Sunday 17 December 2017

Fighting for a chance to love: 'My parents' generation had a very strong view about tainting bloodlines'

Ahead of the release of interracial romance film 'Loving', our reporter chats to Irish couples about whether the stigma is a thing of the past

'Getting looks in certain places': Tara Flynn and Carl Austin. Picture By David Conachy.
'Getting looks in certain places': Tara Flynn and Carl Austin. Picture By David Conachy.
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving
Difficulties: FKA Twiggs was subjected to racial abuse after she began dating Robert Pattison
Battling the ban: Mildred and Richard Loving on whom the movie is based

Ruth Negga is the toast of Ireland this month, and with good reason: for her stirring portrayal of Mildred Loving, a woman who, along with her husband Richard, defeated Virginia's ban on interracial marriage in segregation-era America, in the forthcoming film Loving.

Perhaps understandably, modern-day audiences are shocked at Loving's premise: that a woman who fell in love with the boy next door found herself committing a crime simply for being in an interracial marriage. But 60 years on, does Loving's shocking story about the challenges that mixed-race couples still hold any kind of relevance?

Two years ago, Kim Kardashian penned a blog in which she spoke out against racial hatred she had experienced after getting married to, and having biracial children with, the rapper Kanye West. Previously, she had been verbally attacked with racial slurs outside a building in California.

"To be honest, before I had North, I never really gave racism or discrimination a lot of thought," she wrote. "I guess it was easier for me to believe that it was someone else's battle. But recently, I've read and personally experienced some incidents that have sickened me and made me take notice. I realise that racism and discrimination are still alive, and just as hateful and deadly as they ever have been."

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in Loving

Kardashian isn't the only one to speak out about others passing judgement on their mixed-race romances: Prince Harry was forced, in an unprecedented move, to issue a plea for "racist and sexist" internet trolls to leave his girlfriend Meghan Markle alone. Singer FKA Twigs was also subjected to racial attacks online when she began dating Twilight star Robert Pattinson.

Closer to home, former Miss Ireland Emma Waldron revealed in 2011 that she had suffered similar abuse over her relationship with then-partner, Nigerian web designer Manners Oshafi.

"I have experienced negative comments on nights out and on social networking sites," she said at the time. "But I am strong and have dealt with it. I will never let someone's ignorance affect my love for Manners. He is the most amazing person I have ever met."

It's a reality that comedian Tara Flynn, who met her Los Angeleno husband Carl Austin in 2008, is also familiar with. Yet even since Waldron and Kardashian's comments, we appear to have moved into unsettling times.

In a climate when rhetoric around Trump and Brexit has emboldened the online actions of the alt-right, Flynn has recently found her wedding photo defaced and posted online, and been described as a 'race traitor' and as 'letting white people down'. "I'm just glad they have a hobby," she shrugs.

Notably, Tara has responded with wit and élan to racist abuse before: after Carl was verbally abused in her hometown of Kinsale, Flynn took aim at 'casual' Irish bigotry in a comedy sketch, Racist B&B.

Difficulties: FKA Twiggs was subjected to racial abuse after she began dating Robert Pattison
Difficulties: FKA Twiggs was subjected to racial abuse after she began dating Robert Pattison

"My hometown is quite a cosmopolitan and welcoming place, so for my husband, who I had invited down, to be on the receiving end of this was... a real awakening for me," she reflects. "As the person getting the abuse, the onus is on you not to escalate it… but he was seething and shaking by the time he got home."

Neither could have predicted the reaction to Racist B&B: notching up 100,000 views in its first few days online, the comments posted by others on Tara's website told of other racially-charged incidents, including a woman whose Chinese husband was abused and a British Pakistani man who was harassed to such an extent that he and his white partner moved to England.

"People told me about their (biracial) children being taunted, their houses getting egged, although people of colour will tell you that none of this is new, this feeling of not being safe in the world."

Tara admits that her relationship made her question her own privilege as a white person.

"Carl's from South Central LA, where there were gang wars and it was a struggle to get kids to school and pretty much keep them alive, whereas all I had to worry about was the Leaving Cert," she reflects. "One time in LA, we hired a convertible car and I was like, 'Let's drive over to Bel Air and look at the fancy houses', and Carl said 'do you mind if we don't? I don't want to get pulled over with you in the car.' When I asked why he would, he said, 'because I'm black'. It taught me that I'd really lived a sheltered life.

"We live in Dublin, and a lot of (racist comments directed at Carl) don't happen when I'm there, and by the time Carl gets home he has shaken these things off and doesn't tell me. He's used to it."

Battling the ban: Mildred and Richard Loving on whom the movie is based
Battling the ban: Mildred and Richard Loving on whom the movie is based

And when they are together? "You might get looks in certain places, in rural places mainly," says Tara. "Once people start talking to us, they're grand."

Tara's media profile and Twitter presence have certainly helped to throw light on the difficulties some interracial couples face, and she says she has "learned so much" from her husband.

"Carl has amazing self-possession," she says. "I burst with pride with how he handles this stuff, and how he speaks up for some people. He's a fantastic ally to have."

After meeting through friends at a South African university in 2008, geriatric activities co-ordinator Tracey Benney (28) and her husband, facilities administrator Ayanda Magadla (29) now live in Balbriggan, Co Dublin.

One night, the couple were walking home from the cinema, where they came across a stationary car.

"A guy rolled down a window on the passenger side and asked if Tracey was visually impaired," recalls Ayanda. "Tracey answered kindly and said 'yes' because she wears glasses. It seemed obvious, but the guy said, 'Oh, you're with a black guy'. We were shocked and somebody told us to take his number plate, as they heard the conversation. We reported the issue to the Gardaí."

Adds Tracey: "I think in general, Irish people are very accommodating. And having experienced discrimination themselves, they don't wish for people to experience the same. I think Irish people in general do not care about interracial relationships. We would like to think that that's how it is. You always find ignorant and stupid people in this world."

Growing up in South Africa, the two have been no strangers to scrutiny on their relationship.

"Me and Ayanda never discussed the matter of being in what people deemed a 'mixed relationship'," Tracey explains. "It didn't even occur to us that that's what people viewed us as... My parents grew up in Zimbabwe in the 1950s and so their generation had strong views about 'tainting bloodlines'.

"However, when me and Ayanda got married, having known Ayanda as my friend for years, they idolise him now."

Irish Independent

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