My father once said to me, “Keziah, there will be no Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner around here. Don’t you bring me home no blonde haired, blue eyed baby!” If you’ve seen the original 1967 movie starring Sidney Poitier or its loose remake Guess Who? (2005), you would understand immediately what he meant. I remember laughing, “I’ll marry whoever I want!” I knew my father was teasing because after all, he was the one who taught me to give people a chance, and base my opinions about who they are as human beings on their actions rather than their looks.
The lessons my father instilled within me served me well when navigating environments where I was one of the few or the only African American in the room. And it was those very values that kept me from balking when a random white guy messaged me on Facebook about Arabic music. Yep, that’s how I met my husband–on Facebook. Of course, the platform was different then, only allowing allowed users who could verify college enrollment. Though I did realize he was white, it didn’t have any bearing on whether or not we could be friends. In fact, once we did meet face-to-face, the first physical characteristic I noticed was not his complexion but his height– at 6’2’ he stood a full foot taller than me.
Eventually, our friendship blossomed into something more; he took the shahada (declaration of faith), and we found ourselves walking down the proverbial aisle. I won’t lie and say I wasn’t anxious about how we would maneuver in society as a mixed raced, Muslim couple. I could see no reference points for us to draw from at all. I could not name one black and white couple in my community in Philadelphia and I still can’t. Thanks to Facebook, I’ve connected with other similar family units across the country, which eases the sense that we are an anomaly. Still, the added layer of race in conjunction with the responsibilities of being young converts to Islam, college students, and expecting parents meant that our marriage, in its nascent stage was high risk.
We muddled through, but trying to excel as students, employees, parents and spouses, all while continuing to grow in our faith was a tall order. With little communal support for converts like us, we often felt like we were barely keeping our heads above water. To complicate things further, we live in a city where you will run into Muslims from almost every sect and offshoot of Islam. I still remember a man who belonged to the Nation of Islam adamant in his efforts to persuade me that my husband couldn’t possibly be Muslim because he was white! More often though, the ignorance was subtle rather than blatant. I was especially sensitive to the prolonged stares my family received when out in public. I could never tell if the piercing, curious eyes were noting the height difference between my husband and me, inspecting our son, with his a blonde curly fro, light eyes and full red lips, or judging our difference in race.
The gawking looks always bothered me, but Matthew seemed impervious to them. He once tried to comfort me, saying “Don’t worry about it.” Indignant, I icely retorted, “My skin color doesn’t afford me the luxury of not worrying about it. I’ve had to worry about it my whole life.” Mortified that I felt he had been insensitive, he tried to explain himself, but the ensuing argument only resulted in the two of us both talking past one other, eager to validate our own point of view.
We didn’t solve anything that evening, but we eventually learned to appreciate the other’s perspective. I understood that my husband didn’t want me to spend too much time dwelling on how people perceived our little family. We had to be in our moment, in our bubble and leave the judgments of others outside. Matthew realized that I simply wanted him to listen to me when I needed to vent about my discomfort in certain spaces and scenarios.
Ten years later, I reflect on the many conversations my husband and I have had about race. What we’ve learned, and what we tell others in mixed marriages, is to accept, never to dismiss, the point of view of your spouse as a lived and valid one. And whoever has racial privilege in the relationship should always support and stick up for the one who may experience a greater degree of marginalization or discrimination, both from family members and the larger society. To be in an interracial marriage takes commitment, but it is no harder than being with someone from the same racial background. The issues that arise may be different, but the solution’s still the same: empathy and communication.
Keziah S. Ridgeway is a High School Social Studies Teacher, wife, mother of four children, and the creator of Philly Hijabis Killing It. She currently resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.