• Writer Sarah Mohammed. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
"This is much more than just a bad date."
By
Sarah Mohammed

8 May 2018 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 9 May 2018 - 7:55 AM

I’m a mixed race Australian living in London. I have an Anglo sounding first name and a Muslim sounding surname. I’m single, so I date. Want to know what it’s like?

It’s being on a date with someone who prides himself on being progressive and assuming the worst outcome of telling him my surname is that he’ll find all my selfies on social media. Instead, what happens when I say “my last name’s Mohammed” is that he replies earnestly "I'm genuinely surprised by that, you don't have any of 'those features' at all" in a tone that’s clearly supposed to be a compliment, but actually just makes my skin crawl. Does he mean that I should be happy that I don’t look more like my grandmother? My aunt? My cousins? That I should be grateful that how I look in this dark London bar masks my heritage?

When I tell him more about my dad’s side of the family – which has gifted me my name and my skin and my history – he asks "but your mum’s . . . normal, right? Like, white?" At least when I stare at him incredulously he has the decency to look embarrassed and say "I don't mean that how it sounds, I just mean, she's normal Aussie?" As though the idea that being a white person is what’s ‘normal’ and anything else is a deviation.

It’s true that there are benefits to being light skinned in a world that values whiteness above all else, but I would rather try to tear that system down than reject part of who I am simply to fit into it

I’ve been taught my whole life that women should never cause a scene in public and that kindness is the best way to educate, so I swallow my anger and take a sip of my drink. I choose my words carefully, and try to reassure my date that he's probably not racist, telling him gently that words matter and the idea that white is 'normal' in any sense is a problematic, let alone in a country as multicultural as Australia.

Maybe I should have spoken angrily, maybe I should have stormed out, because instead of listening, he insists that he didn't mean it in a racist way. He tells me that I know how progressive he is, how he would never say anything intentionally harmful, how he’s a good person, really. Not an apology or reflection to be found.

This is much more than just a bad date; this is the casual racism that I’ve heard from co-workers, dates and acquaintances my entire life, no matter which country I’ve been living in. It’s people telling me I’m a “basically a white person” or that I’m not proper south Asian. It’s their surprise at how quickly my skin darkens in the sun or their comment that I don’t look or sound like what they expected given my name.

While I’m no stranger to casual racism, there’s an extra sting and added complexity when it happens on a date

These things are minor compared to the outright racism and prejudice darker skinned people face, but it’s as if people think that having Anglo heritage means that I’ll agree with them that being white is somehow more desirable. People can’t possibly understand why, as someone who’s part white, I don’t want to make that my identity or make an effort to be seen as “more white than not”.

It’s as though people think that being mixed race means having discrete, non-white parts of me that I want to cut out or hide. Because surely, if you had the option, you’d want to be white, right? Of course it’s true that there are benefits to being light skinned in a world that values whiteness above all else, but I would rather try to tear that system down than reject part of who I am simply to fit into it. I’d sooner cut out my heart than deny the brown blood that runs through my veins and the beauty and strength of all the family who came before me. A position I’m certainly privileged to be able to take.

While I’m no stranger to casual racism, there’s an extra sting and added complexity when it happens on a date. Dating is about connection – open minds and open hearts – and there’s an element of vulnerability that makes these comments hurt all the more. We also date in good faith, on the understanding that the other person isn’t trying to hurt us, so how much benefit of the doubt do you give someone in these circumstances?

The problem with casual racism is that these words and actions have impact – and cause hurt – regardless of how they were intended. I know my dates didn’t mean to be hurtful, and that there are likely to be many people reading this wondering ‘what’s the big deal?’ The reality is that the world we live in values whiteness and treats it as the default with everything else as ‘other’. Do you want your words and actions to continue this narrative or change it? I know what I choose.

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