Last post, my dear husband “outed” himself. This week, I find, it’s my turn.
For the benefit of our non-South African readers, let me explain the background of the title. The photograph that accompanies this post is one of a series of posters forming an ad campaign adopted by the Democratic Alliance Students Organisation (DASO).
The Democratic Alliance (DA) is the predominant opposition party in South Africa; with its white liberal roots dating back to pre-democracy days, it is struggling to capture the imagination of most black South Africans. Interestingly, as the party meaningfully fights to surpass the ANC in terms of voter support, its youth wing seeks to be relevant and hip. Thus, the abbreviation of its name, “DASO”, phonetically plays on an Afrikaans-based word from Tsotsi-taal (an Afrikaans-Zulu-Sotho urban vernacular/colloquial dialect originally associated with black social delinquents in the townships). “Da’so” basically means “there”, and by adopting the name, DASO is suggesting that the organisation is “where it’s at!”
The campaign posters all show black-white partnerships with the slogan, “in OUR future, you wouldn’t look twice”.
When I saw this poster in the Law Faculty, I looked twice AND took a photo … and I am in such a black-white partnership.
Truth is, I often see the world in black and white. The DASO poster stood out to me because of that very fact. We’ve mentioned before that we often find ourselves in places where we’re the only black-white couple (and, often enough, where I’m the only black person) in the room or vicinity. This is true whether we’re in South Africa or the US. How could that go unnoticed by me in the socially, politically and economically unequal world that we are surrounded by? How could I not grapple with what it means for this black woman (me) to be there and other people who look like me not to be? How can I ignore the various thoughts that I glance in some people’s gazes as they look at the two of us and wonder what brought us together and what keeps us together? I can’t deny that I often ponder these questions about other interracial couples.
Noticing a black teenage girl in unbearably high heels and a piece of fabric that hardly warrants the name, dress, in the grocery store, I wonder if the only reason the young, white, surfer dude-looking guy would consider being with her is that she dresses the way she is presently, and what that means. Seeing yet another much-older European man with a Naomi Campbell look-alike (adorned with fake hair, fake lashes, fake-basically-everything) at the fancy Victoria and Albert Waterfront or on an airplane, I wonder if their relationship resembles that which I had periodically been offered by such types who made it clear that they saw me as a “glorified” and “exotic” call girl. And observing an attractive, young, black Oxonian courting a curly-blonde, blue-eyed peer, I cannot but recall Frantz Fanon’s speculation on why – aside from the scarcity of black, female peers at Oxford or merely “hitting it off” – he might be with her and she with him.
For me, these relationships are very political in their potential meaning and significance. And they still kind of boggle my mind, fascinating me to no end. Whoever said marrying a person of another race normalises the phenomenon for you? Well, it hasn’t done so for me.
My brother- and sister-in-law gave us a great gift this Christmas: an academic study of interracial couples in America. The author summarises the way in which couples approach the race element in their relationships in terms of a dichotomy: race consciousness or colour-blindness (and, ever so rarely, a combination) … No prize for guessing which we’re going with.
Colour-blindness was just never an option; we both saw colour and weren’t prepared to try pretend that we didn’t. But, race-consciousness doesn’t make things straightforward. For instance, when we’re at a checkout/till together, I can’t help but wonder whether I should pick up the tab or let Dan do so (same account though it may be), and what either choice would mean to the onlooker. As one man clearly conveyed, these considerations, on my part, are not the result of an over-active imagination. Merely watching us walking down the street, he asked me in vernacular if Dan and I were together (romantically). When I said yes, he said, “chow [eat] that money, get your share; they’ve been exploiting us for very long!”
What difference would it have made if Dan had gone to him and said (as he wished to, when I translated the exchange for him), “She’s got a darned law degree and PhD! If anyone’s married up, it’s me!” As I said to Dan, I’m not sure the man would know what a PhD was. And, how do I appropriately respond to the women in my fieldsite, or just the lady who cleans my office, when they assume that marrying white men is the kind of thing educated/wealthy black women do. Especially as I’m troubled by their presumption: “I’m sure a white man doesn’t cheat, come home drunk and beat up on you, right?” (I’m grateful that my husband doesn’t.)
Race-consciousness means you have to grapple with every nuance and implication of your being racialised beings in a racialised world; or, if you choose not to grapple, still wrestle with why you are making that choice. In other words, race-consciousness can hyper-politicise your relationship. We have to be careful not to let it steal the romance – the sheer serendipitous, spiritual-reality of having fallen in love with just another human being – and overburden our interpersonal interactions with each other and others.
You might initially think that this approach to our relationship contradicts my earlier post about how being non-racist should mean that we can imagine ourselves in a romantic relationship with someone of a different race and perceive them merely as “normal”. I do still think that that is the ideal. But, as I suggested in that post, Dan and I are by no means superior beings: we may have been better able to imagine the possibility of being with someone of a different racial background and been blessed with the chance to live it out with someone who’s “just right” for us but the path to being with each other as racialised beings was by no means straight(forward). (We promised to share more about that and last week Dan led the charge that I’m now following.) And, while I think that the ideal would be that – after having chosen to be with someone of a different race – the relationship would be completely “normal” and not raise big issues for you to grapple with, we don’t live in such a utopian world.
In the end, I don’t know that DASO could deliver a world in which we wouldn’t look twice. But I know that I’m glad if all its campaign achieves is to alert us to (or simply remind us of) the fact that we don’t live in a world where we do not look – or think – twice.