I’m currently in my third interracial relationship.
That is, unless you count my first boyfriend – José – who, in the second grade, long-distance collect-called me from Puerto Rico and got me in a lot of trouble with my dad. Then it’s my fourth interracial relationship.
And while interracial dynamics always add a layer of work to romance, it’s important to note that I’m white.
Because when you’re a white person in an interracial relationship, there’s this whole – ohhh, ya know – white supremacy thing hanging in the air.
And that has to be acknowledged – and dealt with – constantly.
Lest your relationship be doomed – and your “No, Really, I’m a Decent Person” card be permanently revoked.
We talk a lot in social justice circles about how to attempt to be a better white ally to people of color – and a lot of that Allyship 101 advice can (and should) be directly applied to our intimate relationships.
But I think it’s worth revisiting these concepts within the context of romantic or sexual relationships. Because they’re special. And the way we practice our allyship in those contexts should reflect that.
So, whether you’re years deep in a charmingly fairy tale-esque romance with your beau or you’re just now firing up to dive into your first, here are seven things to remember as a white person involved with a person of color.
1. Be Willing to Talk About Race
As a feminist and a woman, I could never be in a relationship with someone who didn’t feel comfortable talking about patriarchy. In fact, I often joke that my go-to first-date question is “What’s your working definition of ‘oppression?’”
Gender (and the social dynamics therein) is a part of my everyday life, both in how I’m perceived by the world and in the work that I do.
So if I tried to date someone who felt discomfort to the point of clamming up every time I brought gender into the conversation, that “It’s not you, it’s me” discussion would come up quick.
While it’s okay for conversations about white supremacy to make you uncomfortable (hey, we should be uncomfortable with that shit), being generally aware of how race plays out and feeling fairly well versed in racial justice issues is important.
And that starts with recognizing that you do, in fact, have a race and that your whiteness – and whiteness in general – plays a huge role in how race relations play out socially and interpersonally.
And it continues with understanding that being able to talk about race in a conscientious way is an avenue to showing love toward your partner.
Being honest about the ways in which race is complex – both inside and outside of your relationship – shows a willingness to engage with a part of your partner’s identity and experience in a way that really holds them.
Because whether you’re discussing current events with your partner or having a conversation about how race affects your relationship (and yes, it does), you have to be present.
2. Be Willing to Accept That Sometimes, You’re Not the Go-To for Race Conversations
As a woman, I know that sometimes talking about gender with a male partner – even if he’s well versed in all things feminist – can feel exhausting. Sometimes I don’t want to chat with someone who only has a theoretical understanding of gender oppression. Sometimes I want to talk to someone who just gets it.
That’s why safe spaces – where affinity groups can be together without the presence of the oppressor – exist: so that tough conversations can be had with fewer guards up, so that you can communicate thousands of ideas in a single collective sigh, so that you can cry together with those who don’t just sympathize, but empathize.
And while it’s important to be willing to talk to your partner about race and to feel comfortable bringing it up, it’s just as important to be willing to step back and recognize when your whiteness is intrusive.
And part of attempting allyship is understanding that sometimes, your partner just needs someone else right now.
And damn, it’s easy to be hurt by that – especially in a culture that sells us the toxic message that we should be ev-er-y-thing for our partners.
I admit it; I’ve been there. I’ve been the “But I love you, and you love me, and why can’t you share this with me?” white partner. Because it’s really difficult to watch your partner hurt and not be let in. That shit is hard.
But remember that this isn’t necessarily about you, personally. It’s about an entire complex web of an oppressive system.
But it’s also about the fact that you represent that system, by virtue of your privileges, whether someone’s deeply in love with you or you’re a complete stranger.
And when you do make this about you, you’re contributing to that system by prioritizing your own hurt feelings over your partner’s need for space.
So instead of feeling hurt, ask them how they’d like for you to show up – and recognize that sometimes, giving them the space that they need is part of loving them.
3. Familial Relationships Might Not Feel So Familiar
Of course, it’s never appropriate to stereotype people, but combinations of culture, nationality, and religion do play a huge role in how our families are structured.
White people very rarely have to think about this because we’re considered “default Americans.”
What that means is that our understanding of “American” culture and “American” family is whitewashed – to the point that we can forget that not all family structures operate the same way.
And especially in romantic or sexual relationships where one, both, or all of you have close ties to your family, remembering that families function differently culture to culture is a must.
Maybe it isn’t appropriate for your partner to take you home to meet their parents. Maybe it isn’t even appropriate for your partner to talk to their family at all about their dating life. Or maybe your partner has to go through almost a “coming out” process around dating someone white or outside of their culture.
And while you’re not required to stay in a relationship where you feel like your own values or needs are being compromised, it’s important to question why you feel frustrated when things have to be “different” or “difficult.”
Because are they, really? Or are you creating a default of whiteness and punishing your partner for deviating from that norm?
My advice? Talk about family stuff on one of your first few dates; that way, you’re both clear on what you’re getting into, and you’ll have already opened the conversation for discussion later.
And speaking of family…
4. People Close to You Are Going to Say Racist Things – Speak Up
Whether it’s your well-meaning family or your supposed-to-be-socially-conscious friends, sometimes people are going to say or do things that are fucked up. And it’s your job – both as the partner and a fellow white person – to say something.
They’re your loved ones, so you probably know what will work best for them, but in my experience, generally turning their mistake into a teachable moment will be more effective than just whining, “Moooom. That’s racist.”
Let them know why what they said is harmful and hurtful. Bust some myths. Give them a little history lesson. Offer them some alternatives. Send them a useful YouTube video. But make sure that you actually address it.
And talk to your partner about how they want you to react, especially if they’re present.
Do they want you to be the liaison – or would they feel more comfortable speaking for themselves? If they’re cool with you taking the lead, what, exactly, do they need you to say? Will they want some alone time afterward – or maybe some time to debrief with you? And how can everyone move forward as a group?
Be sure to put your partner’s wishes first – and recognize that sometimes that means that you’re going to have the tough job of setting your loved ones straight.
5. You Are Going to Say Racist Things – Own Up
I’m in the middle of rewatching Degrassi: The Next Generation from season one, episode one. And I’ve developed this habit of asking my partner if he’ll do things with me, based on what’s happening on the show: “Will you do coke with me? Because Craig and Manny are. Would you bid on me in a date auction? Because Wesley wants Anya to.” It’s become a joke.
Cue the two-part episode when Sav’s parents arrange for Farrah – the woman they’re hoping he’ll marry – to be in town when he’s supposed to take his (white) girlfriend to the junior prom.
Now cue to my “Are you going to get arrange married to Farrah?” text message – and his “No—wait, are you asking me this because I’m Brown?” response.
I was pretty sure I understood his tone as joking, and I was also pretty sure he knew that this was another ridiculous Degrassi question, but I still knew that I had to own up to that mistake – and apologize.
Because whether I was joking or not (and also whether he was), it’s not cool to make suggestions with racist undertones.
And although it’s definitely easier to brush it off with a “Babe, you know I’m not racist, I was just kidding” response – that’s actually never the appropriate answer.
Because as white people, we’ve been socialized racist, whether we like it or not and whether we believe it’ll play out in our love lives or not – and as such, even a “joke” can be rooted in some really fucked up, deep seated beliefs.
So understand that sometimes, you’re going to say or do racist things – and be ready to take responsibility, apologize sincerely, and have a plan for how to do better going forward.
6. Power Dynamics Don’t Magically Disappear – Not Even During Sex
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard stories, especially from women of color, about white sexual partners saying all kinds of horribly racist, exotifying things in the bedroom without checking to make sure it was okay first.
From demands to “speak Spanish to me” to straight-up hurling the N-word the way one might “baby” in the heat of the moment, it’s clear that not all white people understand how to show basic respect and humanity toward their partners of color.
It’s important to remember that as a white person being sexual with a person of color, you’re in a position of power. The fact that you’re intimate with one another doesn’t erase that.
And it can be difficult for a marginalized person to feel comfortable expressing their needs without a safe space being intentionally created by the person of privilege.
I’ve written (okay, tweeted) before about how this plays out even in sexual encounters where only a power imbalance exists on the axis of gender.
The issue is this: The power dynamics bestowed upon us by our fucked up, oppressive society don’t disappear just because you’re intimate with someone.
Sex is an incredibly interesting aspect of relationships, particularly in the ways that power is distributed. While generally this is understood in terms of “tops and bottoms” (which, by the way, can also be subverted), it should be considered in relation to social power, too.
And if you’re a white person having sex with a person of color, it’s paramount that you recognize that and mitigate it to the best of your ability by having deliberate conversations with your partner.
7. If You Only Date People of Color (And Especially from One Group in Particular), Check Yourself
I’d love to be able to give you a formula – some kind of foolproof ratio of number-of-white-to-POC partners – to help you determine if you’re racist because you don’t date enough outside of whiteness or if you’re racist because you too often date outside of whiteness. But such a thing simply doesn’t exist.
But I do think it’s important to recognize what you’re doing if you’re only dating people of color, and especially from any one race or culture in particular.
For example, I have a cousin who, to my knowledge, has only had girlfriends who are of color – and all but one of them, who was Latina, have been East Asian. And I raise all the eyebrows at that.
Because while it could just be coincidence or the effects of your environment (like if you’re a white person living in Japan or something), considering that racial fetishization and exotification is totally a thing, I question any white person who “has a thing” for [insert race or culture here].
So make sure that you understand your motives behind why you’re dating interracially, whether it’s your first time (hint: “I’ve always wanted to try sex with a Black girl” is racist) or something you’re used to doing (hint: “I have yellow fever” is also totally racist).
You should be with your partner because they – as an entire person – are what’s good for you, not because you’re attracted to stereotypical ideas about them.
I get it: Dating is hard. And being responsible for the ways in which your whiteness affects the world – and your relationship – is hard work, too.
But you know what’s harder? Being a person of color in a white supremacist world.
And while you can’t change that fact for them, what you can do is work to ensure that your relationship is as safe as possible for them.
Because that’s how love works.
Melissa A. Fabello, Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a sexuality educator, eating disorder and body image activist, and media literacy vlogger based out of Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, Jurassic Park, and the occasional Taylor Swift song and can be found on YouTube and Tumblr. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She is currently working on her PhD. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello.