The Danger of Unchallenged Racism in Interracial Relationships
This was originally published on The Establishment on July 18, 2016.
It shouldn’t surprise me that interracial relationships are here to stay, considering that I’m in one. Still, I worry about the people in them. When I started dating “Kevin,” I was concerned about the demographics of the relationship. I worried about how it would play out with our families and friends, the rest of the world.
The one thing I didn’t really understand was how it would play out between us.
So I wrote about it. I wrote about how I’d desensitized myself to a lot of casual racism in my life as a survival tactic. I wrote about how I’d internalized anti-Blackness. Then I wrote about re-tuning myself to hear the anti-Blackness in my relationship, and subsequently having to address it with my white spouse before we ruined our marriage.
My husband was willing to change. He continues to change and address his racism. Because he’s willing to do this work, we work.
I am one of the lucky ones.
I’m lucky because even though it’s hard for him, he admits his racism and actively works to dismantle it. He’ll have the hard conversations. He accepts that there were things he supported in the past that were disgusting. He unmasks his lies and owns his mistakes. We both do. That we don’t have children helps. We don’t have the additional stress of inadvertently encoding any children with racism or self-hate. It is a humbling way to live, but it’s real, raw, and truthful. We don’t mask our ugly. We sit it right beside the pretty and figure out how we’re going to live with it.
When I read the blogs of other interracial couples, I rarely hear about the ugly. I don’t hear about how those couples confront the elephant in the room and fight to keep it from trampling everything. Instead, I hear odes to colorblind love and admiration for the white people who dared the ostracization of their white families and friends—something you don’t hear about the Black partner because it’s presumed that dating a white person is a come-up, not a downgrade. I read about the white person’s bravery and their struggle.
What I see, though, is their internalized racism.
Just yesterday I read a blog about an interracial family. The woman has a white son from a previous relationship and is currently married to a Black man, with whom she has a two-year-old son. In this essay, she reflects on her relationship as she has had to admit to herself the racism her husband experiences, and realize the future her toddler son faces. They have been together for years and now she is beginning to understand the inherent danger this country presents for people with brown skin. Now she sees that minor things like spending time alone with their white child or driving with a broken tail light are potentially lethal for her Black spouse. Finally, she is starting to see what’s been in front of her all of her life. Finally.
Her response? To tell her two-year-old Black child this: “You better make smart decisions. Safe decisions. No robbing a gas station. No walking down the street swinging a sword around. No rioting. You are to be respectful. You are to be a member of society that contributes to the world. You are to be proud of who you are and your heritage. If you are anything less than these things, you might not come home to me one day.”
There was so much in that one quote that I wished I still smoked. I love how she made it all about her potential loss. Not fear about the life he may have to live, but her fear that he may not come home . . . to her. She told her child, “Don’t be a kid. Grow up. Don’t make mistakes. Don’t confront the system. Don’t rebel. Be quiet. Be still. Be invisible. Do what people say, but be proud of who you are, as long as it doesn’t look like any kind of protest or disobedience.”
On top of that, she threw in a few gems about only doing legal things because robbing a gas station is every Black person’s aspiration unless they fight really hard not to. I also liked the shout out to Darrien Hunt, the young Black man who was murdered for cosplaying with an ornamental sword. They sell those swords at the mall, you know. I have six of them.
What she forgot to mention, however, was how being respectful, productive, proud, and lawful can still get Black people “legally” murdered by police and scared white people. How it can get you lynched in police custody. How Black people are refused medical care by the police until they die in custody. How scared white people kill Black people asking for help. How Black people are killed by police for sleeping in their cars. Did she forget this? Or has she just not acknowledged it yet? I wonder . . .
I wonder if she tells her white son these things. Does she think he’ll be killed for being disrespectful?
I wonder how her husband responds to her casual racist attitude towards their child. I wonder how he feels when she dismisses his fears as “crazy paranoia.” I wonder if it bothers him that it took another Black man being murdered for her to begin to understand his legitimate concerns.
I wonder how he feels when he reads her statement that everyone has the same opportunities and choices, completely ignoring the hundreds of years that many choices were illegal for Black people. I wonder if he questions himself when he hears her dismiss the hundreds of laws that explicitly forbade Black people from accessing the same benefits as white people. I know I questioned myself when Kevin did it. I questioned him, myself, and our relationship. I asked myself how much work was I willing to do to stay and how much I was willing to compromise for him. It was more than I would do now; my patience was in a different place then, but it’s less than other people think it should be, as evidenced by every person asking if Kevin is okay with my essays.
For the record, Kevin is okay with my essays. He supports what I do and accepts that sometimes my writing will be about our relationship. He listens and learns and he calls out my hypocrisy—not to silence me, but to remind me of who I want to see in the mirror.
And I hold a mirror so he can see himself and ask if he’s being the person he wants to be.
Then we hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves, together, because honesty and accountability are everything.
I wonder who holds up the mirrors for the couple from the blog post, if they even have mirrors at all.
As hard as everything is right now, this social environment is an improvement. No longer are Black people silenced as easily as they were during my childhood. More Black people have voices than ever before. Injustice is called out, spread, the veil of American freedom lifted, our bullshit now visible to the rest of the world. It is both glorious and heartbreaking to see the volume of injustices across the country. It isn’t surprising, though. Black people have been discussing this for decades.
For a long time, I gave white people the benefit of the doubt. I told myself that they didn’t know what they were doing. They were ignorant. If only we explained it to them, helped them relate, then they’d understand. Over the past three years I’ve seen explanation after explanation and still people deny racism. They deny profiling. They deny persecution of Black people. They deny and when they can’t deny, they lie. It was in the past six months that I finally accepted that all of this is 100% deliberate, including the “ignorance.” It is willful. It is a choice.
My denial of this was the only thing that made me feel slightly safe in this world. It was what helped me stay optimistic about the future and aided me in giving white people the benefit of the doubt. I don’t give them the benefit of the doubt anymore. Now I just understand that if they aren’t challenging racism, they support it. I can no longer call my husband’s racism unconscious. It was unchallenged. Now we both live with the challenge of what that means and how he needs to continue to change and grow.
Interracial couples are going to need to challenge the racism in their relationships. If you haven’t yet, you will. Some of your relationships will end. Others will grow. Regardless, you need to unbury the lie. It is toxic to both you and your partner, but especially to your children. Don’t raise them to hide and hate themselves.
I hope this woman’s racism is challenged before she does more harm to her family. I get that this is her experience and she is doing her best.
But her best isn’t good enough.