Author’s note: I use the word boyfriend here to acknowledge gender. My current experience can only speak to navigating the complexities of being in love and talking about race with a cisgender man, where there isn’t a shared experience of gender or sexual oppression.
We live in a country with a deep history of racism.
Moving beyond dating, how do people navigate existing historic and social racial tensions of privilege and oppression in interracial partnerships, particularly between a white man and a woman of color? How do you hold yourself and your partner accountable to the things that matter to you?
In the process of writing this article, I had the opportunity to speak with other feminists of color experiencing similar relationship dynamics but in different stages of their relationships. Their insights have helped me to reflect on my own relationship’s dynamics of race and gender.
It’s difficult to talk about race with a white partner as a woman of color, but here are some ways to approach this that my partner and I have discovered work for us and may also work for you.
So in conversations with my partner, I have started to directly address any triggering, racialized comments he has said that made me feel upset or that didn’t sit well with me, and also more openly talk about racial issues I care deeply about.
But I never brought any of these things up until my current relationship.
With my current partner, who is a white man, we’ve been through much trial and error in learning how to talk about race both in the context of our relationship, as well as in the larger context of social justice.
Learning to talk about race in a relationship began with finding someone who a) cared about racial justice and b) was open to learning and growing together.
In the process, I’ve learned (and am continuing to learn) how to assert myself, how to disagree, and how to communicate more lovingly, respectfully, and productively.
2. Figure Out Patterns of Communication
This helps navigate interactions layered with racial, cultural, and gender differences. When talking about race, the stakes are very different for us.
Because race is often a salient part of our identities as women of color, disconnecting the conversation from yourself is tricky. Questions and responses from your partner can feel like challenges to your entire being.
I usually find myself getting upset because I feel like I’m defending my identity even before it’s been attacked. These aggressive feelings can turn what might be a productive and mutually respectful dialogue into anargument. At one point, he said, “Maybe we just don’t talk about this,” which pushed me to re-evaluate how I was approaching discussing race in our relationship.
Here, taking time to reflect on what specific things trigger or upset you becomes helpful.I’ve noticed that both an emotional and external processor, while my partner is almost the opposite. When I talk, I couch statements with “I feel” or “I think,” and when he talks, his thoughts sound like objective claims of fact. I have (sometimes unfairly) accused him of “mansplaining” because something about his tone makes me feel belittled or devalued.
Learn to allow yourself to get angry if needed, but also take time to listen carefully. It helps in articulating your perspective in a more meaningful way. Talking about race gets easier the more you understand each other’s communications needs and styles and adapt your styles to suit the other person’s unique needs for love, affirmation, and understanding.
For me, there were less hurt feelings this way.
3. Continue the Conversation Later
Race talk is never over (just like racism isn’t over). And, if you’re planning on being together a while, then you’re going to have plenty of these conversations over the course of time.
Early on in our relationship, we started talking about singing the ”N-word” in karaoke, which turned into a larger conversation about “who gets to use the N-word?” (Neither of us get to.) He wasn’t sure why it was such a big deal, especially if it was included as part of the lyrics. At the time, the conversation caught me off guard – it was something I felt strongly about, yet I felt flustered in explaining why it was an appropriative word that was loaded with consequences.
Sometimes, you might feel like a conversation was left unfinished and want to follow up. In this case, I shared several links to articles that had covered this “debate” at length. Then, later, we checked in again, and he shared that what had been most compelling to him was an argument for a better understanding of historical and social context.
Taking time to seek out external sources if needed, provides ways for him to connect with information in his own way. While you can only speak from your perspective and experience, encouraging him to do his own work in finding sources places less burden on you to be an authority.
4. Understand the Current Limits of Your Conversation
When talking about race with other people of color engaged in social justice work, there’s an element of shared experiences that allows for in-depth explorations across a breadth of topics. With an agreed upon foundation to work from, similar beliefs, experiences, and perspectives about race and racial justice are often affirmed.
With my white partner, some of our first discussions of race got stuck because we had disparate realities and opinions around ideas that for me seemed like baseline ideology.
It’s hard to engage deeply when the shared understanding isn’t quite there yet.
You might feel like you’re getting hung up over what seems like basics without getting to the nuance. For example, I found myself needing to defend the need for spaces marked specifically for people of color.
Addressing white privilege continues to be one of the more difficult things to talk about in our relationship.
If you’re like me and look at the world around you from a woman of color lens, you can’t help but notice nuances and race and gender subtext in everyday interactions. Often, these might be things that aren’t considered by your partner.
In one of the earlier conversations we had, he said, “I don’t like how my identity as a white man is oppressive to other people” or “It seems unfair that whiteness is associated with something bad.”
The more you talk, the more you might feel more comfortable asking for his support and active solidarity when he notices other racist instances or moments of oppression. As my partner has been more understanding about his privilege, he’s showing up for me more as a true partner.
At the end of the day, your relationship with your partner is unique and complex.
I’ve started considering what my partner can and cannot give and thinking about the things I need. This doesn’t mean compromising on values, but it does mean rethinking expectations from these conversations.
We have an extremely fulfilling relationship in terms of love, trust, and support, but I also need and crave deep conversations around racial justice issues.
I’m still figuring out what is or isn’t negotiable between the two of us, but as I’m doing so, I’m also shifting my expectations and seeking other people and supportive spaces to satisfy my need for more extensive race talk.
Rachel Kuo is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a scholar and educator based in New York City. Her professional background is in designing curriculum and also communications strategy for social justice education initiatives. You can follow her on Twitter.