Someone once said to me that interracial relationships are like “the new Coca-Cola – the taste of a generation”. At the time, I was amused as I thought of a 1971 Coke advertisement in which a group of eth- nically diverse people are standing on a hill, holding hands and singing, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke/ And keep it company/ That’s the real thing”.
Although he was joking, I felt he had ac- tually summarised the intersection of race and love in our society and amongst my generation quite aptly. Within a heter- onormative paradigm, interracial relation- ships have become more common and less stigmatised in white-centric societies, with love serving as a universal common- ality between all people, a subtle way of keeping each other company.
When I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adi- chie’s Americanah, however, I was con- fronted with a new idea of interracial love. It was realised when the main protago- nist in the novel, Ifemelu, unabashedly declares that the simplest (and possibly, only) solution to the problem of race in America was romantic love:
“Not the kind of safe, shallow love where the objective is that both people remain comforta- ble. But real deep romantic love, the kind that twists you and wrings you out and makes you breathe through the nostrils of your beloved. And because that real deep romantic love is so rare, and because American society is set up to make it even rarer between American Black and American White, the problem of race in America will never be solved.”
It was this unapologetic, radical notion of love that I have been most compelled to think about – one that is not so eas- ily packaged and sold as colourblind or free-spirited; one that doesn’t pretend that race does not exist; one that ques- tions if such a love can even be sustained past a ‘this-will-do-for-now’ romance. It is the rarity of it that makes the notion so compelling.
For women of colour, being in an inter- racial relationship means that they must question if they exist, or are even really seen by their partners.
In Americanah, Ifemelu is an unusual spe- cies of being comfortable in one’s own skin. She knows she is attractive, she is outspoken about race, and when she is in a relationship with Curt – a White male with wealth and privilege – she does not feel insecure about their power dynamic. And yet, it is the banal, everyday interac- tions with people around and about her
relationship that slowly undermine her sense of worth.
Adichie (or rather, Ifemelu) writes that she doesn’t tell her partner the small things that piss her off and the things she wishes he understood better because “we’re worried they will say we’re overre- acting, or we’re being too sensitive”. She doesn’t want him to say, “look how far we’ve come, just forty years ago it would have been illegal for us to even be a cou- ple”, because she’s thinking “why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway?”
She observes the subtle looks of disap- proval they get from other people, from Curt’s mother to other White women, who are confronted with “a great tribal loss”. She talks about the things that she has allowed to pile up inside her head in the pretence that race doesn’t matter, just to “keep [their] nice liberal friends com- fortable”. And, if white people are ever broached with a discussion on racism, people of colour must “make sure [they] are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiv- ing. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry.”
It is in these prickly, uncomfortable truths that the unresolved tensions and hypocri- sies of interracial love are laid bare. And so, women of colour are stripped of their power and simply left to question, ‘why would a White man date a woman like me in the first place?’
This question is not just about flagrant fetishes or the exoticisation of women of colour. It is not just about White men hav- ing a particular ‘preference’ or about them wanting to ‘experiment’. Those things have already been challenged, called-out, and exposed.
What it is about, rather, is that a woman of colour will never be able to just ques- tion if a White man desires her for her self-actualisation. Instead, she will ques- tion if he likes ‘any of them’ because race disciplines a White man’s desire in such a way that he will always only see few as desirable.
If we are to see interracial relationships through a radical lens – one that active- ly recognises constructions of colour, race and power – then Adichie’s notion of love can never be a happy, blissful one. It will make people angry and uncomfortable. It will make people question why they are even together. It will make them loathe themselves, and the people they love, sim- ply for loving them. It will not be swee like Coca-Cola, but at least it will be real.