Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro on the policing of the Black lived experience, particularly when it comes to relationships.
I remember coming across a poll on Twitter last year that asked if you can be anti-racist and still date white. The comments were divided. Some argued that love had no boundaries while others were against the very notion of dating outside of your race.
In the last two years I have found myself in the position of having fallen into the role of being an activist, after vowing to un- silence my voice. By using my voice, I finally understand the meaning of being unapologetic. I am continuously advocating for anti-racism work, and the need to include marginalised communities and voices into Irish discourse, because our voices matter.
Regardless of the efforts that I am making in advocating for change, I have found that my activism and passion is something that is now up for debate, simply because I am in an interracial relationship. As ridiculous as this sounds, my relationship is something that is continuously scrutinised, with a lot of mixed opinions.
I silenced my voice for years because racism was a taboo topic that no one dared talk about. It was treated as this dirty topic that had to be avoided at all costs. Experiencing racism is something painful and outside of my control, yet I felt so much shame talking about it that I found myself being completely silent on the topic. However, the death of George Floyd acted as a pivotal moment in my life, where I was overwhelmed with so much emotion, anxiety, and pain that I could no longer be silent about racism. I needed to explore these emotions, and break this endless cycle of shame and feeling helpless. I needed to find strength in using my voice, and finally heal from the years of trauma.
In the course of this process, I have found that people refuse to understand how I, as a young Rwandese-Irish woman, can be passionate about dismantling racism, call for the need for white people within our society to understand what their whiteness entails, but also still be in an interracial relationship. Fellow activists and other online users, some of whom are trolls who see themselves as solely Pro-Black, pointed out the ‘weird’ nature of how I can proudly call myself an activist while posting my relationship online.
I remember attending a ClubHouse chat on this subject, as I wanted to learn more about why this topic was causing such a divide. I was the only speaker who was currently in an interracial relationship and I left the call in tears because of the unthinkable and narrow minded views people projected onto my relationship and my work, without even knowing me personally. Some who consider themselves to be activists have adopted a singular view that to be taken seriously as an activist, you simply can not date outside your race. This is something that is self-assigned and creates further divisions as at the end of the day we are all advocating for the same cause of equality, respect and dignity. And who I love should not be questioned.
For me this is something that I have never seen as an issue, as love is simply love. I cannot help who I fall for. Even though I believe this with every fibre of my bones, I can’t help but be upset and disappointed when people still feel like they can project their insecurities and misunderstandings of race onto my advocacy and relationship. People don’t realise that through these projections they strip away my identity and simply just view me in the lens of my blackness. This is wrong as there is more to me than just being Black.
People that have an issue with this have self-assigned themselves the role of policing the Black experience, and decided, for some bizarre reason, being an advocate and dating outside of your race somehow makes you less Black. This is a false and dangerous way of navigating the world; cultural productions of literature, film, music, and art have portrayed how the Black experience is something that cannot be homogenised. It is not a fixed identity. By placing me in this box of not being ‘Black enough’, my unique lived experience of growing up in Ireland as Rwandese Irish is taken away and instead my Blackness is all that people can see. Whenever I find myself in this predicament, I find that I cower away, and feel an overwhelming sense of shame and a need to apologise for not being the right kind of ‘Black person’ in Ireland.
This series of mixed emotions is something I have been struggling to grapple with from a really young age, back since primary and secondary school, where I was placed in the category of not being ‘Black enough’ because my friend group was predominantly white. Straight away, because I had white friends, my Blackness was put into question just because of who I was friends with. Those who questioned my Blackness refused to consider certain factors such as I grew up in a small town in Carlow, which wasn’t as diverse and multicultural as it is now. Although there were other students of African descent in my year, we had different cultural backgrounds, and ways of navigating being minority students in a predominately white school. Just because we were Black did not automatically make us friends; there are more things to friendship than the colour of someone’s skin.
I came face-to-face with an unspoken rule which was obsessed with the ideology of being a particular type of Afro-Irish person, and if you didn’t conform to this ideology then you were further ‘Otherised’. Instead of people seeing it as a young child trying to fit in and navigate the new world of understanding what it entails to have a dual identity, it was broken down to me trying to be ‘White’.
This internal struggle of trying to understand how to be both Rwandese and Irish followed me in college. This time around I found myself being not only the only Black student in my course, but the only Black person in my friend group. At this stage in my life, this was something that I was hyper-aware of. It was something that had left me traumatised and given me a very skewered understanding of what it meant to be Black in a predominantly white society. The only Black people that I was around were my family. The way I acted was completely different from the African students in my year, and this created further division, and the internal dilemma of not being the right type of ‘Black’.
In our household, we had a different culture, language, and way of claiming our space than the other African families in Carlow. In school, I spoke English but the moment I went home I spoke Swahili, as I always wanted to hold onto both cultures. Little things like the way I spoke or the music that I liked were scrutinised and were considered as me trying to be white. Something that I know others who have grown up around predominately white friends and or family have also experienced. Growing up people didn’t see the nuanced ways I understood my dual identity and how until this day I can go from speaking fluent English with my friends, but the moment I go home speak fluent Swahili, and only switch back to English to communicate with my little brothers who understand Swahili but can’t speak it. That is something that I am so proud of that after all these years I was able to keep this sacred part of my identity, yet I am still not seen as ‘Black enough’.
Although I was hyper-aware of this, I didn’t let it stunt my ability to connect, and create new friendships in college, as I was raised to be friends with anyone who was just nice to me, and who showed me the respect and dignity that I deserved. Of course, when it came to experiencing racism, it was hard to experience it and not have friends that could relate to this, but I had friends who were willing to listen to my experience and be a shoulder to cry on, and to me that is enough. In the last two years, those same friends that I have made since primary school and those that I made in college have been able to ask questions about racism and the changing nature of Irishness in an open-minded and safe environment. It has been a learning curve for everyone, especially myself. I had been in the habit of keeping in the pain that I feel when I am subjected to racism. This new revelation has inevitably strengthened our friendships.
Through my day-to-day interactions with my friends and peers who are white I am made to feel by others as though I must apologise for who I am friends with, since there is this false assumption that having a predominately white friend group reflects negatively on my Blackness. I gravitate towards people that I have something in common with, and if they happen to be white it’s something that is outside of my control, and is something that I refuse to be questioned or apologise for. The need to constantly feel like I must justify the different parts of my identity becomes very overwhelming and exhausting, and these categorisations that I am constantly placed in are an attempt to erase my unique lived experiences as Rwandese-Irish.
The breaking point came when I was placed in a position where I was once again made to feel like I had to defend my relationship. I was placed in a box where it became an impossible task to advocate for the need to dismantle racist systems, people, and institutions while still being able to be in love with my boyfriend who happens to be white. At this moment I realised that I did not owe anyone any explanation of why I can be in an interracial relationship and still be an advocate on race issues. I understand that as an activist I have taken on this role of my views and beliefs being challenged. But, lending my voice to the cause does not mean that my relationship status is something that should be scrutinised and labeled as ‘weird’. I refuse to engage with these debates as I will continuously advocate for change while being in this relationship. Our relationship has so much nuance and common ground that the moment you meet the two of us you just understand immediately why we work.
I have been with my boyfriend for the past three years, and from the beginning of our relationship we have continuously had conversations about racism, identity, and belonging. We have discussed how we will be navigating our relationship in a world where it is abundantly clear Black people are viewed as inferior. I am aware of skin colour and my boyfriend is aware of his whiteness and what it entails. He is willing to put in the work to constantly learn and ask questions about things that he is unaware of due to his white privilege. Some conversations that we have are extremely painful, heart breaking and hard for him to listen to, and for me to tell him, but this is something that we are constantly doing for him to be hyper aware of the world that we live in. The same way that my friends ask me about racism is the same way that he asks me, as we have an open dialogue where he is aware of how he will never understand what it feels like to be me, but he will always actively listen, and be a shoulder to cry on. Because of our hyper-awareness, we still love each other and understand how anti-racism work is something that everyone must be willing to take part in to live in a just and fair society, where a relationship like ours isn’t questioned.
I am a proud Afro-Irish activist who is determined to advocate for the right to see people who look like me be represented in a positive light in every aspect of society, while being treated with dignity and respect in every aspect of society. I am continuously advocating for the creation of spaces where minority and marginalised voices are heard and seen, as we are an integral part of society. Having said this, my love and determination for activism in all forms should not be questioned just because of who I love. Love is not something that any of us can control. Although we live in this racially articulated world which is so full of hate and divisiveness, we were able to find each other, and that is a beautiful thing.
Being uncomfortable seeing activists and change makers who are passionate about being anti-racist while being in interracial relationships is something that should be questioned. We live in a society where I should be allowed to be passionate about my activism work and be able to love who I want to love without being made to apologise for my Blackness. Me being in an interracial relationship does not mean that I am not ‘Black enough’. It simply means that I can advocate for change while simultaneously being in love with someone who just loves me for who I am.
While writing this I have found the strength of being and determination to break out of this bad habit of letting people have this overwhelming control, by projecting on me their understanding of Blackness, and trying to get me to conform to that idealism. I no longer need to question my place in my community when it comes to the pondering questions of whether I am ‘Black enough’.
I choose to be unapologetically myself as I understand that there is no one way of being Black. I will continue my work as an activist while proudly being in love with my partner. Who I love does not make me less Black. Love simply has no boundaries and whoever has an issue with this has yet to experience the power of falling in love.