Rowena Robinson, Australia
Alan and Rowena Robinson
Love Down Under – Sister Style
The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person who’s doing it! This old Chinese proverb serves as a daily affirmation for health practitioner Rowena as it did 27 years ago when she met, married her husband and moved to Australia. Rowena was self-assured and has always approached life from a common sense standpoint. Having carefully considered all of her choices which included living abroad with her husband and future children; Rowena made her decision and has never had a regret.
Los Angeles, CaliforniaWhat is your husband’s ethnicity?
We were both out of state students at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Alan was there on a track and field scholarship and I was competing and earning my tuition with a gymnastics scholarship.And how long had you known him when you got married?
All up, we had been together for a little over 6 months. Very short time I know, but we were young and we were in love.
When were you married?
I still had a year to finish my degree at SIU so we took the holiday time and flew back out to LA to be married there with family and friends to celebrate with us. Our wedding day was December 31st, 1970. That’s right, New Year’s Eve.
Was this your first interracial relationship?
No, I had dated outside my own race previously. It just seemed that the kinds of activities that captured my interest placed me in contact with a wide variety of people. I was also a violinist and played in concert orchestras while I was in high school. Having that “nerdy” label placed upon me and coupled with my physical strength meant that I was not especially attractive as a love interest to many of the brothers in my social circles.
How did you feel about interracial marriage and relationships before you were in one?
Since I had participated in some, I obviously had a favourable opinion of them however I did have the underlying feeling that somehow I was committing an atrocity of some sort. It felt as if I were breaking a very important rule. But then, I was young and as the saying goes, pretty much invincible especially because I had made my own way out of the ghetto with the scholarship, I had competed at such a high level in my chosen sport. I was the first black gymnast at Southern Illinois (and pretty much anywhere for that matter) and I knew that I wanted to be with this man. There were people at Southern who knew who I was because word had followed me that I was a black woman who consorted with “the other side”. I knew that many people didn’t approve.
Do you feel any different about interracial marriage and relationships now?
Yes I do. Today there is far less angst around interracial relationships, especially now that I live abroad. I’m saddened to say it but it seems to me that we in America are far less broad-minded about this subject than are our counterparts around the world. I don’t mean to suggest that issues of the differences between the races are not a factor elsewhere but it seems that we Americans have it ingrained in our psyche.
Did you face skeptics and criticism from friends and/or family about your interracial marriage?
My (white) gym coach at the time warned me that I should be careful. He tried to discourage me by demeaning Alan. He intimated that everyone thought I was better than Alan and that I should not tie myself to someone who was inferior to me.
Remember, this was 1970. Back then it was pretty much akin to committing treason to consider such a thing, it just wasn’t done. And those of us who did were thought to be out of our minds. And remember, we were in the South at the time. There was real concern for us in some quarters.
Most of my family and friends tried to discourage me by repeating unfounded (and untrue) rumours that Australians were racists and assuring me that I would suffer horrific atrocities if I went there.
To their credit however, when they met him, all of my people were warm and accepting of Alan. Not one of them ever made him feel unwelcome. Do remember that my family comes from Texas and Alabama originally. It must have been very hard for them to embrace a white man as part of their family after having fled successfully from the deep south and all that it represented at the time.
Do you recall how you first informed your friends and family of your interracial relationship and subsequent marriage?
I came home on holidays from college and told everyone then. Most were shocked and it took them a while to find the right words to say to me. I had an Aunty who was very dear to me and a God-fearing Christian woman. I had previously never heard her swear and haven’t since but on the day that she learned I would be marrying a white man she exclaimed as she was running away to refuge her bedroom, “Well I think it’s shitty!” As if by hiding in there for a while, she could emerge later to find that it had all been a horrible dream. She did later apologise for her outburst but I feel she never really got over it.
All my white friends all supported my decision. It was the time of the flower children. Hippies and all that they stood for reigned supreme in the day. So amongst that cohort we almost had hero status.
Interestingly it was my friends in the black community who were most disappointed in me and skeptical about Alan’s motives. All of those stereotypes of white men defiling and discarding black women were alive and well back then, so Alan was pretty much seen as a villain and I was just stupid.
What about your husband’s family —- did you or he face any criticism from them?
Alan’s family members were all as gracious as mine had been towards him when I arrived back here with him. They had a huge party waiting for us when we set down in Sydney in September 1972. His dad whom we eventually called “Papa” when the children began to arrive was easy-going and a perfect father-in-law. I think his mum who our children referred to as “Mimi” struggled with my ethnicity but she seemed to be trying hard not to let on. My relationship with her always had an undertone of strain to it but we did as well as two women could in that situation for the sake of raising happy grandchildren. Understand, Alan had been the golden child in his family. I think his mum had great hopes and dreams of him coming back home from his time in America and taking his place high up in society or some lofty profession.
I have since been told by several of our Australian friends that in the years before I arrived here Australians generally used derogatory language in regard to their Aboriginal counter-parts, believing them to be uneducated, mindless and basically inferior beings. So my arrival challenged that perception only because most of them had never met an Aboriginal person. I was the first experience for many of them to actually sit down and have a conversation of any type with a person of color, intelligent or otherwise. It was a very white place.
How was it handled?
The most difficult task for me was that most people dealt with me on the basis of curiosity. I became a curiosity item. They were kind and respectful in so far as they could be, but some of the questions were just plain silly. Why are your teeth so white? Does your skin burn? Why do you speak like that? (meaning why do I sound educated) YOU can play the violin? (the shock in the voice) and so on. All I felt I could do was be silent about it. If I argued or remonstrated, I was seen as shrewish because the comments had not been made with any vitriol, I would have been salvaging to seemingly innocent people.
Have you ever felt pressure or experienced a significant ddifference between your non interracial and interracial relationships?
I have always felt that I lived in two separate worlds. I notice it every time I go home (to the USA). There is a feeling in me that I must satisfy some ethereal kind of criteria to earn my membership back into the fold. It’s certainly not as pronounced as it was back in the 70’s but it’s there.
However, today I know a little more about psychology and the way the mind works and it’s my understanding that those feelings are in me. There may or may not be pressure from one group or another for me to behave in a certain way but what goes on in the minds of others is not my business. Because of where I come from I do realize that the feelings of discomfort around race issues in me originated in my formative years when it was definitely not ok to consort with “the other side”.
I recently travelled back to the US with my husband and we journeyed to four different states north, south and in between. The “feel” of America is different now. Elderly people in the south who would have heretofore seen the need to lynch one or both of us for our interracial union conversed and laughed easily and effortlessly with us on a number of topics.
The feelings are still in me.
Do you feel that there are societal criticisms and pressures concerning interracial relationships in the US and or Australia?
Life certainly feels easier in Australia for me concerning race. But then, one would only have to ask our Aboriginal brothers and sisters to know that there are still “issues” here. There is still the perception amongst the white population that somehow Aboriginals are”less than”. Does that perception flow on to me? Most probably but for the most part, I’m not subjected to outward displays of such attitudes. I have however felt the subtle hand of racism here in this beautiful land. Is it geared toward my ethnicity or towards the fact that I dared enter a relationship with a white man, I cannot say. I think most people here have accepted me for who I am and how I chose to exploit my talents within the community but I’m under no illusions that I’m always being watched. That curiosity factor never really goes away.
The other point to make here is that the Aboriginal community is less militant than our African American brothers and sisters. So the pressure from within the black community here to be separate from the white community does not have the same insistent energy. In fact the Aboriginal race as a whole has been “watered down” by constant and deliberate attempts on the part of white society to “breed out the race” in the bad days of “The Stolen Generation”. So many people of Aboriginal background have a great deal of white in them. The focus here is more on fighting for the right to be heard, respected and allowed to be who and what they are rather than being separate.
I know that answer may cross the lines of addressing an interracial relationship and racism in general but the two are pretty much inextricably linked I think. I guess that whole diatribe could be boiled down to answer that there is more pressure in the US to “stick to one’s own kind” then there is here in Australia. Having said that, I do feel the attention of white society is upon me when they realize I’m in an interracial marriage.
Do you attribute or connect it to negative images of blacks from slavery or something else?
I think the “slavery” influence is long gone now. The idea that blacks are inferior beings has been so ingrained in some folk that even they may not realize where that notion began. Like a family heirloom, it’s been handed down from generation to generation. It’s been incorporated into the psyche of the nation so thoroughly that even WE the brothers and sisters seem to take it with us wherever we go. I found that I was looking for that same racist attitude toward me when I arrived here in Australia. I think I filtered every human relationship that I forged in the early days through that invisible and ever-present haze of American race relations.
Then of course in our American society, many white people have been exposed to the deep-seated anger and resentment of those of our race who have been trapped and enslaved through drug and alcohol addiction and lack of adequate education in the ghettos of our great cities. They see it, feel it and then claim it as confirmation of that ingrained separatism with which they were born into our peculiar American landscape.
Do you have children?
Yes, we have 3 grown children. All three of them were born and raised here.
Did race figure into child rearing for you?
I thought not, but I was mistaken. We tried to raise the children with the idea that race was not an issue and need not be considered when conducting one’s self through life. However, it turns out that being the only black or half black faces for miles around was not something that others could ignore, nor could we. We had to address it.
When your children first experienced racism, what was your advice will be to them?
That’s a difficult questions because the “racism” that my children experienced was not hate driven nor was it overt. There was a very subtle atmosphere around us that let the children know they were different somehow to the rest of “the world”. That same curiosity that I found troubling when I first arrived here was the vehicle by which others conveyed to my children that they were not like everyone else. “Your skin is so beautiful”, “You have such a great tan”, “Your hair is so curly”, “Oh my you DO burn in the sun”, “You look just like Whoopi Goldberg”! All meant to be harmless observations but by their very nature served to let my children know that no one else was the subject of such observations. And the other less obvious subtlety was that there were no other black faces around them. It’s easy for a child to conclude that something must be wrong with them if they don’t see themselves reflected in the society around them.
Our advice to them was to be the best that they could be. Be clean, be tidy, be well-spoken, stand as tall as they possibly could. So by the time they were old enough to realize there was a “race issue” they were already considered heroes in their chosen sports, clubs and interest groups. All three of them have represented Australia in their chosen sports and excelled within the community. I took them to every club, team, Sunday School and play group that I could find. I immersed them in opportunities to be amongst people who I guess taught them not to run away from tricky situations.
Of course we’re proud of them, but we’re also blessed that without really having any real expertise in psychology or how to deal with these things, we were able to give the children something solid on which to build their image of themselves.
Where do you live? Sydney, Australia
We live on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, Australia. It’s a reasonably affluent section of the city so our children were given the opportunities to form their identities in relative safety and peace.
Do you think Sydney in general is a good place for interracial couples and families?
As good as any place in Australia. Australia is now far more multi-cultural than it was when I first arrived. Of course, post-911 the Muslim community is suffering somewhat but even they enjoy relative peace compared to other places in the world. There is a large Italian presence in Australia. They were the pariahs when I first arrived. Many had emigrated from Italy after WWII and were subjected to attitudes of cruelty. But that was all beginning to wane in the early 70’s and pretty much settled down after that. Then the Tongans got hell during the late 70’s and early 80’s. Next it was the Vietnamese and now it’s the Muslims. It always seems to be the last off the boat is who catches it here in this country. But mostly here on the Northern Beaches where we live, it’s pretty peaceful and we don’t hear much about people being persecuted for their heritage.
You see, unlike what happens in America, where the racism becomes part of the DNA, here it’s like there’s some sort of settling in period. Then it’s forgotten and they move on to the next group.
What made you decide to live abroad?
I met and married my husband Alan when we were both still students at Southern Illinois University. I had no experience in living abroad. I had travelled abroad but had no idea that leaving home to live in another country permanently could and would be so very different. I was shocked when I arrived here and discovered that horrible feeling of being trapped in a foreign land forever. At first I hated it here because it was so different and I could find no relief from my situation anywhere.
But I’ve grown to love the place and the people. They are kind-hearted and generous. They are what I would describe as rough diamonds. What you see is what you get and the Australian psyche does not allow for too much in the way of pretense. Sure there are those who suffer from elitism but mostly people here are honest and straight forward. If they like you, you’ll know about it. If they don’t like you, you’ll know about it. If they think you’re being precious about your race issues, they’ll tell you. Or if they think there’s a genuine case to hear, they’ll listen and consider. There are those who hate Aborigines and that’s a shame but they are in the minority. Most folks here abhor the kind of violence that we have experienced in our Southern states and urban ghettos.
Do I have any regrets?
Yes. I regret having cut myself off from everything in my formative years that went towards making me who I am. Some of those influences were wonderful
Do I feel that I belong more to this place than to the other?
No. I’m inextricably bound to both places now. I wish that I could leave the other place behind and forget about it, but I can’t, it spawned me. How does one forget about one’s own mother?
What do you do for fun?
Now that my knees have packed it in, I can’t play volleyball anymore so I have devoted all of my sports energy into golf. I love it and try to play at least twice a week.
I’m also a studio artist. I work in oils and mostly tend to use my work to explore my own ethnicity and spiritual connection to the women who walked the African continent centuries before me. Their journeys have allowed me to be here in this time and place.
Do you have any suggestions for black women just entering interracial relationships?
Remember why you married this man when the going gets tough. Our relationships thrive or fail on the same things that make other relationships successful or not. Talk, share, be open, take time, love and laugh a lot!
Note: This interview was originally posted on Lorraine’s Corner, a column on Black Female Interracial Marriage in December 2009. We are sad to report that Rowena lost her husband Alan to Leukemia September 2011. We are so sorry for your loss.