I have always been in interracial relationships. But talking with my white partners about race isn’t something I’ve always done. It took time, and the world changing drastically to make me have those difficult conversations. Talking about race just wasn’t something I felt comfortable with when I was younger. As I get older, I realize that having conversations about race is incredibly important. Especially if you’re in an interracial relationship. Talking about race with your white partner isn’t always fun, but it’s extremely necessary.
During my first relationship, I was in my 20s. We met when we were about 23, and obviously we acknowledged our racial differences, but that was about it. It was during the Obama administration, when we were all in this post-racial utopia. As long as we could respect our racial differences and our families could be cool, that was enough for us.
Things began to change for me in 2014 when Eric Garner was murdered by police. It happened in my neighborhood, and it shook me to my core. Then Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, the same town my boyfriend grew up in. Of course, there was a conversation about it, but mainly how we both thought it was terrible and fucked up. He didn’t really ask my feelings about it as a Black person, but just in a very general sense.
And of course he didn’t. We had never placed importance on talking about race before, so we didn’t know how. Now we were in a place where we can’t have honest and frank conversations about race, because we never did before. And to complicate things, we now have a mixed race son. Having to confront those realities now that we haven’t laid any foundation is hard. It makes me realize how much not talking about race has really done us a disservice.
When I started dating again a few years ago, I knew talking about race with any new partner would be crucial to our relationship. Being with a white person who understood became the most important thing to me. I needed to be able to have honest and frank conversations about race issues in this country, and I know that everyone isn’t willing to do so. And if I can’t talk about that kind of stuff with the person I’m dating, how far can a relationship really go?
You can’t just interrogate someone when you’re on a date, though. Especially not on a first date, when the only communicating you’ve done is through a dating app or texts. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t find a way to ask covertly. Thankfully, there’s always some sort of trash fire happening in this country, so it’s easy to bring up something. This way, it didn’t seem weird, but just a casual conversation about current events. Pretty standard conversation to them, but incredibly telling information for me.
“Were you testing me?” one woman joked after I told her I was happy we agreed on a lot of things.
But I don’t see it as “testing” her, so much as making sure I feel comfortable with a person. Knowing that they value my humanity and are aware of the injustices Black people face tells me a lot about what I need to know. They don’t have to be going to Black Lives Matter marches or similar, but knowing that they at very least feel comfortable talking about race puts me at ease.
Dating someone who isn’t Black is challenging. Even when they’re incredibly empathetic, it’s hard for them to fully understand how things impact you as a Black person. Talking about race openly and often helps keep the conversation going. By being open and challenging their understanding of race, they will likely become less complacent. Ignoring race and not having those difficult conversations makes it easy for white partners to stop doing the work.
White people who believe themselves to be allies to the Black community have a lot of blind spots. This is especially true of white allies who are in relationships with Black people. They’re not exempt from criticism just because they’re in a committed relationship with a Black person. Unfortunately, this happens to a lot of white people who date Black folks. I can’t always be sure they’re not going to tokenize or weaponize me when I’m not around.
What I can do is call them out if I see that kind of behavior. That doesn’t work if we’re not in the habit of regularly talking about race. They need to already know my stances and feelings on the subject. If they can’t take that criticism, they’re not the type of person I need to be sharing my life with.
The biggest thing your white partner can do when they don’t understand is listen. That’s where the most learning and understanding happens. It’s easy, talking about race. But not as easy to truly be quiet and listen. Yes, sometimes talking is a two way street, but sometimes you just need to sit down and really hear what your Black partner is saying.
My current partner is amazing at listening and holding space for me. Even when she can’t understand, she can empathize, and allows me my feelings. After George Floyd’s death ramped up the conversations about Black Lives Matter and being Black in America, she has been actively listening. When I need to talk out my complex feelings about everything happening, she just sits there and hears what I’m saying.
Talking about race is never going to be something that’s comfortable for either partner. And that’s the point. If you can talk about uncomfortable things like money, why not race? Black people need to know that their white partners truly have their back when shit gets real. And white people need to know that they’ll be held accountable. None of that happens without open communication, no matter how hard it might be. Love may be easy, but understanding your Black partner’s lived experience takes work. Show them you’re willing to show up.