relationships

A Lack of Racial Understanding Can Ruin Relationships

As a person of colour, it feels like you can either call out microaggressions or let them slide. But there are things white people can do to ease the strain.
09 January 2020, 6:49am
Dear White people Netflix interracial relationships
Photo by Adam Rose/Netflix

This article originally appeared on VICE CA.

While living in Germany last summer, I attended a rally for the Alternative for Germany (Afd), a far-right political party that espouses xenophobic views.

I couldn’t understand much of what was going on because everything was in German, but I could guess the gist, based on the loud jeers I heard when the speakers referenced Muslims, Indians, and Africans. One guy was wearing a T-shirt from Ansgar Aryan—a brand that apparently caters to neo-Nazis.

To say that I felt uncomfortable as one of the only people of colour in the crowd is an understatement. I didn’t have a translator, and I didn’t feel comfortable enough to approach any Afd supporters without one, so I mostly hung back and observed.

My unease was validated when I witnessed an older man wearing Afd clothing shoving a young counterprotester—a teenage girl—right in front of me. He turned around and glared at me. For a split second, I thought he might hit me. Another man intervened and told him to leave.

When I spoke to the girl and her friend afterwards, she said the man had threatened to punch her in the face.

I told a few of my (white) friends about it. I was surprised by their reactions, or lack thereof. One asked if I was still loving Berlin, because now she really wanted to visit. My boyfriend, who is white, simply said “yikes,” and didn’t ask any follow-up questions.

I found myself bristling. This wasn’t the first time that I had brought up something to do with race, only to have my white friends try to change the channel.

I can understand why these conversations would be awkward for them. Maybe they feel like they have nothing to add because they can’t relate. If any one of them had been in that crowd, they would have blended in no problem (the two white reporters I attended the rally with didn’t seem to feel as uncomfortable as I did). Maybe they’re nervous about saying the wrong thing. Or maybe they’re just oblivious.

Whatever the reason, I interpreted their reactions as being tone-deaf and lacking empathy. I felt like they didn’t really care.

So I withdrew. I was angry, but I felt angrier still that I had to explain why I was mad.

Because it’s not just this incident—it’s the time a friend blows off steam about how Black Lives Matter is reverse racist, or implies that you got a job because you’re a minority, or makes a joke involving the N-word, or wonders aloud what it’s like to sleep with a non-white person as if we’re mythical creatures, or questions how bad blackface really is, or thinks politics are somehow separate from reality, a stance that only really works if you’re in a privileged group.

I felt a cumulative sense of resentment about only ever having two options in these scenarios—let it slide, or call it out and have to handhold other people through microaggressions 101. Neither option feels good and it sucks that these stressors are threats to relationships I hold dear.

Last week, Buzzfeed launched their new bot to help people cope with the challenges of their interracial relationships.

They tweeted, “Interracial Love Is Super Complicated In This Time Of Wokeness. Tell Us (Anonymously) What You Won’t Tell Your Partner IRL.”

The bot has been thoroughly dragged by people who feel that it misses the mark and that talking to a bot (and having your thoughts published as free content) is not the best way to handle race-related issues in a relationship. I tend to agree. But the idea that people are struggling to effectively communicate about these tensions isn’t wrong.

“It becomes really difficult to establish trust when you feel like there isn’t a safe space to talk about your race,” said Toronto psychotherapist Rana Khan.

Khan said that colourblindness—when one partner doesn’t grasp the other partner’s cultural background—is a problem in relationships because one person can’t understand why the other is reacting the way they are to race-related issues. Their own privilege creates blind spots to the other person’s oppression.

“A lot of conflict comes from not understanding: where do you come from and what impact does that have on who you are currently?”

Fellow psychotherapist Renee Raymond said she has a lot of clients who are exhausted by having to address racist microaggressions and feeling misunderstood. Often times, she explained, as much as a person of colour doesn’t want to always be initiating a conversation, it falls on them because they are the one who is offended.

“It’s imperative for people who aren’t of colour or of majority groups to recognize the world we’re living in is changing and to educate themselves on microaggressions, on things that could be perceived as being offensive.”

While a lot of these concepts might be new for white folks, most people of colour have to deal with racism on a frequent basis from the time they’re little. I’ve started to lose patience with people who I feel are not up to speed on race-related issues.

“It can damage relationships in the sense that there can be a lot of resentment that builds up over time. It may look like other things where small fights or small arguments might happen,” said Raymond. “It could come to the point where someone starts distancing themselves from the relationship.” In a workplace, it can lead to feelings of imposter syndrome, where a person of colour feels out of place and doubts their own abilities because they aren’t being supported.

If you’re the white person in the relationship, one thing that can help is asking questions, said Raymond. She said one of her clients started dating a white guy and he asked her about the challenges faced by the Black community.

“They had a great conversation,” said Raymond. “When your partner actually cares to understand and wants to learn, that can really shift the tone of the conversation.”

In a similar vein, Khan said pick up on cues being offered. Like if your friend or partner mentions an Indian song they like, or (in my earlier example) talks about how they attended a racist rally, show curiosity.

“Whatever the person is offering using that as a talking point and navigating through that will probably be a lot more helpful,” Khan said.

Another thing to do is expand your social circle and knowledge base—without tokenizing your one brown friend or using them as a reference point for an entire culture.

“Being boxed in our own groups can be quite limiting as to other perspectives,” said Raymond.

In my case, developing strong bonds with other people of colour has been a saving grace. These are people who I can vent to, no explanation required, and they get it. There’s something incredibly powerful about that.

“There’s some of that unspoken language between culture,” said Raymond. “That relatability is really important.” She said some of her clients who didn’t have that in their formative years have struggled with a loss of identity.

Khan said his philosophy is to approach things from a place of compassion, even if someone is being ignorant.

“If someone is white and they’re not up to speed with race things, I try to hold space for them,” he said. He encourages people to “think about if you were granted the same privileges your white friend or your white colleague has? You would probably react the same way.”

But he admits that it’s a burden.

“On top of being oppressed in so many ways, on top of being marginalized in so many ways, you now have to deal with this one other thing,” Khan said.

Sometimes though, stepping back is the best solution.

Raymond said she asks clients to identify their values, their boundaries, and what they will and won’t tolerate in a relationship. If those lines are being crossed too often, or conversations aren’t resulting in realistic change, or it’s too draining, it might be time to take a break.

I haven’t yet figured out a solution for my own relationships, but maybe this piece is a good starting point.

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