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In case you didnâ€™t notice from the pictures, Femi and I are a devilishly handsome, interfaith, interracial couple. We also happen to live in the South. While Atlanta is a shiny blue dot amongst a sea of red, itâ€™s still the South. There are challenges we have down here unique to any other part of the country. Case in point are the reactions we get to being an interracial couple. In the interest of fairness, let me say that not all of them are bad. For instance, people at restaurants remember us because we stand out (which the narcissist in me LOVES). And, when I see other interracial couples out, we give each other a nice smile of solidarity. Plus, itâ€™s scientifically proven that we will make beautiful children.
But then there are the not-so-great reactions. Older, white men, stare incredulously at Femi like heâ€™s committed a crime. While black women stare daggers at me because Iâ€™ve â€śstolen one of the good ones.â€ť Thatâ€™s tough for me to wrap my head around because my falling in love with Femi wasnâ€™t part of some master plan to undermine the black women of the world. However, I do understand their anger, even though in this case itâ€™s misplaced.
The worst example of this took place in one of the most sacred institutions in the South: Waffle House. Northerners, imagine an IHOP, but better, and you get Waffle House, where the elite meet to eat. Waffle House is supposed to be a judgment-free zone. Itâ€™s like the Statue of Liberty of food joints; give me your tired, your poor, your hungover masses yearning to eat hash browns (scattered, smothered, and covered, in my case). Imagine our surprise when one morning, when Femi and I were sitting on stools at the counter, we shared a quick kiss and a black, female server stopped in her tracks, gave us the ugliest look Iâ€™ve ever seen, and kept walking. We were shocked; the questions started flying. Did that just really happen? Maybe we imagined it? Femi, can I finish your cinnamon raisin toast? While this wasnâ€™t the first look we had ever gotten, this was by far the most brazen. Femi is lucky because he can let that kind of thing roll off his back, whereas I know Iâ€™ll carry that moment with me the rest of my life.
One place where we have rarely been judged for being interracial has been the religious community. I have brought Femi to several Jewish events over the course of our relationship; weâ€™ve done Shabbat dinners with friends, attended Atlanta Jewish Music Festival events and heâ€™s done Passover seder at my house twice. Conversely, Femi and I have been to his motherâ€™s church, the Community Church of God, three times. Besides the religious differences between the two communities I should also note that most people at my Jewish events are white, while the Church of God has a mostly black congregation. Yet weâ€™ve felt completely welcome in both situations. I will say Iâ€™d love to see more Jews of color at the community events I attend so Femi doesnâ€™t feel so tokenized, and I think conversations are beginning to happen to change that. Meanwhile, the Church of God is such a welcoming and friendly place. Everyone I met seemed genuinely happy to meet me, and didnâ€™t ask me any questions about my faith (which is something I worried about). We sang and clapped along to the beautiful church choir, and even though there were portions of the service that didnâ€™t overlap with my specific religious beliefs, their general mantra is to be a good person and love thy neighborâ€”who canâ€™t get on board with that?! Really the most awkward moments were of my own doing when Iâ€™d feel particularly moved by a song or a passage and Iâ€™d say stuff like â€śhell yeah!â€ť or â€śdamn right!â€ť and Femi would have to nudge me and politely remind me that we were in church. Seriously, sometimes I shouldnâ€™t even be let out of the house.
There are plenty of naĂŻve people out there who think weâ€™re in a post-racial society. Not to burst bubbles, but weâ€™re not. Thatâ€™s going to take many years of open dialogue, and many years of separation from past generations of backward thinkers. But itâ€™s nice to know that Femi and I have access to a few communities who appreciate the depth of our relationship, and donâ€™t just stop at the colors of our skin.
Weâ€™re Michele and Vanessa, and weâ€™re getting married on April 30, 2017. Michele is Jewish and grew up just outside Philadelphia; Vanessa was raised in the Church of England (more or less equivalent to the Episcopal Church) a little outside London in the U.K. We got engaged in May 2015, and are thrilled to be counting down to the big day and our interfaith celebration.
Amidst our wedding planning (more on that another time), weâ€™re alsoâ€”like everyone elseâ€”planning our holiday celebrations. This is a pretty big year for us, as itâ€™s our first Christmas in the U.S. For the last couple of years, weâ€™ve gone to the U.K. and celebrated with Vanessaâ€™s family; but this year weâ€™re staying in Philly. For a while, I (Vanessa) was pretty sad: This is the first Christmas in 31 years that I wonâ€™t be with my family, watching my sister stare with trepidation through the oven door at the cauliflower cheese and roast potatoes and listening to my mum attempt the descants to Christmas carols on TV. But talking this over with Michele, and planning the holidays with her has brought me a lot of joy, as Iâ€™ve realized that this is actually a really exciting opportunity: We get to figure out how we can create our own traditions, and not just do whatever our families do, as we celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah.
This has led me to seek out cookie cutters in the shapes of dreidels and reindeer, menorahs and Christmas trees, and a variety of stars, both five- and six-pointed. I did a dance of delight in the Dollar Plus when I found Hanukkah garlands next to the Christmas tinsel. We started our own collection of tree ornaments that weâ€™ll keep adding to each year, with a classy otter bauble from the Vancouver Aquarium on the first vacation we took together that didnâ€™t involve either of our families. Our hope is that, in a few yearsâ€™ time, our tree will be covered in ornaments that represent memories from our lives together. These things might sound frivolous, but for us, they symbolize the joining of our lives and our traditions; albeit in sparkly and (hopefully) delicious forms.
More seriously, weâ€™ve had to negotiate with family members what holiday events weâ€™re going to, with Hanukkah brunches and parties surrounding Christmas church services and the first Christmas dinner hosted by us for Micheleâ€™s family (complete with British stuffing and Christmas cake, sent all the way from England by my mum). Weâ€™ve had to think about whatâ€™s really important to us in terms of our own traditions, and about what elements we want to share with each other. I want to go to Christmas services because itâ€™s important for me to hear a choir welcoming Christmas in with â€śAdeste Fidelis,â€ť but Iâ€™m happy to let the cauliflower cheese go as we make the dinner kosher-style. Latkes are fairly high on Micheleâ€™s priority list, but being all together and visiting the various branches of her family is even higher.
Itâ€™s easy to get caught up in the mania of present-buying, tree-decorating, cookie-eating and playlist-curating, and to be honest Iâ€™m definitely enjoying all those parts. But Michele and I are able to use those things to have conversations about what the holidays mean to us, how our families traditionally celebrate them, and what we want them to be like in our married life together. Of course, Iâ€™ll still miss my familyâ€”but this December, Iâ€™ll be surrounded by the love of my new family, Michele and all the Zipkins, and I canâ€™t wait. Itâ€™s a timely reminder that our wedding planning isnâ€™t just about working toward a wedding, but a marriage. I feel incredibly lucky that weâ€™re getting a head start on building our traditions for that marriage this year. Even if Iâ€™m covered in powdered sugar and my reindeer cookies look more like dogs.