In­ter-racial cou­ples

Ir­ish mixed-race cou­ples on the gos­sip, glances, ac­cep­tance and abuse they en­counter.

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Dean Van Nguyen

Richard Bashir Otukoya has some bad re­la­tion­ship sto­ries. Most of us have, but his are dif­fer­ent. They rip­ple with a hurt most of us don’t ex­pe­ri­ence. His voice quiv­ers and cracks as he de­scribes a teenage ro­mance with a woman in Let­terkenny, Co Done­gal.

Now 26, Richard was a youth­ful black man who had moved to Ire­land from Nige­ria when he was nine. She was a na­tive of a small town in Co Done­gal. From the mo­ment their union was forged, the young lovers’ came un­der a hy­draulic press of neigh­bour­hood gos­sip, dis­ap­prov­ing friends and con­stant side­ways glances. “If looks could kill,” Otukoya says, “I’d prob­a­bly be dead at this stage.”

Not ev­ery­one un­com­fort­able with a ro­mance be­tween a black man and white woman was as tac­tile. Straight-up racism was slugged at the cou­ple like a brick to the chest.

“There was one time we went to Tesco,” re­mem­bers Otukoya. “We came out, a car drove up, called her a ‘ n*** er lover’ and drove away. At the time I didn’t think any­thing of it. She was ob­vi­ously deeply up­set be­cause she couldn’t be seen as some­one who was in a gen­uine re­la­tion­ship.”

As some­one who has suf­fered “sub­tle racism and ex­plicit racism” all his life, the in­ci­dent did not un­nerve Otukoya (“That’s fine be­cause then you know their in­ten­tions”). But his ex­pe­ri­ences have soured him on the idea of ever en­ter­ing an in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ship again.

“I wouldn’t dare put an­other girl through that again,” he says. “Be­ing called a ‘n***er lover’, be­ing ques­tioned by fam­ily, be­ing made fun of. In those ru­ral towns word gets around and you be­come the sub­ject of the town.

“I can see how dif­fi­cult it is for a white girl. Es­pe­cially an Ir­ish girl, where mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is rel­a­tively new.”

In re­cent times, Hol­ly­wood films have delved into in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ships. Lov­ing tells the true story of a mar­ried cou­ple con­victed in the 1950s of mis­ce­gena­tion, and the gritty hor­ror flick Get Out fol­lows a black man who meets his white girl­friend’s par­ents. The films couldn’t be more dif­fer­ent in ap­proach, but both are cut­ting works that ex­plore his­tor­i­cal in­jus­tices, last­ing prej­u­dices and so­cial taboos.

What of Ire­land, though, a coun­try with a rel­a­tively short his­tory of plu­ral­ism and di­ver­sity. This is a na­tion where mar­ry­ing an­other kind of Chris­tian was once the stuff of back­yard gos­sip and con­dem­na­tion, for­get throw­ing other re­li­gions, cul­tures and races into the mix. In­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ships are be­com­ing more com­mon, but are still rel­a­tively rare. Speak­ing to the cou­ples them­selves re­veals that such unions face dis­tinct chal­lenges.

“Peo­ple don’t see in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ships as ‘ nor­mal’, even if peo­ple wouldn’t di­rectly go up to your face and attack you,” says Chess Law, a 19-year-old stu­dent from Bal­ly­mena whose par­ents are orig­i­nally from Shang­hai and Hong Kong. “A lot of white peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar don’t see it as nor­mal. You do get looks if you’re part of an in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ship.”

It was not nec­es­sar­ily vi­cious, pointed dis­dain that was thrown at Law, who dated a white boyfriend in Belfast for two years. It was more like a con­stant back­ground noise that the re­la­tion­ship was some­thing dif­fer­ent or other – even com­ing from those with seem­ingly no prej­u­dice in their hearts.

“I’ve had a drunk guy in a restau­rant come up to me and my part­ner at one point and say, ‘Con­grat­u­la­tions, I re­ally ad­mire what you’re do­ing.’”

‘You’ve crossed a bar­rier’

Get­ting a clear pic­ture of the num­ber of in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ships in this coun­try is dif­fi­cult. Cen­sus data tells us lit­tle about race, but it does show that in­ter- cul­tural mar­riages have grad­u­ally in­creased.

In 1 971, 96 per c ent of al l 1 7- to 64-year-olds who mar­ried did so to an­other Ir­ish per­son. By 2011, that fig­ure had dropped to 88 per cent. When Ir­ish men and women marry some­one who isn’t Ir­ish, the ma­jor­ity wed peo­ple from the UK.

Th­ese sta­tis­tics do not di­rectly ad­dress race, nor do they cover same-sex wed­lock, but they go some way to af­firm­ing that in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage re­mains rel­a­tively rare.

Re­ac­tion to in­ter­ra­cial cou­pling is not one-size-fits-all, ei­ther. Ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics re­leased by the Euro­pean Net­work Against Racism ( Enar) Ire­land last Au­gust, peo­ple of “black- African” back­ground were in­volved in the high­est num­ber of re­ported cases of racist as­saults.

I have spent sev­eral weeks speak­ing to cou­ples and peo­ple with var­i­ous ex­pe­ri­ences from across the spec­trum of in­ter­ra­cial dat­ing. Enar’s stats are con­sis­tent with what I hear dur­ing in­ter­views con­ducted for this story – that black peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar- ly black men, who en­ter in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ships with white Ir­ish women suf­fer the sharpest abuse.

The ex­pe­ri­ences they de­scribe echo an old racist slight that has been thrown at men of colour who im­mi­grate to pre­dom­i­nately white na­tions since time im­memo­rial: “They steal our jobs, they steal our women.”

“It speaks of an Ir­ish sense of pa­tri­archy, that Ir­ish men some­how own Ir­ish women,” says Re­becca King-O’Ri­ain, a se­nior lec­turer in Maynooth Univer­sity’s depart­ment of so­ci­ol­ogy. King- O’Ri­ain, a mixed- race Ja­panese- Amer­i­can ex- pat, has con­ducted sig­nif­i­cant re­search into in­ter­ra­cial mar­riage in Ire­land. She re­counts a story of an In­dian man who was scolded on the street by a white man with the words: “How dare you take our women.”

“It speaks to the fact that this In­dian man is very threat­en­ing be­cause he’s come from out­side and ‘ mar­ried one of our own’,” King-O’Ri­ain says. “There’s a whole thing about own­er­ship and pos­ses­sion there which is very strange. While Ire­land is be­com­ing much more cos­mopoli­tan – cer­tainly in Dublin and its sur­rounds – I think [ there are still] long- held be­liefs around cul­tural dif­fer­ence.”

In Otukoya’s mind, there is a dis­tinc­tion in at­ti­tudes to a black man hav­ing white friends and gen­er­ally be­ing a func­tion­ing mem­ber of Ir­ish so­ci­ety, and a black man who enters a re­la­tion­ship with a white woman.

“Ob­vi­ously we’re friends with Ir­ish peo­ple, it’s fine. But when you get into a re­la­tion­ship, it’s like a big no- no,” he says. “Even if they don’t say it out loud, you can sense the ten­sion. You can sense you’ve crossed a bar­rier you shouldn’t, and that be­comes a prob­lem.”

‘Liv­ing in town, we’re shielded’

There are other dis­par­i­ties in ex­pe­ri­ences, de­pend­ing on what part of the coun­try a cou­ple lives in, their so­cial cir­cles, and fam­ily his­tory. Tara Ste­wart and Karl Man­gan, for ex­am­ple, re­port no tan­gi­ble dis­tinc­tion be­tween their re­la­tion­ship and any­one else’s, but they see them­selves as liv­ing in a lib­eral bub­ble.

Ste­wart, a 2FM ra­dio pre­sen­ter, comes from a Malaysian-In­dian back­ground but was raised in Aus­tralia. Man­gan – who makes rap mu­sic un­der the name Mango Dassler – is from Fin­glas. Both of their lives or­bit around Dublin city cen­tre.

“We’re liv­ing in town. We’re shielded from a lot,” says Man­gan.

Re­search by the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les ( UCLA) has found that same-sex cou­ples tend to be more racially di­verse than their het­ero­sex­ual coun­ter­parts.

The UCLA study found that one in five same- sex cou­ples were in­ter­ra­cial or in­ter-eth­nic, com­pared with 18.3 per cent of straight un­mar­ried cou­ples, and 9.5 per cent of straight mar­ried cou­ples. That pat­tern holds for cou­ples that in­clude an Ir­ish-born spouse.

Gary Gates, re­search di­rec­tor at the univer­sity’s Wil­liams In­sti­tute, has two the­o­ries as to why this is the case. “If you are in­ter­ested in a same- sex part­ner or spouse, ob­vi­ously your choice set is lim­ited to peo­ple who are also in­ter­ested in same-sex re­la­tion­ships and that, de­pend­ing on how you mea­sure it, in most of the sur­veys we do in terms of LGBT iden­tity, it’s about roughly 5 per cent of adults.”

“It might also be that LGBT by virtue of be­ing LGBT, they ex­pe­ri­ence stigma and dis­crim­i­na­tion so they have a more per­sonal un­der­stand­ing of that,” adds Gates, who now lives in Co Meath with his Ir­ish hus­band.

“As a re­sult of that, [they] are not nec­es­sar­ily go­ing to con­fine them­selves to a cer­tain race or eth­nic­ity in terms of their part­ner­ing, be­cause they per­ceive that as po­ten­tially dis­crim­i­na­tory and they’ve ex­pe­ri­enced dis­crim­i­na­tion.”

‘There were threats’

The bal­lad of Michael and Rani Gren­nell be­gan in 1976, when the pair were just teenagers at­tend­ing op­po­site schools in Terenure, south Dublin. For two years the young cou­ple met every day in se­cret on their lunch break in Bushy Park.

Th­ese snatched hours were their only sliver of op­por­tu­nity away from the reach of Rani’s fam­ily. It was a for­bid­den re­la­tion­ship threat­ened by steep cul­tural hur­dles that would have tripped up a cou­ple with a weaker bond.

Rani’s par­ents were South African In­di­ans, who had moved to Ire­land when she was four years old. The fam­ily con­tin­ued to prac­tise many of their cul­tural cus­toms, in­clud­ing ar­ranged mar­riage.

“I was in­formed straight away that the re­la­tion­ship was taboo,” says Michael, an ac­tor with cred­its on Rip­per Street and Game of Thrones. “Her par­ents didn’t want her to have any con­tact with Ir­ish boys as it would af­fect her abil­ity to have a tra­di­tional In­dian wed­ding, when she would be brought back to South Africa and have a hus­band found for her.”

And so when Rani first told her par­ents of the ro­mance,“all hell broke loose,” she re­mem­bers 40 years later. “There were threats to send me to board­ing school and all kinds of things.”

Af­ter all at­tempts to break the pair’s at­tach­ment to each other failed, Rani’s par­ents fi­nally ac­cepted the union. The cou­ple mar­ried young, but found the cul­tural odd­ity of an in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ship baf­fled the Catholic Church.

Af­ter a gen­eral meet­ing about their wed­ding cer­e­mony, the priest due to per­form the ser­vice asked to speak to Rani in pri­vate. Af­ter be­ing ques­tioned on the life she fore­saw with Michael, the bride-to-be was sur­prised when she was pre­sented with a piece of pa­per. Sign­ing it would mean pledg­ing to raise any fu­ture chil­dren as Catholics.

“At that point I still had a bit of my teenage rebel in me, so I said no I couldn’t do that,” re­calls Rani, who today works as a speech and drama teacher. “What I said to him was that, ‘In all prob­a­bil­ity they will be brought up as Catholics, but I don’t have chil­dren yet. I don’t know what the world is go­ing to be like, so I’m not go­ing to sign and prom­ise some­thing that I may not be able to keep.’ At that point he re­fused to marry us.”

The cou­ple – who split a few years ago – even­tu­ally found a priest at Michael’s school, Terenure Col­lege, who agreed to marry them with­out any caveats. For Rani, though, the whole ex­pe­ri­ence served as “the first inkling I got that [trou­ble] wasn’t just con­fined to the four walls of my house. That there was some­thing else go­ing on.”

‘My fam­ily as­sume it won’t last’

Cut to 2017 and to­tal fam­ily ac­cep­tance is still a com­mon strug­gle. Of all the peo­ple I speak to, a small num­ber re­port plain, undis­guised dis­dain from their kin to­wards their choice of a part­ner. More typ­i­cal is an un­ease over what an in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ship might mean for their fu­ture.

Moth­ers and fa­thers fret about how their kids will be treated by a part­ner who prac­tises dif­fer­ent cus­toms. They have con­cerns about how any po­ten­tial mixed-race chil­dren will in­te­grate into Ir­ish so­ci­ety. Some see in­ter­ra­cial love af­fairs as a quirky phase their child is go­ing through. When it comes to set­tling down, they fig­ure their kids will al­ways choose “one of their own”.

Orig­i­nally from a ru­ral area near Mac­room, Co Cork, 30-year-old Tara Kelle­her met her Ja­panese boyfriend Yuhei Mit­suda while they were study­ing in the UK. Soon it was time for Mit­suda to re­turn home, but the pair man­aged to keep the ro­mance go­ing long-dis­tance for a year.

Kelle­her made the move to Tokyo last Septem­ber, yet still strug­gles to get her fam­ily to take the re­la­tion­ship se­ri­ously.

“[My fam­ily as­sume] it’s not go­ing to last or that I’ll come back even­tu­ally be­cause I’m just here for a laugh,” says Kelle­her when asked what her rel­a­tives made of her jump­ing over a con­ti­nent to be with her boyfriend. “My im­me­di­ate fam­ily is fine; my par­ents are fine. I do have that trep­i­da­tion with my ex­tended fam­ily about how they would re­ceive it be­cause none of them have met him yet. It’s hard to get them to re­gard it as a se­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship.”

Kelle­her de­scribes her home as “a very tight-knit, Gaeltacht area where ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one else”. Mit­suda has been to visit, but it was a mixed ex­pe­ri­ence for the cou­ple, but­tered in barbed jokes and stereo­typ­ing. “I’ve had peo­ple com­ment say­ing I have yel­low fever. I didn’t ap­pre­ci­ate that,” says Kelle­her.

She finds the trite type­cast­ing hyp­o­crit­i­cal. “Ir­ish peo­ple, my­self in­cluded, are quite sen­si­tive about be­ing stereo­typed. We don’t like ‘plas­tic Pad­dies’, and all that. We don’t like it when peo­ple have the wrong idea about our coun­try, but we’re happy to quote stereo­types about other places very eas­ily. My own fam­ily very much in­cluded.”

Quizzed about their gen­i­talia

Judg­ments about in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ships veer from ir­ri­tat­ing to of­fen­sive, our in­ter­vie­wees say. When it comes to white-white re­la­tion­ships, peo­ple gen­er­ally take the cou­ple as be­ing drawn to­gether by mu­tual at­trac­tion and com­mon in­ter­ests. Peo­ple of colour, though, find them­selves forced into cat­e­gories. They are some­thing to be fetishised – some­thing their white lovers must be “into”.

White men seen with women of colour (par­tic­u­larly younger women) are ac­cused of “buy­ing” their part­ner. Every black man I spoke to for this piece says they are quizzed about their gen­i­talia all of the time, while their white girl­friends field con­stant ques­tions about whether lust and li­bido is the re­la­tion­ship’s true oc­tane.

“I have had com­ments be­fore, ‘ Oh I wouldn’t have con­sid­ered dat­ing a Chi­nese woman’ that would feed off stereo­types,” says Law. “With Asian men, there’s this stereo­type that they are seen as al­most de­sex­u­alised and emas­cu­lated and weak and so on, which is also very prob­lem­atic.”

Peo­ple of colour not born in this coun­try are also fre­quently as­sumed to have only taken an Ir­ish part­ner for mi­gra­tion pur­poses. Th­ese sus­pi­cions ex­tend to the Ir­ish le­gal sys­tem. In 2015, the State de­cided that a con­certed drive was needed to clamp down on “sham mar­riages” – that is, mat­ri­mony en­tered into for im­mi­gra­tion re­quire­ments. Op­er­a­tion Van­tage gave gar­daí and reg­is­trars the power to ob­ject to mar­riages that they found sus­pi­cious.

“Legally, they have the visa or pass­port to be here, [but it is still of­ten thought] that their love is some­how sus­pi­cious. That peo­ple would choose to marry some­one like them­selves racially and eth­ni­cally. So when some­one chooses to cross racial and eth­nic lines to marry some­one be­cause they love them, or to have them as their part­ner, some­how this is slightly sus­pi­cious still,” says King-O’Ri­ain.

Mixed-race chil­dren

Is­sues fac­ing in­ter­ra­cial cou­ples ex­tend into par­ent­hood. At the core of many racist ob­jec­tions to in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ships is the idea of racial pu­rity – an idea that eth­nic groups should re­main un­al­loyed.

My own back­ground is Ir­ish and Viet­namese. Be­ing the flesh and blood crys­talli­sa­tion of this skew­ered view­point is a some­times strange feel­ing.

Though Rani was a Hindu, she and Michael de­cided to raise their kids Catholic. “When we de­cided to bring them up as Catholics, [it] was to re­move just one thing that makes them dif­fer­ent,” Rani says. “They will al­ways have the colour of their skin. They’ll al­ways meet peo­ple who will find it a source of prej­u­dice. I think they them­selves move around in the kind of so­ci­ety that doesn’t pick on them.”

Kelle­her’s ex­pe­ri­ences be­ing in an in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ship have soured her on the idea of hav­ing chil­dren in such a re­la­tion­ship.

“I don’t know if I could bring up any chil­dren in Ire­land if they were mixed race,” she says. “I would be wor­ried about, if we lived in the coun­try­side es­pe­cially, the kind of treat­ment they would get from other peo­ple. That’s the only thing that holds me back.”

Though Ire­land might be evolv­ing into a more plu­ral­is­tic state, Rani fears the surge in con­crete-hard na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment in other na­tions might mean t oday’s mixed- race youth suf­fer more than her own chil­dren.

I can see how dif­fi­cult it is for a white girl. Es­pe­cially an Ir­ish girl, where mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is rel­a­tively new

‘Black and Arab doesn’t mix’

For Rani, such mo­ments of undis­guised racial in­tol­er­ance on the street were few and far be­tween. And yet for ev­ery­one I spoke to, a bias was al­ways lurk­ing in the back­ground. Their re­la­tion­ships tugged at other peo­ple’s heels, or trig­gered un­con­scious stereo­types in their minds. In­ter­ra­cial cou­ples face bar­ri­ers every sin­gle day.

Af­ter split­ting with his Done­gal girl­friend, Otukoya en­tered an­other union, this time with a woman he met in col­lege, orig­i­nally from Ye­men. For more than five years the cou­ple stayed to­gether, even liv­ing to­gether in Dublin for a time. “We’re both mi­nor­ity groups in Ire­land, you’d think we’ve have the same in­ter­ests or the same sym­pa­thies,” he says. “Didn’t hap­pen.”

The re­la­tion­ship sur­vived his girl­friend’s sis­ter telling Otukoya that “black and Arab doesn’t mix”. It didn’t, though, sur­vive a vi­cious Valen­tine’s Day in­ci­dent this year.

Ac­cord­ing to Otukoya, his girl­friend’s two older broth­ers fol­lowed her as she vis­ited his house with a gift. Burst­ing through the door be­hind her, the two men ran­sacked the house, smash­ing the TV, pic­ture frames and any­thing else in their path.

Their sis­ter was taken back to the car. She threw the gift out the win­dow as they pulled away. It was a new shirt and globe. Otukoya claims that a neigh­bour re­ported pos­si­bly see­ing a gun in the ve­hi­cle, and so the Garda Emer­gency Re­sponse Unit was called to the scene. He wells up as he re­calls the story. He has not seen his girl­friend since Fe­bru­ary 14th.

“There was no per­sua­sion,” he says. “There was no, ‘ Oh look at this guy, he’s got a job, he’s do­ing his PhD.’ There was none of that. It was just, ‘No, you’re black.’ That’s it.

“Your sim­ple hu­man abil­ity to love some­one for who they are is be­ing un­der­mined by your skin colour.”

Top: Tara Ste­wart and Karl Man­gan, pic­tured on the strand at Shelly Banks; above: Tara Kelle­her from Mac­room, Co Cork met her Ja­panese boyfriend Yuhei Mit­suda in the UK; be­low left: Richard Bashir Otukoya at the Law Build­ing, UCD; be­low right: Michael and Rani Gren­nell were “in­formed straight away that the re­la­tion­ship was taboo”. PHO­TOGRAPHS: DAVE MEE­HAN

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