Loving across racial divides: stories of interracial romance

Illustration by Susana Gómez Báez

Illustration by Susana Gómez Báez

Though it is still uncommon, interracial dating is on the rise. Sharnelle Kan and Debbie Hernandez share their stories.


My boyfriend Anuk and I were running errands in downtown Chicago last October when I received a text from my brother back home in Toronto that made me freeze. I hadn’t had time to do the dishes the night before or before my flight that morning. He was upset that I hadn’t done my fair share of the chores and his angry text ended with a slew of words that left my shaking.

“Say hi to Anuk for me while you’re there, that poor guy still needs to grow the fuck up and learn the basics of having manners,” it said. “Maybe Punjabis don’t know what manners are?”

A few months prior, in the foyer of our North York home, my brother intentionally slammed the front door against my back, and sent me flying into a wall. I called Anuk to tell him what happened, and he immediately made the 45-minute drive from his home in Brampton, Ont., to make sure I was OK. I still remember the sound of his wheels as his car peeled into my driveway. Anuk spoke to him a few days later about it. I assumed that the racist text I received in Chicago stemmed from my brother’s annoyance at Anuk’s involvement in family matters like this.

My brother could have slammed the door on me a million more times. But nothing would hurt as much as the heartbreak I felt when I realized that he wanted to hurt me by insulting Anuk.

According to Statistics Canada, there has been an increase in interracial relationships in the past two decades. The latest data from the 2011 National Household Survey shows 4.6 per cent of married and common-law couples in Canada are multiracial, up two points from 2.6 per cent in 1991 and 3.9 per cent in 2006. Being in a racially mixed relationship with Anuk — he’s Indian, I’m Chinese — has only helped me grow. It has encouraged me to be more open-minded and understanding of different cultures. It shocks me when people, like my brother, casually make such racist remarks.

Despite these statistics though, being in an interracial relationship isn’t as pretty as it may seem. When I fell in love with someone from a difference race, I learned this the hard way.

Anuk and I started dating on Sept. 24, 2013. I was initially hesitant about getting into a relationship with him because he was leaving for Chicago to finish his medical school rotations at Windsor University School of Medicine. I wasn’t sure if our long-distance relationship would work. I even told my friends that the first month would only be a trial month to see if Anuk and I were even compatible. But one month turned into two, then three. Before we knew it, we were celebrating our one-year anniversary.

As our relationship became more serious, I became less concerned about our long-distance setup and more about whether it could be long-term.

Though Anuk’s family is quite Westernized, his mother is more traditional when it comes to relationships. He was hesitant to introduce me to his parents for this reason, which caused some tension between us.

The breaking point came in October last year during my second visit to Chicago to see Anuk. I had met his father a few months prior but was upset that Anuk had still not introduced me to his mother. We had been dating for just over a year and I was worried that Anuk didn’t think our relationship mattered enough for me to be worthy of an introduction.

Anuk told me that he had never brought a girl home before and that his mother wanted him to focus on his studies rather than dating. And if he did date, she would want him to be with someone who is Indian, too. He also stressed that his extended family would have a hard time with the news. I tried to remain calm, upon hearing him tell me this, but I ended up breaking down and crying.

This moment really put the situation into perspective for Anuk and he has since promised that he would introduce me in the near future.

I have it easy compared to other couples.

Lee*, a 21-year-old student at McMaster University, has been dating her boyfriend for four months. Lee is Jewish while her Indian boyfriend is Catholic. Lee has kept quiet about her relationship because her family is strict about interracial and intercultural relationships. Lee’s mother has warned her by saying she would be unhappy if she found out her daughter was dating someone who is not Jewish.

“My mom had suspicions of me dating out of the faith in the past,” Lee says. “Once, out of nowhere, she said, ‘I hope you know that if I ever found out you were dating someone who’s not Jewish, I’d go straight to the rabbi with it.’”

“It’s difficult,” she says. “When you’re happy about something — I’m really, really happy about the relationship now and where it seems to be going — it’s tough because you want to share all of that with your family. You want to share all the happiness with them and hope that they would support it but I have to be secretive about it.”

Lee and her boyfriend had initially decided not to pursue a relationship. They thought it would have been too strenuous because their respective families wanted them to date within their own culture.

“My parents have made very clear that I should be dating someone who is Jewish,” she says. “His parents have also said the same thing about dating someone who’s Catholic.”

The two made an effort to distance themselves from one another by ceasing communication for a week. But the split only made the couple realize how much they cared for each other, so they decided to give it a try.

Lee is slowly being introduced to her boyfriend’s family. She was worried he would get in trouble but when his family came from India to visit, his mom brought two saris for Lee. She, however, has yet to meet her boyfriend’s father, who is more strict about his son dating outside of his race.

You get a lot of unwarranted comments when you’re in an multiracial relationship. “Your mixed babies would be cute,” tops the list, but this harmless comment is followed by, “Is this a phase or a fetish?” or even, “Don’t you date Chinese guys?”

On May 25, 2014, almost a year into my relationship, I received a Facebook message from someone named “SomeChinese Guy.” He said, “So how come you’re with a brown man instead of a man of your own kind..? huh?”

The message made me realize that as long as there is racial intolerance, people will always judge my decision to date outside my race. It has never interfered with my relationship, but it has for Lee. She and her boyfriend haven’t told several of their friends about their relationship because they’re afraid they may be judgmental. They stay quiet on campus, but when they’re in areas where they know they won’t see anyone they know, they aren’t afraid to act like a couple and hold hands.

Lee says that she and her boyfriend still turn heads when they’re together. “There’s so much more to him than what he looks like on the outside,” she says. “We might not be of the same background, we might not be from the same country or we might not be the same skin colour but there’s so much more to him than that. We have a lot of the same values, and that’s not something you can see just by looking at someone.”

In 2011, Statistics Canada found the two largest minority populations in Canada, South Asians and Chinese, had the smallest percentage of racially mixed relationships at 13 and 19.4 per cent, respectively. Despite this grim statistic, I’m optimistic about my relationship. Lee is too.

“If I was at a family gathering with him, he’d stick out like a sore thumb,” she says. “I hate to put it that way but that’s exactly how it is. I guess I’m biased because I’m with him in a relationship and I’ve looked past his race. It just doesn’t bother me, and never did, but I’m hoping that other people would be able to look past it like I did and see him for who he is.”

Lee says she’s happy she has finally found someone who smiles as much as she does.

“You can’t choose who you fall for and that’s something I would say to my parents,” Lee says. “It doesn’t matter that we look different, it doesn’t matter that we look mismatched in some people’s eyes. The way someone looks doesn’t at all tell you about who they really are.”

* Name has been changed

(Left) Sharnelle Kan and Debbie Hernandez. Coutesy Sharnelle Kan

(Left) Sharnelle Kan and Debbie Hernandez. Coutesy Sharnelle Kan


The first semester of my final year in university started and it still felt like summer outside.

I was walking downtown with my boyfriend at the time around Spadina and Dundas streets when a group of Asian men who had been sitting around smoking and talking called out to us as we walked by. We didn’t stop, but we did turn our heads.

One of them was a darker-skinned Asian man in his 30s with shaggy hair to his shoulders. He looked directly at my boyfriend and said, “Hey, buddy! You know I don’t like it when I see nice guys like you walking around with my women.”
My boyfriend laughed nervously but we kept walking as the man took a drag of his cigarette with a satisfied smirk on his face.

Neither of us said anything. I identify as Asian like those men and my boyfriend was mixed-race South African. We laughed it off, but I didn’t think the incident was funny at all. It alarmed me that there were people who found it amusing and acceptable to voice such racist views about multicultural couples, even as we walked through the downtown core of one of the largest and most diverse cities in the world.

Jean Golden, a professor of sociology at Ryerson, says that these men might have also been racialized and believe that sticking with members of their own race gives them a sort of identity and support against racism they may have experienced from the broader society.

“They want to maintain these rigid racial boundaries,” Golden says. “They would throw those comments at you to basically tell you to know your place inside your own community and tell the white guy that you’re dating at the time, ‘Don’t touch. She belongs to us.’”

I was also offended that the man called me one of “his” women as if I were his property because we were of the same race. Golden said this might be because some men view women of their own race as sexual property and find it insulting when she dates someone outside her race.

“Seeing you with white guys is going to be offensive to men of your racialized group,” she says. “They have a belief that you should stick with your own kind, and if you step outside of your own kind, you’re trying to be white.”

But at the time, I didn’t say anything to my boyfriend or those men. Instead, I felt a strange sense of relief because these racist views were from random people I’d probably never hear from or see ever again. I’ve had negative experiences with interracial dating in the past because of racist attitudes towards me from people that mattered, and that hurt way more.

Another person I dated told me that he preferred white girls but chose to date me because I looked half-Asian, half-white and was therefore more exotic to him.

“Not too exotic though,” he said. “You’re whitewashed so you’re more acceptable. At least you’re not a FOB-y Asian.”

FOB is short for “fresh off the boat.” In this context, he was using it in a derogatory way to describe Asians and other visible minorities who don’t look, talk or act “Canadian enough.”

He probably considered me “whitewashed” because I grew up in Mississauga, I don’t have an accent, and because I worked hard to downplay any part of my life that wouldn’t be considered “Canadian” in order to fit in with him and my other white friends.

But his comments still hurt me. My parents and extended family members have accents and still hold on tight to traditions and customs from their country of birth. And I wasn’t even as whitewashed as he thought — I was hiding a part of who I really am.

Golden says that despite Canada’s multicultural society, there is a hierarchy of colour in this country.

“Being whitewashed is a social construct,” Golden says. “What I mean by that is we socially impose categories on people based upon how they look. We also do it based on their ethnicity, and that how you get value in society is how close you are to white.”

This behaviour of not talking about the damage that racist comments did to my sense of self-worth has been a longstanding tradition for me. I consider myself sensible and strongly opinionated, but somehow when it came to standing up to racist attitudes towards me, especially during dating, I constantly tried to tell myself that it wasn’t a big deal and that I was just being too sensitive.

I also tried hard to de-emphasize parts of my life that weren’t “white.” I thought that any reminder of how I wasn’t as white as my boyfriend would bring out more hurtful comments, so I tried to bury a huge part of me deep inside.
Being in a long-term relationship in university is already hard work, but the racism I was exposed to as a woman dating outside my own race made it even more difficult. These attitudes made me question my identity and try to alter it so I could fit in and hopefully not hear racist comments as much.

The sad reality is these are choices I’ve considered because sometimes it feels like a constant battle to date outside my race. I’m still met with doubts, disapproval and a lack of support even in this century. I continue to date whoever I want because choosing to date someone strictly based on their background is a limited approach to dating. It was something that took me a little too long to learn but the people worth having in my life are the people who realize that skin colour does not determine my character or anyone else’s.

By Sharnelle Kan and Debbie Hernandez

This story also appeared in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Feb. 11, 2015.

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