My grandmother was clear: It didn’t matter to her that my boyfriend was white, but there was one thing she needed to know.
“Who did he vote for?”
This question has been derided by some as unfair (so much for the tolerant left!) and rejected by others as simply unnecessary. Why should it matter, they posit, if love conquers all? But to me, the inquiry felt completely reasonable. Black women’s choice whether and who to love has always been shaped by political forces, and made in the face of extreme resistance. To that end, I have continuously sought to explore love as a political choice. I can’t lie down with someone who would not stand up for me and my rights. Relationships affirm your values—or as grandmothers everywhere would say, you are the company you keep.
As a young Black woman, my choice of company is uniquely scrutinized. I have been fascinated by the extent to which people project their hopes and fears for the state of the union onto my interracial union. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, nearly half of Americans think that interracial relationships are either good or bad for society. Some people support interracial relationships out of the misguided belief that sexual chemistry represents the ultimate racial harmony. They suggest that interracial relationships will end racism.
Even National Geographic magazine has fallen into this inviting trap: The cover of its March 2018 Race Issue featured two children of a Black father and white mother—one fairer-skinned and blonde and the other with darker skin and brown hair—and the words “These twin sisters make us rethink everything we think we know about race.” The piece emphasizes the fact that although the twins have different skin tones, they’re very much the same, including in that both 11-year-olds say they have never experienced racism. The familiar subtext is that interracial relationships and any children they produce will usher in a post-racial future in which our current notions of race are upended, and with them, racial inequality. This is, clearly, wishful thinking. People’s attraction to Black bodies is wholly distinct from their respect for Black people and willingness to dismantle white supremacy. Plus, sexual relationships between men and women have yet to bring down the institution of sexism.
The other side of this sinister coin is the view that interracial relationships will actually enforce, rather than undermine, the existing unjust and racist social hierarchy. During an argument about inequality, a family member once suggested that if only I had a sexual relationship with a white man, it would and should rid me of my support for the Black Lives Matter movement. She claimed my activism made “good Blacks” look bad, and I would be less vocal about civil rights if I had “white dick.” I was incredulous, and told her (perhaps too colorfully) that no penis warrants such a pedestal.
The ugly premise of her argument was that, at a minimum, Blackness and its advocates are so worthless—while whiteness is so valuable—that romantic acceptance from a white man should prompt a reasonable person to discard any respect for Black humanity. Upon receiving romantic attention from white men, onlookers have called me a “bed wench,” arguing that I am now complicit in the brutality of whiteness by comparing me to a fictional enslaved woman who willingly has sex with a white slave master. These comments demonstrate a gross misunderstanding of the reproductive coercion that was central to slavery, and disguise a desire to control Black women’s sexuality as a quest for Black liberation.
Across the spectrum, from approval to condemnation, these reactions reveal a shared belief that Black women’s relationships generally, and interracial relationships specifically, have broader consequences for perpetuating or ending racism. Who but Black women are called upon to spread social justice by spreading their legs? I would wear a lot of things for my partner, but I refuse to wear your blame and burdens.
The politicization of Black women’s relationships in America long predates the 1960's rallying cry that “the personal is the political.” Beginning with slavery and continuing today with mass incarceration, government institutions have exercised control over Black unions and torn families apart. And before anti-miscegenation laws were found unconstitutional in the aptly named case Loving v. Virginia (1967), mixed race couples were subject to prosecution and jail-time. Perhaps this is a consequence of making Black women’s wombs the site of forced capitalist reproduction: it is ingrained into the fabric of this country that Black love, freely given and chosen, is a threat to our social order. If I, as a Black woman, am free to love and be loved, then Black womanhood must be recognized as full personhood that cannot be bound by an oppressive state. My love is disruptive. It is demanding. It is dangerous. My love is an agent of political warfare.
And so, when my grandmother asks me who my boyfriend voted for, I understand. We both know I have made a political choice, and she asks for whom I have gone to war.