Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo, 43, lives in Milton Keynes with her husband Suby Onabanjo, 48. She’s Turkish and he’s Nigerian. Here she opens up about what it’s really like being in an interracial marriage…
Sat in the passenger seat of our car next to my handsome husband Suby, I feel a swell of pride. He’s the love of my life, a 6ft gentle giant with the sweetest nature. As he drops me outside the station to go our separate ways for the day, we share a tender kiss. But as I happily head towards the Tube, I suddenly hear a woman’s voice behind me in my native Turkish.
“How dare you, st?” she shouts at me. “You should be ashamed of yourself.” It is very obvious it is a race issue.
I turn around and swear at her. It isn’t the first time I’ve had racist abuse. But it stings and I run back to the car in tears to tell Suby what happened. I am shocked and angry. This woman is a total stranger. What right does she have to pass judgement on a loving couple minding their own business? Sadly, racist prejudice is all too common. And it’s not just white people who hurl insults, there can be conflict with Black women too, accusing me of taking “one of their men”. Being in a mixed marriage in Britain in 2021 can often feel like being constantly judged.
I’m Turkish and grew up in Istanbul before going to university in Surrey in 2000. With no local friends, I felt a bit lonely being in a new town, so I joined Blacknet, a social network site for Black people. Because many of my friends at home were Black, and I loved clubbing and R’n’B music, it felt normal for me to reach out to other people I had shared interests with. I met two of my friends there and it was great.
I never had a “type” exactly. My ex was Turkish Cypriot but I often seemed to attract the attention of darker-skinned men. I dated a Nigerian guy at Uni but it was never serious enough to introduce him to anyone. Friends joked, “Why do you appeal to Nigerian guys?” I’d laugh, shrugging, “I’ve no idea!” You like who you like, don’t you?
Then one day, in 2001, out of the blue, a gorgeous man called Suby got in touch through the site. “Your name isn’t Black!”
he messaged. We got chatting, exchanged phone numbers and were soon talking daily. It was before the time of free phone calls, so you can imagine our bills!
This carried on for several months before Suby, a marketing manager, said he was passing through London on his way to Milton Keynes, and asked if we could meet for lunch. Only years later did he confess it was perfectly possible to travel from Swindon, where he lived, to Milton Keynes without passing through London. But the ruse worked and we soon became boyfriend and girlfriend. He was kind yet confident and we were good together.
Luckily, my friends were completely open to my interracial relationship. But when my family learned about Suby, there was trouble. The first time my mum, Tomris, saw a photo with Suby’s arm around my waist she prickled, “Who is this guy? You look cosy.” The family had all seen too many American gangster movies, where Black men were always involved with guns and crime, so they had all these misconceptions and they were worried.
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But Mum’s negative reaction shocked me the most. She and my dad – who’d passed away when I was 21 – raised me to be open to other cultures and people of different colours. Now she was being critical, saying, “You’re bringing a Black man to our family?”
For two years I didn’t fly home to visit her and we barely spoke on the phone because every time we did, it turned into a fight about Suby. It upset Suby too, he was desperate for me to repair my relationship with my mum and for her to accept our love. I never doubted Suby but it was hard making peace with Mum. As she was in Turkey, she couldn’t see for herself how happy he made me.
On Valentine’s Day 2004, Suby proposed. He just asked, “Sin, you want to get married someday, right?” I said, “Yeah, I suppose.” “Okay,” he grinned. “Let’s go pick some rings!” It wasn’t the most romantic night but he claims it was spontaneous.
Of course I said yes! I knew he was the man for me. It felt right, whatever Mum thought, and I had to pluck up the courage to write her a letter, with an ultimatum. “We are engaged, we’re getting married, so you either stand by me – or we take a break.”
I knew that if my marriage didn’t work out, I wouldn’t necessarily be taken back into the fold, it would be a case of “I told you so”. It’s painful even having to imagine taking a break from your own mum but it had come to that.
It was Mum’s best friend, and my uncle, who talked her around and told her to give us a chance. My uncle said, “I’ve never known Sinem to make a bad decision, so I am sure she chose a good man. Hear her out.”
Mum wrote back saying she would come to visit and she stayed for three weeks, which gave her a chance to get to know Suby and see we were happy. It gave us the time we needed to heal our relationship.
In contrast, Suby’s family were always very welcoming. His lovely sister is now my dentist, while Suby’s mum Bisi – who I now call Mummy – became like a second mother.
She was supportive over my issues with Mum and while Suby was pestering me to get married, Bisi told him to be patient and wait until I was ready. When we finally married, in May 2006, in a church service in Milton Keynes, it was the happiest day of my life – especially as mum was there. My uncle gave me away.
We tried to limit the number of people but that’s impossible in the Nigerian community! There were 250 guests and not enough seats but we all had such fun. We had Turkish food first, then Nigerian caterers for later, and I made the DJ, one of Suby’s friends, play Turkish music as well as Nigerian.
Our cultures are quite similar – both family-oriented, community spirited and lively – though Nigerians are louder and it’s hard to get a word in edgeways! It was a wonderful, truly multicultural celebration.
After the wedding, Mum said, “After all these years, I can see you are happy and safe with Suby and his family.” It meant so much. But being in a mixed marriage hasn’t always been easy. I find people’s ignorance a struggle and it really frustrates me.
As well as the time we were abused outside the Tube station, there can be a misconception from Black women that white women are “always after our men”. I’m sad to admit that when I used to go to parties with Suby, in the early days of us going out, I’d sometimes get nasty looks from women.
I’m not English, I’m Turkish, but people can assume I’m a white English woman. I do feel this is changing for the better and in the past 10 years or so, I believe African women are more accepting of mixed relationships.
I wish people would realise it’s not people “having a type” or simply preferring Black guys – you can’t help who you fall in love with! But there are more mixed race couples than ever now and I find this encouraging, that we won’t always be in the minority. People are seeing beyond labels and stereotypes.
We would love to have a family of our own one day and when we do we will make sure the children have an African name as well as a Turkish name and an English one. Because being a mixture of different things is very special and should be celebrated.
Read more about Sinem’s life at sonabanjo.com.