was a nightmare. Although I grew up with my black father, I grew up in predominantly white and Asian neighbourhoods and schools. So in truth, although I was well educated about black history, my access to a black community had actually been quite limited. Also, I think the man I was seeing had a problem with me not just because I wasn’t ‘black’ enough for him, but because he didn’t understand that being black British and black American are not the same. There are cultural differences.
You may well wonder why I bothered to stay in either of these relationships. I certainly do when I look back! I think a lifetime of feeling like I didn’t belong and having my identity invalidated had worn down my self-esteem. It can be challenging for some mixed race people to develop healthy self-esteem because some of us have not benefitted from having a mixed race community or a sense that we actually have a race of our own. Mixed race women have the double burden of having their experiences as women invalidated as well.
So based on some of my past dating and relationship experiences here are some recommendations on how you can be a good partner to a mixed race person.
- You need to be genuinely willing to discuss and learn about mixed race issues. You are reading this so we are off to a good start!
- Please never tell us how we should see or feel about our identities. We don’t need assumptions and stereotypes. We will tell you how we define ourselves and wish to express our identities. When we speak about it, it’s time to listen and not speak over us. We are very used to having our identities invalidated. That is normal for us. As a partner you need to make sure you don’t add to this problem.
- Some mixed race people may find it difficult to talk about their experiences of being mixed. Mixed race people may lack external validation because of issues in their family, their environment and/ or the fact society in general barely acknowledges our race. This can make it difficult for for us to feel entitled to discuss our experiences, however expressing an interest and building up your own personal knowledge on mixed race issues could go a long way here.
- You need to examine why you are with your partner. If it’s something connected to racial curiosity and fetishism you need to be aware we are really not interested in helping you live out some kind of weird sexual, racial fantasy.
- When it comes to sexual behaviour and talk, I’d definitely recommend you check that your partner is ok with what is happening between the two of you. Mixed race women, in particular, have a history of being sexually objectified, stereotyped as hypersexual and made to feel like the ‘exotic’ other. This is especially relevant to women who are black and white because of the history of the slave trade. Consider any racial and gender power dynamics at play, and make sure your partner is genuinely comfortable.
- Your partner, whether male or female, may be affected by other issues besides racial ones connected to marginalization and oppression such as issues concerning class, sexuality, mental health and so on. Mixed race women face racism, sexism and sexualized racism. If you want to be helpful consider the ways different issues intersect for your partner and again be open to listening to your partner talk about the impacts if they want to.
- Don’t whitesplain about racial issues with your partner if you are white. Whitesplaining is when a white person lectures a person of colour on racial issues as though the person of colour just doesn’t get them. White people don’t get to decide what is or isn’t racist for people of colour. This is patronising, not to mention a blatant exhibition of racism in itself.
- Racial identity can be fluid for mixed race people depending on context and age, as examples. We need partners who do not have rigid ideas around race and will give us the flexibility to wholly be ourselves. If you don’t think you can offer that flexibility you are likely to be with the wrong person.
Some of these points could apply to friendships with mixed race people too and are just generally good to know for being an ally. Do you think I missed any important points here or got something wrong? Feel free to add feedback in the comments.
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