TaLynn Kel tells us in “My Husband’s Unconscious Racism Nearly Destroyed Our Marriage” how she and her husband have managed to stay together and get closer. Her husband is white and Kel is black. She shares a generous and honest narrative about what it’s been like to navigate marriage with a white man. So would you please go read that now and then come back?
So, white person, I’m talking about your journey in a very close relationship with a person of color, whether your loved one is your spouse, child, sibling or best friend. I’m a white couples therapist who also deeply loves a person of color. I’ll use the terms “beloved” and “loved one” to reference the person(s) of color you love deeply.
When you love a person of color, you have to feel deep pain about racism. Perhaps you always felt some level of pain about racism and injustice, but in a close relationship, you feel it more acutely and more often. Seeing racism around you constantly feels awful.
Your beloved is a part of you, so you constantly notice microaggressions that you know could (and do) impact them. You notice the way a clerk watches your beloved as you walk around a store together. You hear the assumption a white colleague makes about a person of color. You see that all of the main characters in SO many popular movies are white.
In the past, you were offended on behalf of people of color when you saw racism. Now racism hurts YOUR feelings, and you feel that hurt in your body. You experience a deeper level of empathy than you did before.
You notice your white privilege ALL THE TIME. You see your privilege in interactions you had taken for granted in the past. Perhaps you notice that you don’t have to be afraid of being shot when you’re pulled over in your car. You notice when many individuals give you the benefit of the doubt every day.
You’re more awake than you were before.
Depending on how asleep you had been, this awareness can be quite jarring. You may feel fragile sometimes. Your beloved has likely developed lots of coping skills and 100 layers of skin to deal with racism, but in this particular area, your skin isn’t as thick. White people’s coping skill to deal with racism is usually to avoid seeing it. You’ve given that up, and that’s a good thing.
Let’s talk about a few pitfalls we white people can fall into and some ways to avoid them.
Sometimes we white people want “ally cookies” from people of color.
We want credit for every time we speak up, say or do the right thing. It’s silly, right? When I ride my bike, I don’t thank all the drivers who didn’t hit me. If you catch yourself wanting an ally cookie, remember that fighting racism is our responsibility. Expecting a cookie kind of takes away from the whole point of being decent.
We make it about us.
We are so used to being at the center of things. We can fall into making racism about us too. Rather than looking at what it’s like for you that your beloved is a person of color, shift your focus to what your whiteness is like for them. Tal names one of the reasons she’s been able to stay in her marriage: “ Instead of focusing on how my Blackness affected us, we started focusing on how his whiteness affected us.”
We want to stay comfortable.
If lots of your life happens in white spaces, embrace opportunities to be in non-white spaces. Of course, we shouldn’t intrude on spaces that people of color have carved out for themselves, but we can embrace opportunities to go where whiteness is not the norm.
We think we get it.
No matter how hard we work, and how awake we become, sometimes we white people don’t really get it. When you don’t get it, believe your beloved’s experience. Your beloved must know that you will listen, support and believe them even when you don’t get it.
Even worse, we question whether race is the issue at hand.
If your beloved tells you about an incident when they experienced racism, trust their experience. White people have a really bad habit of pointing out “that might not have been about race.” It’s not helpful. It’s kind of like saying “I know that this incident was probably about racism, but just in case it wasn’t, I’ll take the side of the person who hurt you.” Being trustworthy to your beloved means that you no longer look for opportunities to NOT see racism.
We’re unwilling to make other white people uncomfortable.
White people often say some racist stuff around other white people. In order to be trustworthy, you have to be willing to speak up. The white person you speak your truth to will probably become defensive, accuse you of being P.C., tell you that you’re the (reverse) racist, or let you know that some of their best friends are black. As awkward and upsetting as these conversations are, we’ve got to speak up anyway. We’ve got to let them know it’s not okay with us. We’ve got to stop making the comfort of white people more important than the lives of people of color.
We fall apart.
Your beloved needs you to stay in this struggle. Get support from other white folks who are also committed to being awake. When we’re in pain and feeling fragile, we can vent and cry and grow together. You deeply love a person of color, but you’re less impacted by racism than they are. Don’t take it personally if your beloved sometimes doesn’t want to hear about your pain about racism.
We think we’re better than other white folks because we’re more awake than we used to be.
You could accuse me of this. As I’m giving all of this advice to white people, you might ask: “Who the hell is she?” The more I know about racism, the more I realize I don’t know. I aspire to hold a beginner’s mind and to learn more rather than to believe I’m different from “other white people,” or dissociate myself from my whiteness. My beloved needs me to be awake and I can’t do that if I think I’m beyond it.
We don’t realize we are the problem.
Those pitfalls I’ve described are forms of racism. They are well meaning, unconscious and unintentional, but they’re still racism. If your beloved calls you on your shit, be strong enough to hear it.
Thanks for being in this conversation with me.
*White spaces: Spaces where the majority of people are white and there’s an assumption that whiteness is the norm.