Jesse Williams has done it again. His audacity to stand up and speak out for injustice has started firestorms of conversations and criticism all over the country and FEW of them have been productive. Since Empowered Couples is all about empowering relationships, I felt it necessary to address the elephants that are probably in the rooms of SEVERAL interracial couples—those who were afraid to OPENLY and PUBLICLY applaud Jesse Williams’ speech at the BET Awards.
I was raised by my white step-father and black mother in a very impoverished, gang-infested community. Our parents raised us with a “just because we’re from the hood, doesn’t mean we act like it,” mentality. My step-father didn’t treat us black or white but he always allowed us to express who we were as black kids—good, bad and ugly. I was considered “smart” and treated noticeably different than other kids who came from my neighborhood by teachers and my white friends because, as one teacher said to me, “I never would have believed you lived over THERE. You speak so well and are so well-mannered.” However, the kids in my neighborhood often teased me and called me “White Girl” because I didn’t fall in line with what they believed a girl from Delman Heights (San Bernardino, CA) should be.
Nevertheless, My pseudo-acceptance by white people throughout my life made me feel like I “owed” them for treating me better than others who looked like me. So I spent a great deal of my adolescence and young adulthood side-stepping and avoiding my “blackness” as a courtesy to them. It is also partly why I ended up marrying outside of my race as well. I thought that, since he loved my skin and called it “unique” and “chocolate,” he accepted ME wholly. I learned very quickly that just because someone accepts you, does not mean they APPRECIATE or VALUE you. Accepting is a softer form of tolerance in many cases. I spent years with a man where I could not be me. I couldn’t be OVERLY proud about Venus and Serena Williams. I couldn’t FULLY express my disgust with the Rodney King beating. I couldn’t outwardly express my desire for my bi-racial girls to learn MORE about their black heritage…not without starting a fight, at least. There was no comfortable place in my marriage for me to be WHOLLY ME because my spouse had not made it safe for me to do so.
During the climb of what seems to be the growth of a modern Civil Rights movement, it is important for non-black spouses (or partners) of African-Americans to make a commitment to loving ALL of THEM and making them feel SAFE with what is and what is about to happen. For better or worse does not begin and end with matters only concerning your current and future family dynamic. You can BETTER understand the heart and soul of your African-American mate if you acknowledge, accept and understand the fact that they likely have/had it WORSE than you. Allow them to be angry at injustice and EXPRESS it to you. Allow them to voice the differences that go beyond the color of their skin. They aren’t MAKING things “racial” or trying to offend you by calling out those who look like you. They are trying to help you understand the world through their skin. I hid and ignored my blackness for so long that, when I began to start standing up for myself, My ex-husband once told me “I married you because I thought you were different.” Sweeping problems in your marriage /relationship under the rug has never worked as a long-term communication strategy. And if you and your African-American partner rarely speaks on or finds it difficult to discuss race, you have a growing problem under your rug that is becoming infected.
So, how can you have PRODUCTIVE conversations about race?
- Love. It all starts here. When you tell them that you love them—it is all inclusive of their past, their present and their blackness. It goes beyond the novelty of the skin and grows to acknowledging the pain and suffering of them and those like them.
- Safety. They have to feel safe expressing everything about who they are, what they constantly face and even taking action towards justice without worrying about it causing problems in your relationship. They also need to feel safe that you will protect and defend them to those in your circle who look like you but may not share your heart for them.
- Don’t take offense. When They express to you their anger about the latest police shooting of an unarmed black teen (because there will be more), they aren’t speaking about you or blaming you. They need to be able to express how they feel without walking on emotional eggshells, afraid of hurting your feelings. Slavery—that should offend you. Cultural appropriation—that should offend you. Social-economic injustice—that should offend you. Kanye West—That should offend you (just kidding-kind of). Your spouse lamenting over the spilled blood of African-AMERICANS like dogs in the streets should never offend you. It should make you hold them tighter.
- Acknowledge and Accept it. I challenge you to read a few articles by Shaun King, listen to a some reports from Roland Martin and compare the data between African-American arrest records for non-violent crimes to those of white people. Privilege exists and it isn’t going anywhere if it is ignored by those who consider activism extreme.
- Lastly—Never EVER utter the words “Why does everything HAVE to be about RACE?!” If you feel the need to ask this question, go back to steps one through four and repeat until you “get it.”
America is this great, beautiful place that many have fought and died to get to. Black people didn’t yet we are cursed and spat at for wanting what was “promised” to us when we were forced here. When you begin to understand these things within interracial relationships, you can honestly open up to love, admire and appreciate them even more.