Words by: Jonathan Hawes Art by: Jessica La
When my girlfriend and I walk through town holding hands, we turn a lot of heads. I joke that it’s because they’re wondering how a beautiful woman like her ended up with an average Joe like me. Though underneath the humour, we both know why people are staring. She’s Black, and I’m White.
To be fair, most of the staring took place in rural England, where we first met. I have no idea how Aussies would react to seeing us in public. Hopefully there’d be a lot less blatant staring — interracial relationships are over four times more common in Australia than in England.
But we’re not just interracial, we’re inter-continental.
To cut a long story short: I’m from America, she’s from Kenya. We met in the UK while studying our Bachelor degrees, and now I’m doing a masters in Australia while she does hers in England.
Every relationship faces challenges, but I’d argue ours are fairly unique. There are a lot of cultural differences between a white man from rural Texas and a Kisii woman from Nairobi.
Some of these differences are fun to explore. She likes the way I say Texan idioms, like “this ain’t my first rodeo,” or “we’ve howdied, but we ain’t shook”. I find some of her superstitions amusing, like how you shouldn’t whistle at night or how it’s a bad omen if you hear an owl’s hoot while dusting your house during twilight.
Other differences are more serious and impact our plans for the future. Kenyan culture is generally risk-averse and having debt is frowned upon, so mortgages are basically unheard of. If you don’t have the money to buy a house outright, you rent until you do. There’s also no expectation to move out of your parents’ house, regardless of your age.
As an American, I baulk at the prospect of living with my parents past my early twenties, and a mortgage seems as natural to me as apple pie. Our compromise? We’ve agreed to never have a mortgage, but we’ll rent our own place as soon as we can.
Speaking of parents, the stigma around meeting your partner’s parents is very different. I introduced my partner to my parents about six months after our first date, but two years later I still haven’t met hers. That’s because in Kenya, you generally don’t introduce your parents to your significant other unless you’re about to marry them.
I’m happy to put that one off, though. Meeting the parents can be scary.
Though what’s truly scary is how our relationship was impacted by the pandemic. Due to travel restrictions and other logistical nightmares, we dated long-distance for over 600 days!
That was a hard time. We both enjoy physical touch as a love language, so not being able to hug, kiss, hold hands or knock boots was heartbreaking. On top of that, we were dealing with a six-hour time difference, so we couldn’t even talk to each other as much as we wanted to.
But that didn’t stop us from trying. Zoom dates, online games, long strings of text messages — we did it all. One day we even spent 12 hours chatting on the phone!
Thankfully, we get to see each other more often these days. The experience we gained over those 600 days helped us learn how to communicate effectively. We’ve become long-distance pros!
People have asked me how we did it, but honestly, it just felt like we had no other option. We love each other, and when someone is willing to put in the time and effort to love you regardless of the distance, you feel compelled to return the favour twice over.
Managing distance wasn’t the only thing I’ve had to learn. As a white man, I’ve had to recognise and dismantle many racial biases I wasn’t previously aware of within myself. Thank goodness uni had already made me open to this process before we started dating. Who knows if she would’ve had the patience to deal with my 17-year-old self? (She assures me that she would have, and that she would’ve just kicked my butt until I started acting right.)
One of the most pivotal experiences in making me realise the extent of the bias I grew up with was when I was showing a picture of my girlfriend to a friend of mine back in Texas. His first response was a slightly confused “huh”, followed about 10 seconds later with, “never thought you’d date a black chick”.
I’m not friends with him anymore.
When he said that, I was appalled. What did he mean by that? Why did her skin colour matter? After thinking it out over a few days, I came to the horrific realisation that just a few years ago I might’ve thought the same thing.
That’s just one example of me having to confront my own bias. It starts with learning that your view is not the default or the norm. From there, you’re more able to listen to and appreciate other points of view, even when they come into conflict with your own deeply held beliefs.
Introspection like that is often painful, but it is also necessary to avoid inflicting pain on others. We need to break free from our echo chambers, as the world outside has a lot more to offer than what we can find back home.
So if you’re ever out on the street and you catch yourself staring at a mixed-race couple, maybe you should take some time to think about why that is. You might not always like the answers you find, but in the long run it’s a rewarding, enlightening experience.