The ups and downs of interracial relationships in South Africa

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by Lasheigh Lucas

She tried to smile – only to please their son. She felt ashamed for not being white that day. She loved him more than she had ever loved anyone before. But love didn’t matter to his family – they were terrified about crossing the interracial barrier.

This is how 22-year-old Jodie Jacobs* recalls her wedding day – what was supposed to be one of the happiest days of her life.

Jacobs, a coloured woman, and her white husband are not the only ones to have experienced opposition to their union, despite the fact that mixed-race marriages were decriminalised in 1985.

The Immorality Act was the first major piece of apartheid legislation

In 1949 the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act was passed in South Africa, becoming the first major piece of apartheid legislation. This meant that, by law, white South Africans could not marry black South Africans or any of the other ethnic groups in the country.

Police tracked down mixed couples suspected of having a relationship, homes were invaded and doors were smashed down in the process. Mixed couples who were caught in bed together were arrested, and their underwear was used as forensic evidence in court. Most couples found guilty were sent to jail, with the black partner incurring a harsher sentence.

It is very important to try to understand why your in-laws have an issue with your interracial relationship. It is usually more complex than just a matter of ‘black and white’.

Rainbow nation is starting to embrace diversity

Twenty years after the first democratic elections, South Africans have embraced their rainbow nation, and interracial relationships are becoming more commonplace. However, despite the love and acceptance between interracial couples, their families often find it difficult to cross the race barrier.

Like Jacobs, 24-year-old Sizwe Mambuke* has experienced opposition to his relationship with his Indian girlfriend.

“There will always be someone in the family who goes out of their way to make you feel even more unwelcome. But believe it or not, you get over it,” says Mambuke.

The impact such adversity can have on a couple can be good or bad

According to Cape Town clinical psychologist, Belinda Train, opposition to a relationship can build negative thoughts between the couple, which leads to relationship challenges.

“It can be helpful to remind yourself that the parents’ belief system, rather than you or your choices, are the cause of family members’ upset,” says Train. “All relationships go through difficult times, and interracial or socio-cultural differences can add a level of complexity to deal with in a relationship. As an individual, the situation can become very overwhelming.”

Forced to choose between family and partner

“[Often] one person in the relationship will feel that they need to choose between their partner and their parents,” says Train. “For example, parents threaten to break all contact. You need to consider whether you can tolerate this in the long term and not blame your partner for it. Realise it is a choice that you and your parents make,” says Train.

Every situation is different – sometimes couples work through the issues and the family learns to accept the situation, sometimes it doesn’t work out.

For Jacobs, the road to acceptance was a long one, but she worked hard at the relationship for the sake of her future husband.

“At first it was very difficult, but I have learned to love and respect my in-laws. I will never have the perfect relationship with them, but for the sake of my fiancé, I am able to offer love and respect,” says Jacobs.

Dealing with the adversity together

Those in interracial relationships can sometimes be distracted from how their partner makes them feel by how the in-laws make them feel.

Although you are marrying your partner, you are also merging two families. The ideal situation would see the two families getting along well together. Finding your common goals and building a relationship with the in-laws may take time.

“It is possible to deal with in-law interference, but it does add another layer of complexity to the committed relationships,” says Train. “Each individual needs to find a way to manage the relationship with their parents and partner and be as clear as possible about their parents’ choices along with their own choices.”

Understanding your ‘old fashioned’ in-laws

It is very important to try to understand why your in-laws have an issue with your interracial relationship. It is usually more complex than just a matter of ‘black and white’.

According to an article written by Chante Warren called Living Interracial, “Parents of interracial couples sometimes struggle with their own personal prejudices, have mixed feelings towards interracial marriage and grapple with the numbing fear that a hate crime could threaten their child’s personal safety”.

Try to find out the basis for the parents objections – whether for religious reasons, personal preference or fear of judgement – so that you understand where they are coming from. Once you recognise their fears or prejudices, you can work on building trust and understanding between you.

Self-confidence is your strongest weapon

Self-confidence is your strongest weapon in facing adversity, especially when you are judged by the colour of your skin.

“When someone judges you by the colour of your skin, your self-confidence can really take a hit,” says Train, who also specialises in self-judgment. Many families find it hard to accept interracial relationships, so try not to take it too personally.”

Jacobs realised that her in-laws’ rejection was affecting her self-esteem and decided not to allow their prejudice to affect how she felt about herself.

“At first I felt dirty and disgusted with myself, but then I learned to realise that I am beautiful, irrespective of the colour of my skin, and that improved my feelings toward myself and my relationship,” says Jacobs. “At the end of the day, they will always be his parents and the fact that I love and respect them means so much to my fiancé and it has such a good impact on our relationship.”

Confidence in the strength of your relationship is your second most powerful weapon

According to Train, “A person’s judgement of you is more about the person making the judgement than it is about you.”

After many years of adversity, Jacobs’ in-laws have learned to accept her relationship with her husband, and have accepted her into the family. Jacobs says she feels like a completely different person now, compared to how she felt when she first met her in-laws.

“For the past five years, each visit felt like the very first time,” she says. “Now each visit is filled with good times, and some bad times, that are all turned into memories.”

The couple are happily married with a beautiful daughter. “In the end it all pretty much worked out,” says Jacobs. “I can’t call it perfect, but I can call it my own perfect ending to a story that started off as a nightmare.”

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the couples involved.

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