Liesl Theron, the director of Gender Dynamix, South Africa, guests blogs on “cross-racial / interracial” relationships in Post-Apartheid South Africa.
Cross-racial and interracial, two terms that are used interchangeably and yet I learned that when discussing or defining a couple from different races in a relationship, they have different meanings, or at least represent two different viewpoints.
All of this came about on the morning of 22 April 2011, when my partner and I started planning an event or rather an interactive exhibition, we want to host – in August this year during women’s month. We want to celebrate female friendships and intimate partners sharing love. Our discussion obviously moved towards the theme of cross-racial or interracial relationships too. Needless to say, due to our own relationship, it is a topic that is close to the heart of us both.
I jotted down some thoughts, as we want to remember the ideas we had in planning this upcoming celebration. When I read back some of my notes and spoke of ‘cross-racial’ she said to me she prefers using ‘interracial’, explaining that ‘cross-racial’ sounded too harsh — as if there are barriers and it really did not feel like a friendly, loving space.
At that moment I felt silenced, I did not know or did not want to answer, as I felt that that was exactly the reason why I wanted to use the term ‘cross-racial’. On my conscious level I also knew I did not want to use the word ‘cross-racial’ because of how I value our relationship or describe our individual attitudes towards each other — but that I wanted to employ the word ‘cross-racial’ because we are not in Utopia either.
When my beloved mentioned that ‘cross-racial’ refers to barriers, I was silently listening and thinking back to the dialogue between student-characters on page 90 of ‘The ethnographic I’’, a book written by Carolyn Ellis. Says Hector: ‘I wonder
about your term interracial dating’. When he was asked to explain further and
suggest alternatives he stated: ‘Some scholars use “cross-racial”, to indicate
that boundaries exist between races and it’s hard to cross them successfully.
“Inter” communicates a fallacy – that one can really penetrate racial constructs so that the border disappears’
I read this piece for the first time in 2009, thinking that I really agreed with the statement, and today I was confronted by my partner with the very same sentiment, basically critiquing the argument. And I am caught in the middle — I can’t make up my mind ‘whose side to pick’, that of the written piece I read two years ago and agreed with, or this statement by my partner of the opposite thought, backed up in search for a more loving space.
I ask myself — did our relationship evolve from a cross-racial relationship in 2009 to an interracial one in 2011? Is there a continuum that relationships between two people of different races are placed on, and is it flexible enough to flow along the fluidity stream from one end to the other? At what stage did our relationship graduate from cross-racial to interracial? What are the criteria, the markers?
Then I had to come back to another set of thoughts. When speaking of cross-racial or interracial by whose sentiments and experiences are those relationships validated as either? Who decides? Is it the couple who find themselves in it or the ‘onlookers’? And if it is the couple who ends up being the judges of defining it, is it a reflection of their own experience of being that couple or is it their mirroring to the society who accepts, communicates and reacts to them moving in public spaces, holding hands and interacting intimately. If I, for example, say I am in an interracial relationship — is it because I have a positive reaction for a substantial amount of time from my community, friends, family and strangers, or is it how I feel treated in my relationship? Again, if I say I am in a cross-racial relationship; is it because of the way I feel community, friends, family and strangers validate the relationship or not and mirror it back by saying I am in a cross-racial relationship, or is it how I personally feel I struggle with these barriers? Can we as a couple refer to our relationship as interracial when we speak of the loving
space we experience with each other, and refer to cross-racial when we want to
critique society? And by us using it interchangeably — are we making sense, or
does it sound like we are also just using either term?
These questions brought me back to the discussion in Ellis’s book where Hector continues by saying: ‘They’re filled with problems associated with race, such as how negatively family and friends reacted. Besides the family’s response, several spoke of that defining moment when the issue of race came up in the relationship and the black person didn’t feel the white partner could understand his or her experiences’ – and then the point that really got me thinking and asking more questions about this – ‘or a racial stereotype was invoked and one partner felt he or she didn’t fit into the other person’s
As we all know, in a post-apartheid South Africa racism does not have to be in your face, obvious prejudice tangible incidents only, but most often are subtle comments or encounters. Those are hard to define, but, as a couple from two different racial backgrounds we experience the latter form of racism frequently by both black and white people, by family and strangers — waiters – black and white – at restaurants who only take the order from me or who present the bill to me, even if my partner is the one paying. We are in South Africa still bearing the brunt of apartheid. I am all too conscious that my partner will not shy away from speaking out loud about the time my mother introduced her to a friend as the photographer who is being fortunate enough that her gallery [and another well known photographer] ‘sent’ her to Canada to study further.
It was a wrong impression from my mother’s side, she didn’t have all the facts or she just didn’t know my partner and her [life] story well enough as it was shortly after we started our relationship. We there and then interrupted my mother’s introduction to her friend, by saying, ‘No, she had not been sent by the gallery to study abroad’ and that ‘whatever assistance she gets from the gallery or whoever will be paid back somehow’. Instead of quietly agreeing, my mother just managed to dig herself deeper into trouble by saying: ‘all I meant was that her work is so good that the gallery recognises it by assisting in any way possible’. All of this was interpreted by my partner as my mother’s need to validate my partner as a black person, as black artist to prove she is ‘worthy and good enough’ to date her white daughter.
By the same token, I am thinking back to the time when visiting her family in Umlazi during her mother’s funeral and a year later again at msebenzi. My partner was outside, doing chores and helping with preparations there, organising the young people into what they must do. I found myself in the kitchen with the women preparing vegetables or washing dishes. Every now
and then my partner would come into the kitchen, ensuring that we are still ‘on
schedule’, working hard. She would remind her sisters [speaking in English to
make sure I also understood] that I am no different from them, I must work
equally as hard, my white skin not be taken as an opportunity to sit back and
rest. I frantically peeled carrots or washed dishes like there was no tomorrow.
A little while after she left the kitchen, one of her older sisters [my
interpretation — from an older generation who really comes with many years
working experience from the apartheid era] said to me: ‘You must rest a bit,
you worked really hard now’, followed by an offer of a cup of tea. In walked my
partner, catching me, the ‘white madam’, sitting on a chair doing nothing, but
drinking tea. Embarrassed by this ‘lazy white woman’ she brought home, she shooed me: ‘come, come get up — you have work to do, there are a lot of preparations to be done still’. I pushed my tea cup aside, pulled my chair closer to the table and continued peeling carrots again. When she walked out we all shook our heads, knowing I was ‘told to rest a bit’ and drink tea.
Then there is the issue of language. The few times my partner goes with me to visit family, she somewhat distances herself from conversations. The reasons might be multiple. At my sister’s English flows easier since they are a bilingual household, even before my partner and I were together we would speak both Afrikaans and English at my sister’s house. When my partner is present we speak English — the language which has also become our household’s language.
When visiting my mother, a full conversation in English for a few hours feels somewhat stranger than at my sister’s house. During one of the early visits to my mother, she asked my partner whether she understood Afrikaans. Growing up in a time when schooling took place in an apartheid system she replied yes, she hears and understands Afrikaans but does not fully feel comfortable speaking it. My mother suggested this can be her opportunity to gain confidence and speak it more. We both simultaneously chimed in that: ‘no, Zulu is her first language, Afrikaans is mine so English became the common ground — where we both could speak, communicate and express ourselves equally. This sounds like the practical and fair solution to me, not necessarily only during the times we visit my mother, but in general. Since that day, whenever we visit my mother together we remain speaking English, though my partner would take long walks in the garden giving us the opportunity to switch to Afrikaans.
When visiting home in Umlazi the spoken language is Zulu. I can follow many conversations to some small degree, and on many topics I would like to contribute. But I catch only some words and know a certain topic is discussed, but not necessarily the angle of the discussion. I have thus not the confidence to just chirp in in English as I am not sure if I will sound like I come from some far away, out of touch corner. Many of the family visits become for me a time of completely switching off from the world and just thinking, reflecting — being in my own headspace.
We have mixed friends and multiple friend circles. There are a number of friends here in Cape Town who is also Zulu-speaking, which means that when we visit them, the conversation automatically switches to Zulu. During these conversations I feel I really want to participate or could contribute, we are contemporaries and share thoughts in social values, etcetera. Those are the
times I feel most excluded, as these are people with whom I am also friends,
who have the potential to become much greater friends, but those friendships to
whatever extent are mostly only fostered when my partner travels and I see them
independently — then we speak English.
When we are with family and friends who are speaking Zulu and I am not following the conversation I am reminded each time that I should learn to speak Zulu, sometimes only jokingly and sometimes it becomes a discussion point with the potential to turn quite heated — it really depends how long I prolong that argument.
A while ago, when our relationship was still fresh I investigated learning Zulu. In 2009 I also embarked on obtaining my honours degree. There alone sit two sides of my story in why I did not learn Zulu yet. On the one side I thought since I have a student loan at the bank, I would also add into the package a language course,
Zulu. I did not find Zulu at UCT, since this is the geographical area to learn
to speak Xhosa. I also looked at a language school that periodically sends me
advertisements of language classes — they also do not teach Zulu but only
Xhosa. On the other side of my argument, to work full time in a very
responsible position which keeps me at work for about 12 to 14 hours a day, or I
am busy with work and studying full time. My challenge: when would I get a chance for language classes too, while also trying to keep a house, have some private and relaxing time and keep a relationship romantically and otherwise going?
Do any of these factors make me love my partner less? – No!
Do any of these challenges become the reason for us to not be in a relationship? – No!
Do any of these factors and challenges add to the complexities of relationships with two people from different cultures, races? – Yes, definitely!
Are we cross-racial or interracial? – I dont Know