When Protecting Yourself From Racism Is The Selfish Choice
I didn’t realize that I never posted this on my personal site. This is from January 2018 when my S.O.’s mother was hospitalized for unknown reasons. She is fully recovered now, but I had to really think about how I could support my S.O. without subjecting myself to the racism of his family. It was a shitty time and I had no idea how this was going to go, and I chronicled my decision here.
My racist mother-in-law is dying.
Well, we think she may be dying. She is in the hospital and they are trying to figure out what’s happening, but it’s been three days and we have no answers. My significant other (S.O.) drove down to be with his family. I chose not to go because I choose not to have a relationship with them, and it would be an additional expense during a time where we are barely keeping ourselves afloat financially. So, he went, and I stayed home.
He’s angry at me now.
I knew he would be. Here he is, in crisis about his mother, and I am choosing not to physically be there for him. I’m not working a 9–5 so I wouldn’t be missing work. I am available to go, but because I won’t stay in the home of people who are casually, unapologetically “racist-lite,” I’m not being supportive.
The last time someone in his immediate family was sick, I went to his family’s place, worked out of a hotel, spent evenings with them at the hospital, and had his mom ask me silly shit like, “How do Black people remove facial hair?” and “Your children would be beautiful, cuz of the skin” — ridiculous, offensive questions that intentionally identified me as “other” in their presence and implied that an infusion of whiteness into my gene pool would benefit any potential offspring. His mom would tell me how she wanted a Black woman angel for her holiday mantle, but all the Black ones were unattractive, so she couldn’t find one. His father constantly referred to my friends as a gang, despite repeated correction.
It was always about me being different and how I was different and how my difference was some kind of problem in some way. And each time, my S.O. would look ashamed and embarrassed while never addressing the transgressions. And when I tried to address this with his family, I was met with false apologies and protestations of innocent ignorance because they just didn’t know. The expectation was always that I needed to be patient. That I needed to excuse them. That these grown ass people, 30+ years my senior, were ignorant children stumbling through conversations about race, and I was meant to be the mature person educating them.
My S.O. knew this was fucked up, but it was his sister’s wedding, or Xmas, or the health of his family member was the priority, and I needed to remember that. And while he never explicitly said this, he hinted that his parents were not particularly bright or socially adept. He actively limits his contact with them because, sadly, while he loves them, he doesn’t like them. I know he didn’t understand how offensive their comments were; I know the particulars were lost on him and all he knew was that I was upset. And in the interest of getting in and out of whatever social obligation pulled me into their orbit, I needed to understand they were limited and let this ignorant shit go because the situation at hand was always more important, and I shouldn’t make things about me. Except this was about me — about how his family talks to me — and only I seemed to care about it.
It was after that visit, and some other choice comments his mother made about Black people murdered by police, that I decided not to fuck with his family anymore. Specifically, I decided that I wouldn’t interact with them in any way. I didn’t want any gifts from them, wouldn’t let them in my home, and sure as hell wouldn’t visit them for any reason. I told my S.O. that he was welcome to have a relationship with them but that I wouldn’t and he could navigate that however he wanted.
Before cutting his family off, I also told my S.O. that he needed to confront his parents about their bullshit, which he did. He received the same response I did from his mom — the lie of “I didn’t think it was racist? I didn’t know. I’m sorry” that white women love to say. His father sided with my S.O. but never admitted to his role in it. In the end, my S.O. didn’t see the point in trying to get them to change because they don’t see anything wrong with their beliefs.
A few months later, his family happily voted for the orange menace, and they have since supported his agenda wholeheartedly. My S.O. attempted talking about politics with them only to find himself overwhelmed by their nonsense rhetoric. At one point, his mother said something along the lines of “I have to vote white. It’s the only thing I know how to do.” I remember my S.O. hanging up on her at that point, because what is there to say to that? Over time, I watched him become more depressed and defeated as he saw the damage white people were willing to inflict upon everyone to uphold white supremacy.
In some ways I felt bad for my S.O., because the blinders had slid back even more, and he was faced with the reality of white people — people with whom he identified for the majority of his life. And because he was one of them, he hated what it said about him.
My S.O. has shown me that he’s still figuring out how to manage this oppression enacted by those he cares about. While he figures that out, I’ll be somewhere else, managing my self-care. I’ve offered my emotional support from a distance — by offering him any time he needs, managing the household responsibilities, dipping further into savings to supplement the income we’re losing by him taking this time off, and letting him feel his pain without trying to cheer him up. I share stories about health crises that weren’t as dire as they initially seemed, without minimizing the seriousness of his mother’s current situation. I am here for him in a way that isn’t damaging to me.
And if that isn’t enough for him, he needs to figure that out. I am not sacrificing my well-being in this.
My choice to not visit his mother in the hospital has not been easy. I am sitting here now, sorting through my thoughts as I try to figure out what’s best. What’s best for him. What’s best for me. He called me when he got to the hospital to tell me that he was upset I wasn’t there with him. I told him that I feel bad about it but that I was not going to put myself in a vulnerable situation with people who I do not have a relationship with.
This might break us. I realize that. I don’t want it to, but it could.
Our culture is inundated with images of Black women sacrificing themselves in every way imaginable for whatever greater good is in vogue. And when we collapse from the strain and die from the stress, people look around for the next martyr for the cause. But I’m not a martyr. I’m a Black woman trying to live her life under ridiculous circumstances, in a society that tells me I’m not enough. I deserve better than sacrificing my physical and emotional safety to support anyone.
And this isn’t just about my S.O. As I began talking about the oppressive transgressions I’ve experienced at the hands of my S.O.’s family, people I called friends and family basically told me to be silent. They would ask me how my S.O. felt about the things I said. They told me I was being too militant and insensitive. That I was risking my relationship by confronting the misogynoir in my life. I was advised on multiple occasions to let it go and be considerate of his feelings. To make this easy for him. My self-worth was secondary to maintaining this relationship.
I found myself angry at all those people in my life, and as a result, some of them aren’t in my life anymore.
I understand that we need to have other people in our lives who challenge us and our beliefs, but that’s different from having to confront the negation of your very humanity. People like to pick me apart for daring to emote, express, and resist, to protect myself from the harm of those who see me as less than. They like to reduce my pain to something hormonal or irrational.
I’ve lost count of the myriad ways people will tell me to put my well-being and emotional and personal safety behind the needs of others, be they the men in my life, the white people in my life, the good of the family, the good of the company…the reasons are limitless. In this case, I am expected to swallow the abuse of my S.O.’s family and pretend everything is fine…for their comfort. For their peace.
My well-being demands that I not do that. Call it selfish if you want; I am always called selfish when I prioritize my emotional and physical needs.
Multiple people have asked me if I will go to my mother-in-law’s funeral, and when I started writing this, I had no answer. I love my husband. I try to be there for him in any number of ways. And in the beginning of our relationship, I suppressed parts of myself for his comfort.
But being with him has pushed me to grow in ways I never anticipated. His friends and family have forced me to engage with racist people on a level I’d never experienced before, and I’ve learned how egregious white people are when it comes to engaging in oppression. There is a level of denial I had to purge because I was seeing in real time how much of a fuck these people didn’t give. As a result, I am stronger, more confident, and better able to identify, address, and care for my needs.
Already, my S.O. is fielding emotional attacks from his family — accusations of selfishness and attention-seeking for dropping everything to be with them and being chastised for not communicating enough or sharing too much with people other than family. His family is emotionally immature and manipulative on a good day — characteristics that are only exacerbated in times of crisis. He is terrible about asking for support and this situation with his mother’s failing health exacerbates every part of him that he needs to continue developing. His pain and fear are palatable, and I don’t believe his family will help him through this crisis.
My presence, or lack thereof, will be weaponized, as this is what they do. These are people who sat with my family at Xmas years ago, holed up in a corner, looking afraid to speak but when I was alone, would express their bigotry through seemingly innocent and inoffensive questions like, “Why are there so many Indian people in your neighborhood?” and “Did you have a gay person at the wedding? They seemed kinda flamboyant.”
To them, I’m already this big, Black threat that they feel the need to manage and can’t. And while my presence would soothe my S.O., it would cause so many other problems, where only my willingness to accept their abuse would keep shit from blowing up.
I know society tells you that Black women are expendable, but I am not. This is the hill I choose to die on and while I hope we can find a workable solution for both of us, there are limits I will not compromise on.
I know that he needs me. I need him, too. And attending the funeral is an option. Not the viewing. Not the aftermath, but maybe the actual funeral. But anything where I need to socialize with his family?
These people are dangerous to me and that is my line.
My S.O. and I chose a complicated relationship that doesn’t operate under the standards society dictates. We are not a social norm, and that means that these situations will require complicated decisions. Untraditional choices. Non-linear pathways that he and I will have to create for ourselves. This is a situation where our needs are at cross-purposes, and we need to figure out how to be there for one another without putting the other in harm’s way. We need to not punish ourselves for not looking like what’s “normal.”
We have to accept each other’s needs and understand that sometimes, we cannot be there for each other in the way we envision. As he works on addressing his anti-Blackness and racism, he also needs to learn what it means for me to prioritize my self-love.
Interracial relationships, specifically interracial relationships composed of Black and white partners, are complicated. They are intense work. Anti-Blackness is so commonplace as to be invisible without conscious effort to see and address it. I talk about it, I work through it, and I share my story because there is a lack of support for people in these relationships. People on the outside are cruel about this. I have been told repeatedly that I fucked up and should end the relationship; that this can never work; that I should have known what I was getting into…
Well, I didn’t. I didn’t understand the complexity of what this would be and how it would play out. I still don’t know if we will last, but that’s our decision to make. And in the meantime, I am learning. I’m learning what I need, what works for me, and what works for us.
Society has told me time and again that I am meant to be an emotional mule and a willing sacrifice. I’m telling society and anyone pushing that narrative to fuck off. I am more than everything you’ve said, and fuck you if you have a problem with it.