Love Across Race: Hard lessons of being in an interracial relationship
This final week of February, I want to share about loving across race and being in interracial relationships. I think everyone has their own unique journey - so this is about me and my boo, but I would love to know more about your story of love across race. It isn’t spoken about enough or represented. So please feel free to share your story in the comments.
Let me begin with, once upon a time, in a faraway land called Bremerton, Washington, I met my handsome prince at a dance. We locked eyes across the room and it was love at first sight. SIKE! Hahahaha! We actually met when I was dating one of his friends. Our love story didn’t begin until I came home to break up with that cheating boyfriend over spring break from college. We kicked it at B&I in Tacoma, shared a lot of laughs, and he gently put his hand on the small of my back (you know the move). We talked on the phone when I returned to college, and we picked it all back up that summer. I thought I was having a summer fling, not looking for love -- but a month in -- he had me. 3 months later we secretly moved in together, 20 years and 3 kids later - here we are.
A little about him. He’s originally from Pittsburgh, is 1 of 4 sons, is crazy talented at creating anything under the realm of art, is a geek to his core, identifies as Black, and hates it when I ask him to reach for something high (because he’s 6’2” to my 5’2”). He’s also a very private person - so sorry, but you’re not going to get the tea here. What you’re going to get is the impact of raising my racial consciousness on our interracial relationship.
I would describe my racial consciousness when he and I first met as an awareness of historical racial harms and awareness of current social injustices. Early on in my childhood, I was aware of the different ways people of color were treated and aware of my specific community being predominantly white and racist. Much of this was from observing how wealth and educational achievement were so strongly tied to race in my world. Who owned the bigger homes, who were the top students, who were going on to 4-year colleges, who were being stopped by the police or getting away with crimes, who were teachers constantly harassing or praising? These would get solidified more through my education and studies. What that did not provide, was an understanding of whiteness and the ways of white supremacy culture.
When we fell in love, I honestly don’t know if he ever considered race as a factor, but I know that I did not. I would say, at this point in my life, I would have believed in sayings like, “love doesn’t see color”. I loved him and he loved me - that should be all that matters. Everything else, our clashes, and differences I attributed to coming from different family expectations and experiences, personalities, and different cultures. I lived and acted out of this belief set for most of our relationship. It wasn’t until about 8 years ago after going through training specifically on white culture and white fragility and subsequent coaching on leading that training, that I was able to see the ways in which I was living out racial oppression, white supremacy, in my own home and in my most intimate relationship. (SHIT - that was still hard to type.) As a woman of color, I didn’t think that was possible -- but friends, it sure is!
If you’ve been following me so far, you’re aware that my family chose to assimilate into whiteness and I’ve been socialized in it also through the educational system in the US. Not an unfamiliar story for many folks of color here in the US. So this learning experience was the key moment in which I learned how much white culture I was socialized into.
I’ll share probably the most painful lesson I got -- which was the way I projected my way as the right way, the best way, and ultimately being a partner that was condescending and often acted/acts better than my better half.
Quick side note: As I write this, you’ll probably get whiplash from my constant changing of past to present tense - because this shit is still and will always be a work in progress. As I write, I may be thinking that I used to do these things and realize - well shit - I still do these things. This is brutal honesty, vulnerability, and risk putting myself in a position to take hits. So, just know, I do this because I know many can learn from my own failure and hopefully show up as a loving partner through raising their racial consciousness.
So how does this superiority play out in our relationship? It’s me being controlling. It’s me questioning his decision-making to ultimately get my way. It’s me undermining his credibility. It’s me expecting him to show up differently than his truest self. Not that I ever explicitly expressed any of these things. It was in the ways that I disapproved of his ways. It’s the glaring eyes, the lack of support, and the questioning. It was in our arguments and the way I make him feel he is “wrong” and has done something “bad” -- based on white cultural expectations.
A very explicit white cultural expectation we have clashed with is respecting authority and avoiding conflict. At our kids’ school play a white man had shushed him for talking, and he spoke back to him to tell him not to shush him. I put my hand on his leg, which he knew, was me signaling to him not to say anything. At this moment, and many moments like this, I’m choosing that man’s comfort, the comfort of most of the audience, over the needs and respect of my partner. He was disrespected, and I continued to disrespect him with my own response.
Another major epiphany that came with furthering my understanding of white privilege, was understanding the barriers that he faced with racism that impacted his education, employment, and finances. (He has approved this message, by the way) Throughout his school, he faced incredible racism. From being called the N-word by peers and educators, being falsely accused and suspended, fights, and teachers not caring about his well-being - let alone his academic success. He did not graduate high school on time and did not feel college was within reach. As a teenager, he also faced homelessness, multiple police harassment encounters, and being in juvenile detention. Gaining employment as a young adult, and during our early years in a relationship, was an incredible challenge. There were many moments, and conversations, in which I blamed him for not having a job. I thought and expressed that he must not be doing enough. Not in these words, but essentially calling him lazy. My privilege afforded me many educational opportunities, being set up for college, completing my 4 years early, and regular employment. He has since completed a Bachelor’s Degree and has been employed in his position for almost 10 years, and still faces racism in the workplace that impacts him and our family significantly.
The covid pandemic and protests after multiple murders of Black people across America continued my growth in racial consciousness in attempting to support him as a Black man. I was experiencing stress, fear, and isolation, and yet his stress was surmounting-ly much more. I think when he told me for the first and only time, that he was afraid of not coming back from grocery shopping, I knew that I could never understand what it means to carry that fear. What was even harder was knowing that I couldn’t protect him or take that fear away. This stress culminated in many distancing behaviors between us and strained our relationship. He didn’t want to burden me with something that I couldn’t necessarily solve. He also often carries the expectation of men to stay strong through it all and not show emotional vulnerability. We haven’t figured it all out, but what we have done was make our wellness a priority. I have learned to support him in decompressing from stressful days, to listen more deeply, and to do the things that bring him relaxation and show him that he is loved and valued. We talk a lot more about our feelings and stress, and therapy helped us get there. Honestly, I learned things about him and the impacts of race through our couples therapy that he had never shared with me. I am a firm supporter of getting therapy from a therapist that can racially identify with your experience.
I’m pretty sure I could write a whole book on my learnings of loving across race, and to be real, it’s exhausting. It’s hard in general to be able to look in the mirror and know your flaws and contributions to the good and bad in your most intimate relationship, to self-reflect and be self-aware. It’s another level to be able to acknowledge the ways you’ve been oppressive in that relationship. I’ve shared these learnings with my partner. These moments, have brought us closer. He felt affirmed and also shocked. He never forced me to come to these conclusions. He allowed me to be in my ignorance and would take on the discomfort. Other times we fought and never found understanding. This lack of understanding I think exists in many interracial relationships, and unfortunately, I think someone is usually taking on the oppression. That could look like allowing themselves to code-switch, allowing their partner to make decisions, showing up to places that are unwelcoming, and accepting ignorant statements that project superiority. Either way, if you are in an interracial relationship, don’t assume that love is colorblind. It isn’t. Love sees color and you should work your ass off to best understand how privilege, oppression, and racism affect your relationship and your partner.
I’m going to end this with deep gratitude to my partner for allowing me to share about him and our relationship. I love you and hope that I get to keep showing you that for the rest of my life.