The first time I tried intercultural dating was in college. I dated a Nigerian. I remember the American black guys asking why I didn’t like black guys. I was confused. Wasn’t I dating a black guy?
The day of our college graduation two significant things happened. First, his parents flew in and stayed at the campus family guest house. His mom cooked a big Nigerian meal for everyone. All seven of the Nigerian girls on campus came over filling the kitchen with Yoruba and Pigeon banter as they helped his mother cook. I sat next to my friend Jenny, a blond haired blue eyed white girl, and her Indian boyfriend, another intercultural couple. We suffered through a shared plate of Nigerian food, as tears ran down our faces from the spices. I knew it was spicy when my Indian friend kept pushing the plate off on me. If he thought, it was spicy I didn’t stand a chance.
The entire event was awkward. I’d straightened my hair for graduation, and being the middle of May I’d yet to acquire my golden-brown summer tan. My skin was closer in pigment to my friend Jenny than to any of the dark brown Nigerians roaming the house. For this, his mother was ice cold. I wouldn’t feel such coldness again until Chicago’s polar vortex of 2014. She cornered me in the stairway, “My son says you think I do not like you”, she said in a strict authoritarian voice. I stuttered and glanced down the stairs at him looking for help. “Do not look at him. I’m the one speaking to you. Why do you think this? I do not know you.” I can’t recall how I responded but I’m sure it involved lots of stuttering and I probably peed a little (shhh).
Later I found out that his mother had thought I was a white girl. I contemplated my own mother’s response if my brother ever dared bring a girl like Jenny home for dinner. “Were there no nice black girls at your college?” she’d ask concerned. But ironically, I was black, not biracial, just black, with a really hot flat iron and a skin tone that reflected the historical raping of my slave owned ancestors. My race was black, my culture black. It’d be years before I understood that my cultural identification posed equal problems. While we weren’t an interracial couple, we were an intercultural couple.
The second event happened much later that night, after midnight. I drove to the bus station with my boyfriend riding shotgun and his good friend, also Nigerian, in the backseat. We made it about four blocks away from the school when a cop pulled us over. In the rearview mirror, I could see our caps and gowns folded on the back seat. “License and registration” the cop barked. I agreeably handed him both, careful to return my hands to 10 and 2 at the steering wheel as my father had taught me. Hands should always be visible. Tap, Tap, Tap. I looked right to notice the baton tapping on my passenger window now. “Don’t look over there, look at me.” the officer on my left commanded. My boyfriend rolled down his window as ordered. “Let me see your ID”, the officer ordered. “Officer why does he need his ID when I’m the one driving?” I asked. “Don’t worry about it, just do as I ask.” He answered annoyed.
Now a third officer appeared from a second squad car. He was tapping on my window asking my backseat passenger for ID. A moment later a third squad car appeared and we were surrounded by cop cars. Six officers in total batons in one hand, with the other hovering mounted pistols. “Get out the car!” they ordered my boyfriend. He got out, hands tucked tightly into the stomach pouch of his hoodie. Was he insane? Had his father never taught him about keeping his hands visible. Didn’t he know that cops shoot black men in America for cell phones and pens that “look like guns”. The cops searched his person, and patted him down as they questioned him. All the while I pleaded with the cop near my window, showing him my college ID, pointing to the backseat graduation gowns. “This guy matches the description of a recent criminal in the area.” the cop said, disinterested in our backseat diplomas.
My boyfriend was Summa Cum Laude. In a few weeks he was off to study quantum physics at an Ivy League grad school. His friend in the backseat was catching the last bus back to Washington University in St. Louis. To these cops none of that mattered. To these cops my boyfriend wasn’t a quantum physicist, or a Yoruba Nigerian, he was a dark skinned black man who fit a description, and was currently standing on the sidewalk with his hands in his pockets. I prayed this didn’t escalate ending in news headlines. The car ride home was silent. I was shaking as silent tears trickled down my face.
Ten years later I was in another intercultural relationship, engaged to a Somali American. My husband is an Alpha Phi Alpha, who went to college in Detroit and loves to tell me I’m too young to know about all his favorite Motown groups. Still yet, his family questioned the possibility of lost culture and the many more challenges of intercultural marriage. I was offended. Wasn’t being black in white America the same enough. A year later I get it. For us, intercultural marriage means this:
- My cooking is bland and my husband adds additional spice and hot sauce to everything I make.
- My husband’s only opportunity to practice his Somali and Arabic is on the phone with his family. It will be way more difficult to raise bi-lingual children when we can’t both speak.
- My husband was confused by Regina Kings character in Season 2 of American Crime because he’s never had to explain the difference between Black Muslims (Nation of Islam) and Orthodox Islam, an explanation I’ve recited a million times since the age of 15.
- I can’t speak to all of his relatives because of language barriers.
- Some of my extended family wonders why I “love Africans so much” because to them two in 10 years is apparently a pattern not a coincidence.
- We often both don’t immediately understand cultural references made by the other or the cultural significance of important customs, traditions or values.
- Naming our kids is going to be a journey because most of the Somali names he likes I can’t pronounce.
This list is non-exhaustive and it’s not to say that intercultural marriage can’t work. Of course, it can! We have had a great first year of marriage. And if you are a lover of culture, then having two cultures in one household just makes the home more interesting and rich. I simply say all of this to say, I understand why families may initially show concern, or fear conflict or a loss in culture.
While my husband and I are culturally diverse, we are racially the same. To white America, we are both black. I don’t fear that my son will ever stand on a sidewalk surrounded by cops with his hands in his pockets. I feel confident my black husband will teach my five-year old son the hands visible rule. By age 16, hands at 10 and 2 will be instinctive. And this matters the utmost to me. If Not Love Then What?
What are your thoughts on intercultural dating? Have you ever dated inter-racially or inter-culturally? In what ways were things different? In what ways did race and culture not matter? Do you think race matters more than culture? Does culture matter more than race? Can’t wait to read your responses!