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Are We Talking About Race Or Culture Here?

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Black Lives Matter changed my life, and my interracial marriage, for the better
Tineka Smith

It might well not be race that’s the issue:

In a defining year as an African American woman, I realised my white British husband will always be learning about race

Hmm, well, yes.

But for me, it also ignited some difficult conversations at home. The racial aspect of my interracial relationship was always in the back of my mind. And while racism wasn’t a central topic at the beginning of our relationship, it certainly became one in 2020. For a long while, my husband couldn’t understand, let alone appreciate, just how different the path I tread is from his own, even as we walk together hand in hand through life as husband and wife.

I think we were so focused on understanding each other’s personalities and quirks in the beginning of our relationship that we didn’t really talk about race – and I’ve come to learn we absolutely should have. Race is a part of our identity, and for any mixed-race relationship to work I think it’s absolutely vital to know each person’s view on all aspects of racism.

I do not put myself forward as an expert upon race – far too male, het, cis and white for that. However, I have lived on both sides of the pond for some years as an adult. And there’s a reasonable argument that this isn’t, in fact, about race at all. It’s about culture.

No, not in the sense – that false one – that skin colour defines culture. Rather, that the British and American reactions to race are different, rather strongly so. My own reading of this being that Americans are, still, fully under the weight of that overhang from slavery. The British not so much.

The point being that in order for it to be possible to have legal slavery – something Britain hasn’t really had since Anglo Saxon times, not in any volume. Domestically that is, this is not about the slave trade – there has to be some definition of who it is that can be enslaved. In that American system it was skin colour which made that definition. Descent mattered. Thus we end up with quadroons and octoroons still being slaves. If the legal status had persisted through more generations then there would have been that question of whether someone one sixteenth, or one 32 nd, of black African origin could legally still be enslaved.

That drop of blood bit actually mattered as it could – and often did – define legal status, potential slave or born in the state of freedom not just the land of the free. To keep slavery as something that could only happen to black people it was clearly necessary to have a definition of what is a black person who can be enslaved. Miscegenation always did happen and given humans always will. So, where’s the dividing line down the generations?

Britain just doesn’t have this same overhang, not in the same way. So, our conversations – dreadful word – about race simply are not the same.

In a sense, and only in a specific sense, we Brits just don’t do “race”.

I’m reminded of a Guardian piece from a few years back. Some bird living in London describes a conversation among the young mums. Talking about race and mixed race and all that. And as she looks around the group of five or six she points out that of the entire group it’s only her kids who aren’t mixed race. That’s that miscegenation at work.

But here’s the really important difference. Assume, just for a moment, that the mixed there is black and white, not any of the other constellation of possibilities. In the American context all those other children would be described as black – the one drop rule. In Britain they’re not, not even in the official ONS statistics and certainly not in colloquial language.

One of the things it’s important to understand in such conversations about race is that Britain and America are different places with respect to the subject.

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