Black Women and Interracialized Relationships

By Nawal Mustafa, Euromix PhD Researcher, 19 March 2021

SOURCE: Lambeth Archives.


The end of the Second World War signified the start of the large-scale migration from former British colonies and Commonwealth countries to the United Kingdom. The increasing numbers of the newly arrived immigrants were not something new. In fact, there was an increase in the number of “coloured immigrants” since the First World War.1 As a result, people who are differently categorized based on race, gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic background had the ability to engage with each other in close proximity. They would encounter each other at work, in living quarters and in places of leisure.

My PhD research focuses on romantic relationships that were formed between black and white people in the period 1950s-1970s in the United Kingdom. Particularly, I aim to centralize black women in interracialized relationships because I found that their stories often do not expand beyond the scope of a footnote or a paragraph in studies about interracialized relationships. Even when neglected or forgotten, black women remained resilient, vocal, and demanded attention by popping up in places where they are least expected.

Black British studies and research focus mainly on Black men and women’s studies and research centralized the experiences of white women.2 In the field of (Critical) Mixed  Race Studies a similar tendency can be seen.3 There is an absence in the archives and a lack of research that centralizes the experiences of black women. The category of black women is a category within a category. It is the entanglement of race and gender. By focusing on the experiences of black women in interracialized relationships, my hope is to further complicate and enrich the concepts of race and gender.

Black and British

There is a re-emergence of efforts to capture and document the experiences of black people in Britain. An example is the critique of the centralization of the Windrush generation as a symbol of the arrival of black people to the metropole and the start of British multiculturalism.4 The term Windrush is derived from the ship MV Empire Windrush, which docked in Tilbury on 22 June 1948.  It carried 492 passengers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and other islands. These passengers were looking for job opportunities in the metropole where there was a shortage of labour. Although this specific moment is important in the Black British history, it should be conceptualized and placed in a more comprehensive historical trajectory that includes Black Romans, enslaved African people in Britain, historic black seafarer communities and colonial students as well as black servicemen in the two world wars. By broadening the scope and excavating the long history of encounters between black people and the white British, historical facts that have become “truth regimes” concerning black people’s history in Britain can be challenged. This will show what is canonized or is seen as important for the formation of national identity, is created through processes of selecting, editing and omitting certain facts and experiences.

As a result of these processes, academic literature and archival materials that focus on the history of Black and British post-second world war largely failed to include the experiences of black women in the metropole. The racist encounters the new immigrants faced led to the formation of unifying categories. During the Notting Hill riots of 1958, white youth attacked everyone who they perceived to be black, including black women.5 People started to organize and resist their conditions and the racist violence under an umbrella of a unifying blackness.6 For instance, the category of the West Indian was used by all who came from different Caribbean Islands. The in-group differences mattered less when one is being attacked based on one’s perceived racial identity. As a result, the knowledge and insight that can be gained by studying the similarities and differences between black people when race, class, gender, and sexuality are accounted for are lost. Instead, using an intersectional approach when researching the “black experience” would particularize and show the multicity of identities.7

Racialized and Gendered Sexual encounters

The women and, to an extent, the men I write about are wayward adventures.8 They were resilient and courageous enough to travel to countries they only knew through schoolbooks or stories told by relatives. They were people with “a vision of hope sustained through centuries of exploitation”.9 They were not naïve, nor did they fully believe in the mother country’s promise of richness. They were aware of race and gender dynamics as well as economic exploitation. They were brave in a way that is hard to re-imagine. They made choices that would change the course of their life forever. The complexity of their realities and the racism they faced was beyond unemployment or struggles with housing and included social interactions.

I am interested in finding small acts and instances that unsettle what we think we know about the lived experiences of the newly arrived immigrants, especially the women. As Anne Stoler has argued, the regulation of the sexual economy was part of the colonial enterprise’s management ethos.10 It was also a crucial part of the structure of the slave society. Therefore, there has been a historical obsession with the sexuality of black men and women in general. Nonetheless, gender and class influence the ways in which sexual relationships are regulated. Black women know a long history in which sexual exploitation was part of their subjugation. They produced laborers for the plantations while enslaved since the children they had with black men, and with white men were seen as the property of the slave master.11 Along the same line, during the colonization period, white colonizers who already had extremely sexualized notions of non-white women were encouraged to “go native” and have relationships with the daughters of the chieftains they interacted with.12 In comparison, the sexuality of (middle-class) white women, as the bearers of the nation, was regulated more closely. For instance, during the first part of the colonization, white women were not allowed to travel to the colonies.13

The archival materials I have been using in my research show that many newspapers, tv shows, and radio items that discuss mixed couples and interracial dating often start with whether one would allow their daughter to date a black man. Furthermore, the survey for the Gallup International Poll of 1964 in the United Kingdom questioned whether white families would be willing to accept “a coloured man as a son-in-law”. 71% indicated that they rather not have a coloured man as a son-in-law or that they thoroughly disliked the idea. The reversed question of whether white families would (dis)approve their son’s marrying “coloured women” was also asked in the Gallup Poll of 1964. 70% of the interviewees stated that they would rather not have a “coloured woman” as a daughter-in-law or that they would completely dislike it.14 This was the first poll since 1937 where the question of interracialized relationships was raised. The poll reflects the societal issues that the public was concerned with; racial imbalance in society. Moreover, prior to the 1964 poll, questions about race were asked but not explicitly linked to interracialized intimacies. It is also striking that the relationship between black women and white men was included as a question to the poll, because the concerns regarding interracial mixing usually referenced relationships between white women and black men.15

The poll’s outcome indicates that interracialized relationships are considered a problem regardless of the race of the women. However, through newspapers, TV shows, and books, the public imagination indicates that there is hierarchization in the type of interracialized relationships that are deemed to be a problem. The fascination in popular culture and media show that there is an emphasis on relationships where the woman is white, and the man is black. The hyper focus on this specific constellation of interracialized relationships shows that white women are trapped in the traditional role ascribed to them. They have to secure the continuity of familial ties and, in extension, are burdened with reproducing the nation. White women became hyper visible, and their sexual escapades are of the interest of the nation.

In contrast, even though there is an awareness that black women in interracialized relationships are under-researched,16 the sexual encounters of black women do not necessarily threaten the (white) nation.17 Therefore, they seemed to be less of a problem and are less heavily policed. Whenever I came across references made to black women in the official government documents related to mixed relationships, it was to state that the lack of their availability is the reason for the rise in interracialized relationships. However, between 1952 and 1961, 93.500 black women arrived in the metropole, this is approximately 39.3% of the total number of new immigrants.18 These numbers contradict the assumption that immigration was dominantly a male endeavour; furthermore, they show that the so-called rise of interracialized relationships between black men and white women cannot be explained away by the lack of the availability of black women.


Although for different reasons, both white women and black women are expected to be the gate-keepers of endogamy, while white men in particular and black men to a certain extent are expected to engage in relationships beyond the colour line by virtue of their maleness.19 The consequence for black men who engage in interracialized relationships is that they are often surveilled and targeted by the police whereas white men have little or no consequences at all when they transgress. However, I am interested in how the relationships of black women developed beyond the gaze of the state. Much attention was given to the policing and the surveillance of the sexuality of black men. I argue that this created a space for black women to pursue their desires. Were they able to escape the notion of respectability by transgressing the boundaries of both race and gender? I hope to move away from homogenizing black women’s experiences in the post-war UK with my research. I wish to shed some light on the complexity of how desire was manifested and experienced by black women who refused to be monolith and dared to date outside of the race even with the looming danger of being fetishized.

  1. Hansard, West Indian Immigrants 1956-11-20.
  2. Crenshaw, K. W. (2017). On intersectionality: Essential writings. The New Press. Simien, E. M. (2007). Doing intersectionality research: From conceptual issues to practical examples. Politics & Gender3(2), 264.
  3. Caballero, C., & Aspinall, P. J. (2018). Mixed race Britain in the twentieth century. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Bland, L. (2017). Interracial Relationships and the “Brown Baby Question”: Black GIs, White British Women, and Their Mixed-Race Offspring in World War II. Journal of the History of Sexuality26(3), 424-453.
  4. West, S. (2007). Black Victorians: Black People in British Art 1800-1900. Mead, M. (2009). Empire Windrush: The cultural memory of an imaginary arrival. Journal of Postcolonial Writing45(2), 137-149.
  5. Schofield, C., & Jones, B. (2019). “Whatever community is, this is not it”: Notting Hill and the Reconstruction of “Race” in Britain After 1958. Journal of British Studies58(1), 142-173.
  6. Mirza, H. S. (Ed.). (1997). Black British feminism: A reader. Taylor & Francis.
  7. Crenshaw, K. W. (2017). On intersectionality: Essential writings. The New Press. Carby, H. V. (1999). Cultures in Babylon: Black Britain and African America. Verso.
  8. Hartman, S. (2019). Wayward lives, beautiful experiments: Intimate histories of riotous Black girls, troublesome women, and queer radicals. WW Norton & Company.
  9. Bryan, B., Dadzie, S., & Scafe, S. (2018). The heart of the race: Black women’s lives in Britain. Verso Books.
  10. Stoler, A. L. (1991). Carnal knowledge and imperial power. Gender at the Crossroads, 51-101.
  11. Lindsey, T. B., & Johnson, J. M. (2014). Searching for climax: Black erotic lives in slavery and freedom. Meridians12(2), 169-195. Sharpe, J. (2003). Ghosts of Slavery: A Literary Archaeology of Black Women’s Lives. U of Minnesota Press.
  12. Young, R. (1995). Colonial desire: Hybridity in theory, culture, and race. Psychology Press.
  13. McClintock, A. (2013). Imperial leather: Race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial contest. Routledge.
  14. The Gallup international public opinion polls: Great Britain 1937-1975 / Vol. 1, 1937-1964.
  15. Clycq, N. (2012). ‘My daughter is a free woman, so she can’t marry a Muslim’: The gendering of ethno-religious boundaries. European Journal of Women’s Studies19(2), 157-171.
  16. Caballero, C., & Aspinall, P. J. (2018). Mixed race Britain in the twentieth century. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  17. Yuval‐Davis, N. (1993). Gender and nation. Ethnic and racial studies16(4), 621-632.
  18. Patterson, S. (1963). Dark Strangers: A Sociological Study of the Absorption of a Recent West Indian Migrant Group in Brixton, South London. London, Tavistock.
  19. Clycq, N. (2012). ‘My daughter is a free woman, so she can’t marry a Muslim’: The gendering of ethno-religious boundaries. European Journal of Women’s Studies19(2), 157-171.

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