In a race that loves culture, tradition and marrying ‘your own kind’, interracial relationships are still unusual within the desi culture. People look down on them, even sending condolences if a friend’s child marries a non-desi: ‘Oh, what a shame. Hopefully you’ll have better luck with your next one.’ In extreme cases, an intercultural relationship can lead to a child being disowned – something I’ve witnessed but been fortunate enough not to experience. In my ‘community’ (this is a wide-ranging label for anyone whose ancestry hails from the Indian subcontinent), you can still be disowned solely for falling in love with someone of the wrong gender or colour in 2020.
Once, someone’s aunty (not mine at least) decided to lecture me (via DM on Instagram) on ‘preserving the sanctity of marriage’ when she saw that I was in a relationship with someone she didn’t think was appropriate for a woman of my skin colour. We all know, she was less concerned about the sanctity of marriage and more concerned with the sanctity of marrying within the culture and bloodline. This idea of keeping the bloodlines clean is borderline “Game of Thrones” level. Even growing up in a home where both my parents were well-read and well educated, there was still this expectation that our future partners should be of the same religion, ethnicity and background so we could all communicate loudly in Urdu and eat biryani & burfee together. I exaggerate but you know what I mean.
And truthfully why would they expect anything less? Few people had ever set the bar or pioneered the idea that two people from different backgrounds could be in a successful intercultural relationship; and those who did were shunned by the community so they couldn’t even set an example for others to learn from.
It seems to me that many desi people have a deep internalised hatred of self that keeps them subjugated and constantly trying to fit in with their community. Its terrifying for them to to stand out and/or defy age old traditions.
Don’t hate me, its just my observation.
The strange thing is that when people think of dating outside your race or an intercultural relationship, they seem to fixate on issues I have not found particularly difficult to contend with especially if your partner is eager to learn and open to honest communication. However, there are other things I wish someone had prepared me for. But since my parents- like most of ours- raised me to be with a partner who had the same cultural background, religious underpinnings and skin colour as we did, it means all their hard work is effectively useless since I have gone in the complete opposite direction.
In 2018, my loving and devoted partner, Expat Polar wrote this wonderful post about what it was like to date an ethnically Indian South African woman like myself. He also discusses his own race and complicated ancestry in that post so give it a read if you haven’t already.
This is my take on this topic. Unlike his writing, its less sweet and far more brutal (this may also be a comment on our different personalities but I digress). If you’re simply curious or also in interracial or intercultural relationship, I hope these truths prove interesting/relatable for you!
He learns your culture through you
When people hear you’re in a relationship with someone who isn’t from the same culture as you, their immediate reaction is always, “But how do you relate to each other? How does he understand our ways?” And for me, this is the most laughable thing. The BEST PART about being with someone who isn’t of the same culture as me is that he is learning the culture from me. Which means all the toxic bits- the subservient role of women, the dependence of desi men on their mothers, the societal expectations about early marriage and swift pregnancies- are not things he has or brings to the relationship.
I get to educate him about everything and also explain how damaging some cultural norms are. It brought joy to my heart when I asked him if, at family events, his female relatives slave in the kitchen all day and then serve the men first, only eating after all the men have completed their meals and his jaw dropped… “That happens?” is what he asked me.
If you’re dating a person who’s new to an intercultural relationship, know that there will be some additional labour on your part. No, it’s not your job. But if you want the relationship to succeed, you’ll have to commit to teaching them. So, be honest. And if they seem dismissive of your concerns, call them on it. In the best-case scenario, I once read online: “Your partner will develop more empathy and awareness than they knew possible, because their job is to support, understand and protect you.”
You are insanely protective of your partner
Of course everyone is protective of their significant others. But when you’re in an interracial or intercultural relationship, it’s amplified. Now no one told me that there would be times when strangers on the street are openly hostile. Their eyes really do fill with hate at the sight of interracial couples. And when I see that, I will literally do anything in my power not to let that partner feel slighted by it or let it ruin our outing.
Once we were in an Indian restaurant in Dubai enjoying a meal, when I left my seat to go to the restroom. On the way two men sneered as they said to me, “Hum mein kya kami thi joh iss gore ke saath chali gayi? (What don’t we have that you chose this white guy?)” They laughed as they passed me by.
Now first of all, that took me a minute to translate that in my head because I think primarily in English and I translate all foreign languages into English before I can process them. Once the audacity of the statement hit me, in hindsight, I should’ve called them out on their racist attitudes. But truthfully sometimes you’re not ready to go into battle and then you are left reeling from shock which renders you speechless.
My only thought in that moment was not to be outraged or upset by what they had said but rather, was the hope that they would leave Polar alone and say nothing to upset him in any way. Which they didn’t as they swiftly paid their bill & exited the restaurant. Trust me I care not for these racists; my only wish is to protect Polar from their ugliness.
An intercultural relationship means an intercultural wedding. Our wedding guest list is teeny tiny. Why? Because I had to rule out any potentially conservative, judgemental and insensitive family members and friends. Which left my list very small. I mean, even a particular grandparent could not be allowed to attend with their blatant racism being bold & outspoken. And while this may greatly upset or offend some, its all 100% worth it to protect each other from people whose opinions are unwanted and always unsolicited.
Does your partner really need to hear every hurtful remark your rude relatives have ever made? Not in the slightest. I always shield him from hurtful comments. This isn’t only to spare his feelings… I just figure that if those people ever do come around, he can forgive them and move forward free of resentment.
No one believes that you are together
The most common thing that happens- even as we stand together hand in hand- is that people don’t actually see us as a couple. I don’t know if they think I am his slave or his sister but they either seem genuinely perplexed by my presence or just feign ignorance that I exist in his realm. I have most often encountered this from white woman and I suppose because its he is white passing. It irritates me immensely but I don’t get riled up about it.
In the early days of our dating, I showed a photo of Polar to a colleague (who was being nosy about my relationship) and she exclaimed with earnest shock, “He is interested in YOU?!” What do I say? That its only men from my culture who are obsessed with the idea that the woman they date must be fairer skinned than they are? That I too am so stunned that this celestial being finds me attractive simply because he isn’t desi? I just never know what the appropriate response is when people make stupid remarks in response to my intercultural relationship.
When we check in to hotels, I am often ignored (even when the booking is in my name) and when the server hands us the check, its always in his direction. The ironic moment is when he slides the bill over to me and I pay it while also ignoring the server’s inevitable sheepish grin. Yes we are in an intercultural relationship and yes this pale man allows me to handle our finances. Shocker I know!
You will be questioned about your allegiance
I want you to know that if a brown man dates a girl outside of his race, he is slapped on the back and considered brave for being so ‘modern’ or ‘forward thinking’. I’m not saying its not a struggle for the couple, but overall this is not a taboo. But dare a brown woman do the same and suddenly, “What about your izzat? How will he understand our struggles? Why do you want these ferangi ways?” And if you didn’t understand any of those terms, then you and I are in the same boat. Because a literal understanding of them doesn’t give me any comprehension as to the double standard of why a woman is berated for doing something a man would be praised for.
Me dating outside of my culture and race does not mean that I have lost touch with the issues relating to both elements or that I am no longer empathetic to the struggles that people of colour face. In fact I have written about both issues extensively on this blog. Notions like this typically originate from the systematic denial of desi women’s autonomy… but that’s another topic for another day.
As a South African woman of Indian ethnicity, there’s always been the societal expectation to move from father to husband’s home, to have as many children as possible, to opt for an arranged marriage, to maintain the “back home” quo, where dating of any kind and pre-marital sex is considered deeply forbidden. If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know I haven’t prescribed to any of those principles mostly because I moved abroad when I was 21 and never looked back.
For a long time in my early twenties, I tried to be with a person who was perfect on paper (same colour, same culture, same ancestral language, same neighbourhood), but it backfired on me spectacularly. The way my life has played out is ironic to me because I was once married to this perfect-on-paper man who was, as I reflect back on it, incredibly racist. It was not until I left that relationship that the depths of his racism, and the racism that surrounded me being a part of his family unit, became apparent. Of course I hadn’t a clue at the time because after all, isn’t racism violence, aggression, protests in public spaces? Surely its not a conversation on a sofa, or at the supper table, surrounded by familiar people.
All of this taught me that some of us just aren’t made to walk the same paths that others have taken before. So here I am in my thirties, on my own path, figuring it out as I go along, answering my partner’s questions, asking my own questions and complaining to my sisters when ‘he just doesn’t get it’. And yes there are times that he lacks understanding of something but with the help of personal recollections and Bollywood movies, we reach a level of understanding in the end.
In South Africa, I am part of a small population demographic whose ancestors hailed from the Indian subcontinent (pre-Partition). As a community we were very much a minority- always in the middle between a country that has formerly oppressed people of colour but later came to be ruled by the vey people it once oppressed. You would think that as a result of the political upheavals and the fact the we were somewhere in between African tribal culture and White Western ideals, the community would have understanding that was infused with compassion and empathy for a shared struggle. Of course these has been none. The predominant mind-set is to ‘stick to your own kind’ and ‘you can’t trust anyone these days’.
Thankfully, my parents have evolved drastically over the past few years as a result of our life experiences— the people they are now are not the same ones who raised me. Over the years, my parents have shifted their worldview, and in our family I do notice that there’s a greater degree of acceptance, of an understanding that we are all here for a human experience, despite the skin colour within which we live or the religion we were born into.
If you’re a person that is secure within your world-views and knows how to identify yourself within your culture as well as the society at large then make sure you find a partner who is on the same playing level. Polar is completely at ease being a coloured South African of French-Creole heritage. He pushes me to ask daring questions about race and colour. He is self-assured, confident, unapologetic. And he encourages me to be the same.
He listens to me patiently. When we disagree, he tilts his head as he tries to understand my perspective. He makes me signs whenever he fetches me at airports always ready and waiting for my arrival on time. He allows himself to be vulnerable and seeks to improve his emotional intelligence on a daily basis. He awkwardly attempts to say words in Arabic with my coaxing, and laughs at himself when he messes up the pronunciation.
He is the first man who encourages me to be myself. Not the me he thinks I should be.
So, does it matter that we grew up differently? That he grew up eating his food with cutlery, that he doesn’t get K3G references, that his skin tone is shades lighter than my own? That my parents, who accept and support my intercultural relationship with him, cannot connect with him over desi culture? To me, it does not. What matters is that we love, respect and connect with one another.
I will NEVER date a man of my race & culture again. While I can happily see myself as an educator that informs and teaches understanding of my culture & upbringing, I do not see myself as a labourer that has to dismantle stereotypes, challenge traditions and question ancient traditions. And to me that’s what dating within my culture becomes for a woman who only chooses the cultural aspects that help me grow. If you’re brown and you’re happy with your brown husband who doesn’t care if your rotis are round then I am happy for you too. But control yourself or your aunties who feel the need to tell the rest of us what to do or whom to marry.