Once upon a time, dating across the so-called colour line was illegal in this country, and it was generally considered taboo everywhere else. Now, interracial dating is a growing global trend — there are plenty of interracial dating websites — and this is hardly surprising, given that many societies are liberalising and people have the opportunity to hook up with whoever floats their respective boats.
So, 16 years into democracy, how big a deal is dating someone of a different race? This website devoted to South African interracial dating exhorts visitors to “Defy the taboo”, so perhaps it is still a little iffy. I’m going to quote the blurb, not because it’s especially germane to the discussion at hand, but because it’s just so … bizarre.
“Here is South Africa we have the unique landscape of a divide land to test the sweeping challenges of change, here is where we take the step to find like minded men and woman who want to taste the divide of interracial barriers, meet them and discuss the next step to true sexual satisfaction and quench the thirst of sweeping love desire and sexual freedom”
Back to my point. There are any number of celebrity mixed couples out there — Matthew and Sonia Booth for one — and based on my own observations, the number of mixed couples out there is growing. Yes, there are still certain shopping centres where people look at you sideways if you’re not the same approximate Plascon shade, and if you want to feel comfortable as part of a non-celebrity interracial couple in this country, it’s still best to doing your shopping in places like Rosebank Mall. But generally — and I speak from experience — it’s not something that attracts the kind of hostility it might have even 10 years ago.
My first foray into interracial dating was a while before that, with an Iranian — yes, I know Iranians are the original Aryans — who told me his family had made sure they’d be classified white before they moved here during the 80s. Then there was the Chinese South African engineer who used to squire me around the dazzling cosmopolitan urban playground that was Northgate Mall. Every now and then I would find myself alone, as he ducked off into the crowd in order to pretend that he wasn’t with me; he was terrified that he would be spotted with a white woman and word would get back to his family. Of course, being a limp-wristed liberal, I thought this was all terribly cool — I was a victim of prejudice! — and a fascinating counterpoint to the situation during apartheid. Somehow being regarded as racially untouchable made up for all the years I’d been one of the imperialist overlords, the ones with white tendencies.
Much more recently, I dated someone who happened to be Indian (his race wasn’t especially relevant; I liked him because he had a cat and could spell and was really, really clever. Also, importantly, he could do accents) and I can’t say I experienced much in the way of weird sideways looks. Culture is blurring so much today that in many respects he was much more like an Afrikaner than the stereotypical blue-light-under-the-car-an-all character portrayed by comedians; if anything, the major obstacle to be overcome was the fact that he drove a double cab, and I have hated double cabs and their drivers, on principle, for eons.
Which leads me to my next point. I sometimes wonder whether the gulf between English- and Afrikaans-speaking South Africans is wider than it is between individuals of different race groups. Having been married to someone who was half Afrikaans, half English (not just English-speaking, but English-English) — and who grew up in one of the most right-wing areas of the country — I can attest to the fact that the divide can be a big one. When you’re either a verraier or a bloody Dutchman, you don’t belong anywhere and you become very bitter. The cultural differences are often a lot bigger than we’d like to acknowledge: I’ve experienced a greater sense of alienation at a braai in Weltevreden Park where I happened to be the only rooinek than I ever did at the braai where I was the only white woman amongst a sizeable group of Indians.
So is race per se the barrier a lot of us probably — and secretly — think it is? Ja ja, family issues and prejudices and all that, but in my experience, the biggest impediments to successful relationships, outside the dynamic between the couple themselves, can be mundane as well as profound. Any incompatibility in one of these areas, and there will be problems:
Animals. People who love animals cannot be in relationships with people who don’t. It’s as simple as that. For me, it’s a case of Must Love Cats.
Alcohol. The importance of drinking culture should never be underestimated. I grew up in a family where alcohol consumption was always fairly limited, and I never witnessed drunken behaviour as a child. Subsequently, I’ve been in two relationships in which both my love interest and his family were able to ingest vast quantities of alcohol without apparent ill effect, and my inability to keep up (believe me, I tried, and failed miserably) marked me as someone who was fundamentally different. The family that drinks together stays together, I guess. On the other hand, I don’t think I’d want to be involved with a teetotaler either. Not being able to enjoy a bottle of wine over dinner with one’s other half is no fun at all.
Religion. Perhaps an obvious one, but not necessarily what you expect. For example, I’d probably find it harder to be in a relationship with a born-again Christian than someone who was nominally Jewish, Hindu or Muslim, if only because I would probably be moved to commit murder every time somebody informed me that he was Saved.
Music. Fundamentally incompatible tastes in music are a bigger deal than you might think. You don’t have to love the same stuff — but hating the stuff your other half loves is a problem.
Work. As in the hours you keep and whether your job defines you. If you can’t handle your other half working long hours or loving the office more than you, forget it. This has probably destroyed more relationships than any other factor except, possibly, money.
Politics and prejudices. I know of a marriage that ended for exactly this reason. Could you stay married to someone who disagreed fundamentally with you on pretty much everything, or who expressed views you found distasteful? Racism or homophobia is a massive turn-off for me.
There are probably a hundred more factors, but race isn’t the be all and end all that it once was. In the end, it’s not about quenching the thirst of sweeping love desire. It’s about whether you can both sit on the couch, watch David Attenborough DVDs, drink Milo — and be utterly content.