with Advice Columnist Kaytlin Bailey
Race and Interracial Dating
I am white, and I am dating a Palestinian man who was born in the US. We live in a pretty diverse city, but there has definitely been an uptick in sketchy glances as of late, though we've been lucky to have never received any direct threats or harassment. With the recent shooting in Kansas, my boyfriend has become distraught and even more depressed by the current political climate. We were and continue to be devastated by racism in this country, but I just feel so helpless right now, as a lot of bad memories seem to be coming up for him. How do I support him through this without just nodding and saying, "I totally get that," or something generic?
Look BanterGirl, I know so many people feel helpless right now, myself included. This is going to be a very stressful time for you and your partner. The things that are happening on all levels of government and the changing tone of this country are scary. Supporting someone through something like this is hard. Two things: first, try to resist the temptation to make this about you. You don’t want your partner soothing your anxiety about his anxiety. With him, you want to hold space, listen, and validate. Second, take care of yourself; you cannot give from an empty cup. Make sure you aren’t neglecting your own emotional needs to support your partner through this emergency that may last for years.
Beyond that, you can reduce your feelings of helplessness by getting involved. Your “pretty diverse city” probably has a few groups specifically dedicated to fighting back against Islamophobia specifically or racism generally. Find one that you feel comfortable with and get involved. You want to put your time, money, and energy where your mouth is. Don’t just say, “I totally get that,” go out and connect with activists who also get it. As Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” It will make you feel better.
The dirty secret of political activism is that it’s not about changing people’s minds, it’s about activating those folks who already agree with you. Or, as my campaign manager used to say, “we’re not preaching to the choir, we’re trying to get the choir to sing!” Surrounding yourself with energetic, engaged, like-minded people will make you and your partner feel more safe. Find comfort in community.
How do I balance "teaching moments" with giving people the space to talk openly about prejudices or subconscious biases they may have? I genuinely think most people mean well, or just simply don't have enough information, so coming at them with "check your privilege" is not always the best method. But I also think some people just need to be straightened out and told that they're being racist! Even if they 100% think they don't have a racist bone in their body. Any tips for striking a balance here? With people I care about or at least would like to remain civil with?
Look BanterGirl, I feel like the subtext of your question is “am I good listener?” and the answer is “no.” Calling someone a racist is like calling them an asshole; it may be accurate, but it’s never helpful. I understand the impulse to claim the moral high ground and self righteously teach your lesser educated peers the error of their ways, but if you come at them like that, they won’t be able to hear you. If you care about these people and wish to keep them in your life, don’t lose them to self righteous posturing. If someone is disrespectful to you or says something offensive you can say, “I feel offended,” which is actually different than labeling that person as “offensive.” It’s the difference between discussing and dissing. Just because you think you're nasty labels are accurate, doesn’t mean you aren’t name calling.
My richest friendships are the people with whom I passionately disagree. But, we’ve been able to stay friends, share meals, heartbreaks, and glorious moments with each other not by avoiding the issues, but by listening to each other from a place of empathy and trust. My roommate in college was, and is, pro-life. She believes abortion is murder. I’ve been a pro-choice activist since I was 12. The things that bind us are more powerful than our ideological differences. And because we can hear each other when we speak, we’ve been able to be there for each other and teach each other a lot. When you turn the person you're talking to into a caricature who is “wrong!” or “racist!” or “stupid!” you only isolate yourself and reinforce their (possibly misguided) beliefs. Don’t be that person. Someone can be wrong about something and still be a good friend.
This is so tired. I am white. My husband is black. It's 2017, and I still get side eyes when I'm out with my partner pretty much anywhere, from both white and black people. These seemingly inconsequential moments of strangers giving us the eye really add up, and I feel like I'm going to snap on someone. Is there a way I can address these looks, even with strangers, or will I just drive myself crazy?
Look BanterGirl, you’re already driving yourself crazy. I have a hard time accurately interpreting the facial expressions and intentions of close friends and family. You aren’t a mind reader. There might be benign reasons for the scowling. Were you holding hands with your partner on a crowded sidewalk when people were trying to pass? Are you wearing a hat of their sports rival? Did someone think you farted? Or, maybe they’re racist and tired/hungry/recently dumped. In any case, it’s not your or your partner's problem.
Have you checked in with your partner about how he feels about these moments? When I was in an abusive relationship, my partner would spend a lot of time policing the way other men “looked at me.” He would get tense and hostile to “protect me.” I would then spend the next hour trying to calm him down. He really believed I was in imminent danger without him because he needed me to need him. Racism is real, and it hurts. But I cannot imagine a positive outcome of confronting strangers for the faces they make. What do you hope to achieve?
Another thing to consider is that because we live in a racist society, your black partner is more vulnerable than you are if you instigate a fight. Do not put your partner in danger to prove to him how vigilant you are about confronting racists, just enjoy each other. Allowing a stranger’s perceived racism to take even a moment of happiness away from your relationship feels wrong. You’re allowed to feel your feelings, but try not to fuel the outrage by telling yourself a story about how powerful these strangers are. They are only as powerful as you allow them to be—even if they’re the president. There will be enough problems to deal with, like awkward family members, an altercation with the police, or a disagreement about takeout, save your outrage for people that impact your life in a more meaningful way than side eye on a public bus.
Email Kaytlin for advice at: firstname.lastname@example.org