STEPHEN CUTTING: Words from my Father

STEPHEN CUTTING: Words from my Father

In the 1980s, when Australia seemed to have reached the peak of poor fashion decisions and overwrought music, Stephen Cutting made the decision to leave and seek a different life. He responded to an advertisement seeking teachers to work in Nigeria and, with little knowledge of the place, packed his bags and moved overseas. This was a life changing decision for Stephen and one which resulted in love, marriage and a baby carriage [make that three].

Stephen Cutting is my father, and a man whose lived experience is reflected through conversation. He is aware of his place of privilege as a white man, has experienced the racism that comes with marrying a black woman and raising mixed race children, and actively seeks opportunities in his older years to understand and support his children's own experience of this. Above our family ties of father and daughter, Stephen is a friend and confidante, and a person I respect. 

THE PIN. Can you describe your childhood in Australia?
STEPHEN CUTTING. From the perspective of now, and with changes in technology, it was a time that seems very long ago. My memory of my childhood is that of putting on a pair of shorts and thongs, getting on my bike and leaving in the morning, then coming back at night. I lived in a town of just dirt roads and barking dogs.

When you think back to your childhood does it seem quintessentially ‘Australian’?
S. Yes, yes it does.

So you were travelling when you met my mother, Mary, what cultural differences stood out the most to you in contrast to Australian culture?
S. Probably the whole importance of family. Everything in Nigeria is governed by relationships, be it family or tribal. There was also a lot of ceremony that governed these relationships, it is more hierarchical in contrast to the very casual attitude of Australians. I think it’s something people don’t realise from the western perspective, just how important it is to observe these values.

Were there particular cultural differences that were very hard to adjust to?
S. Well, you’re always kind of an outsider, really. So you don’t really adjust because you just have to accept the differences as an outsider looking in. I was accorded my place in Nigerian society as a foreigner and never really saw myself as being anything other than that but yes it took sometime to learn how to ‘go with the flow’ when it came to getting things done, particularly in dealing with bureaucracy. Being allocated to a a school on arrival took a long time; getting paid was not something you could take for granted; getting leave could also take a long time and all these things were frustrating for someone who had grown up expecting entitlements would be given when due. There was absolutely no point on becoming indignant about these things, in fact that would always make things move more slowly. If you became impatient when the person you were waiting on to process your 'whatever' was taking half an hour to greet someone else then you needed to take stock and accept that it was important for people to observe custom when greeting someone.  

How did you meet my mother?
S. It was pretty much a chance meeting at a bank in Bida, Nigeria. I saw Mary across the intersection when I was sitting at a bar. I remember the place because it had goats head soup on the menu, which was the title of a Rolling Stones album at the time. It was at the gates of Bida, where there are very old mud walls. I remember there was a burnt out vehicle outside the bar that had been there so long it had grown into the ground. So I was sitting there, at this chaotic, noisy, smoky, dusty spot, when I looked over at the petrol station opposite and amongst the jostling tangle of people converging from half a dozen direction and trying to get to the petrol bowser was Mary, dressed in a crisp white nurse uniform, serenely filling her car with petrol. I was struck by her dignified appearance and demeanour.  I don’t know if I actually followed her to the bank, but I did see her again there and decided that I would engage her in conversation when she came out of the bank and talk to her about buying a car, which was partly my reason for being in Bida, but in restrospect it was more just a pretext to talk to her. She had a brown Volkswagen and I asked her where she’d bought the car, we got into conversation. We parted and I walked off in the direction of town, out of politeness Mary offered me a lift, which I had anticipated because I knew that she would have to drive in that direction to get to town. [laughs]

Were you at all hesitant in starting a relationship with someone from a different culture, but also of a different skin colour?
S. Well, you don’t make a decision that you’re going to start a relationship. The decision was more about ‘will I try to see her again, will I try to arrange a date’, so you don’t think about all of the other stuff like marriage, children, moving to Australia and building a house. I suppose those thoughts came later when I asked Mary to marry me. It became a consideration and I remember talking to an Englishman I shared a house with in Nigeria. He mused on the ramifications of marrying somebody of a different colour and culture, I remember he specifically asked me whether I had thought of how it would be for our children, if we had them. At that point I had thought more about interracial marriage and what it might mean for us because Mary’s family had objected to us seeing one another. There was a lot of pressure for us to end our relationship, and it was difficult.

So ironically, the pressure came from there as opposed to here. It was very much frowned upon by her family that she would marry somebody who was not of her people and, according to them, not a Christian. That became the point of objection. Upon reflection I would have played this differently and been more diplomatic, but they asked me things like, ‘do you believe in God’, and I answered that I wasn’t sure and that I was probably agnostic. I was about 28 at the time and I thought blunt honesty was more important than a more culturally sensitive response. In response to my English friends question about how our children might be accepted I responded that he was looking at race relations from an English perspective which I considered to be more hostile to interracial marriage

How did strangers react to your relationship?
S. On the whole, very negatively. People in Australia see cross cultural marriages and assume you’re some guy who has gone overseas and ‘bought a wife’, more or less. The notion that you’d go to Nigeria and ‘pick up a wife’, so to speak, is just so far from the truth!

Nigerians also made the same sort of assumptions, I suppose that they thought a Nigerian woman going out with a white man was kind of cheap So there was a lot of disapproval there, and an underwritten assumption that Mary must have been ‘easy’. She experienced quite a lot of pressure because she was more aware of the disapproval. As a stranger I wasn’t really tuned into all of the non-verbal communication. She must have had a tough time because I’d say ‘to hell with them’, let’s go to this place or have a drink here’, as you would when dating in Australia and by and large she would go out with me and I don’t think she ever told me at what cost. .

So you returned to Australia and settled down, was it strange returning to your own country?
S. Yeah, two and a half years in Nigeria was a long time. Things had changed here and I had such a different perspective when I came back to Australia. I’d been living in a place where there were no telephones and where I had to drive half a day to transact any business. Where I was the only white person for a long way around quite often too. Coming back to Australia made me acutely aware of being back and jumping into the easy sort of patter other you have with other Australians.

How did your family react to your relationship?
S. I think a few of them were predisposed to liking Mary because she was a Christian, so they had this kind of acceptance. There was perhaps a bit of reluctance on my dad’s part. He was a taciturn sort of person and Mary’s kind of formal politeness rubbed him the wrong way.

The arrival of our first child was a game-changer for my dad though, he really loved him.

What kind of questions have people asked you about your mixed race children?
S. Nobody has ever asked me a direct question about my kids being mixed race. The only questions I get about my kids are the sort of general questions any parent would get.

The only time our mixed race relationship is made reference to, is through the question of how we met. I’m impatient with the question, it’s kind of a code for ‘let’s talk about the fact that you’re in a mixed race relationship’. It has this underlying thing of you’re white and your wife is black so… come? It’s my version of the ‘where are you from’ question.

Did you ever feel the need to reinforce a sense of identity and place in your children?
S. Earlier on, Mary and I had the idea that you kids might learn to speak Hausa. We tried for a while with our eldest but my smattering of Hausa made it obvious it wasn’t going to work. We couldn't expect a child to grow up in a household where one person spoke one language and the other the language of the host country.

Then there was a long period of time when we had little to do with Mary’s family, partly due to the difficulty of communicating – no phones, letters took a long time and went astray, and partly because of the hostility to our marriage. Of course family connections are so integral to developing that sense of identity and the schism was detrimental to that.  We also lived in the country, first in Rainbow and then in Yea, so mixing with other Nigerians was difficult although we did try to build such relationships. Rather than focusing solely on being Nigerian we sought the company of people of other cultural and racial backgrounds and socialised with them. I was always aware that my kids were living in a very monocultural town and there were a number of occasions when it was brought home to me that my kids were feeling not totally accepted, and that people were drawing attention to ‘your’ difference. It’s become a lot clearer in retrospect.

Do you think your children are comfortable in their identities now?
S. In some ways questions of identity seem to have become more of an issue for our kids in adulthood but I think that is because my daughters articulate their thoughts more now and this gives rise to Mary and I thinking we should have done more connect with the family, travel to Nigeria, persevere with the language, etc. Who knows? Sometimes children of mixed race couples can react badly to having to conform to cultural values that they see as alien to their host culture.

A lot of these issues were put into a much clearer context when I’ve travelled overseas with yourself and my other daughter, Estelle, on separate occasions. That really brought home to me the question of racial difference more than it ever has in Australia. I remember I was walking down the street with Estelle in New York and a black woman said, ‘what are you doing with that old man, honey?’. Race is different in the United States and people were transmitting that consciousness, assuming ours was something other than a father-daughter relationship.

I think the short answer is - I think you’re all pretty confident about who you are, but you are all reminded of your difference  by people who see that before they see the similarities that all people share.

THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be? And what would you tell your kids and grandkids?
STEPHEN CUTTING. As one of your contributors said ‘ culture is the water we swim in’, so it’s important to put your head above the water and see yourself in a wider context. My advice would be that it’s important to understand having white skin is a sort of ticket - often undeserved by the individual - to a class of privilege purely by accident of birth. There is no need to feel guilt about that but it is important to understand. What I would impart to my kids and grandkids? I wouldn’t want to impart some folksy notion that it’s only colour and that it doesn’t mean anything more than that. I don’t think platitudes like that help people when they leave the security of the home and go out into society where people have prejudices. I would say that you have to go out into the world with knowledge. You can say, ‘yes, I am of mixed heritage and I represent the future.

- This interview has been edited and condensed.



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