My Husband’s Unconscious Racism Nearly Destroyed Our Marriage
This essay was originally published on The Establishment on May 26, 2016. It has been republished on Black Girl Nerds, Huffington Post and Everyday Feminism. I wrote this because...well, because I had to. It was cathartic in many ways and it helped me deal with an aspect of my relationship that I didn't want to face...something nobody else seemed to be talking about. And with the way the discussions around racism were changing, how it was so much harder to hide that to not see it meant you were actively looking away, it felt right to talk about how it impacts my relationship. It still feels right to talk about it and we still struggle with it.
People read this many different ways. Some read it as though I am ignorant and self-harming. Others read it as a story of love triumphing hate. It's really just a story about two people who are committed to growing together, but who also recognize that it may not be meant to be. But if it fails, it won't be because we didn't try our hardest to make it work.
When I was in my teens, I figured I’d be married at least three times. The first would be the young, practice marriage. My second marriage would be the passionate one through which I would become a better version of myself, and my third would be the one that stuck. As you can see, I never really had a lot of respect for the institution.
By the time I was 30, after years of never sleeping with anyone for more than two months, much less actually dating them, I’d revised my prediction from three to zero. I’m not religious; I didn’t want kids; and I sure as hell didn’t want someone in my home that felt like they had any control over my decisions. Why get married at all? That shit looked stupid to me.
Then I met *Kevin. We met in the geekiest way possible: He saw a picture of me in a cosplay outfit, wanted to know more, found my blog, and then found my profile on a dating site and asked to meet at DragonCon. Everything about that impressed me. I loved the idea of someone being willing to do a little legwork to find me, especially since exercising my curiosity and putting in some effort to satisfy it is how I engage with the world. His approach spoke to me. Also, he asked me out—no hedging, no game playing. He stated up front that he wanted to get to know me better and asked me on a date. In a society where people are “hanging out” and “chilling” and “hooking up”—meaning anything from a light kissing session to a night of full-blown sex—being direct was important.
There was only one concern: He was white. I’d been in the dating scene for a while and while I didn’t think race should matter, I definitely knew it did. I’d met my share of white men looking for a “Nubian goddess” (their words, not mine). Or the ones who believed that Black women would offer some kind of freaky, wild sexual experience. I’d met white men who wanted to demean and defile me, white men who wanted to dominate or be dominated by me, and white men who just wanted to check a Black woman off their sexual bucket list. Not to mention the ones who thought that being with me somehow made them “edgy” or proved they weren’t racist. I mean, not every white guy has a “David Duke cock” right?
Needless to say, dating white men was tiring. I had to constantly be on guard, preparing myself for their racist comments. And I knew they were coming. I knew there would be a point where I’d have to talk about why I could say n***** and they couldn’t. I knew there’d be a conversation about Black on Black crime. I KNEW there’d be some fucked up assumption about Black people that I’d have to dismantle and then beat my white date over the head with—thereby ending whatever the fuck we were doing together. And I really wasn’t there for that shit.
But you know how they say timing is everything? Kevin entered my life at a particularly vulnerable point. My father had passed three months before we met. He’d been sick for over a decade with cancer and I spent that entire time blocking out everyone. When he passed, all that energy I’d used protecting myself started to dissipate and my walls softened. I started letting people in. I was willing and capable of giving people opportunities to be a part of my life, and I was also willing to do the work to keep them there.
That’s why I let Kevin in, but it’s not why I kept him around. I’d always been told to be more feminine, more womanly, and to cater to some stranger’s every need, but Kevin didn’t expect that. He didn’t try to mold me into the perfect woman. He didn’t look for me to take care of him. He didn’t minimize my accomplishments; we weren’t competing, and my success did not undermine his masculinity. And he was nice to me and genuinely interested in me—something I’m sad to say wasn’t common in my relationships. He listened and he cared. He also had an important characteristic that I share: the willingness to examine his beliefs and change them when he learns that they’re wrong. He doesn’t state his beliefs as vocally as I do, but he shares my love of learning and adapting to shifts in our perception and awareness.
Being with Kevin felt like a refuge from sexism. At the time, that seemed more immediate—and easier to address—than the racism that surrounded me. But it didn’t negate the fact that Kevin is white—and not just white, extremely white. He has ash blond hair and pale, easily sunburned skin. His close friends are all white men and their spouses. His family is mostly white. His co-workers are mostly white men. The more serious our relationship got, the more I was spending half my time—at least—surrounded by white people. While I’d gone to predominantly white schools and worked in mostly white companies, I’d never had so many white people suddenly in my intimate spaces. It’s one thing to hit it and split it with a guy and another to interact in my personal time with entire groups of white people, sometimes in my home.
And it affected me a LOT. I was constantly pulled out of spaces where I felt comfortable and pushed into spaces that felt isolating. We live in Atlanta, where multi-racial, multi-ethnic options are everywhere, yet when we socialized with his friends, I was required to visit all-white neighborhoods, businesses, and events. Many of his friends lived in “white flight” zones, suburban areas where white people moved to avoid the “downfall” of urban areas. I was constantly required to go to the one Atlanta county still referred to as a “sundown town”—as in a town Black people shouldn’t be in after dark. And while he and his friends were pretty clueless about these things, I was very aware.
It was in one of these predominantly white spaces, a restaurant with a mostly-white clientele, that I first ran headlong into Kevin’s unrealized racism. I’d just learned that he and all his friends carried 4-inch pocket knives (or “box openers,” as they liked to call them), and I was kinda freaked out by it. My weapons tend to be off-label weapons, like my keys, a pen, or my purse. I only had one friend who carried a gun, and nobody carried knives. Now, I was sitting surrounded by armed white men.
When I pointed out that they were all carrying weapons, they laughed—didn’t I know the knives were just for opening boxes? I could have been arrested or killed for carrying something like that, regardless of what I planned to do with it—unlike them. They wouldn’t face any consequences for bringing weapons into a restaurant; after all, they were white and the restaurant was mostly white. Kevin shrugged at my observations and said “At least we don’t have to worry about being shot.”
This was how I realized that I was dating a racist man.
Kevin didn’t understand what he’d done wrong, but he knew he’d fucked up; he wanted to know how and why. I told him that his assumption—that we were safe from shootings because we were in an all-white restaurant, that a predominantly Black restaurant would be likely to have a shooting—was shitty, ignorant, and racist. When he pushed back, I pointed out that he and his friends were the ones carrying weapons. What the fuck did they need them for at dinner? Were they expecting a package? But, of course, it’s always okay for white people to be armed. If they have a knife, it’s probably just for opening boxes. If they have a gun, it’s probably for protection—despite all the shootings to the contrary. Kevin stammered and backpedaled, but the damage was done. I’m not sure how far we were into our relationship, but that was the first moment I wondered if this was a huge mistake.
To this day, I look back and question how and why I stayed. I can see now that, this early in my relationship with Kevin and my own personal development, I was still in a lot of denial about what racism is and how it manifests. Ironically, choosing to stay with Kevin after I realized he wasn’t immune to racism, and later choosing to marry him, helped me sort that out. Being exposed to so many white people, including some who were now my family, helped me recognize racist buzzwords like “conservative,” “social conservative,” “Republican,” “traditionalist,” and “older generation.” These code words make racism more palatable and less offensive to those that engage in it. It also makes it easier to lie to ourselves about it.
Being with Kevin also helped me realize how much anti-Blackness I’d internalized. Growing up Black in America, you learn to ignore a lot of racist shit, especially if you are moving in white spaces. I was taught that white spaces were aspirational, that access to these spaces meant success. That’s a white supremacist ideology, but we live in a white supremacist society, so it’s also true: all-white spaces are where a lot of power brokering happens. This often means that the more power you achieve, the more you face casual social racism. You sit in meetings where people openly say that Black people are lesser—but not you, they add. You’re different! That is, you’re different until you do something of which they don’t approve. Then you’re “just like the rest of them” or “you don’t know your place.” And to teach you your place, they revoke some of your privileges, like a naughty child, until you understand that you are there by their sufferance. To survive in that environment, you learn to stay quiet.
I learned this in school, at work, in certain social groups . . . in order to keep your spot, or move “up the chain,” you learn to let casual racism slide. Your ability to stay silent in the face of racist bullshit becomes the norm. So you do it, because you think that’s your only feasible option and the price you pay to succeed in white America. The side effect is that this type of talk, this dislike and hatred of Black people, becomes not just the white noise but also the internal harmony of your life. It goes from being something you actively ignore to something you actively hum, and eventually sing. You stop noticing it, and then you stop fighting it, because it no longer sounds wrong to you. It sounds normal.
Dating Kevin jarred the melody. Hearing him parrot anti-Black shit I said helped me hear the discordance in my life. I was suddenly super-aware of my audience, and it forced me to listen to what I was saying—and then to change what I was saying, not from a “fit in at any cost” ideology but from an internal assessment. I started listening to and correcting myself more. Then I started sharing my realizations and pushing back on the bullshit. It’s been a shake-up for all of my relationships; I’ve had more than one non-Black friend express apprehension at talking with me, because I don’t divorce personal experiences from the larger, external factors that shaped them. And I don’t tolerate racism in my relationships anymore . . . which was scary for me and Kevin.
We hit a point where he had to change or we were going to separate. That point was the Trayvon Martin trial and verdict. From the moment Trayvon’s murder became visible, I dismissed the idea that his murderer’s actions were justifiable in any way. Imagine my surprise when Kevin said that the evidence supported the murderer’s account. It was in that moment, when I saw that the man I’d married believed that a 17-year-old teenager visiting his dad presented a threat to a 30+-year-old man who randomly patrolled his neighborhood with a gun, that I started to fear our relationship was beyond hope.
I talked to my white therapist about it and she commended me for being willing to work through these tough issues. I didn’t feel support. Instead, I felt betrayed by the two white people I’d allowed into my intimate confidence. When I was a child, my father had told me never to trust white people, and now I felt that his warning had been validated. If my white husband couldn’t acknowledge the humanity of a Black teenage boy who’d been stalked and murdered, if he could believe it was just for this child to be profiled and found dangerous based on nothing but a visit to the store, I KNEW that this person wasn’t someone with whom I could spend my life. And I started preparing my exit strategy—exactly one year after our wedding.
I’d realized that, although being with Kevin had helped me to recognize the racist attitudes I’d unconsciously swallowed, he hadn’t been able to do the same. He wasn’t willing to face his own racism, and this meant I didn’t trust my husband with my Blackness. I am not naïve; I do not expect another person to ever understand and accept the whole of me. I think that is highly unrealistic and self-centered. But my Blackness defines how the world engages with me, and it is something that he had to understand and embrace for us to be together. And in order for him to do that, he had to own his racism. He had to acknowledge he was racist, harbored racist thoughts, and said and did racist things. He had to confront this part of himself that he’d denied all his life . . . that he had the privilege of ignoring until he decided he wanted to share his life with me.
The thing that amazes me about him is that he did it, and continues to do it. As I write this, it’s been almost three years since I realized that I couldn’t live with my husband’s racism, and we are still together. It wasn’t easy for either of us, but when he realized that I could not trust him, that his inability to admit his racism made him a liar, he knew he had to change. My promise is to give him the space to educate himself and make mistakes, and the time to grow from it.
I also made a fundamental change in how I interacted with him and with the world: I stopped treating my Blackness as a burden. I stopped feeling bad about being Black. I stopped feeling like I had to prove I was different, “one of the good ones.” I hadn’t even realized I was doing it, and it’s still something I struggle with. When I’m in a situation where I feel silenced, or singled out, I don’t blame myself anymore. There is nothing wrong with me, my Blackness, and recognizing my skills and accomplishments. I am worthy. I share my experiences and amplify the narratives of others without shame. I invoke the privilege of my intelligence, education, and support network to learn more and write more about the impact of racism in various parts of my identity. I work to center myself in my narratives, instead of the men or the white people who surround me. I have reached a place where I feel safer without all the games I’ve been forced to play in this society. I’m still not 100% safe, but I’m not sure if that will ever be the case.
This also changed how I interacted with Kevin. Instead of focusing on how my Blackness affected us, we started focusing on how his whiteness affected us. He continues to confront his racism and doing the work to change his thinking and his reactions. He is rewriting himself and learning that his perspective is fucked up and he needs to continually straighten that shit out. It is his job to shoulder the burden of his ancestors and their history of genocide, rape, theft, and destruction of other cultures as they falsely promoted their illusion of dominance. It’s his job to check the racism of his family and friends. This is his role he took by being with me. It’s not an easy battle for us. He knows when I talk about oppression he doesn’t have a seat at the table. He knows that my understanding of racism overrides his.
In exchange, I work to keep our communication about racism as safe as it can be for him—without doing harm to myself. Among other things, this means my anger is accepted without my having to explain or justify it. He knows he is not an authority and that his ally work is in white spaces, not Black ones. He is continually unlearning white supremacy and how to de-center himself in these conversations. It’s no longer focused on his hurt feelings or fears that I hate all white people. Instead, it’s about knowing that all white people in this country are racist until they take on the continuous task of unlearning what everyone and everything has taught them about race in America.
It’s not an easy battle, but it’s the one I’ve chosen. I’m just happy that I’m with someone willing to fight the battle with me.
*Name has been changed.