Politics & Society » Race & Racism

The best books on Interracial Relationships

recommended by Tineka Smith and Alex Court

Mixed Up: Confessions of an Interracial Couple by Tineka Smith and Alex Court

OUT NOW

Mixed Up: Confessions of an Interracial Couple
by Tineka Smith and Alex Court

Read

You might think that books about interracial couples aren't relevant unless you're part of one or are close to someone who is, but nothing could be further from the truth. In Mixed Up: Confessions of an Interracial Couple, a fascinating audiobook narrated by Tineka Smith and Alex Court, the husband and wife duo tell the story of their own relationship and, in doing so, give the listener unique insights into racism and racial identity. Here, they recommend their top books on interracial relationships.

Interview by Alex Court and Tineka Smith

Mixed Up: Confessions of an Interracial Couple by Tineka Smith and Alex Court

OUT NOW

Mixed Up: Confessions of an Interracial Couple
by Tineka Smith and Alex Court

Read
Buy all books

Your book, Mixed Up: Confessions of an Interracial Relationship is a personal journey which brings listeners with you as you confront race and relationships in the 21st century head-on. Why did you choose to tell your story in audio format?

We wanted to share our experience of our interracial marriage in a way that would help other couples and other people. We wanted listeners to hear how we talk about racial situations and perhaps inspire them to have difficult conversations on racism and white privilege. Our aim is to inspire listeners to feel the emotion in our voices and connect with just how painful it can be for an interracial couple to discuss what racism is and how it can impact mixed race relationships on a daily basis. Mixed Up is just one story of a mixed race couple but we hope it will also be a resource which people can use to question their own understanding of racism and interracial couples and to make more of an effort to support people in their lives who are on the receiving end of racist situations.

The first of the books you’ve chosen on interracial relationships is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. Why did you choose it?

This book really blew both of us away. The central theme is around Black Americans who are ‘White passing’ or ‘White presenting’ but it says so much about White privilege. The novel is about two Black American sisters called Desiree and Stella Vignes. They escape life in a small Louisiana town and initially they live together. But it all changes after Stella gets a secretarial job at an upmarket department store. She is accepted as a White person even though she is Black, and she becomes fully wrapped up in her new identity. Between leaving their small apartment and entering the office, Stella transforms into another person — Miss Vignes, who Desiree calls “White Stella.”

Stella increasingly identifies as a White woman, becomes estranged from her sister, and marries a White man. Her husband Blake assumes his wife is White because Stella lies to him, saying she was an only child who’d moved to New Orleans after her parents died in an accident. Stella is in an interracial marriage, but she is caught in the struggle of living a lie as she constructs her new life and racial identity.

But Stella is forced to confront her perceived identity when she finds out a Black family – Reg and Loretta Walker – will be moving across their street. Stella is worried they will expose her as a Black woman which might ruin her marriage and her new life. While Stella builds a relationship with Loretta, she keeps a wall up to conceal her true identity. But there is a fascinating struggle for authenticity within this section, which shows how challenging it was for Black women to fight racial segregation without jeopardising their lives and position within society.

It is also remarkable storytelling. Both Desiree and Stella give birth to daughters who are about the same age. Kennedy is Stella’s daughter and Jude is Desiree’s daughter and they are not introduced to each other as cousins but the truth comes out. Kennedy is fair skinned and identifies as White – and initially does not not know her mom is Black, whereas Jude is described as “blueblack” and they have very different lives, racial experiences and expectations but also something strangely in common.

We found the narrative so relevant to our lives as an interracial couple, but it’s also a compelling and very moving story with a significant aspect centered around a woman attempting to hide her Blackness and living a life that would normally exempt her from the complexities of an interracial marriage, only to still be affronted with it both internally and, eventually, by her child.

Your next choice is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah, which is partly set in Nigeria and partly set in the United States. What does this novel mean to you?

This one was really an inspiration as we were writing Mixed Up. The central character Ifemelu is a young Nigerian woman who moves to the USA to study. We read about her struggle to create a life in the US and we also read about her life in Lagos. The novel weaves between these locations as well as the UK, and sheds light on the difference between African identity and Black identity in the US and UK. This element made the book especially relevant for us because as a couple we not only confront interracial differences but also intercultural disconnects that impact our lives.

We learn a lot about Ifemelu’s thoughts through her blog which is called Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.

During the novel, Ifemelu has a relationship with a White man called Curt. While he loves her deeply, the relationship ultimately breaks down because he is unable to really have in-depth discussions with her about race and the way society sees them differently. Years after that relationship has ended and Ifemelu is with her boyfriend Blaine, she pours her heart out at a dinner party:

“We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off and the things we wish they understood better because we’re worried they will say we are overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive. And we don’t want them to say, Look how far we’ve come, just 40 years ago it would’ve been illegal for us to be a couple blah blah blah, because you know what we’re thinking when they say that? We are thinking why the fuck should it ever have been illegal anyway? But we don’t say any of this stuff. We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable. It’s true. I speak from experience.”

As a couple, we were worried about exactly that: letting things pile up inside our heads and then spilling over. So we started to talk to one another about some of the biggest issues in our society: racism and white privilege. And the conversations we had initially were very frustrating and difficult. But over time it got a little easier and we started to learn from one another and appreciate how we have different perspectives on situations we were living through. And then we decided to write about that.

Sticking with an African theme, your next choice is the memoir Born a Crime by the South African comedian Trevor Noah.

When we listened to this book, we both laughed and cried. It is a very personal memoir of life growing up as a mixed race child in apartheid South Africa. Trevor Noah’s book is a fascinating insight into the history of racism in South Africa, and his experience of growing up as the child of a devout Black Xhosa woman and a White Swiss man.

“During apartheid, one of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race,” Noah writes. “Needless to say, my parents committed that crime.”

When Noah describes how his ‘rebellious’ mother came to give birth to the son of a White man he does so in a way which plainly exposes the enormous challenges interracial couples faced in South Africa.

“The fact that this man was prevented by law from having a family with my mother was part of the attraction. She wanted a child, not a man stepping in to run her life. For my father’s part, I know that for a long time he kept saying no to fathering a child. Eventually he said yes.”

When Noah’s mother gave birth by C-section in February 1984, she was estranged from her family and pregnant by a man she could not be seen with in public. When this woman became a mother she was truly and utterly alone. As a couple, we have not been forced to face this level of legally enforced institutional racism and we’re so grateful we don’t have to go through that. We enjoyed listening to this book as a source of inspiration as it showed us how strong previous generations have had to be to make real change.

Through this memoir Noah describes how being the offspring of an interracial couple impacted every single aspect of his life, from the way he was treated by teachers, by other children he knew and also by his own family.

Trevor Noah is a world famous comedian these days as the host of The Daily Show but it’s really incredibly inspiring to learn about his very humble beginnings growing up in a place where his very existence is considered illegal. It’s also a very enjoyable book to listen to because Trevor does all the accents in such a masterful way. It really brings the story alive.

The fourth of the books you’ve chosen about interracial relationships is Caucasia by Danzy Senna.

This book really struck a chord because it shows how racism is both an intangible social construct and also something which is a very real destructive force in people’s daily lives.

“He says there’s no such thing as race.”
“He’s right you know. About it all being constructed. But” – she turned to me, looking at me intently – “that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
“I know it does.”

Birdie Lee is a fair-skinned biracial individual. The reader understands she is a black person but society judges her on appearance and does not recognize her as such. That is in stark contrast to her older sister Cole who has dark skin and fits in with the other children and their school. Their mother, Sandy, is White and their father, Deck, is Black. They are both highly involved in the Civil Rights Movement in Boston during the 1970s and they are often arguing.

The setting is important as it is soon after the landmark civil rights decision of the US Supreme Court in 1967 when an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving, successfully challenged the constitutionality of the ban on interracial marriage in Virginia. Through the marriage of Sandy and Deck, Danzy Senna starkly reflects the reality that interracial marriages must withstand additional pressures compared with marriages between people who have the same skin colour.

Once he separates from Sandy, Deck Lee changes as he re-integrates into black society. He grows an Afro, dates an African American woman, and he actively rejects white society and culture. Part of that is how Deck considers the house as a place which isn’t safe for him, a threat to his blackness.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

The sisters are torn apart as Cole goes to Brazil with her father and his black girlfriend and Birdie goes on the run with her mother pretending to be the family of a deceased Jewish professor. This juxtaposition of leaning into a Black identity and hiding it makes the novel such an essential part of the body of books which considers interracial marrage and the identity of biracial people.

“There was safety in this pantomime,” writes Senna from the perspective of Birdie. “The less I behaved like myself, the more I could believe that this was still a game. That my real self – Birdie Lee – was safely hidden beneath my beige flesh, and that when the right moment came, I would reveal her, preserved, frozen solid in the moment in which I had left her.”

Let’s talk about your last of the books you’ve chosen on interracial relationships. This is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

This book is important because it bears witness. It holds within its pages some of the urgency and anger of the Black Lives Matter movement and could even be an act of resistance in and of itself. The book is such a relevant read in the aftermath of the recent tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake and many others. People who died at the hands of police. We know the names and the statistics when it comes to police brutality in the USA but this story makes readers actually feel it.

“Daddy once told me there’s a rage passed down to every black man from his ancestors, born the moment they couldn’t stop the slave masters from hurting their families. Daddy also said there’s nothing more dangerous than when that rage is activated.”

This story is about the broken American criminal justice system, but it is also an important text about interracial relationships. Through Starr’s relationship with Chris, her white boyfriend, the reader sees the divide in their community. When Starr confronts Chris and tells him about her concerns about what people assume about interracial couples, Chris responds, “Who [cares]?” This exposes his white privilege as he clearly acknowledges racial biases, but dismisses how this could influence their relationship. Chris adds to the challenge Starr faces, which is to reconcile her Black world (Garden Heights) with her White world (Williamson Prep) and find a way to truly be her authentic self.

Starr’s story is also inspirational because the reader sees her grow increasingly confident with encouragement from Ms. Ofrah. Starr learns how to use her voice as a device or even a weapon in the fight for racial equality and decency. By portraying him as a dangerous drug dealer, the police and media paint Khalil’s death as a foregone conclusion but Starr uses her voice to break this down:

“Everybody wants to talk about how Khalil died,” I say. “But this isn’t about how Khalil died. It’s about the fact that he lived. His life mattered. Khalil lived!” I look at the cops again. “You hear me? Khalil lived!”

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by .

Tineka Smith and Alex Court

Tineka Smith is a writer, diversity advocate and founder of the diverse greetings-card company, Huetribe. She is also an expert communications consultant to the United Nations, specializing in areas such as environment, climate change, and human rights.

Alex Court is a writer and digital producer exploring the ups and downs of life in an inter-racial couple. He has worked as a journalist for international newsrooms like CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera and advocated for refugees as part of the communications team at the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

Save for later

Tineka Smith and Alex Court

Tineka Smith is a writer, diversity advocate and founder of the diverse greetings-card company, Huetribe. She is also an expert communications consultant to the United Nations, specializing in areas such as environment, climate change, and human rights.

Alex Court is a writer and digital producer exploring the ups and downs of life in an inter-racial couple. He has worked as a journalist for international newsrooms like CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera and advocated for refugees as part of the communications team at the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.