A few months ago I shared an article documenting what it’s like to be in an interracial relationship and the wonderful responses I received completely floored me. I had no idea how the feature would be received, but that it touched so many people from all walks of life made me certain that I’d like to continue sharing my experiences.
The article was the works of myself and of several other women who graciously accepted my requests to interview them. As with any stories that include personal relationships, I think it’s safe to assume that all of us felt vulnerable sharing our experiences but in turn we’ve been empowered by the love, support, understanding, not-so-understanding, and learnings from every reader of the original piece. Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the first piece, I’d like to share the second part. The part I unceremoniously lopped off the original feature because it was simply too colossal to publish all in one go.
If there’s one lesson I’ve learned since being in a long-term interracial relationship, it’s about white privilege and the microcosms around how the world can be when you’re white. Of course I’m not. White, that is. And everyday encounters just serve to hammer that home. My partner knows of the hardships I’ve faced, but he’ll never know the panic that ensues when someone uses the word ‘takeaway’ or ‘Asian’ or ‘exotic’ or ‘coloured’. He’ll never feel like he has to justify his existence and identity by speaking broadly in an ‘acceptable’ British accent in waiting rooms, queues, public spaces.
Something I find difficult is the constant stereotype that because I am an Asian woman dating a white man, I must be leeching off him and using him for my own gain. But simultaneously, I mustn’t be striving for my own goals. I’ve heard people ask him where he ‘bought me’ and all kinds of gross racial stereotypes. In reality? I’m the breadwinner(!!) and I have plenty of my own goals, as does he, and we work on them both as a couple and individually. It’s always a tough pill to swallow knowing that, somehow, ‘Asians’ have been tarred with a brush whereby we are freeloaders and don’t work hard, when the unfailing work ethic of my parents is what got me to where I am today. However is that any surprise when, thanks to Brexit, we know a large proportion of the UK feels strongly that ethnic minorities are ‘stealing’ jobs? The hypocrisy, self-sabotage and irony is real.
Kat Nicholls, writer and self-worth coach, is a white woman whose current relationship with a mixed-race (Caribbean heritage) man has helped her learn about her white privilege and systemic racism: “The relationship I’m currently in is the first interracial relationship I’ve been in. Being with him has made me a lot more aware and sensitive to the racism conversation and has spurred me to learn more about systemic racism and the white privilege I hold.
“There was a situation when we were with my family in Cornwall. We were at a gig my Dad’s band was playing, in a venue filled with older white people (including many of my Dad’s friends). I hadn’t noticed anything was awkward (hello white privilege) until afterwards when my partner told me how uncomfortable he felt being the only black person in the room. He said he was stared at and one of my Dad’s friends in particular avoided eye contact with him when introduced. My partner handled it by keeping his head down and enjoying the gig.
“I was disappointed with myself for not noticing this. I was glad he felt able to tell me how he felt after and hope I’m now more aware of how situations like this make him feel,” says Kat.
My partner is becoming more and more aware of his privilege, particularly because I am much more outspoken about how I feel when we’re out together. On our recently holiday to Rhodes, I mentioned on our second day that I hadn’t seen a single Chinese person yet and I’d bet money that I was one of a handful on the island. We laughed it off but he took note. True to form, when we headed into Rhodes town, he instantly put his arm around me.
“Babe, people are REALLY staring at you. I’m not happy about this.”
Sadly, whether he was happy or not about it, this IS my reality. In my heart of hearts, I knew that visiting a smaller European town could be like this: being stared at, people talking about me behind my back, being their first-seen Chinese person. He regularly asks how he can help and what he can do, and he’s slowly but surely learning about his white privilege.
I suppose I’m still on my own journey with this whole interracial relationship thing; this modern dating thing. Although I’m happier than I’ve ever been before and my partner and I are forever talking about our future together, I still find myself having to justify decisions and rationalise with myself about some real home truths. How will our children experience the world? (Will we even choose to have children, given the climate crisis?) What can we do to ensure our children don’t have to endure what I did? Where will we raise them? How can we ensure a dual-culture is deeply, intangibly ingrained in them?
Dual-culture is something I’m incredibly passionate about. By this, I mean embracing two or more cultures and not choosing to solely live in one way. I grew up in a traditional Chinese household (Chinese food, shoes off in the house, industrial-sized rice cooker, rooms that hoarders would be jealous of, mysterious takeaway foil containers in the fridge), but I also grew up with my white friends and in a predominantly white town. I learned social cues from both parts, cuisines from both parts and my life is now in such a way that I would have to seriously consider which elements are learned from my Chinese upbringing, and which are from the society that I grew up and have lived in. I find it incredibly exciting to imagine the blended values, culture and rituals that my future children will pick up.
At the heart of this conversation is a group of woman who’d simply like to be seen as human. As individuals. Humanised again.
Katherine Ellis is half-Hmong and half-Caucasian. “I didn’t want people defining who or what I was. As a result, I often felt fetishised in my early relationships. There weren’t many other races at my high school and I didn’t know a single person who knew what Hmong even was. I remember guys constantly saying things like, ‘I’ve never dated an Asian before’ or ‘You’re so exotic’.
College wasn’t any better. My first boyfriend in college called me his ‘Blasian’, because my curly hair made me look half-black. I am not half-black. No matter how many times I protested, he thought it was funny and wouldn’t stop. Another one called me his China girl even though I am not Chinese. Another one told me he was so happy he ‘got’ an Asian girl because I wouldn’t age the same as his past, white girlfriends.
I remember thinking that I would always have to fight to be seen as a person, rather than a fantasy or fetish.” says Katherine.
I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times that men have said ‘I love Asians’ or ‘You’re so exotic’ to me, assuming it’s a compliment when really all I hear is ‘this person doesn’t believe I’m real or that I’m more than an initial appearance’. Of course after that, there’s a conversation about what is attractive about Asian women. And which Asian women are they referring to? Is it a Chinese woman? Filipino? Thai? Malaysian? Korean? Japanese? Hmong? Vietnamese? Each and every one of us is individual and we cannot be defined by an overarching phrase that is systemically racist. Do you see past our appearance? Have you bothered to uncover our personalities, our thoughts, our beliefs?
Of course then there is the topic of feminism; I couldn’t open a conversation about interracial relationships and not explore, at least a little, the way in which women become a complete commodity — at least in my experience — in interracial relationships. From my own experiences, Chinese woman are expected to be timid, submissive, passive and codependent. Even my own father expects my partner to solely provide for me (despite also telling me off for being a business owner…) and wonders why on Earth I still drive us places and make big decisions in the relationship! Dating a white man only pushes this divide further: like I noted in my first article, I couldn’t think when the last time (if ever) I was spoken to like a real human over my partner. Conversations, bills, bookings… It’ll all pass to him, first and foremost. As keenly as I identify as feminist, I find it incredibly jarring to know which fight to fight first. My voice as a British-Chinese woman is quiet at best, albeit slowly getting louder, but I’m surely unable to fight the good feminist fight without the support of white allies behind me. And there goes that white privilege again.
One of my main goals in the coming months is to break down the stigmas around interracial relationships and dating. My email inbox is an open safe space, and I’d love to hear from you. I’m also writing a long-read about intersectional feminism, so keep your eyes peeled for that.