In sickness & in race? A look into inter-racial relationships by Elizabeth Makumbi & Drew Melmed

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“When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


Whilst reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I was struck by a particular excerpt: “When you are black in America and you fall in love with a white person, race doesn’t matter when you’re alone together because it’s just you and your love. But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive…We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable.”

In many ways, I can relate to this passage. I was born in Zimbabwe, grew up in South Africa and am now living in the United States. I am also a Black-raging-feminist, political critic and unapologetic-racially-charged female who is dating a half Jewish White American. I constantly grapple with voicing my opinions on race and gender, and especially struggle to determine when to diverge from the path of “keeping our nice liberal friends comfortable” to an all-out screaming match explaining the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement. But despite having similarities with the characters in the passage above, my partner and I do not shy away from taking about race; mainly because race, in some form or another, permeates most aspects of our lives.

Great food brings family and friends together – most of the time. I grew up in a semi-affluent African home. My mum is Kenyan. She completely hated to cook. She absolutely hated it! As soon as my sister and I were tall enough to reach the kitchen counter, she even resigned from packing our simple school lunches – a bright green apple, a peanut butter and jam sandwich, and a packet of Simba tomato chips. Instead, I would lazily pack a slice of pizza from last night’s supper with a ten rand note for the corner tuck shop. For dinner, my mum would always make either a chicken or beef stew with a bowl of steaming hot basmati rice. This was rarely complemented with a lush “all-organic” salad. So I was overwhelmed when my partner introduced me to a world of organic vegetables like kale, beets, Brussel-sprouts and more. My fridge quickly transformed from only having whole milk, eggs, bread and a half-opened can of baked beans to a sea of organic vegetables and fruits, fresh salmon, scallops, organic chicken and 80% dark chocolate. He was adeptly attuned to healthy eating. He was quick to dispel KFC was a good substitute for a home-cooked meal or that the popcorn “butter” at the movie theater was actually butter. He enlightened me about the hormones injected into non-organic meats as well as the trans-fats stuffed into my favorite bag of potato chips. Nowadays, we often juice together, combining our colossal collection of greens and ice into a blender for the perfect food accompaniment. I fell in love with food. I become a foodie; fully personifying the philosophy: live to eat not eat to live.

While shopping at the local grocery store for my curly green kale organic salad, I usually have music blaring in my headphones. The song choice varies from gospel to hip-hop. But as of late, I have been listening to a considerable amount of Afrobeats and South African hip-hop. From the grocery store to our apartment, I purposefully blast Wizkid, AKA, Davido, and D’Banj. At our last house party, I slipped in a track of “Caro” and “Oliver twist”, to the joy and sometimes confusion of our mostly American guests. My partner is never confused by the alternative music, as he is open to new genres and musical beats (he used to be a professional DJ after all). He embraces the songs and sometimes questions the lyrics (but don’t we all?), and has encouraged switching the track from Taylor Swift’s 1989 to Jidenna’s The Chief (baby steps), on more than one occasion. Despite his openness to Afrobeats, we still disagree on certain pop culture standards. Like, Beyoncé. Beyoncé is Queen. This is not up for debate. Any disagreement on the matter is blasphemy. Or the unequivocal importance of Moonlight winning the award for Best Film at the Oscars, Chance the Rapper, an unsigned artist scooping three Grammys, plus Viola Davis collecting all of the awards at every award show you can name. All of these events are pivotal for African-Americans in their fight for social, political and economic freedom. Before our relationship, my partner rarely paid attention to Black pop culture. Now, he is inundated with Black culture on nearly a daily basis.
I appreciate that he is always willing and open to discuss these topics and learn more.

In addition to these more lighthearted differences, interracial relationships can bring up deep-seeded and oftentimes conflictual conversations. Along with the benefit of free Afro-beats and Black pop culture, my partner also gets bombarded with a weekly dose of Black History. American History when told by the average white American, conveniently skips the chapter on colonialism and slavery. Or, Black history is described as slavery happening one Billion years ago, resolved by Martin Luther King, “and like today everyone is equal and very happy”. Obviously, this is not the case. Yet, I find myself attending parties with my partner as the token African girl and spokesperson for all Black people. Unfamiliar acquaintances assuredly approach, drowning me in unsolicited ignorant statements like “All Lives Matter”, “the race-gender-wage gap is a hoax” and “the Black Panthers were a militant, dangerous, Black version of the KKK”. As I am usually alone and not the most articulate human being when confronted with heinous alternative facts, I repeatedly flounder in my responses and leave annoyed that I didn’t fight louder and more intelligently for those not welcome in white spaces. My annoyance often spills over at home, where I confront my partner about the preposterous uninformed lashes from his friend’s friends. He handles these situations with concise, well-thought out discussions. He is objective and smart, swaying my opinion on facts that I misunderstand but always conceding to statements riddled with racial tension and naivety.

We debate constantly, amplified by the current political climate in America and South Africa (South Africans First Party, really?). We wrestle with where our next precarious step will be: our future career plans, whose family to be close to? We are forced to have difficult conversations about the possible choices on where to live, where to raise kids and where to buy property. It is far more difficult, but vitally important, to have these discussions when you are in a relationship with someone from a different country and cultural than your own.

Unlike the characters in Americanah, my partner and I do not shy away from these tough conversations. We do not ignore our race and cultural differences, nor do we let our disagreements on the subject pile up inside our heads. Instead, we embrace our differences and affirm our similarities and are open to discussions – when we are alone and when we step outside. We recognize that our racial and cultural differences influence our everyday activities. For instance, I have accepted he will wash his hair every day and he has accepted I will lather cocoa butter on my dark skin every day for at least 15 mins after a shower so I’m not shrouded in ash. Even though we are so different, we still share the same core beliefs and goals and continue to support each other with love and admiration – despite being different colors of the rainbow.

Ideally, a person’s skin color should be merely a superficial and insignificant upper-layer. A person’s deeper layer, made up of their personality, cultural background, interests and goals, is far more essential. Unfortunately, the real world isn’t ideal. Interracial relationships bring up both seemingly trivial differences as well as deeply-rooted conflicts. While this can be hard, it is also an amazing opportunity for growth and understanding. If you are willing to listen, assimilate, appreciate and compromise, you will learn so much more about our world. So the next time you intend to swipe left on Tinder because the person is a different color than you, be aware of all of the new lessons, love and experiences you may also swiping away.

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