How to Support a Black Partner During Racially Charged Times
Today, that promotional image you see of a mixed-race family smiling together at a fast food restaurant or an young interracial couple shopping at a hip furniture store might be focus group-tested as exemplifying the best of contemporary capitalism.
But not too long ago, the idea of people from different racial backgrounds loving each other was far from commonplace — particularly white and Black people in America, where such relationships were, in fact, criminalized.
RELATED: How to Help the Black Lives Matter Cause
Though this racist law was overturned in America by the landmark Loving v. Virginia case in 1967, interracial relationships can still prove difficult in ways that same-race relationships might not.
Problems can arise in terms of each partner confronting the other’s understandings of race, culture and privilege, for one, and also in terms of the way you’re treated as a unit by the outside world, whether as an object of fascination or derision (both often concealing racist prejudices). And tensions like that can be especially amplified when the national discourse around race intensifies, as it has since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25.
In order to better understand how to properly support a partner of color as an ally in the time of the Black Lives Matter movement, AskMen went to the source, speaking with Nikki and Rafael, two individuals whose partners are black. Here’s what they had to say:
Talking About Race With a Black Partner
Depending on the dynamic of your relationship, you may already talk about race a fair amount.
But whether it’s something you’ve been actively avoiding, or it simply doesn’t seem to come up much at all, it’s worth exploring why in order to make a change.
Unfortunately, because America and many other Western nations have deep-rooted anti-Black sentiments running through them, your partner’s experiences with anti-Black racism are likely a non-trivial portion of who they are. Never discussing that with them means you’re missing out on a big chunk of your partner’s true self.
RELATED: How Black Men Move Through the World and Why Change Is Needed
“The topic of race has come up in conversation between me and my fiancé from the very beginning of our relationship,” says Nikki, who’s been with her partner since 2017. “We’ve discussed how people react to our relationship from both Black and white perspectives — from simply walking down the street to getting dinner at a restaurant, we have always been observant and aware of others.”
She notes that these conversations would come up as the two “encountered prejudice,” noting instances of people looking, occasionally speaking directly to them, and even “being pulled over once for no reason.”
The Black Lives Matter movement has only encouraged more “heightened and deepened discussion more recently,” adds Nikki.
As for Rafael, who’s been dating his girlfriend for about eight months, race comes up “naturally in conversation often, on a weekly or probably daily basis.”
“My girlfriend works for a prestigious Black dance company and we both keep up with news, current events, movies and music,” he says. Race plays a role in all aspects of our culture, so it would be strange to not talk about it.”
Supporting Your Partner When They’re Facing Racism
If you’re only just beginning to talk about race with your Black partner, you might not yet have a solid grounding in how to support them when they’re facing racism, whether that’s systemic or personal, implicit or explicit, intentional or not.
RELATED: AMPLIFY: AskMen Elevates Black Voices
1. Recognize Racism’s Role in Your Own Life
It’s important to recognize that white people are born into an already existant racist culture, and it’s impossible to properly tackle racist issues until you can recognize how it’s factored into your own upbringing.
“Be an ally,” says Rafael. “Come to the table with an understanding that we all function within a racist system, and therefore either benefit from white privilege or in the case of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) individuals, are marginalized/held back by racism. Most if not all white people have done, said, or participated in racist behavior at some point. Denying that we participate in a racist system is foolish and not true. Start there.”
It’s fixable by asking your partner to help educate you, or simply by recognizing the role you have to play in your journey towards anti-racism by educating yourself and others around you.
2. Listen to Your Partner’s Truths
You may be used to communicating with your partner about weekend plans and where to eat for dinner, but that should also extend to their experiences with racism and anti-Blackness.
Even if they’re subjects you feel uncomfortable bringing up, it’s important not to shy away from them or make your partner feel bad for bringing them up.
“It is imperative as his fiancée that I listen and support,” says Nikki of her partner. “I allow him to express his feelings freely, offering a place of comfort. When he was ready to open up and have those deep conversations, I was there to listen. I believe that this is very important in supporting a Black partner, especially during this time.”
3. Be Willing to Have Difficult Conversations…
Beyond just listening to your partner, you should also work to create spaces for them to talk to you about what they’re going through. That could be direct experiences with racism, feelings surrounding the racism they see on social media or in the media, or both.
“It seems basic, but asking how their day is or how they’re feeling are important,” says Rafael. “Those simple questions could open the door for your partner to tell you about a racist interaction they experienced, or how they’re feeling about the ongoing cases of police brutality that are constantly in the news.”
Nikki said her and her partner have had “some tough conversations” as of late, covering the “true, hard reality of what is going on.”
When we look at the future we talk about the hardships he might face as he looks for new jobs, travels, runs alone or simply goes to the grocery store alone,” she states.
4. …But Don’t Push Them on Your Partner
However, a person experiencing trauma might just need a break from the pain. Your partner likely wants someone who is willing to go there when they are, but also someone who can understand when not to.
“I like to make it known that I’m always open to talk about racial issues and injustice, but also not force those conversations,” says Rafael. “It could be the case that your partner is inundated with images, articles and videos of violence towards Black people all day long, and they’re exhausted by it. When they come home they may want to rest, take a breather, relax, have a meal, watch Netflix, etc,, and in those cases, I try to facilitate and foster that space. Supporting can mean different things at different times. I take my cue from my partner.”
Working on Your Own Anti-Black Racism
One of the most valuable things you can do, both as a partner of a Black person and as a human being, is work towards unlearning the racist ideas that you were unknowingly raised believing and work towards what author Ibram X. Kendi calls “being an antiracist.”
That is, it’s not enough to be free of racial prejudice — you also need to work actively against the racism that exists in the world, racism that’s corrosive to your partner’s well-being, and the well-being of all racialized people.
Recognizing Less Explicit Forms of Racism
White people are often raised to associate racism with extreme acts like lynchings, KKK cross burnings, and the Holocaust, but it’s important to recognize that racism is also present in seemingly benign or less-discussed things.
“In a past relationship with another Black partner, she let me know on numerous occasions that something I said was or did was racist,” admits Rafael. “It was not my intention to do something racist, of course, but nonetheless I had.”
RELATED: AskMen Book Club: Spotlight on Black Authors
“Hearing that I was racist was a shock at first, and I rejected that notion,” he said, feeling that the idea of overt, explicit, hateful racism didn’t line up with who he is.
“’I have black friends and a black girlfriend’ I thought, so how could I hate black people?,” he says. “It took me a while to understand racism and privilege in a more nuanced way and understand it as a system that I’ve benefited from and participated in.”
For instance, when a white person says the N-word, many people correctly recognize that as racist and condemn it. But when a white sports commentator calls a Black athlete “articulate,” they’re also often evincing racist prejudices, since the implication is they believe the average Black athlete to be unintelligent. Similarly, when a white person talks about “bad neighborhoods,” they’re also often evincing racist prejudice, since these are often areas financially abandoned by municipal governments, and their conditions are not the fault of the residents.
Recognizing the little ways that racist acts and feelings are present in our lives and working to eliminate them from your behaviors, thoughts, and vocabularies can make a huge difference when it comes to your Black partner.
Not Getting Defensive When You Slip Up
“Sometimes the way my ex voiced these concerns to me caused me to become defensive,” admits Rafael. “I felt like I was being ‘attacked,’ or she was speaking to me in an angry or confrontational way. The reality is that she was the victim of racism throughout her life, [and] I was not the victim.”
He adds how common it is for “white people to shut down when they are confronted with their own racism.”
“Now, in my current relationship,” says Rafael, “I think I’m better equipped to hear some critiques about myself without a knee-jerk reaction or putting up a wall.”
Working to Educate Others
The next step in being anti-racist is trying to expand your impact and help other people you care about understand the ways that racism functions. Nikki says she and her fiancé have been doing work to that end in light of the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement.
“We have also encouraged family and friends to start having those conversations and speak up and out,” she says. “And I have researched and expanded my knowledge base while my fiancé has gone out and participated in protests.”
Being anti-racist is impossible in a silo — if you are against racism but are quiet when you see other people engaging in various forms of it, you’re complicit in their actions. As Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Part of being in a relationship with a Black person, as a white person or non-Black person of color, is to side with your partner and other Black people over the people who marginalize and harm them. Though all of this work may sound difficult, Nikki says it’s also extremely powerful.
“Something that I learned by being in an interracial relationship,” she says, “is just how beautiful it is to be in one.”
You Might Also Dig: