Opinion

Marrying white doesn't make you any less black

Falling in love with a white person does not erase our race, our past, or the imposition of white privilege on all those things, writes Haji Mohamed Dawjee

17 June 2018 - 00:01 By Haji Mohamed Dawjee
When this picture was taken in April 1978, author and activist Maya Angelou had been married to Paul du Feu, her second white husband, for five years.
When this picture was taken in April 1978, author and activist Maya Angelou had been married to Paul du Feu, her second white husband, for five years.
Image: Gallo/Getty Images

In 1973, author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou married a white man, Paul du Feu. Prior to this, in 1948, she had married a Greek sailor, Tosh Angelos. Their marriage lasted four years, and the split was the result of religious differences. Her marriage to Du Feu lasted twice as long, and it wasn't the split that was controversial but the beginning of their relationship.

How could a woman of such prominence in the African-American community, in the global black community no less, marry another white man? By 1973, Angelou had established herself as one of the most public advocates for the civil rights movement. An interracial relationship seemed incongruent with her principles and politics, hypocritical even. This did not escape Angelou, who discussed her apprehension about marrying another white man with her good friend James Baldwin. 

Baldwin is an outstanding and impactful author in his own right, a social critic of the complexities of racial, sexual and class distinctions in Western societies.

One of Baldwin's most famous essay collections, Notes of a Native Son, deals with such themes as the stereotype imposed on black people by European people, the categorisation of stigma and the approach of white people towards black people, and a "native's" navigation through a white world.

So it may come as even more of a surprise that he gave Angelou a motivational speech when it came to her next white partner.

"You talk about courage all the time," Baldwin said to Angelou when she told him she was wary about marrying Du Feu. "You tell everybody to love. So are you a hypocrite?"

And so Angelou, with this heart-to-heart from fellow black activist in hand, went ahead and married her white partner.

It's hard to shun Angelou for her choices. In fact, many black as well as brown people would not dare. It is, however, also probably safe to say that a lot of those very people do not know the above story. Perhaps that would change their minds and bring to the fore a lot of castigation for Angelou, but I find it hard to believe that her choices in love would remove her impact, her value and her stature all together.

In white communities, however, the meaning of Angelou's powerful blackness is less, and it might therefore be easier for them to deny her impact because of her personal choices

In white communities, however, the meaning of Angelou's powerful blackness is less, and it might therefore be easier for them to deny her impact because of her personal choices.

But a line must be drawn between the criticisms of interracial relationships that come from people of colour versus the same reproach offered by white people.

Why? Because when white people ask "How can you be so firm in your race politics when your partner is white?", the question is loaded. It is heavy with historical scrutiny. It carries an implicit ostracism. It's born from a sordid political history that sought to separate through laws such as the Immorality Act, making it illegal for black people to marry white people.

That question from a white person is rich with self-righteous permission: you cannot "hate" white people; it is because of us that you are able to marry your white partner, so actually, you are "as white as we are".

Since the release of my own book, Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa, I have faced similar interrogation. Many women of colour have sought to understand how I consolidate my white wife with my "anti-white rhetoric". After all, several essays in the book take strong stances against woke whites and white privilege.

In less constructive debates, I have been indirectly called a "hotep", a term that usually refers to straight black men who act woke and actually aren't. An eye roll, the reaction of the speechless, was all I could offer in response.

Then there was the time a self-proclaimed woke white emerged on Afrikaans Facebook to "out" me for dating white people.

Her point was that my interrogation of the "rainbow nation" democracy and my refusal to buy into what is effectively a shallow payoff line was housed in hypocrisy because my dating history was revealing of my willingness to let go of my "reverse racism" when it suited me. The irony is, this person was herself a hypocrite. The worst kind, the duplicitous kind that wins brownie points on Black Twitter, for example, only to forsake her false principles on White Facebook.

"I personally would find it very difficult to date someone who has such open disdain for me," she said.

Hating whiteness is not the same as hating whites

Let me make this clear: there is not a single brown or black person worth their salt who bears denial of the meaning of whiteness when dating or marrying a white person. We are aware of the fact that who we love does not remove our race, our past, or the imposition of white privilege on all those things. And there are no false notions or mixed messages when it comes to that; there is openness when it comes to that in any interracial relationship.

Hating whiteness is not the same as hating whites.

Do you think Serena Williams is any less black because of her white husband? Is her prominence as the greatest black athlete of all time tarnished because of that?

Can we refuse Jordan Peele his blackness and his stunning victory with Get Out - a horror film that takes the viewer on a journey through the everyday fears of a black man in a white society - because he has a white wife?

Is Serena Williams' prominence as the greatest black athlete of all time tarnished because of her marriage to a white man, Alexis Ohanian?, asks the writer.
Is Serena Williams' prominence as the greatest black athlete of all time tarnished because of her marriage to a white man, Alexis Ohanian?, asks the writer.
Image: Mike Pont/WireImage

We worry that interracial relationships will eventually lead to anti-black politics and behaviour. But this is not the case. Micro-aggressions are clear, black thought is clear, the struggle of race lies not within white people but within whiteness and the minds of people of colour. And our minds cannot and will not be denied. We are not slaves to whiteness. Whiteness is not our saviour.

We do not date interracially to take the side of whiteness and erase ourselves. We do not defer our black or brownness when we love who we love.

We still see ourselves, powerfully.

The meaning of marrying white does not diminish our race, our agency or our voices.


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