Sex

How to Support Your Partner of Color at Your White Family's Holiday Gathering

Hitch up those antiracist culottes, Melissa! You've got some work to do.

by Harron Walker
Nov 21 2019, 8:35pm

Image by Cathryn Virginia

Meeting your partner’s family for the first time is often nerve-racking, but when you’re a person of color who’s dating a white person, that already stressful big step can become a whole lot more fraught. On top of all the usual concerns like remembering everyone’s names and not knocking over Grandma’s ashes, a person of color might have to contend with casual microaggressions or even outright bigotry, and they won’t necessarily be able to tell Aunt Janice to go to hell, no matter how justified they’d be in doing so. The good news is that there are a lot of things that the white partner in this situation can do to make their partner feel more comfortable and safe.

First, to be clear: I’m not a critical race theorist or relationship expert. I’m just a white woman who’s trying to create a resource I would’ve appreciated in past relationships with people of color. What I’ve written here is based on what I learned from interviewing people of color and white people about meeting the white partner’s family, along with what I’ve found helpful in my own relationships. There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy here, so the best thing a white person dating a person of color can do in this situation is talk to their partner about what their specific, individual needs are and how best to meet them.

The work begins well before the holiday excursion. “Don’t think you’re alright… Just because you’re ‘woke’ and are very knowledgeable about how white supremacy and racism function doesn’t mean you’re free from it,” said Ben, a 24-year-old white American man who is in a relationship with a Black British woman. “You can understand racism, but that doesn’t mean you’re outside of it.” Ideally, the white partner will have already been educating themselves on how race, racism, whiteness, and white supremacy function in the United States, but if not, now is the time. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, NPR’s Code Switch, Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist are all a good place to start. This is an ongoing process, one that the white partner will never really be “done” with.

Before the trip, the white partner needs to have an honest conversation with the partner of color about their family’s racist tendencies, from the subtle, unconscious ways that whiteness has informed their lives and worldview, to the undeniably offensive things they might say. This isn’t about making the person of color feel bad, said Emma, a 30-year-old Latina living in Brooklyn who’s in a relationship with a white man who spoke to VICE under a pseudonym. (Several sources in this article requested anonymity out of concerns for their privacy and safety.) It’s about making sure they know as much as possible about what they’re getting themselves into. If at any point the partner of color decides that they no longer feel comfortable meeting the white partner’s family, the white partner should respect that and not pressure their partner into going.

If you’re not sure where to begin examining your family’s biases, here are some questions to ask yourself: Did you grow up in an all-white community? Were all of your family friends growing up other white people? Were the schools you went to diverse? How do you think your parents feel about the neighborhood you grew up in? The schools you went to? Do any of your family members say casually offensive things without thinking? Which ones are straight-up racist? Are there any devil’s advocate douchebags who will try to debate them? Any draining nice white liberals who will keep bringing up Lizzo or Crazy Rich Asians without any prompting? The answers to these questions provide a decent amount of insight into your family’s views on race, and are all things your partner might want to know about the family they’re meeting and the community they’re stepping into.

Next, the white partner should plan to talk with their relatives about their partner—using clear and specific terms when talking about their race and ethnicity, so it’s not a surprise— without their partner present. These conversations can go a long way to set the tone for the visit, improving the POC's experience in the white partner’s family’s home. These discussions are also an opportunity for the white partner to go over some basic “Don’t be racist” etiquette with their relatives.

Some of the things that are brought up might seem obvious to you, like not touching Black people’s hair or asking an Asian or Latinx person person where they’re “ really from.” Other implicitly racialized conversation topics might not be so obvious, like talking about “good” or “bad” neighborhoods or bringing up some movie or TV show with the partner of color because it happens to feature actors who are of the partner’s race. There are a few different ways to go about having this discussion:

    • You can frame it in a good faith way that is honest while also giving the relative the benefit of the doubt, like, “Look, I know this is totally obvious, but I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page. I know you’d probably never do this, but I just wanted to mention…” and so on.
    • If you think you can be real and more frank with your relative and throw in fewer “You’re totally a good person” caveats, go for it: “Don’t ask her where she’s from. Don’t ask her how she learned English. She’s literally from Cleveland. Just don’t be a dumbass, OK?”
    • You could mention specific things that relative has said or done in the past that you don’t want them to do while you and your partner are visiting… or ever! “Last year when we were making the pies, you kept calling things in Aunt Sally’s kitchen ‘ghetto.’ You really shouldn’t be using that word, because…”
    • You could reframe this conversation by sharing racist things you’ve said and done in the past, and why you changed your behavior. (“I used to always refer to Aunt Sally’s kitchen as ‘ghetto,’ but now I’ve realized I shouldn’t have been using that word because…”) This can be a good strategy for making the relative you’re talking to less singled out.

You know your family members and how they tend to react to criticism. Trust your gut on which approach you think would be best.When having this discussion, it’s important to differentiate between who your relatives are as people and the things they’ve said and done. As Jay Smooth noted in his 2008 “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist,” your white relatives might shut down and get defensive if you call them racist, but they’ll probably be more receptive if you only describe their words and actions as racist. For more ideas on what to talk about with your family, and to reflect on for yourself, here’s a list of ways to be antiracist in everyday conversations from VICE contributor Kesiena Boom.

These conversations are going to be awkward, but it’s totally possible to phrase what needs to be said in a sensitive, loving, and understanding way so that the white family members don’t feel called out for something they haven’t done yet. (If trying to manage their reactions to this discussion feels exhausting, imagine how your partner feels every day!)

Once you’ve had these conversations, it’s a good idea to talk with your partner about the specifics of how your family celebrates whatever holiday you’re celebrating. When do you eat? Do people dress up? What foods does your family consider “traditional” for this occasion? How do you eat them (buffet, family style, etc.)? Do you say grace? What kinds of things do you talk about during the meal? Do you do any sort of activity after the meal? Play a board game together? Knowing these seemingly small things ahead of time can help the partner of color feel as confident as possible heading into an unknown space.

Couples should also talk about where they’ll be staying and how they’ll be getting around during the trip. Michael, a 35-year-old white man from New York who’s in a relationship with an Afro-Caribbean man, recommended renting a hotel room, if possible, as well as renting a car. Both will build in some natural breaks from all that time with family, and will allow the couple to fully remove themselves should the situation call for it. If that isn’t possible, the white partner should push for the couple to have their own room in the home they’re staying in, so they can slip away whenever they need to. You might also consider adding activities like going to the movies or splitting off at the mall to the trip’s agenda—anything that will give the partner of color a way to not have to be fully “on” at all times. Spending so much time with a seemingly endless clown car of white family members and white childhood friends can be “overwhelming” and “exhausting,” said Krisha, a queer South Asian trans woman of color from Berkeley whose partner is white.

“I found myself tempering what I wanted to say on a number of issues over and over again,” she added. “I needed to take some time to myself in our room. My partner came and sat with me for an hour. White partners should provide an outlet like that for people of color to decompress because it is stressful [to be there].”

Speaking of which, you should also talk to your partner about what you’ll both do if your partner feels uncomfortable or unsafe. For example, if someone begins talking about something that makes the person of color uncomfortable, would they prefer their partner step in and and debate with their relative, or would they prefer the partner could change the subject, or make up an excuse to get the partner away from the conversation? (“Sorry to interrupt, but can I borrow [Partner] to help me with something in the kitchen?”) The couple should also strategize how to leave the trip early, if need be.

“Tell them that you will not stay in a harmful situation, that you will not subject your partner to harm out of some sense of obligation to your family,” Michael said.

What might leaving the trip early actually look like? Should the white partner wait for the partner of color to ask to leave, or should the white partner proactively check in about this regardless of whether they sense discomfort? What are the POC’s boundaries when it comes to this trip? What are some absolute, hard-line dealbreakers that they will not tolerate? This should all be discussed ahead of the visit.

When the two of you are with your white family, you should remember to proactively support your partner at all times. Both Ben and Emma recommended that the white partner check in with their partner way more than they would at a comparable situation back home, like a friend’s housewarming or a night out at the bar. And be mindful of leaving them alone with your relatives. It’s very common to leave a partner on their own at festive gatherings, especially for different-sex couples, considering how gendered certain holiday activities are (the men watch a football game and digest, while the women clean up and prep dessert, etc.). Splitting off like this can be a great way for the person of color to bond with the white partner’s family on their own, but if things go south the white partner won’t be around to step in.

Finally, white partners should remember that their partners of color may not have a good time, and that’s... OK. It’s unfair to expect them to enjoy every minute of the trip or love your family and childhood friends as much as you do, and you shouldn’t pressure them to “just ignore” or keep the peace with people who make them uncomfortable.

“I’m never going to have a particularly fun time when I’m there,” said Xavier, a 30-year-old Latino living in the South, of visiting his white partner’s family. “They play board games and say ‘gosh’ and ‘dagnabbit’ and think garlic is spicy. Literally, that’s actual feedback I got from her mom once.”

This probably all sounds like a lot of work, and that’s because it is. Relationships take work! But if you truly love your partner and want to build a life together, you’ll take on this task together… if and when you both decide you’re ready.

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