TV and radio presenter Vick Hope writes for us about her experiences of racial identity, interracial relationships and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“You’re the first black girl I’ve been with.” I’m probably not alone in being told this a number of times. And sure, it’s just a statement of fact. It should be harmless, right? But these words – even when uttered by partners I felt I loved deeply – induce a gutting, destructive anxiety every time as my brain ponders, “So when will the novelty wear off?”.
It’s a very particular feeling of inadequacy, something I’d eventually come to understand as a fear of being fetishised. But at the time, it was largely a projection of my own insecurities. I’ve written before about grappling with my racial and cultural identity and learning to embrace my dual heritage as something to love (and hopefully be loved). But the truth is, for a long time I did not love myself. And that makes accepting or truly reciprocating affection tricky.
The dangers of stereotypes
Having been labelled at school and in the workplace as ‘sassy’, ‘feisty’, ‘aggressive’, ‘hard’ and ‘dramatic’, I started to believe these stereotypes. I self-stereotyped and became sure I would eventually become ‘too much’ for whoever I was with. I automatically assumed it was only a matter of time before they’d leave me for someone ‘sweeter’, more fair or petite. I’ll never know if my exes ever felt that (or who they moved onto next) but a subtly corrosive power dynamic always came into play, hinged on race and privilege. And the irony is, it’s because we didn’t talk about race and privilege – a tacit strain I’ve heard echoed by several friends in interracial relationships.
“But love is colourblind!” I’ve seen countless tweeters insist as momentum has swelled for the Black Lives Matter movement, whenever discussions turn to dating or ‘type’. But as long as there is still deep-rooted institutionalised racism in the world – and my god, there is – it’s reductive to claim race as a purely social construct to not only be transcended, but disregarded. It feels dismissive to suggest relationships can ever be truly colourblind. And more importantly, I don’t believe they ever should be. To not see colour or race would be to ignore racism rather than combating it. To erase our cultural upbringings and experiences of the world, which beautifully and painfully shape us.
I guess this is why I’ve found myself drawn to stories about love along colour lines. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses was my favourite as a kid – it was the first time I’d heard of interracial courtship outside of my family. I’d feverishly make note of quotes that articulated ways in which race, prejudice, discrimination and cultural identity play a part in relationships. According to censuses in 2001 and 2011, mixed-race people are the fastest growing ethnic group in the UK. We have come a long way from the bigotry my parents faced as an interracial couple in the late eighties when they warned not to “breed” because “you don’t see a blackbird mating with a dove.” But as normal as it may be today, my interest is piqued every time I do, curious as to the disparate stories and backgrounds that have come together.
So what role exactly does race play in love? It’s a question I asked several months back when researching a project about the changing face of mixed-race Britain, the history of laws around intermarriage and racial bias in online dating. This was before we marched this summer for equality and justice, petitioned for education and reform, and engaged in conversations about anti-racism and allyship that played out on a public stage. In light of recent events, it’s a question that suddenly feels more pertinent, personal and relevant to us all.
Whether we’re swiping on an app, catching eyes across a crowded room or arriving at that dizzying moment in which you realise you’ve fallen for your soul’s counterpart, what does their background (or yours) have to do with it? Which racial fetishes might underpin our ‘type’? Straight to mind comes the placard of a white woman at the BLM protest emblazoned with the words: “I love black dick so you will hear me speak.” I’ll say it a little louder for the people at the back: fetishisation is not allyship. And equally, can tacit prejudices explain those ‘massive turn-offs’? How does culture impact who we connect with and who we can live with? We always say relationships are not black and white, but perhaps in some ways, they are more than we’d like to think…?
Left-swipe the racism
Internet dating seems very black and white. Studies shockingly show 17 of the 25 highest-grossing dating apps allow users to filter others by ethnicity, with Black women and Asian men the least swiped demographics and regular cases of all-out racism reported by users. You may not see ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ signs anymore in real life, but you sure as hell can tick a box to fend off entire ethnic groups if you don’t think you fancy them. If they’re just not your ‘type’.
Long before the internet though, dating was – and still is – often bound by racial and economic/class factors. Between growing up in Newcastle in the nineties as one of only a handful of brown people at my school and attending the University of Cambridge (notoriously lacking in diversity) it’s unsurprising I crushed on skinny, preppy white boys – they looked like the guys in the bands I liked. And crucially, there were tons of them about.
I’ve had two long-term relationships. Both lovely, both with skinny, preppy white boys from fairly privileged backgrounds. We never talked about race or about the ways in which we were different to one another (even though others around us did). I was at a stage of life when all I wanted was to fit in, in predominantly white environments. I had a definite inferiority complex and it didn’t occur to me at the time, but looking back I think this triggered a resentment towards both boyfriends that festered in me, bristling into arguments about ‘not understanding one another’ and our eventual break-ups.
Exploring my racial identity, my blackness and my whiteness as living, breathing, moving parts; confronting race as an issue head-on, learning about it, talking about it, celebrating the beauty of my cultures, being honest about the ugly parts of our history, and consolidating my sense of self has been liberating in so many ways. Notably, long gone is any notion of a ‘type’. Of course, there’s a lot more choice in a sprawling, multicultural metropolis like London, and almost certainly if I’d grown up here I’d have experienced the far more diverse dating of my late 20s much earlier. I guess connecting with someone else who has felt like an outsider is uniquely invigorating, as there’s solidarity in having experienced similar struggles, questioned ourselves in similar ways. A common understanding of the past, which bodes well for building a future together.
The ongoing fight for equality
So what about the future? Aside from any updates on my personal dating history (there are none but there’s a pandemic so it’s cool, it can wait) it feels like real, tangible change is in the air in the fight for equality. And the uncomfortable conversations around race which have become more commonplace are a huge part of that. So we keep talking to our partners about our heritage, traditions, values and the racism we may have experienced. We talk about ways in which we are different and the ways in which that is a glorious thing! And if one day I have kids (who, regardless of who I end up with will be second generation mixed-race, whatever the mix) these conversations must continue. I don’t want them to forget that race matters because I want them to help make the world a better place.
And to any young people navigating similar situations to those I described of my adolescence? Get to know and celebrate yourself. Work out what you stand for and stand for it fiercely. There could not be a more important time to do so.