Richard Bashir Otukoya has some bad relationship stories. Most of us have, but his are different. They ripple with a hurt most of us don’t experience.
His voice quivers and cracks as he describes a doomed romance with a woman in Letterkenny, Co Donegal.
He was a youthful black man who had moved to Ireland from Nigeria when he was nine. She was a native of a small town in Co Donegal. From the moment their union was forged, the young lovers’ came under a hydraulic press of neighbourhood gossip, disapproving friends and constant sideways glances. “If looks could kill,” Otukoya says, “I’d probably be dead at this stage.”
Not everyone uncomfortable with a romance between a black man and white woman was as tactile. Straight-up racism was slugged at the couple like a brick to the chest.
“There was one time we went to Tesco,” remembers Otukoya. “We came out, a car drove up, called her a ‘n***er lover’ and drove away. At the time I didn’t think anything of it. She was obviously deeply upset because she couldn’t be seen as someone who was in a genuine relationship.”
As someone who has suffered “subtle racism and explicit racism” all his life, the incident did not unnerve Otukoya (“That’s fine because then you know their intentions”). But his experiences have soured him on the idea of ever entering an interracial relationship again.
“I wouldn’t dare put another girl through that again,” he says. “Being called a ‘n***er lover’, being questioned by family, being made fun of. In those rural towns word gets around and you become the subject of the town.
“I can see how difficult it is for a white girl. Especially an Irish girl, where multiculturalism is relatively new.”
In recent times, Hollywood films have delved into interracial relationships. Loving tells the true story of a married couple convicted in the 1950s of miscegenation, and the gritty horror flick Get Out follows a black man who meets his white girlfriend's parents. The films couldn't be more different in approach, but both are cutting works that explore historical injustices, lasting prejudices and social taboos.
A lot of white people in particular don't see it as normal."
What of Ireland, though, a country with a relatively short history of pluralism and diversity. This is a nation where marrying another kind of Christian was once the stuff of backyard gossip and condemnation, forget throwing other religions, cultures and races into the mix. Interracial relationships are becoming more common, but are still relatively rare. Speaking to the couples themselves reveals that such unions face distinct challenges.
“People don’t see interracial relationships as ‘normal’, even if people wouldn’t directly go up to your face and attack you,” says Chess Law, a 19-year-old student from Ballymena whose parents are originally from Shanghai and Hong Kong. “A lot of white people in particular don’t see it as normal. You do get looks if you’re part of an interracial relationship.”
It was not necessarily vicious, pointed distain that was thrown at Law, who dated a white boyfriend in Belfast for two years. It was more like a constant background noise that the relationship was something different or other – even coming from those with seemingly no prejudice in their hearts.
“I’ve had a drunk guy in a restaurant come up to me and my partner at one point and say, ‘Congratulations, I really admire what you’re doing.’”
‘You’ve crossed a barrier’
Getting a clear picture of the number of interracial relationships in this country is difficult. Census data tells us little about race, but it does show that inter-cultural marriages have gradually increased.
In 1971, 96 per cent of all 17- to 64-year-olds who married did so to another Irish person. By 2011, that figure had dropped to 88 per cent. When Irish men and women marry someone who isn’t Irish, the majority wed people from the UK.
It speaks of an Irish sense of patriarchy, that Irish men somehow own Irish women"
These statistics do not directly address race, nor do they cover same-sex wedlock, but they go some way to affirming that interracial marriage remains relatively rare.
Reaction to interracial coupling is not one-size-fits-all, either. According to statistics released by the European Network Against Racism (Enar) Ireland last August, people of "black-African" background were involved in the highest number of reported cases of racist assaults.
I have spent several weeks speaking to couples and people with various experiences from across the spectrum of interracial dating. Enar’s stats are consistent with what I hear during interviews conducted for this story – that black people, particularly black men, who enter interracial relationships with white Irish women suffer the sharpest abuse.
The experiences they describe echo an old racist slight that has been thrown at men of colour who immigrate to predominately white nations since time immemorial: “They steal our jobs, they steal our women.”
“It speaks of an Irish sense of patriarchy, that Irish men somehow own Irish women,” says Rebecca King-O’Riain, a senior lecturer in Maynooth University’s department of sociology. King-O’Riain, a mixed-race Japanese-American ex-pat, has conducted significant research into interracial marriage in Ireland. She recounts a story of an Indian man who was scolded on the street by a white man with the words: “How dare you take our women.”
“It speaks to the fact that this Indian man is very threatening because he’s come from outside and ‘married one of our own’,” King-O’Riain says. “There’s a whole thing about ownership and possession there which is very strange. While Ireland is becoming much more cosmopolitan – certainly in Dublin and its surrounds – I think [there are still] long-held beliefs around cultural difference”
In Otukoyo’s mind, there is a distinction in attitudes to a black man having white friends and generally being a functioning member of Irish society, and a black man who enters a relationship with a white woman.
“Obviously we’re friends with Irish people, it’s fine. But when you get into a relationship, it’s like a big no-no,” he says. “Even if they don’t say it out loud, you can sense the tension. You can sense you’ve crossed a barrier you shouldn’t, and that becomes a problem.”
‘Living in town, we’re shielded’
There are other disparities in experiences, depending on what part of the country a couple lives in, their social circles, and family history. Tara Stewart and Karl Mangan, for example, report no tangible distinction between their relationship and anyone else’s, but they see themselves as living in a liberal bubble.
Stewart, a 2FM radio presenter, comes from a Malaysian-Indian background but was raised in Australia. Mangan – who makes rap music under the name Mango Dassler – is from Finglas. Both of their lives orbit around Dublin City Centre.
“We’re living in town. We’re shielded from a lot,” says Mangan.
Research by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has found that same-sex couples tend to be more racially diverse than their heterosexual counterparts.
The UCLA study found that one in five same-sex couples were interracial or inter-ethnic, compared with 18.3 per cent of straight unmarried couples, and 9.5 per cent of straight married couples. That pattern holds for couples that include an Irish-born spouse.
Dr Gary Gates, research director at the university’s Williams Institute, has two theories as to why this is the case. “If you are interested in a same-sex partner or spouse, obviously your choice set is limited to people who are also interested in same-sex relationships and that, depending on how you measure it, in most of the surveys we do in terms of LGBT identity, it’s about roughly 5 per cent of adults.”
There were threats to send me to boarding school and all kinds of things."
“It might also be that LGBT by virtue of being LGBT, they experience stigma and discrimination so they have a more personal understanding of that,” adds Gates, who now lives in Co Meath with his Irish husband.
“As a result of that, [they] are not necessarily going to confine themselves to a certain race or ethnicity in terms of their partnering, because they perceive that as potentially discriminatory and they’ve experienced discrimination.”
Gates's theory has credence elsewhere. Research published in the Journal of Homosexuality in 2009 found no differences in reported levels of stress or social support between those in interracial lesbian relationships or same-race lesbian relationships.
This was partially attributed to the couples’ ability to learn coping skills to help them deal with their minority status. These same coping strategies, researchers say, are deployed when they enter an interracial same-sex relationship.
‘There were threats’
The ballad of Michael and Rani Grennell began in 1976, when the pair were just teenagers attending opposite schools in Terenure, south Dublin. For two years the young couple met every day in secret on their lunch break in Bushy Park.
These snatched hours were their only sliver of opportunity away from the reach of Rani’s family. It was a forbidden relationship threatened by steep cultural hurdles that would have tripped up a couple with a weaker bond.
Rani’s parents were South African Indians, who had moved to Ireland when she was four years old. The family continued to practise many of their cultural customs, including arranged marriage.
When it comes to settling down, they figure their kids will always choose 'one of their own'"
"I was informed straight away that the relationship was taboo," says Michael, an actor with credits on Ripper Street and Game of Thrones. "Her parents didn't want her to have any contact with Irish boys as it would affect her ability to have a traditional Indian wedding, when she would be brought back to South Africa and have a husband found for her."
And so when Rani first told her parents of the romance,“all hell broke loose,” she remembers 40 years later. “There were threats to send me to boarding school and all kinds of things.”
After all attempts to break the pair’s attachment to each other failed, Rani’s parents finally accepted the union. The couple married young, but found the cultural oddity of an interracial relationship baffled the Catholic Church.
After a general meeting about their wedding ceremony, the priest due to perform the service asked to speak to Rani in private. After being questioned on the life she foresaw with Michael, the bride-to-be was surprised when she was presented with a piece of paper. Signing it would mean pledging to raise any future children as Catholics.
“At that point I still had a bit of my teenage rebel in me, so I said no I couldn’t do that,” recalls Rani, who today works as a speech and drama teacher. “What I said to him was that, ‘In all probability they will be brought up as Catholics, but I don’t have children yet. I don’t know what the world is going to be like, so I’m not going to sign and promise something that I may not be able to keep.’ At that point he refused to marry us.”
The couple – who split a few years ago – eventually found a priest at Michael’s school, Terenure College, who agreed to marry them without any caveats. For Rani, though, the whole experience served as “the first inkling I got that [trouble] wasn’t just confined to the four walls of my house. That there was something else going on outside.”
‘My family assume it won’t last’
Cut to 2017 and total family acceptance is still a common struggle. Of all the people I speak to, a small number report plain, undisguised disdain from their kin towards their choice of a partner. More typical is an unease over what an interracial relationship might mean for their future.
Mothers and fathers fret about how their kids will be treated by a partner who practises different customs. They have concerns about how any potential mixed-race children will integrate into Irish society. Some see interracial love affairs as a quirky phase their child is going through. When it comes to settling down, they figure their kids will always choose “one of their own”.
Originally from a rural area near Macroom, Co Cork, 30-year-old Tara Kelleher met her Japanese boyfriend Yuhei Mitsuda while they were studying in the UK. Soon it was time for Mitsuda to return home, but the pair managed to keep the romance going long-distance for a year.
Kelleher made the move to Tokyo last September, yet still struggles to get her family to take the relationship seriously.
White girlfriends field constant questions about whether lust and libido is the relationship's true octane
“[My family assume] it’s not going to last or that I’ll come back eventually because I’m just here for a laugh,” says Kelleher when asked what her relatives made of her jumping over a continent to be with her boyfriend. “My immediate family is fine; my parents are fine. I do have that trepidation with my extended family about how they would receive it because none of them have met him yet. It’s hard to get them to regard it as a serious relationship.”
Kelleher describes her home as “a very tight-knit, Gaeltacht area where everyone knows everyone else”. Mitsuda has been to visit, but it was a mixed experience for the couple, buttered in barbed jokes and stereotyping. “I’ve had people comment saying I have yellow fever. I didn’t appreciate that,” says Kelleher.
She finds the trite typecasting hypocritical. “Irish people, myself included, are quite sensitive about being stereotyped. We don’t like ‘plastic Paddys’, and all that. We don’t like it when people have the wrong idea about our country, but we’re happy to quote stereotypes about other places very easily. My own family very much included.”
Quizzed about their genitalia
Judgments about interracial relationships veer from irritating to offensive, our interviewees say. When it comes to white-white relationships, people generally take the couple as being drawn together by mutual attraction and common interests. People of colour, though, find themselves forced into categories. They are something to be fetishised – something their white lovers must be “into”.
White men seen with women of colour (particularly younger women) are accused of “buying” their partner. Every black man I spoke to for this piece says they are quizzed about their genitalia all of the time, while their white girlfriends field constant questions about whether lust and libido is the relationship’s true octane.
“I have had comments before, ‘Oh I wouldn’t have considered dating a Chinese woman’ that would feed off stereotypes,” says Law. “With Asian men, there’s this stereotype that they are seen as almost desexualised and emasculated and weak and so on, which is also very problematic. My opinions on it is are that it’s wrong; that it’s dehumanising. It does make you feel very much like you’re a part of a category instead of an individual.”
People like Donald Trump have changed the way people feel about saying things"
People of colour not born in this country are also frequently assumed to have only taken an Irish partner for migration purposes. These suspicions extend to the Irish legal system. In 2015, the State decided that a concerted drive was needed to clamp down on "sham marriages" – that is, matrimony entered into for immigration requirements. Operation Vantage gave gardaí and registrars the power to object to marriages that they found suspicious.
This has knock-on effects for legitimate interracial couples. “So someone has grown up in Ireland and might even be an Irish citizen. If that person is of a different racial or ethnic background to, say, a white Irish person, whether it’s in a heterosexual or same-sex couple, they socially get a hard time,” says King-O’Riain.
“Legally, they have the visa or passport to be here, [but it is still often thought] that their love is somehow suspicious. That people would choose to marry someone like themselves racially and ethnically, so when someone chooses to cross racial and ethnic lines to marry someone because they love them, or to have them as their partner, somehow this is slightly suspicious still in Irish society.”
Issues facing interracial couples extend into parenthood. At the core of many racist objections to interracial relationships is the idea of racial purity – an idea that ethnic groups should remain unalloyed.
My own background is Irish and Vietnamese. Being the flesh and blood crystallisation of this skewered viewpoint is a sometimes strange feeling.
For generations, any Irish child who didn’t fit into the typical white-Christian archetype was seen as different. Growing up in an overwhelmingly white country makes coming to terms with self-identity a life-long process.
Your simple human ability to love someone for who they are is being undermined by your skin colour"
In the context of an overwhelmingly white population, I pass for Irish, so my right to identify as such is not generally questioned. For others who genetically lean away from their white side though (as well as all Irish people of colour), they field regular challenges to their Irishness – some nasty, some innocent.
“If somebody asks me who I am, I say I’m Irish,” says Anusia Grennell, one of Michael and Rani’s three grown-up children. “Inevitably then there’s some follow-up questions: ‘Oh what’s your heritage?’ or it can sometimes be ‘You’re not Irish’. That is really annoying.”
Though Rani was a Hindu, she and Michael decided to raise their kids Catholic. “When we decided to bring them up as Catholics, [it] was to remove just one thing that makes them different,” Rani says. “They will always have the colour of their skin. They’ll always meet people who will find it a source of prejudice. I think they themselves move around in the kind of society that doesn’t pick on them.”
Kelleher’s experiences being in an interracial relationship have soured her on the idea of having children in such a relationship.
“I don’t know if I could bring up any children in Ireland if they were mixed race,” she says. “I would be worried about, if we lived in the countryside especially, the kind of treatment they would get from other people. That’s the only thing that holds me back.”
Though Ireland might be evolving into a more pluralistic state, Rani fears the surge in concrete-hard nationalist sentiment in other nations might mean today’s mixed-race youth might suffer more than her own children.
“There was underlying prejudice in the 1980s. Now I think people aren’t afraid, if they want to say something they’ll say it. People like Donald Trump have changed the way people feel about saying things. People like him have encouraged that or given free reign to say ‘I don’t like you because of the colour of your skin’ or ‘What are you doing in my country?’, without even stopping to think that maybe this person was born here.”
‘Black and Arab doesn’t mix’
For Rani, such moments of undisguised racial intolerance on the street were few and far between. And yet for everyone I spoke to, a bias was always lurking in the background. Their relationships tugged at other people’s heels, or triggered unconscious stereotypes in their minds. We may have had a referendum on marriage here that asserted there should be no parameters for love, and yet interracial couples face barriers every single day.
After splitting with his Donegal girlfriend, Otukoya entered another union, this time with a woman he met in college, originally from Yemen. For more than five years the couple stayed together, even living together in Dublin for a time. “We’re both minority groups in Ireland, you’d think we’ve have the same interests or the same sympathies,” he says. “Didn’t happen.”
The relationship survived his girlfriend’s sister telling Otukoya that “black and Arab doesn’t mix”. It didn’t, though, survive a vicious Valentine’s Day incident this year.
According to Otukoya, his girlfriend’s two older brothers followed her as she visited his house with a gift. Bursting through the door behind her, the two men ransacked the house, smashing the TV, picture frames and anything else in their path.
Their sister was taken back to the car. She threw the gift out the window as they pulled away. It was a new shirt and globe. Otukoya claims that a neighbour reported possibly seeing a gun in the vehicle, and so the gardaí’s Emergency Response Unit was called to the scene. He wells up as he recalls the story. He has not seen his girlfriend since February 14th.
“There was no persuasion,” he says. “There was no, ‘Oh look at this guy, he’s got a job, he’s doing his PhD.’ There was none of that. It was just, ‘No, you’re black.’ That’s it.
“Your simple human ability to love someone for who they are is being undermined by your skin colour.”