"Because if you're aligned, nothing can break you."
Meet Nadia and Jeremy.
Nadia was nominated by her brother to share her story with us, since he had witnessed the difficulty of her relationship being accepted by their mother.
Her story with Jeremy is one of perseverance. She is Belgian by nationality and Rwandan/Congolese by descent. Jeremy is French.
Nadia tells us that in French, there isn't a direct translation of the word 'race', as understood in the English language. Besides that interesting linguistic fact, Nadia emphasises: “There is only one race - the human race.” We can't agree more.
Here's their story:
Love And Self-Discovery
Nadia grew up in a small town on the Flemish side of Belgium where her parents were the first Black residents. Similar to the experience of many second generation minority children, she grew up with a degree of self-hate over her ethnic features, rejecting everything that was African in her. Today she couldn't be more proud of where she comes from, and it baffles her to think how she could grow up with such a warped perception about herself.
N: "I really nourished this self-hate until I was 18. I never felt like I was desirable or attractive. Even though guys were interested, I would dismiss it.
It was only until University that I became proud of my heritage. And that really changed the dynamic with men... they could see the confidence on the outside"
Nadia and Jeremy met through online dating during this time. Nadia says it was “love at first sight" and valued his support of her self-discovery journey about her roots.
N: “His character made it possible for us to be together - he had the maturity to let me grow as a person”.
Jeremy comes from Brittany, a seaside region in the South of France. Nadia described it as being beautiful in the summer, where you can enjoy the coast, wine, and oysters. Whilst being with Jeremy, Nadia is grateful to have travelled around different parts of France, to learn about French cuisine, and admire what she sees as their ‘natural elegance’ and chivalry. She jokes that this chivalry can be so refreshing compared to men back home in Belgium who would often make you pay half on the first date.
Like many couples during the resurgence of BLM in 2020, Nadia and Jeremy found themselves having deeper discussions about race. For Nadia, the importance of doing this was clear and the extra support from Jeremy increased her commitment to him.
N: "What if we had children? They need to know, and to know there’s racism in the world, and be prepared of certain situations.
It was during those conversations I was reassured, and I can see myself with him for the long term."
Nadia and Jeremy have grown into a strong unit as a couple, but that's also because they've weathered hardships along the course of their relationship, in particular from Nadia's family.
Standing Up To Disapproving Parents
Family acceptance is a concern for every couple, but for interracial couples this gets complicated by issues related to race. Fortunately when Nadia met Jeremy's family for the first time, she felt undeniably welcomed by them. But she already knew that it wasn’t going to be as easy the other way around.
Family disapproval did not affect their relationship immediately. When Nadia mentioned she had a White boyfriend during the initial months of dating, there was no big reaction from her mother. But a year and a half into dating, Jeremy was offered an internship in Thailand and Nadia decided to go on a backpacking trip with him before he started. Right before they left, her mother wanted to meet Jeremy.
Nadia recalls that while her mom was civil in front of Jeremy, her brother received a call from their mom crying about her disapproval. And while abroad on the trip, Nadia also received a call from her father saying hurtful things about her relationship. She felt embarrassed by their reactions, especially after their experiences of racism in Belgium she found it upsetting how they couldn't see the parallels.
Things escalated when Nadia came back home. She and her mother had a HUGE argument, where Nadia had to take her stand.
N:"She saw another side of me, that I was willing to give up on my relationship with her to be with my boyfriend.
It was sort of an emancipation moment for me. I'm an adult now. So either you respect my choices, or we're done."
For many people who have experienced family disapproval, cutting ties with family members is difficult to come to terms with. Let alone standing up to your parents in the first place - thanks to all that parental conditioning. But Nadia found strength in her conviction over what's right.
After the big argument, both of them didn’t talk for 3 months. Family friends tried to convince Nadia to break the silence, but she stuck to her guns and wanted to wait for her mother to make the first move. Even though she did feel the emotional weight of the distance between them. Eventually, her mother called and apologised.
N: "It took a lot for my mom. She's from the generation that doesn't say sorry, at all...
On the call she basically said you're my child, if I don't have a relationship with you, what do I have?"
Even though the silence was broken, that didn't mean the prejudice went away.
Setting Boundaries and Challenging Traditions
To avoid any more explosive moments and to protect her mental well-being, setting boundaries became important for Nadia. She was careful to re-start their relationship.
N: "It would be a relationship again, but a different one where there was an understanding and respect for my decisions."
Boundaries are important because these external pressures can harm the relationship health of a couple. When this became the case for Nadia and Jeremy, they decided to try couples therapy, which became a game-changer for them. Nadia credits couples therapy for giving her and Jeremy the tools to communicate and work through roadblocks. Such as realising they didn’t need to sort out a problem immediately, or having regular check ins. Through seeking professional help, their relationship took a second turn.
N: “When you’re young, you think love conquers all. But if you are trying to build something together, you will face obstacles.
I love him more than I used to... past infatuation and into moving past all struggles"
Over time Nadia has also uncovered some of the underlying reasons for her mother's disapproval. Rather than the relationship itself, her mother's concerns were related to how the relationship would influence Nadia to do things differently to what's considered socially acceptable in traditional African culture. For example, moving in together before marriage is still frowned upon. Along with Nadia and Jeremy's plan to have kids first before marriage.
Jeremy's family never placed these expectations on Nadia which has granted them a degree of freedom in shaping their future together. And Nadia admits that if she had dated a Black person, she would have likely stuck to traditions because the pressure would have been greater coming from both sides of their families.
N: “I know in the back of her mind, (my mother) still hopes I will end up with a Black man... The only thing I can do is continue the relationship and prove to her that she’s wrong”
Judgement Within The Community
Since dating Jeremy, Nadia has been on the receiving end of negative perceptions from Black men about her dating a White man.
N: "When I started dating Jeremy, the remarks that I would have from Black men 'Why you dating a White man?' They didn't understand it at all."
Nadia often finds herself battling with the 'gold digger' stereotype that commonly befalls Black women when people perceive White male-Black female relationships. This stereotype (among others) was finally captured in some recent academic research on perceptions of interracial couples - check out Chuang et al. 2020.
But in her view, there's a gendered double standard that needs addressing.
N: “If Black men date outside its almost like a prize or an upgrade. 'Cause she got the ‘good hair’ etc.
But if a Black girl dates outside of her race, it's like ok she’s a gold digger.
Theres a lot of judgement within the community itself, and that is something to overcome on top of your parents and all of that."
Nadia shared with us many different sources of external pressure faced by interracial couples, and one of the biggest takeaways from her story with Jeremy was this parting piece of advice that she hopes will be useful to any interracial couple:
N:"My biggest tip I can give to interracial couples is make sure that you are aligned.
That’s why you must have those conversations about race, in order to be aligned.
Because if you're aligned, nothing can break you. You can only break from the inside, and not from the outside."