Why are people still surprised by mixed-race couples?

We're really not that unusual

5th January 2018

For various reasons, I don’t have any photos of my parents together. If I did, they’d all look quite like this picture — a blonde, blue-eyed man with a dark-haired, brown-skinned woman. But this is actually a photo of my husband and me.

robyn and stu
Robyn (right) and husband Stuart still get looks from people who don’t realise they’re a couple

I am in a mixed-race couple, and so were my parents before me.

Recently, Professor John Struthers tweeted a photo of him with his wife of 40 years. John Struthers is Scottish and his wife, Justina, is Ghanian. The tweet detailed some of the prejudice the couple has faced over the years — including remarks like “we are full”, and “is that your wife?” — and it went viral, prompting others to share their own mixed-race couple photos, messages of support, and experiences of racism.

To look at, I could be from anywhere. Italy. Egypt. India. Mexico. And I’ve had my fair share of racism outside of any relationship. I’ve heard “where are you really from?” more times than I can remember. People have yelled “NO SPANISH, NO SPANISH” at me before I’ve even opened my mouth. People have chased me down, shouted the word “Paki”, then punched and kicked me over and over. In the past, with previous (white) boyfriends, we’ve been followed down the street and shouted at by skinheads.

By contrast, what I experience when I’m with my husband is so subtle that my husband rarely notices it. Mostly it’s looks. Instances of hooded, disapproving side-eye from the older generation; shocked looks from people of all ages who get in between us when we’re walking, or when we’re on escalators, then go all wide-eyed when we start talking to each other. Sometimes there are the people who just stop whatever they’re doing in the street and stare, as though we’re some sort of parade. It’s worth noting that a) I’ve observed this behaviour in people of all sorts of ethnicities; and b) it rarely happened when we lived in London, but is a regular occurrence in the provincial town we live in now.

Their eyes skip from me to my husband to my son and back to me again, trying to figure out what’s going on

I notice it more now that we have children. While our younger son is a babe in arms, our two-year-old boy attracts attention because he has his father’s exact colouring: blue eyes, blonde hair, white skin — so different to mine. This display of recessive genes is too much for some people. Their eyes skip from me to my husband to my son and back to me again, trying to figure out what’s going on. This is all understandable, but when out alone with my son I’ve been aggressively mistaken for the nanny, asked who I’m looking after him for, and even asked if I was sure he was my son. Once I was sitting on a bench with him in the pram beside me, and a woman came fussing over because, as she told her friend, “this baby has been left all alone”. At toddler group they joked about “checking the hospital records” so much that I left.

I’ve mentioned that my parents had a mixed-race marriage. My mother is actually mixed-race, too. She is the product of an unusual Nepali and French heritage. Further back in her history, there are Indian-Nepali marriages, which were rare for the time, and even the Indian part of that was the result of unheard-of marriages between people of warring or far-apart provinces. My father was a Spanish Italian, with additional Irish and Portuguese ancestry. Even my husband’s immediate family tree, which has its roots deeply planted in the south-east of England, has a solid seam of Bavarian-German running through it.

I never know where to look when I’m congratulated for being ‘so brave’ as to have a white partner, or asked how such a thing is ‘accepted in your culture’

Somehow, though, some people only see that I am brown and my husband is white.  

It’s easier for them to assume that, because I’m brown, my family was homogenous before the introduction of my husband. That I was cartoon Pocahontas, living my best native life before my own John Smith swept in and shook things up. In a way, this sort of trying-to-be-right-on racism is worse than the deliberate, outright stuff. I never know where to look when I’m congratulated for being “so brave” as to have a white partner, or asked how such a thing is “accepted in your culture”.

Both our sons will, I think, pass as white when they grow up, and probably won’t have to deal with all of this. In the meantime, when people ask me where my husband and I are from, I will stick with my standard answer. That I’m from Sussex and he’s from Kent, so we’re always arguing about which is better — and that it’s Sussex, because there are no poems about Yea Kent by the Sea.

5th January 2018