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Less than thirty years ago, South Africa still had laws strictly prohibiting "interracial" intimacy. In this study, participants shared stories of living in Cape Town with a partner of a different "race" and invoked spatial metaphors, of boundaries and border crossing, describing their experiences in cartographical, "landscaped" language. This article reflects on how these metaphors relate to deeper social dynamics that shape the lives of those in "race"—trangressing relationships, and their own sense of agency in managing the correlative inner landscape. We suggest that these relationships are symbolic sites where society performs processes of ongoing racialization.


race, post-apartheid South Africa, interracial relationships, border crossing, racialized identities

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With the demise of apartheid, South Africa embarked on a path towards a democracy that espouses the ideal of a non-racist, non-sexist society. While there has been significant political change, extreme inequality and polarization characterizes the racial landscape (Hofmeyr and Govender 2015). South African organizations, institutions, and public spaces remain largely, if informally, segregated (Dixon, Tredoux, and Clack 2005; Finchilescu et al. 2007; Durrheim and Dixon 2010; Alexander and Tredoux 2010). Non–work-related engagement across apartheid era racial groups remains exceptional. This is true especially of intimate relationships, where racial homogeneity continues to characterize the norm.

As part of a larger research program on racialized relationships, we conducted semi-structured interviews between 2000 and 2009 with seventeen Cape Town-based persons in committed intimate "interracial" relationships, to explore their experience in post-apartheid South Africa. Our sample was not limited to heterosexual couples—four participants were in same sex relationships—and we were fortunate to engage people from a broad demographic and age spectrum. Cape Town was chosen as the site for our study simply because we were resident in the area at the time of the research.

As they shared stories of building their lives with a partner of a different "race,"1 many of our participants invoked spatial metaphors, often of borders and border crossing, describing their experiences in cartographical, "landscaped" language. Their accounts also disclosed the emotions evoked by these experiences, revealing that the racial borders they described continue to be significant, even as they attempt to live beyond race thinking. Given the frequent metaphors of inner landscapes, we employed systematic metaphor analysis (Lakoff and Johnson 1980; Schmitt 2005) to analyze our data. Schmitt highlights that people rarely use metaphors consciously to understand the world but that metaphors actually frame the imaginations according to which we live. He notes, "We as individuals, groups, and in our culture have unconscious metaphorical thinking patterns, which are simply taken as "givens." The analysis of metaphors aims to shed light on these metaphorical thinking patterns. . . . Seen in this light, metaphors are not tools, but rather form a structure in which we live" (Schmitt 2005, 360). Apartheid was imagined and institutionalized through a structured system of racial categorizations literalized into segregated spatial arrangements. [End Page 268] Space was racially demarcated for every facet of "normal" life—working, dwelling and being—zoned by laws and clearly signposted in the everyday environment. The racially boundaried way of thinking about sociality was deeply etched in the personal psychologies, the social imaginary, and the sense of moral order of South Africans (Mbembe 2004; Ballard and Steyn 2013).

Our study participants drew on this landscaped imaginary to make sense of their experience, the inner self and outer reality being mutually constitutive. In evoking an internal landscape of racially circumscribed territories, of boundaries enclosing the "normal" that their relationships transgress, our participants deconstruct the modernist divide between "internal" and "external" realities. Our article therefore reflects on how these metaphors relate to the deeper social dynamics that shape and influence the lives of those in relationships that are read as "race"-transgressing, and their sense of their own agency in managing the correlative inner landscape.

Scholars such as Childs (2005) argue that existing research on "interracial" intimacy rarely problematizes dominant understandings of race as essential, biological, and fixed. As a result, socially constructed racial categories remain taken-for-granted social divisions (sometimes even by the couples themselves). Rather, social distance between racial groups is normalized as scholars theorize the "opportunity structures" which increase the likelihood that individuals will cross the "color line" (Kalmijn and Flap 2001; Yancey 2002; Dunleavy 2004; Harris and Ono 2005; Joyner and Kao 2005), or the "variables" that determine interracial marriage "quality" (Leslie 2004; Troy, Lewis-Smith, and Laurenceau 2006; Forry 2007; Qian 2007). Even more, the ways in which studies position interracial relationships as "abnormal" social phenomena in need of scientific explanation further reifies essentialist conceptualizations of race.

As Childs argues, the more interesting question than why such couples get together is why "more individuals do not come together across lines" (2005, 182). For Childs, the presence of coexisting separate social worlds is made evident by the fact that "most citizens live, work, and socialize with others of the same race—as if living within borders, so to speak—even though there are no longer legal barriers such as separate facilities or laws against intermarriage" (2005, 11). Childs is interested primarily in the ways in which black-white couples in the United States move through these separated social worlds, asking "do [black-white couples] navigate the [End Page 269] racial borders by enforcing, ignoring, or actively trying to dismantle them?" (2005, 1) Through questions such as these, Childs is able to capture the broader social discourses which construct and maintain interpersonal distance between black and white Americans. The strength of this approach for the South African context is that centering the outward gaze—from the site of transgression to the broader society—subverts the more usual dominant discourses that privilege homogeity in intimacy.

Our study provides further evidence that "within the social worlds of interracial couples borders certainly exist—borders between black and white and between race and sexuality" (Childs 2005, 11). We are interested in how the couples themselves experience the society in which they are located and how they are impacted by the continuing social salience of racial thinking and feeling, also as these intersect with other aspects of identity and positionality.

The frequency of intimate "interracial" or "mixed race" relationships has often been interpreted as an indicator of broader "race relations." The assumption here is that "interracial" romantic companionship is hard to achieve in the context of racial prejudice and inequality (Kalmijn 1998). As these decrease, one might expect the rate of "interracial" unions to increase as it should become easier to live from day to day as an "interracial" couple. Boundary-crossing relationships would, by this logic, stand as privileged indicators for what in South Africa is generally termed "transformation." Contrary to this view that progress toward a more just society and improved intergroup relations can be measured simply by the amount of contact or the number of "interracial" relationships (Golebiowska 2007; Feliciano, Robnett, and Komaie 2009; Qian and Lichter 2011), we argue that how those living at/in racial interfaces experience the society should be taken as the measure of how far we have come toward a society free of racial harm. The extent to which these relationships remain sites on and through which society performs "race work" in renewing, re-inscribing or deconstructing the salience of race, the extent to which couples deal with racialized understandings of, and even within, their own partnerships, the intensity of Othering they confront—these are more searching indicators of how the norms of organizing society have progressed beyond inscribing race. People will rarely refer to the racial characteristics of a relationship when a couple is viewed as homogenous, and therefore "normal"; for example, "Look! That couple is in a white relationship," or, "Look, that couple is in a black relationship." Yet "mixed" or "interracial" relationships remain [End Page 270] positioned as remark-able. "Interracial" relationships as sites of "race work" in society are relatively under-researched with notable exceptions carried out in North and South America (Dalmage 2000; Burton et al. 2010; Osuji 2013). We draw attention to how society's "race work" is performed on such relationships in the expression "racialized relationships."

Lamont and Molnar (2002) in The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences suggest that greater attention should be paid to "symbolic boundaries within and between groups" (174). They highlight that the disappearance of social boundaries (as between East and West Germans) is often not followed by the disappearance of symbolic boundaries but rather by their intensification (2002, 186). They suggest that the "properties of boundaries," including their porousness, "should be studied systematically across class, race/ethnic and gender/sexual lines" (2002, 187). We explore the "properties" of the boundaries in recounted experiences of those inhabiting racial border areas, but note that more work can be done particularly in looking at the way class differences impact on the experiences of racialized couples.

Racialized Relationships in South Africa

Prior to the election of the Nationalist government in 1948, official policy in South Africa enforced segregation between "Europeans" and "Natives." Difference was territorialized and segregated through land dispossession (Native Land Act of 1913), restrictions on indigenous African population mobility (Urban Areas Act of 1923) and a prohibition on "illicit carnal intercourse" between nonmarried people of different racially defined groups (Immorality Act of 1927).

In apartheid South Africa, the Population Registration Act (1950) outlined the requirements and procedures for classifying and reclassifying the South African population into three main racial groups: "White," "Native" (renamed several times as, for example, "Bantu," and "Plurals"), and "Coloured." It was later amended to create a fourth group, "Indian."2 White supremacist ideology was cloaked under the rationalization that racial groups required separate development in order to retain their cultural "authenticity." The Population Registration Act (1950), the Group Areas Act (1950), the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (1953), and the Pass Laws (The Black (Natives) Laws Amendment Act of 1952)3 were some of the [End Page 271] most notorious pieces of legislation entrenching spatial arrangements as a weapon of white supremacist rule. The apartheid government's need to maintain distance between the white minority "center" and the black majority "periphery" was further entrenched in the creation of "Homelands" for the indigenous black Africans, requiring them to acquire permits and carry special identification to be in urban areas. Urban areas were racially segregated into zones "where members of one specific race alone could live and work," often forcibly removing those who became designated as forbidden strangers within the new racially exclusive spaces (Thompson 1990, 194).

More than this, though, relational distance was also enforced through the policing of intimate spaces and desires.4 The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act 55 (1949) and the Immorality Amendment Act 21 (1950) legislated the private sphere in accordance with the general apartheid program of protecting the "purity" of the white race. The former outlawed marriages between white people and people of "other" races;5 the latter prohibited "unlawful racial intercourse" and "any immoral or indecent act" between a white person and a black, Indian or "Coloured" person. Together, these forms of legislation created separate racial, cultural, and classed enclaves in which "Black," "Indian," and "Coloured" people were estranged from one another and excluded from the affluent "Whites only" spaces, institutions, and sectors of the labor market. As Sherman and Steyn (2009, 1) comment, "Cross cultural relationships have necessarily involved transgression of boundaries separating different groups in the power hierarchy" while "sex across the racial lines threatened the Eurocentric order of racial hierarchy."

After 1994, when segregationist policies were replaced with policies and laws mandating redress, South Africa "seemed set for a shining future of racial equality and integration; the promise of a "rainbow nation" beckoned" (Durrheim and Dixon 2005, 3). Understandably, the demise of formal segregation created an interest in patterns and processes of racial desegregation. Observing that racial integration had not gained momentum as many had expected upon the demise of apartheid, scholars have become concerned with why and how informal segregation remains a strong feature in South African society today (Durrheim and Dixon 2003; Ballard 2004; Finchilescu et al. 2007; Durrheim and Dixon 2010; Alexander and Tredoux 2010; Gibson and Claassen 2010; Parry and Eeden 2015).

The substantial empirical evidence indicating the persistence of informal segregation pushes the problematic to the non-physical, symbolic [End Page 272] borders that perpetuate these apartheid-era racialized spaces. How South Africans continue to imagine their lives mapped by an apartheid-era racial cartography, how these borders are (re)constructed through everyday discourses, and most importantly, how power relations still maintain these borders—these are questions that beg answers.

Not a great deal of literature exists on "interracial" couples in South Africa. A statistical study conducted a decade ago claimed that the rates of "interracial marriage" in South Africa are much lower than in other countries (Jacobson, Amoateng, and Heaton 2004, 455). Although a complete figure is not ventured due to the limitations of their data, the authors suggest that the rate is likely to be even lower than in the United States, where the "out-marriage" rate stands at around three percent. The authors conclude, "The harshness of the apartheid system and its continuing effects seem to override the effects of both relative group size and the social exchanges that occur in more egalitarian societies where exchanges across racial and ethnic lines occur more easily" (Jacobson, Amoateng, and Heaton 2004, 456). In contrast to these conclusions, a qualitative study of a small sample of individuals in racialized relationships in South Africa indicates a striking lack of concern for race amongst interviewees (Sherman and Steyn 2009). The authors draw the initial conclusion that this may be attributable to their membership of a closely-knit, class specific group.

Spatiality, Borders, and Boundary Crossing

Delaney (2002, 7) observes that "race—in all of its complexity and ambiguity, as ideology and identity—is what it is and does what it does precisely because of how it is given spatial expression." As much as race theory has helped geographers to understand how space works to define power relations and identities, spatial arrangement, and the thinking that shapes its contours, assists us to understand how race continues to do its work. As Kolossov (2005, 619) argues, "Boundaries which existed in the remote past can usually be easily found in the cultural and political landscape, and sometimes even remain quite visible in the physical landscape."

The enmeshment of border thinking and the related external realities we bring about is spelt out by Puumala (2010) when she elaborates on the power relations that structure borders. She argues that the binary logic of the West "is about borders, frontiers, boundaries and lines. It is [End Page 273] also about categorizing things and people in neat groups that inhabit a specific territory" (74). The distinctions made between insiders and outsiders, selves and others, citizens and refugees are some of the binaries that color our political and social imagination. Understood in this way, borders are mechanisms for political projects of group building and consolidation that under certain circumstances can be crossed by some despite rigorous and selective policing. Whether physical or symbolic, borders are socially constructed, affective markers of difference, in which adjacent "territories" of identification are associated with unequal relations of power. Thus, while borders may traditionally have been considered to be geo-political and objective physical markers, subjective borders, too, are measures to control the mobility and freedom of bodies and psyches in the interests of dominant social groups, serving sectional interests, often in ways that are unacknowledged and even invisible. Noting, "The concept of a boundary has been central to the study of ethnic and racial inequality as an alternative to more static cultural or even biological theories of ethnic and racial differences," Lamont and Molnar (2002, 174) observe that while boundaries are sites of separation and exclusion, they also hold the potential for "communication, exchange, bridging and inclusion" (2002, 181).

Pratt (1999) and Ahmed (2002) have argued that borders, and the binaries which they maintain, have the function of constructing a sense of "Self" and the "inside" through the creation of an "Other" on the "outside." Talking back to the binaries of western modernity, post-colonial/decolonial thinking has for some time highlighted the in-between space of the borderlands (Anzaldúa 1987; Bhabha 1994). Mignolo and Tlostanova (2006, 206) argue,

Border thinking or theorizing emerged from and as a response to the violence (frontiers) of imperial/territorial epistemology and the rhetoric of modernity (and globalization) of salvation that continues to be implemented on the assumption of the inferiority or devilish intentions of the Other and, therefore, continues to justify oppression and exploitation as well as eradication of the difference.

In other words, while border-making operates in the interests of social control and domination, border-dwelling (physically, psychologically, symbolically) can subvert these dichotomies. "Smudging" the lines, as racialized couples do, is a threat to the status quo. [End Page 274]

The racialized couple, and what it signals about dangerous alternatives to the norm of homogeneity and the unequal power relations sameness protects, is the Other to the "normal relationship" secured "inside" the boundaries. Our participants' descriptions of the ways in which (inter)raciality operates through metaphors of landscapes, of boundaries separating belonging and otherness, and of transgressive borders, bring into sharp relief the affective, spatial, historical, and power relations that infuse the experience of post-colonial racialized embodiment (Shome 2011) in the new South Africa.

Method and Sample

To explore the affective experiences of border-dwelling for racialized couples in post-apartheid South Africa, we conducted in-depth, semi-structured qualitative interviews with seventeen individuals who were involved in intimate relationships in Cape Town at the time of the interviews.6 While Cape Town was chosen due to its proximity for the research team (based at the University of Cape Town at the time), it also proved to be an effective microcosm of the couples' broader experiences in South Africa as a whole—with some participants speaking favorably of their experience in Cape Town, while others experience it as very hostile to "race"-transgressors, depending on their positionality.

Parry and Eeden (2015) found that segregation levels have decreased in Cape Town between 1991 and 2011. However, despite this decrease, the city remains highly racially segregated, even more than Johannesburg. While acknowledging that there are significant differences in experience depending on the city or region, we do believe that the findings from this study are generalizable to other parts of South Africa, based on the researchers' personal observations and reports of ongoing racial tension across the country, as well as the fact that the participants shared experiences from across South Africa not just in Cape Town.

The research team used a combination of purposive and snowball sampling to identify individuals from within its existing social networks and beyond. Print and electronic media were also used to advertise the project and attract potential respondents. Our sample, purposefully small, featured individuals from a wide demographic spectrum. All the participants expressed their comfort with being interviewed in English. Of the seventeen [End Page 275] interviews, five couples were interviewed (e.g. where both partners were interviewed individually) and seven individuals were interviewed (e.g. where only one partner out of the couple was interviewed). At the time of data collection, all but one participant were living in predominantly "white" areas. For eleven of the seventeen interviewees, their relationship at the time of the interview was not their first "interracial" relationship, so in their responses they commented both on current and past relationships.

Participants were necessarily South African (or permanent residents of South Africa), although their partners often were not. While some participants were younger, coming of age in the new South Africa, others were older, and thus able to reflect on the experience of interracial intimacy during apartheid. Our sample was not limited to heterosexual couples—four participants were in same sex relationships—and we were fortunate to engage participants from a spectrum of class backgrounds. Thus, the participants in our study were able to illuminate a wide range of experiences from their diverse positionalities.

Foreign Lands, Separation, and Displacement

Many of our participants employed imagery drawn from the past and present segregation in Cape Town as they described a society that perpetuates a norm of spatial, cultural and psychological distance between racial groups, and of having had to cross a line to "somewhere else" when they entered into a racially non-normative relationship. Significantly, there is an undeserved toll on many of those who leave the established order, often in the form of on-going feelings of "outsideness," even within the intimate spaces in which they conduct their relationship. Significant, too, is that the feelings of alienation, even self-alienation, were expressed only by the partners who came from non-dominant racial groups. A few examples of these experiences are described below.

Jacob: The Challenge to Find the Common Ground

Jacob, a middle-aged coloured man in a long-term relationship with a white man, reflected on the limits imposed on socializing with other racial groups growing up under apartheid. Explaining that it was only at the age of 19 and through enrolment at a university that he started coming into contact [End Page 276] with white people on a daily basis, Jacob spoke about the foreignness of the "white world" to him as a coloured man: "I never had experiences of socializing with white people . . . there was a 'them' and 'us' perception so it just never seemed possible that the two could actually meet, that the two could have common ground anywhere . . . so for me race was like a major issue from the start." His metaphor of an impossible "common ground" evokes the prohibition of being in the same space, and therefore of shared experience, of mutuality. Addressing the foreignness of worlds beyond the "coloured" social life he had grown up in, Jacob reveals the inner cartographies of restriction and exclusion created during the apartheid era. He talked about the vast economic, cultural, linguistic, and religious divides, barriers that seemingly could not be bridged or negotiated.

Despite this account of constructed racial remoteness, Jacob was at pains to emphasize the normality of two lives meeting. He noted, "It didn't feel like a boundary or watershed moment. It just, ja, it was just part of life." The experience of coming together through the ordinary human happenstance of mutual attraction and the desire to be together, renders strange, rather, a world that marks the relationship as Other simply for finding commonality. In deemphasizing the experience of boundary transgression, Jacob (and some other participants) position their relationship as unremarkable, and refuse it being rendered odd by society; this, paradoxically even as he acknowledges the numerous proscriptions his relationship has challenged.

Carina: On the Outside—Everywhere and Nowhere

Carina, a coloured woman, evoked an element of the nomadic as she reflected on her experiences of having dated men from different racial backgrounds. She describes feeling on the "outside":

When I was in a relationship with the guy from Britain, um, I definitely felt like I had crossed like a cultural boundary as well as a race boundary. I felt like, because I was going out with an Indian guy, most of his friends were Indian, and his parents were Indian, and obviously like his family. I did feel like an outsider, in that situation. Um, I did feel different, like the "other," um . . . So I'd say that was the most, that was the strongest feeling that I have had that I'd crossed a boundary. With Themba sometimes it does feel like that a bit, um, especially, you know, where if I'm in a group of his friends and they're all speaking Xhosa. [End Page 277]

Carina also, however, describes her experiences of crossing into communities she would never have visited previously: "I wouldn't have gone into Langa, for instance, or Khayelitsha and like, kind of gone there for fun, before or anything. And now. . . I've learnt a bit about my city I think that, you know, because it's such a segregated place, and I've actually seen more of my city actually just going out with Themba." Carina's description of going to neighborhoods that she would not have visited before dating Themba demonstrates the clear interplay between crossing interpersonal boundaries and crossing the informal social and spatial borders that still exist between Cape Town's highly segregated communities. She is very aware of the segregation and doesn't minimize it, nor the experience of crossing the "color line" in her personal relationship. In fact, her account shows that the boundary she crossed in both relationships did not take her into a deracialized "third" space, but rather into a deeper experience of how racializing exclusion operates at the micro level of the personal, as well its exclusionary, homogenizing, and ultimately impoverishing effects on whole communities.

Carina's coping mechanism has been to create a compartmentalized inner world to correspond to "all these different worlds": "It's weird because I feel like I'm a part of all these different worlds, you know. . . . It's like all these different worlds."

Nadia: Feeling Out of Place

A twenty-eight-year-old coloured woman, Nadia, left the spatial context of her home and family to be with her white partner, moving from the predominantly "Coloured" community of Ocean View to Kommetjie, a predominantly "White" community: "Kommetjie is white, but um, it's Afrikaans and English people and I don't think they are actually like, racist. I don't think that Kommetjie is like, a racist place. I don't think so, because you've got like Africans, well, some. And, um there's actually like um, people in Kommetjie that's friends with people in Ocean View." Yet she described an experience of feeling "out of place" in her white partner's family home. "I always used to go to his house and I always felt like, out of place and stuff like that," she said. "If it's a birthday or something and there's like only white people and you're like the only coloured, na, then you feel like out of place or something." This feeling [End Page 278] still persisted seven years later, after they had married. Delaney (2002) notes micro spaces as important sites where race and racialized identities are continually worked and reworked: "The geographies of race that we inhabit also include the gated community, the boardroom and the faculty lounge, the dish room, the locker room, the stitching room, the class room, the convenience store, the cafeteria, the public spaces, and—perhaps especially—home" (2002, 6; emphasis in the original). For Nadia the personal, localized space of home and family is a site of hyper-visibility, indeed of hyper-racialization: the "race work" message from the family is that as a less desirable partner you disqualify the relationship from ever really belonging in their home. Her account reveals how the most strongly felt boundaries, borders and "out of place" experiences may be encountered where we most seek personal validation, acceptance, belonging, and inclusion, and therefore are most vulnerable in these spaces. Here the racializing gaze is most acutely felt as alienating and threatening to personal ontology and relational well-being.

This corresponds closely with a sentiment expressed by Frank, another participant who said that the most uncomfortable space for him is "in Elise's house with her mother. But everywhere else is fine."

Bonnie: Staying on This Side of the World

Bonnie related her detachment from her community subsequent to entering her relationship with a white woman. She felt she had escaped to another "side of the world." Her description suggests that only a huge distance would seem sufficient to explain such incommensurability, such profoundly different "societies," unaffected by each other. It necessitates, or perhaps facilitates, a choice between the two:

I think it's probably easier to remove yourself from the community and now live this life, um, and then not having to see what's actually happening there, not take responsibility for what's happening there . . . in the beginning of our relationship I think, it was like, if we break up then I won't be able, I felt like I won't be able to keep staying on this side of the world, I will have to go back into the community, you understand, that's like, I don't want to be there. [End Page 279]

Bonnie experiences a process of "whitening" that is enabled by her association with a white partner—a classed transition into relative comfort, and the opportunity to put out of mind the nastiness of entrenched racialized poverty—a transition that she feels she would have been unlikely to make any other way. The rhetoric of vast metaphorical distance "naturaliz[es] inequalities in the economy, law enforcement and education system" (Dwyer and Jones 2000, 214) removing personal "responsibility for what's happening there." Reproducing the inevitability of a racially stratified society, Bonnie holds a mirror to a highly riven society where race means you can't integrate where you come from with where you want to go. In a society that still operates along highly racialized power differentials, Bonnie reveals her felt dependency on her white partner for an escape to a better life, an unequal economy of need and neediness. Accepting the bargain, she enters an ongoing re-racializing dynamic within the relationship, where the internalized different life opportunities associated with different places, and races, are unequally, perhaps even demeaningly, brought together through her gratitude for the beneficence whiteness bestows.

Liberation, Exploration, Adventure

In contrast to those described above, there were a number of other participants that seemed energized by trouncing the system that sought to confine them in racially demarcated ways. In their images they were active, even enthusiastic, agents of boundary crossing. The intersectionality with positionalities privileged within the racialized power dynamics in broader society is clear, as these participants were predominantly either male or white, or both. In fact, none of the white participants described the experience of their relationships in terms of separation and displacement.

Michael: Wholes Masses of Uncharted Territory

Michael, a twenty-nine-year-old coloured man living in the predominantly coloured community of Ocean View, noted that "there was very much a sense of crossing over into something different or pioneering in a way" when he became involved with his current partner, a white woman whom he had been dating for eighteen months at the time of the interview. Recounting his memory of when restrictions on interracial intimacy were [End Page 280] officially removed, he spoke in metaphors of discovery and exploration of a new social terrain:

Pre-'94 it was almost like, you know, you'd find yourself . . . wanting to do things, but not being able to and then afterwards it's like . . . whole masses of uncharted territory, you know, there's a whole world to explore that you can now do without it being illegal. . . . [It] made me want to almost be a pioneer in getting the lines blurred or showing people that coloureds aren't the way that you used to think they are, and black people aren't the way, and white people aren't the way.

Michael's characterization of the liberty to which he gained access after the end of apartheid speaks directly, and powerfully, to the presence of the restrictive boundaries that, until the early 1990s, inhibited his physical, social and romantic mobility. References to land and geography are made evident as he refers to the "uncharted territory" that opened up for him. New friends and new lovers comprise the novel, and legal, world he can now "explore." For Michael, the existence of borders creates a desire to experience what lies beyond, a kind of wanderlust, as the desire for otherness and/or personal self-exploration pulls the adventurous across into the unknown, which he couples with a personal and political obligation to instruct an uninformed, limited society. However, he also describes how this zeal subsided as he relaxed about having to make a point through his life choices:

After a while you don't even think. You don't even notice that this person is not the same race, they just your partner, you know what I mean. It doesn't matter. Ten years ago, maybe it did matter in the initial, getting to know them, 'cause you first had to cross the race barrier on a friendship level, you know what I mean, so that was really different. Now, like, 10 years down the line, it's like, I don't feel intimidated speaking to anyone.

Michael's spatial metaphors, while reminiscent of colonial metaphors of conquest, represent rather the converse of colonial conquest—a decolonizing impulse to reclaim the right to relate freely, unconstrained by the artificiality imposed by institutionalized white supremacist attempts to maintain racial "purity." At the same time, the intersection of his racial [End Page 281] positioning with masculinity in a highly patriarchal society suggest that the metaphor of opening up new territory may still entail conquest in a traditionally gendered way. In this case, it may even include a dimension of racialized male vindication, the satisfaction of penetrating territory that had been out of bounds, the purview of the white man—the white woman. Michael's choice may be political in more than one way.

Richard: Pushing Boundaries

From a very different historical position of power, but sharing a sense that what he is doing is instructive to broader society, Richard, a thirty-eight-year-old white man married to a black woman, used the metaphor of "pushing boundaries" in ascribing meaning to his relationship with a black woman: "As a South African, I am sort of leading in terms of pushing boundaries a bit, and I believe that that's the right thing to do. So, you know, this relationship has been a part of that—pushing boundaries." Richard positions boundary-shifting work as a personal statement, a confirmation of himself as a South African displaying leadership in changing the status quo. Unless people like him dismantle racial borders through romantic involvement, they remain firmly intact, preserving social arrangements at odds with the aspirations of the new society. His rhetoric positions racial transgression as a progressive political achievement, a kind of vanguardism of subjectivity. It is possible to read in this position both a sense of taking responsibility for the change you want to see in society, but perhaps also an overestimation of the capability of the individual and interpersonal to dismantle the systemic injustices of a racial hierarchy—ironically an individualistic ideological position often associated with whiteness. It may reveal an element of the tendency in liberal whiteness to assume to take charge of setting the terms of racial dispensation (Biko 1987). The relationship offers him, in at least in some respects, an opportunity to enact his whiteness.

Neo: You Never Go Back

Neo, a young black man in a relationship with a white woman, also appeared to gain an enhanced sense of identity from breaking racial taboos. He evoked an image of "no return" to an earlier place of departure, drawing [End Page 282] on the racial myth of black male sexual prowess, that "once you go black, you never go back":

If a white girl goes out with a black guy, then they never come back. You know, it's the other way around as well. Like, for a black guy, once you go out with a white girl, you'll never come back, I think, the significance behind it, it's partly true because it's a new culture and you just discover and learn and it makes your other culture not interesting anymore.

Neo does not problematize the gendered, racializing, and sexualizing implications of his analogy, seeming rather to embrace them. Reversing the metaphor of an ineluctable journey ever deeper into the excitement of an exoticized blackness (McClintock 1995; Fanon 2008), he is drawn toward opportunity, to being challenged personally and culturally. The higher status of "white culture" may also provide some of the interest, as he seems to imply that the white girl's culture has more to offer than that which no longer interests him. Certainly, though, he rejects the social injunction to embrace sameness, which he judges to be simply uninteresting.

Susan: Breaking Down Barriers and Broadening Horizons

Another person who experienced her relationship as "breaking down the barriers that have been built up by apartheid," is Susan, a white woman in a long-term relationship with an Indian husband (Nasir, below): "The one thing that apartheid was incredibly successful at was keeping people apart and keeping us ignorant of each other's culture and keeping us ignorant of South African culture as a whole . . . all of us grew up with huge gaps in our knowledge and understanding of our own people." She noted, "I've gained insight into a world that I didn't have an insight into before and I think that's been a beneficial thing. I think it's broadened my horizons." Susan's language is the language of empowerment: developing an understanding of the "lay of the land," of seeing more of the terrain, having a better sense of perspective—allowing for surer navigation of the societal terrain. The sense of how much she has gained suggests that the conforming broader society remains ignorant in significant ways, in fact inadequately prepared for the complexity of a reality characterized by diversity. [End Page 283]

In contrast, the language of her husband of eighteen years, Nasir, a fifty-year-old Indian man, is instructive. He uses the metaphor of being "alien," as if arriving in foreign territory, to describe his early encounters with white contexts: "To be in white people's homes, and dealing with their kind of cultural practices and, not so much religious practices. I felt, it was alien to me and quite awkward, actually, you know. [But] one settled into it after a while."

While Nasir's description suggests a process of personal challenge and acculturation, Susan emphasizes "looking in at" another world. Susan talked more about the knowledge gaps and ignorance that resulted from apartheid-era segregation; Nasir talked about the visceral experience of feeling out of place and the need, or pressure, to adjust oneself in the other's world. Susan seems subjectively less implicated in processes of adaptation, which may be a function of relative racial power carried into the relationship. Dwyer and Jones point to this possibility in their observation that "white people can paradoxically hover over social diversity just as they become the yardstick for its measurement" (2000, 210). They note the way in which this protects whiteness from destabilization.

Julie, Maureen, and Sara: A Surprisingly Easy Crossing

For some participants, the metaphorical distance that they felt in crossing into a relationship with a racial "Other" was minimized in their language. We noticed this pattern particularly in white participants who rather cited class or culture, sometimes in striking contrast to relatively alienating experiences their partners describe. This may reflect how the power relations in the broader society play out in subtle ways within the relationships, too.

Julie, a white woman in a relationship with a coloured man, described her experience as "surprisingly easy" with no "racially related problems," but she provides some clues as to why this is the case in her subsequent interpretation of her boyfriend's racial identification:

The thing with Simon is that he is not really a coloured guy. . . . I mean he is coloured but his interests are similar to mine. His way of speaking is similar to mine. He's not like into cars with mag wheels and like hip hop, you know? He doesn't really invite that kind of analysis of himself by anyone else. I think when you meet him first, you will notice he is coloured. But once you have chatted to him, if you are white, you won't see him as different. [End Page 284]

Julie's comments show a frankly chauvinistic view of "coloured" identity, indicating that her husband's cultural "whiteness" has necessitated little adjustment on her part; he is assimilated into her style of being in a way that preserves her comfort. Apparently unaware of the unequal footing this whitening pressure establishes, and rather than allowing her relationship to challenge her essentialist stereotypes, she views him as an exception which enables her to be a "good white" that does not "see" race.

Other white participants, like Maureen, also did not associate the boundary crossing in their relationships directly with race. Instead, having grown up with a coloured step-mother and now dating a black Congolese man, she felt that the border she had crossed in this relationship was more about metaphorically "leaving" South Africa.

[The feeling of crossing boundaries] wasn't so much Jeremy's race. I suppose it was part of that because they are not completely unconnected. . . . I think it was more the fact that he comes from a totally different country. I mean he is Congolese and French speaking. So it was more that it really felt like I was moving away from South Africa, really and encountering African values and families and ways of being in the world which were notably different from South African. But I really liked that.

Maureen also noted that even though she feels like an outsider in Jeremy's family, she is there on her own terms.

I think I will always be a bit of an outsider. . . . But I think at the moment I don't think it's that much of an issue because I go and I am in Jeremy's environment on my own terms. I am not living in Congo, or you know... I can just go home and be my full self really. . . . He says he doesn't want to go back because it's not the place he grew up in. But of course he does need to go back at some point and I would also like to see it. But in terms of living in an environment which is different or outside who I am, I don't think I could handle that.

Maureen's final comment highlights that as a member of the dominant racial group, she is able to live in an "interracial" context without needing to renegotiate the premises of her selfhood. It is possible that some individuals sitting within the circle of white privilege may indeed not have crossed [End Page 285] any significant boundaries at the level of personal subjectivity. As noted by Lamont and Molnar (2002, 172) in their discussion of Pierre Bourdieu's 1984 work Distinction, "Dominant groups generally succeed in legitimizing their own culture and ways as superior. . . . They use their legitimate culture to mark cultural distance and proximity, to monopolize privileges, and to exclude and recruit new occupants to high status positions." This speaks directly to Julie's comments as well, about how her boyfriend's un-colouredness is due to his similarity to her and his capacity to perform "white." To cite another example, Sara, Bonnie's white partner, avers: "I didn't feel like I had crossed a boundary. She wasn't the first black woman I was with. So there were no barriers around that. And no, I didn't feel. . . . I mean to me a bigger boundary would have been around getting involved with a woman for the first time. That was far more of a moment than this was."

Similar to Maureen, Sara went on to describe her exposure to cultural differences, mainly in terms of family responsibilities and expectations, but always with a sense that she is looking from a safe space in on a different place, an unsafe place, rather than entering into it fully. "The difference for me was engaging in those family dynamics in a different way. And also, very practically, having to go to a place that I found to be an unsafe place in terms of the location. Because her family comes from a place which at that time particularly, and still now, is notorious for gang activity." During the interview, Sara spoke much more about her struggle with Bonnie's class than with her race. In underplaying the intersectionality of race and class, the racial dimension of the relationship is interiorized into class, which allows racializing effects to be re-inscribed unexamined as the affective geography of the racially coded society is replayed within the relationship.

In the Middle of a Brave New World

It is apparent that the act of transgression takes one into a different territory. One may enter into a relationship that challenges societal racial norms with a sense of transformative agency, yet the pressures of the normative order may still leave one feeling like an outsider after "crossing."

Jeremy: Invading Somebody's World

Jeremy, Maureen's Congolese partner, described the tension between his own perception of boundary crossing—that the boundaries are largely [End Page 286] imagined since "we are all living next to each other"—and the intense social pressure to maintain distance and boundaries based on South Africa's historical legacy.

I do not forget that we are in South Africa. I do not forget that even though the democracy has come, everybody has access to the same bench and the same beach, there's still a lot of things, that there's still a long way to go in terms of trust. You can still share the same classroom but even here in UCT [University of Cape Town] and in res'es [residences], you can see that once we are out of classroom and once we are out of shaking hands, you have your clique of friends, I have my clique of friends. And we are noticing that white folks here, black folks here and we are there in the middle and we are not necessarily welcome either here or there.

Jeremy's comments shed light on the intersection between national identity and race in South Africa. Even though he is black, he finds himself as a black foreigner caught between whiteness and blackness and describes this with the spatial metaphor of being neither "here or there." He further observes that the prevailing perceptions of "interracial" relationships differ based on the racial identities of the partners. As a black man dating a white woman, he is often perceived to be "invading somebody's world." "A white man with a black woman will be less shocking than a black man with a white woman. There's a big difference. It's like completely invading somebody's world or somebody's property or something like that. There's a double standard there for some reason." This is a striking contrast to the metaphors that emphasize the freedom to explore new frontiers, described above. Again we see the impact of difference of the positionality within the racialized hierarchy of the society, in which white women are still seen as the property or domain of white men.7 Jeremy has to contend with intimations of being unwelcome, an intruder, even a thief or usurper, not a pioneer.

Likewise, but from a very different societal position and identity, Amanda, a black South African woman married to a white man, describes her experience of "social scenes" in Cape Town where she has been the only black person: "I'll get irritated 'cause say like I'm the only black person around a particular social scene that we've gone to, and everyone wants to know where I'm from because I must be special, you know, I'm not like [End Page 287] Them—capital T." In instances like these, the scrutiny of identities and subjectivities shows up in the way Amanda is ideologically separated from the racial group that she represents by those who hold the social power, while she attempts to challenge the informal segregation of those spaces.

Nasir and Frank: Building a Brave New World

The metaphors used by Nasir were linked to the explicit rejection of the homogeneity of his background. As part of his political conviction, his "ideological home" lay in "building a brave new world" in South Africa. Even though he also talked about feeling "alien" and "awkward" in white homes (as shown above), Nasir describes how his "interracial" relationships were about forging a new, radically different social reality that represented a clear cut with parochialism and ethnic and racial myopia. The boundary that was crossed was the unambiguous break with the rejected past that could be put behind him:

I came to UCT [University of Cape Town] sort of mid-70s and moved to left wing politics quite quickly as a sort of natural ideological home for me. . . . I rejected everything about where I came from, um, which seemed to be true about a lot of people, a lot of us were kind of building a brave new world and didn't really know what it was about, but we knew it was going to be different. We knew it wasn't going to be racially homogenous like what it was, like what we had grown up with.

My ideological home and my friends became the white left. . . . And that's kind of what defined why I ended up going out with white girls because the Indian girls I knew at the time were not that way inclined. . . . All the relationships that I've had have been based on ideology, actually. That has been the common thread, rather than race or culture or religion or anything. It's always been around ideology.

Nasir compared local attitudes toward interracial relationships with those he has observed abroad, reversing the normal-abnormal dichotomy of the dominant gaze:

I think they [interracial relationships] do reflect or inject a measure of normality into this society because I think this society is so abnormal. [End Page 288] I mean, I've travelled a lot, and wherever you go in the world mixed relationships are not so remarkable that people are stared at when they are walking down the street. Whereas here . . . there's that, kind of, perception that there's something wrong with mixed relationships . . . mixed race relationships here are anomalous because of our history.

Frank, a thirty-year-old man of mixed Indian and coloured heritage in a relationship with a woman of mixed white and Chinese heritage, shared similar sentiments to Nasir in reflecting on his experience of racialized relationships. He defines his relationship and his identity in terms of the pride he feels in moving beyond a closed group:

The way I identify myself is as a member of the third world aristocracy. . . . It's to say we have worth. And we have inherited, an aristocrat inherits something, and we have inherited that which our parents fought for against colonialism.

If my community is supposed to be like Indian or coloured then like, over the years, I just feel more and more alienated from that kind of group. Every time I visit my aunties or uncles, I feel more and more weird. . . . It's not because of my relationships. It's just all the time spent away from those worlds.

Frank imagines his own community on the border—the "third world aristocracy"; experientially, he has moved into a different space and time from the communities that have not changed or integrated.


What is strikingly evident from our participants' metaphors is that there is not one experience of being in a racialized relationship. Delaney notes that the spatial expression of race is "extremely variable and shifting. Spaces may be produced in accordance with ideologies of color-blindness or race consciousness, of integrationism, assimilationism, separatism, or nativism" (2002, 7). Indeed, we see such variation in the internal landscapes given expression in these interviews. Nevertheless, whether interviewees articulated a sense of exclusion or anxiety within the boundary crossing relationship, or an empowering sense of pushing at existing social [End Page 289] boundaries and challenging the legacy and renewing pressures toward separation, it became clear that South Africans in racialized relationships are acutely reminded of racial cartographies of belonging that still shape experiences and choices of themselves and their partners, their family lives, and the spaces they live in, move through and reach beyond. Even within the relationship, racialized positionings persist in subtle ways, enabled by the power relations that inform the broader society, and intersecting with other axes of power. These provide "warrants" that are drawn on in racially differentialized ways. While many of our "white" participants and a few of our "coloured" participants, especially male participants, expressed the adventurous and daring side of boundary crossing, they also expressed a type of "paradoxical hovering" behavior (Dwyer and Jones 2000), as if they are able to hold the relationship at arm's length and observe the dynamics from the outside. In contrast, several of our "black" participants and a few of our "coloured" participants described the distance and the anxiety of boundary crossing more starkly. The contrast between these vantage points corresponds closely with the metaphorical description of road tripping posed by Dwyer and Jones:

The image of carefree travel . . . raises the question, for whom is travel play, and for whom is travel better understood by making reference to its shared etymological roots with travail, to toil and labor, to suffer? . . . The situation of the white road-trippers stands in marked contrast to the experience of black travelers for whom travel is often a dangerous undertaking, fraught with uncertainty and the uneasy knowledge that one may not be "accepted wherever you end up."

(2000, 216)

In other words, the experience is not the same for partners from different racial groups, because the society in which the couples live continues to re-inscribe racialized ways of being that subtly inform the relationship.

Couples in such racialized relationships are therefore able to tell us much about the experience of "being different together" (Steyn 2010) as South Africa's journey of creating a different society proceeds, and indeed are often positioned as the exemplary "poster boys" for non-racialism. We have shown that the experience is more complex, at times being simultaneously one of transcending race, while also of being re-racialized.

As in other racially charged contexts, liberal discourse has been at pains to emphasize that "race" is no longer a signifier of import in describing or [End Page 290] shaping lived realities for South Africans. What emerges from this analysis is that in some subtle and other not so subtle ways, race continues to contour the landscape unevenly, distinguishing both between these couples and those who conform to the norm of racial homogeneity within committed partnerships, and also between the partners themselves. While the act of committing to a partner from a different racial background may be "post race" in the sense of being resistant, defiant or counter to the dominant pressure toward thinking about people in racialized ways, the lived experience is not that of being part of a society of that is, indeed, "post" race. The sometimes re-racializing and hyper-racializing effects on such couples of the normative expectations of homogeneity are reflected back to society through the implicit and explicit implications of their metaphors, reminding us that the ideal of the "nonracial" society remains unrealized.

Melissa Steyn
University of the Witwatersrand
Jennie Tsekwa
University of the Witwatersrand
Haley McEwen
University of the Witwatersrand
Melissa Steyn

melissa steyn holds the DST-NRF South African National Research Chair in Critical Diversity Studies. Her work engages with intersecting hegemonic social formations as well as whiteness and white identity in post-apartheid South Africa.

Jennie Tsekwa

jennie tsekwa is a research associate at Wits Centre for Diversity Studies (WiCDS) and a freelance writer and facilitator. She is concerned with the ongoing construction and de-construction of race and identity.

Haley McEwen

haley mcewen is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Witwatersrand and research coordinator at WiCDS. Haley's research interests focus on the coloniality of sexuality and gender as systems of dominance and control that constitute, and are constituted by, geopolitical relations of power.


. This work is based on research supported by the South African Research Chairs Initiative of the Department of Science and Technology and National Research Foundation of South Africa. Any opinion, finding, conclusion, or recommendation expressed in this material is that of the author(s) and the NRF does not accept any liability in this regard. We also acknowledge the research assistance of Reuben Message.

1. Throughout this article, we refer to specific "race" groups, but this does not mean that we agree with the ideology behind their construction. As explained by Price (2009, 1–28.), we insist on the socially and spatially constructed nature of race. We reject the notion that race is a "naturalized hierarchy of biologically distinctive [End Page 291] human groups." Yet we need to explore "processes of racialization which place individuals and groups within racial categories and have material effects in terms of the unequal distribution of power and wealth" (Price 2009, 2, citing Nash 2003).

2. Today, the four categories of "White," "Black" or "African," "Coloured," and "Indian" are still widely used as primary racial markers for both group and individual identification, even though South Africans are no longer required to select a race group on official documentation.

3. Passes were issued to restrict movement of black South Africans, excluding them from areas demarcated for whites. The first internal passports were introduced as early as 1797 by British colonial governors in the Cape.

5. The apartheid government was particularly concerned with relationships between those classified as "White" and those who were "Black," "Coloured," or "Indian," while interracial intimacy and relationships between "non-white" groups were not an area of concern for the apartheid government.

6. Appropriate ethics clearance was granted from the Non-Medical Research Ethics Committee.

7. The topic of how "interracial" relationships are informally and subjectively policed is another topic under exploration as part of our broader research program, with articles forthcoming.

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