Interracial relationship issues
April 23, 2016 11:38 PM   Subscribe

If you are a person of colour in an interracial relationship, what do you expect of your partner in terms of understanding racial issues? In what ways do they show you they are an ally to POC? How much emotional labour do you do to help them with that?

My wonderful boyfriend and I have been in a relationship for almost 2 years. I'm brown, he's white, we live in Canada, we are in our 40's. He is very well read, very educated, a feminist. He is against intolerance of all kinds, as am I. Our principles are very much aligned.

To date, he and I have never experienced any racism relating to our relationship. In fact, I rarely face any racism at all in my daily life, especially not directed at me. But I did experience plenty growing up, and I am acutely aware of intolerance or subtle racism in society, and I also consider systemic racism when discussing issues.

My boyfriend admits to feeling out of his depth when it comes to race. He doesn't have any experience with racism. I certainly understand this, and am happy to share my perspective to help him gain a better understanding of what POC face. I've had to actively educate him on certain things, like why it's important that he makes sure his friends know how to pronounce my name properly, not just give me an easier nickname (as some people tend to do).

I absolutely need to feel like he is an ally to POC. And he is! In his bones, he is unquestionably against racism. But still, talking about race is difficult for us. He just doesn't see racism in his everyday life, so when I bring it up, he sometimes feels I'm too focused on race. I can't seem to be able to talk to him without him getting frustrated and feeling like a failure. He feels he will never be "sensitive enough" because he's white. (And yes, I have shared Robin DiAngelo's work with him. He was very receptive and very humble. But I don't think it fully sunk in.)

What I am looking for is anecdotes, stories about other interracial relationships. Examples of ways in which your partner showed they had your back as a POC, or when you felt let down and how you handled it. I need to calibrate my expectations.
posted by yawper to Human Relations (14 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
This is maybe selling myself short, but I have a pretty hard and bright line about fetishizing/eroticizing my browness in the bedroom. Took me a while to find a white dude who did not do this, actually.
posted by Juliet Banana at 4:05 AM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm about to MeMail you.

It's very important to be with someone who doesn't treat you as being negative or neurotic (or plain ol' wrong) for knowing about and needing to actively navigate ethnic relations issues.

I don't know how relevant this is for you, but I find making choices in line with respectability politics much of the time to get by. One of the tricky things while being in an interracial relationship is finding a partner who isn't actively put off by that, and who isn't going to peg you as: (1) a bad person for being aware of a stereotype and (2) uptight for making choices to actively play against said stereotype. If your partner is white, I imagine this can be particularly difficult because as a good liberal white person, the party line is colourblindness without nuance; understanding why a member of a minority group may have to approach race differently is hard.
posted by blerghamot at 5:41 AM on April 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

I am White, but my POC friends with White partners set the standard that their partner needs to believe them when they bring these issues up. Telling you you're too focused on race and not 'sensitive enough' would be examples of not believing.
posted by schroedinger at 9:03 AM on April 24, 2016 [18 favorites]

I am a hetero-cis Asian male who's dated white and mixed race females so my experience is probably going to be a little different. Many of my partners have been in the same space that it seems that your boyfriend is in: well educated, pro-tolerance, but relatively passive to their engagement on systemic racism and white (or white-passing) privilege. A few thoughts and anecdotes:

I've always had to do the labor of pointing out things like microaggressions or cultural appropriation, and I think that's ok so long as my partner is able to have a constructive conversation about it. Coming at the conversation of "I want to understand your POV" is good, coming at it as, "I think you're mistaken and I need you to convince me otherwise" is more troublesome, at least for me. I can understand that certain couples prefer to converse that way, but it's not mine. Fwiw, even the ones who are most read-up and most actively engaged in social justice in general can also be the most exhausting if their conversation style is more confrontational and interrogatory, if anything its gets into a special flavor of exhausting when you're both aware of the issues to a detail that lets you get really into the weeds on a topic.

Whereas, I met my fiancee 20 years ago, in college, though we didn't actually start our relationship until more recently. she still remembers and has often reminded me about how I was the first person to point out to her that the question "where are you from?" can have baggage when you aren't white. She had lived in almost white-exclusive communities in the Midwest for most of her childhood and only started attending schools with diverse populations halfway through high school. But she always came at those experiences from a place of humility and curiosity, not fragility and anxiety.

One notable factor in how my relationships might differ is related to intersectionality (or at least a variant on it). Both my partners and I experience microaggressions, even if they're different based on our ethnicity and gender. We're in different parts of the privilege ladder, and certainly below white males. So, at least, we've both had this experience of knowing the way the world hurts or upsets us, without making the other feel directly responsible for that injustice. Whereas, I rather feel like people at the apex of the privilege ladder, who haven't had that direct experience with being at the losing end of social power, feel like they are always being held to account in these conversations, when sometimes somebody just wants to vent.

Which leads me to my final thought: sometimes, as a male, one of the things that I have had to specifically work on with myself, is learning how to listen to my partner without having to feel like I need to fix or resolve their situation. It's, like, a huge thing to have to just listen to one's partner talk about something that upsets them, and not feel like you have to do something to change the situation (and how that sometimes manifests in wanting to make the situation go away by telling the partner that it isn't important). Maybe that's a different perspective that your boyfriend can take on this situation?
posted by bl1nk at 9:23 AM on April 24, 2016 [13 favorites]

I'm white and female, in a long-term relationship with a non-white man, and I think we've both learned a ton about our own privilege blind spots from being together. I am much more empathetic to my friends and colleagues of color than I was before I met him. But it has been key that we both err on the side of believing one another's lived experience - even if we are skeptical about specific instances, specific remedies, etc there has never been any question that we both come to parts of our lives at a disadvantage. The questions are all about the details and acceptable reactions to specific circumstances. I found it really frustrating being with a white guy who really did not seem to grok deep in his bones that he was playing life on easy mode.
posted by town of cats at 9:47 AM on April 24, 2016

I'm starting to figure out that the people I've dated fall into two camps: those who say they're not racist and don't appear to be, but who are uncomfortable when I bring up racist things that have happened to me, suggest maybe I am being too sensitive, don't ask about my culture, and who, perhaps not surprisingly, have parents who often engage in microaggressions. The other camp will ask me thoughtful questions about what it's like to be non-white, have engaged and continue to engage in pointing out racism to others (even before they met me), and who can talk about racist topics without feeling guilty. With this latter camp, I rarely have to do much emotional labor - they have already done much of it on their own, and are willing listeners without being defensive. I find that the latter camp also understands their white male middle and upper class privilege, and are supporters of other minority groups, as well.
posted by umwhat at 12:49 PM on April 24, 2016 [10 favorites]

It depends on how much you like him and want to be with him. I'm not saying chuck him, but I have known women of color say it's "too frustrating" to date white men, and they completely stop even considering dating white men. It depends on how much you want to put into the relationship/how much you like him, and the type of person he is (and the type of person you are). Some people aren't offended by the same things others are, but you have the right to your own opinions.

It is unacceptable for someone to tell you that you're focusing too much on race. I'm brown and married to a white man, and I think media is a huge problem, but it can also be a solution. For instance, it can be very divisive ("white people are like this, Asian people are like this") but it can show the absurdity of treating people differently based on their physical differences. For instance, in my relationship, I once brought up that I felt uncomfortable at him laughing at certain jokes that I felt were offensive (racist/sexist) because it made me wonder if he felt that way as well, or that it was a point of levity. We discussed how I saw the situation, and he was able to understand. He doesn't have to agree, as long as he sees your point of view and is respectful about it.

My suggestion: read, watch, and talk with him. The thing you said about your name (yes, that's happened to me, too) made me think of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. In one part, Maya Angelou explains why it's so belittling and demeaning to strip someone of their name, way better than I could, but in this day and age, it's a respect issue. Do not tolerate people saying your name is "too hard" and calling you something else- it's beyond insulting. You're not a dog, and you're not Toby, either! I say turnabout is fair play, and if someone tries to do that to you, do the same back. Call them a not-so-attractive approximation of their name, or say "I go by X" until they get it. It's not friendly, but neither is trying to change someone's identity because it's easier. I also recommend everydayfeminism. I don't agree with all their positions, but some are pretty clear and make sense to someone learning/hearing it for the first time.

You might able to get to your bf through humor, and through his gender, as most people think of white as being "neutral." For that, I recommend things like this. It's ridiculous, but it does show the other side of it. Like, of course these things aren't true, any more than many representations of women and people of color in media are true. There's also this, less funny, but entertaining, and articles everywhere. The point isn't to make him feel bad about being white, but to understand where you're coming from, and why some things are offensive to some people and not others. There's baggage that comes with being "other" and that's simply it.

Sorry for all the everything, but this is an area of interest to me, and I also took a sociology class in school that dealt with race and ethnicity, and one on schools and society, which took a deep look at race as well.

Feel free to Memail me if you like!
posted by serenity_now at 1:49 PM on April 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

Hi! I'm a woman POC who used to date white men (am now in the 'done with white' camp). It sounds like you want someone who is an active ally against racism, because then in the long-run you don't have to end up feeling nuts for living your life and having your day-to-day observations.

I don't have much good advice on behalf of white boyfriends because I never had the experience of knowing one who did not come to denigrate my observations about ethno-cultural interactions after the relationship was established. I always felt alone in what I saw. I often ended up feeling like my color and failure to fit into the white life was a barrier in the end; that I held my partner(s) back by not being white enough and that any expression of my own non-whiteness was a burden for them (god forbid broken english comes out in front of his friends, cue the eye rolling, and cue the post-visit criticism over how my brain "goes dumb" after I've been on the phone with my mom). Ultimately all three of the white guys I dated went back to being with white women.

At the end of the day, you might be witty and sharp enough to have your boyfriend's back in any ethno-cultural group or situation, but would you ever be able to say the same about him?
posted by human ecologist at 9:31 PM on April 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

I am a woman of color, married to a white man.

Race is a subject very similar to gender issues in my opinion, and I have handled both similarly.

Part of the reason why my marriage works is that my husband does not feel he should know everything about gender/race issues. That is to say, he knows that I will forever be more informed and more aware, and he is there to listen, to learn, and to be compassionate and like you say, to be an ally and get angry on my behalf and he takes it personally when he learns about a new (to him) way racism or gender inequality hurt me.

Early in our relationship he was a little defensive, I think because he felt that I expected him to know and felt inadequate that he didn't already. But when I made it clear that I had no such expectation, and that I would never presume for example to know what it's like to be male, or a religious minority (like he is), he became much more open to my view of the world, and he never, never EVER doubted my experiences. The basis of our relationship is that we believe each other.

We are now at a point when I can comfortably tell him anything in my mind, including all the times when I am worried something might be sexist/racist in the outside world and I can even tell him when afterwards I realize I was wrong about some situation being sexist or racist, and he never holds it against me, because he knows I am hyperaware and he understands this hyperawareness is something real sexism and racism have created in me.

So I would say you can adjust your expectations in that it would be unfair to expect him to know and fully understand some things, but at the same time, he has to accept that in matters of minorities, you are the authority in your relationship. not because you are better or more educated or whatever, but because you are the object of this issue. He isn't.
posted by Tarumba at 8:06 AM on April 25, 2016 [13 favorites]

Also not sure I agree with Kwadeng, the stress and anguish you feel when people like you suffer, even if it is not you directly, is real and certainly involves you in a way.

Ideally we would feel this empathy when anybody suffers (not just people like us), but it is easier to identify with groups that share our characteristics.

Racism directed at others does affect you in the way you conduct yourself, in the calculations you make when you chose to go into the street, in the times you ask yourself if your race will be brought up when you are dealing with an unrelated situation in the street, or when you try to control a tiny fear that this time you leave your house it might be you getting beaten up on a viral video. These feelings are real and an unfair emotional toll you have to pay that is a direct result from racism that primarily targets others.
posted by Tarumba at 8:13 AM on April 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

I wish I could like Tarumba's posts more than once! I don't think you're expecting your boyfriend to be an active ally against racism... I don't really feel that I'm one. It's hard to explain. I don't think you have the responsibility to "just chill" either, and I want to point out that "rarely" experiencing racism does not mean "never." A little is too much. A little is unacceptable. It's hard for people to explain that aren't part of a minority group- this is why there is a type of "community" comprising women, people of color, non-able-bodied (I don't know the correct term for this), and all types of "queer" identifying- because the "other" experience doesn't need to be exact to be understood. The emotions kind of translate.

As an "African-American," I definitely have experienced overt racism from Africans, as they have (in my experience) viewed themselves as different, or better, than black Americans. I think Americans view them this way, too. They experience the United States in a different way than black Americans do, which is not to say that they do not experience racism themselves. They tend to be seen as "exceptional" minorities, and some feel that they can look down on other blacks because of this. This is still racism. You don't have to justify why racism bothers you. There's no minimum amount of racism you must experience before you are allowed to be upset. This is what yawper's post is about- having to justify her unease. She just is! Racism is not good. I think it's acceptable to say, "this made me feel X because Y, and I think they meant Z, which I don't think is okay" and for yawp's bf to say "I interpreted it like this, instead, but I can see why you think that..." and have a discussion. He doesn't have to agree, just understand.

One thing I take major exception to is the portrayal of minorities in the media. I think it usually perpetuates negative stereotypes and puts up a kind of block, which makes it difficult for different "types" of people to relate to each other as individuals. I don't have cable and rarely watch TV, but even the little I do tends to make me feel kind of sick inside. It's kind of like institutional racism- it's harder to see because it's subtler. Many people don't even realize they are biased and practicing it. It is also possible for someone to discriminate unconsciously against people of the minority group they belong to, because of internalized negative feelings or inferiority. How could this not be true? We're constantly bombarded with the message that white is right. This is part of life. America seems to be (slowly) moving away from accepting this type of thought, and that's as it should be. It's not up to people who are discriminated against to stop worrying about it. It's up to people who discriminate to get their heads out of their asses, open their eyes, and make a change. Just see people as people. This won't happen if we "just chill" and "stay in our lane." Rolling over and taking it will just make you, yawper, resent your boyfriend. Don't be afraid to stand up for yourself. Maybe you can read about institutional racism and dog whistles with your boyfriend, to help him try to understand how racism can be subtle and nuanced.

I don't have many anecdotes about a partner having my back (I tend to have my own, and I don't mind that, mostly), but one comes right to mind. A black Latina friend of a friend told my (ex)bf that it was "awesome" how he was dating me, because "most white guys wouldn't." He stared at her, stunned, and after a pause said something like, "She's awesome. I'm lucky to have her." Negative anecdote: left a really unfunny, overly racial comedy show (a Latino who felt it was okay to be racist against everyone because he's a minority), and husband stayed. It was awkward because, while I wasn't first person to have left, I was kind of overwhelmed and didn't say anything and left alone. My husband stayed for the last 30-40 minutes of the show, and I told him I felt like he didn't have my back because he was basically letting someone stand there and denigrate me and was amused by it! I think he got it, but he tends to see most things in a different way than I do. He has been made uncomfortable by people's comments to me/us and will say something to me later, so he's not completely insensitive. The weird thing was, most of the people who'd left the show before me were white, but then again, the guy wasn't that funny.
posted by serenity_now at 9:17 AM on April 25, 2016

Lee Atwater can teach you all about dog whistles.

Besides, the United States is still segregated, though you do have my permission (for whatever that's worth) to educate those who misspeak.
posted by serenity_now at 9:37 AM on April 25, 2016

I absolutely need to feel like he is an ally to POC. And he is! In his bones, he is unquestionably against racism. But still, talking about race is difficult for us. He just doesn't see racism in his everyday life, so when I bring it up, he sometimes feels I'm too focused on race. I can't seem to be able to talk to him without him getting frustrated and feeling like a failure. He feels he will never be "sensitive enough" because he's white. (And yes, I have shared Robin DiAngelo's work with him. He was very receptive and very humble. But I don't think it fully sunk in.)

If I were his friend, I'd ask him why this makes him feel frustrated and like a failure? What are his expectations for "success?" If he wants to get a perfect score on the Recognizing Racism Exam so that he is never caught off-guard and doesn't need to have any more uncomfortable discussions, that's not realistic. But, for example, if he can learn to develop a gut reaction of "I believe you" rather than "are you sure," he'll be setting himself up to recognize patterns.

Robin DiAngelo's stuff is SO GOOD on white fragility. Can he sit with it more until he gets past feeling humbled, and can move toward conceptualizing a different way to react in his head? It takes practice.

[I'm a white queer cis woman and my SO is a white hetero cis man. Some of the above opinion is based on dealing with SO's discomfort with sexism and homophobia that he can't see, and some of it is drawn from my own soul-searching to be a better ally for POC.]
posted by desuetude at 11:26 AM on April 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, man. I made an account just to respond to this, that's how much I relate.

I'm an Asian not-straight lady married to a white straight guy. We've been together for 3+ years. About a year and a half into our relationship, we went through some serious drama/heartache that we continue to refer to as "the bad time".

For background: I grew up in a small town in which I was the only Asian kid in my school and one of a very few non-white people in my area. I got teased and called racial slurs a fair amount while growing up and I have a lot of enduring vulnerabilities related to my Asian-ness and feeling like I didn't fit in (also because I'm adopted and my parents are white). My partner grew up in a small Southern city with mostly white and black people and often talked about how he didn't like growing up in an intolerant area.

When we first met, we immediately clicked on values and liberalism and feminism in general and all that good stuff. He did nothing to suggest that he was bigoted and I assumed we were on the same page about everything. After over a year of serious dating, however, I found out that he had referred to me amongst his college friends as "Asian" (in place of my name, like "I'm going on a trip with Asian") and had used racial/homophobic slurs in the past with these same friends. I flipped out, confronted him, cried, yelled, demanded to know when and why he was saying such things, asked him to explain to me how he could think stuff like that while having long, in-depth conversations with me about nuanced race and gender issues. Honestly, I felt betrayed and kind of like I had been cheated on. He said all the right things, but I didn't know how to trust that this was really something he had left behind him.

We briefly broke up and I asked my friends for some perspective. Half of them said things like, "No one I know would ever say such things, cut him out of your life immediately!" and the other half said, "We've all done and said things we regret, if he's changed or willing to change, forgive him".

A big part of what swayed me was listening to my roommate at the time, one of the most progressive/feminist/activist people I know. She said, "If we don't believe that people can change, what are we even doing with our lives?" She's a teacher, I'm a nurse, and we both fundamentally believe in the ability of humans to learn and grow.

So, we got back together. He was as devastated as me, in a way. He was deeply ashamed and it became clear to me that this was behavior and speech he had been cutting out before I came on the scene. But I realized, it wasn't enough for him to apologize and not say those things around me. I needed him to truly understand where I was coming from, and why I was so hurt. I didn't want him to tell me what I wanted to hear and then continue to tell the same jokes with his friends when I wasn't around. If it was another friend, I wouldn't have taken it so personally. Another friend calling me "the Asian" wouldn't have reminded me of all the other guys I'd hooked up with who turned out to have an Asian fetish, you know?

In any case, I started off by giving him Tim Wise and bell hooks books to read. But it kind of felt like punishment, or homework. I abandoned that plan pretty quickly, as I didn't want to be his teacher, I wanted to be his partner. I want my partner to teach me, too, and to challenge my blindspots and prejudices. I was worried that he wouldn't be able to do that for me, no matter how much progress he made himself. I worried that I'd never be able to joke about being Asian around him without feeling self-conscious and sad. I worried that I could say something pretty terrible or offensive and he either wouldn't notice, or wouldn't care. Being around him no longer felt like a safe space.

What happened is, he read all the books. And others. And he read a lot of blogs. He asked a lot of questions. We had endless conversations. He talked over a lot of these issues with his friends. Some of them understood where I was coming from, some of them didn't. He just...put in the work. At first I was afraid he was doing whatever he thought I wanted out of fear of losing me. Over time, I could tell that wasn't the case. He started sending me feminist links I hadn't seen yet. He called out a friend of his for saying something insensitive at a party. He called me on my shit. He started grad school and his friend group got more diverse, which helped. He did all the little things that added up to a picture of someone who wanted to change.

He never treated me like I was crazy, or out of line, even when I was at my most emotional. He never made excuses for himself. He didn't understand how I felt at first, but he listened until he did. I was worried that I'd never be able to respect him again, and after all of it, I respect him more.

I still have insecurities and I probably always will. And I think he has insecurities too, about not measuring up or disappointing me. But we never stopped talking about it, and we both put in the emotional labor. We've come a long way from the time he told me he didn't consider us to be in an interracial relationship, because he never thought of me as really Asian.

So, to answer your question: I expect a lot from my partner in terms of understanding racial issues. Everything, in fact. The very most he can give as a non-POC.
posted by parkhyein at 8:19 PM on April 25, 2016 [19 favorites]

« Older Communication is too hard. I almost want to stop...   |   How to change source on a Viera TV with a YouView... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.