Committing to Antiracist Love in Interracial Intimacy
May 21, 2019
The world couldn’t wait to find out about the name Meghan Markle and Prince Harry chose for their newborn. Archie! And the couple’s journey as an interracial family is just beginning. Take it from Crystal Fleming, who has been obsessed about the royal couple since their dating days. She wrote about them in her book How to Be Less Stupid About Race. Here’s what she had to say about the complexity of interracial relationships and the importance of working toward antiracism with an interracial partner, using her own relationship with her girlfriend as an example. Royal couple, take note as you raise your little one.
I’m going to let you in on a dirty secret.
Back when news first broke of Prince Harry dating biracial actress Meghan Markle, I became quietly obsessed. I knew it made no sense whatsoever to get excited about a woman of African descent marrying into the decrepit, elitist, white supremacist British royal family. I mean, Harry was the same guy who once got caught wearing a Nazi costume at a Halloween party, for God’s sake. I knew all of these things. And yet, every headline about Meghan Markle made me beam with racially problematic happiness. I’d never heard of her—or her show Suits—but I suddenly couldn’t get enough of the headlines chronicling her romance with the prince. How did they meet? What were his blonde exes saying? How did Meghan get into yoga? What did her black mother think of Harry? And OMG she’s besties with the only queen I recognize—Serena Williams!
There was just one thing: I couldn’t publicly admit to being caught up in this madness. When I periodically updated my girlfriend about their romance, she rolled her eyes. She couldn’t care less.
“Why are you interested in these people?”
“I can’t explain it. I know it’s wrong. I’m ashamed.”
“I’m telling Twitter.”
And so we laughed and joked about my covert obsession. I knew my interest was racially stupid. For all I knew, Meghan was walking into a Get Out situation. (By the way, wouldn’t that make a fire sequel? An interracial horror flick set in Buckingham Palace . . .) Every time another tidbit from Meghan and Harry’s adventures hit the Daily Mail or People, I was here for it. I felt like the GIF of Michael Jackson eating popcorn at the movie theatre—you know the one—from Thriller.
But I wouldn’t dare admit any of this to my thirty thousand followers on Twitter. What could be more problematic than getting irrationally excited about a mixed girl dating a rich white dude who got caught “playfully” wearing a swastika at a party way back when? Of course their relationship didn’t prove anything about the state of race relations in Britain or the “evolution” of his views on race. And yet I found myself quietly cheering for them—and judging myself accordingly.
Being in an interracial relationship within a racist society is always going to be a complicated affair. As sociologist Amy Steinbugler shows in her brilliant 2012 book Beyond Loving: Intimate Racework in Lesbian, Gay, and Straight Interracial Relationships, couples approach racial matters in a variety of ways. Some decide to avoid addressing racism while others attempt to confront racial oppression head-on. But the bottom line, according to Steinbugler, is that interracial couples exist in a matrix of domination. They are affected by the politics of the racial hierarchy in which we all live. This is the case whether the lovers involved want to face reality or not.
In my relationship with my girlfriend, intersectional oppression is something we talk about and deconstruct on a daily basis. She reads my Twitter rants against racial stupidity—and drafts of my scholarly manuscripts. I love the fact that she brings up white supremacy over coffee on a Saturday morning. Topics like “cultural appropriation” and “scientific racism” are literally pillow talk in our household. Sometimes we go to sleep discussing the history of eugenics or slavery, and then I wake up like “According to Chomsky . . .” We are really living this life. But there are other interracial “friendships” and relationships in which all involved sign a gentlemen’s agreement to sweep racism under the rug. In the midst of Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and uprisings in Baltimore, I often wondered how (or, really, if) interracial couples across the nation were discussing racial trauma. All too often, interracial couples don’t even bother talking about how racism shapes their lives because they can’t do that kind of intimate work. And sometimes the white partner intentionally or unintentionally subjects their nonwhite lover to interpersonal racism or fails to protect the person from the racist behavior and comments of their white friends and family members.
Increasingly, black women and women of color are using social media and blogs to speak up about their experiences of racism and sexism within interracial relationships. In the wake of Trump’s election, a twenty-five-year-old black woman posted a Facebook video of her white (then) boyfriend saying, “What Trump should do, the second he’s elected, give all you motherfuckers tickets back [to Africa]. You don’t like it? Peace! Black Lives Matter? Go matter to fucking Ghana.” Writing in The Establishment, TaLynn Kel indicated that her white husband’s “unconscious racism nearly destroyed” their marriage. Their painful attempts to forge an antiracist path together has involved careful attention to the way they discuss race and racism.
My girlfriend and I have had to think long and hard about how to address our different perspectives on racial oppression effectively and lovingly. In the beginning, this was difficult work. It isn’t easy being vulnerable about the pain of antiblackness with someone who will never experience it, no matter how much that person loves you. Looking back, my apprehension made perfect sense. Racial vulnerability can’t be shared with just anyone at any time; it requires trustworthiness and true intimacy. But, because I didn’t know how to be vulnerable with my nonblack bae, sometimes our “conversations about race” turned into uncomfortable exchanges and, at times, gut-wrenching arguments. I had to learn how to teach her what I know about racism in a way that is loving and honors the sanctity of our relationship. And she had to learn how to listen and show support in a way that felt loving to me. When I talk about my experience of racial pain, I mostly desire her compassion, validation, and care. If I’m moved to tears reading the latest racially traumatic news or watching a film about slavery or civil rights, I want her to pass the tissues and show concern. With practice we’ve found ways to draw connections between different kinds of intersectional oppression—what we might think of as an “intersectional sensibility”—without pretending that our experiences are exactly “the same.” They aren’t.
Quite honestly, it took a skilled couples counselor to help us find ways to communicate authentically about racial oppression without hurting each other unnecessarily. And it took a great deal of commitment on both of our parts to do this intimate “racework” without running away from each other—even when we wanted to. Over time, we deepened our friendship and began building true interracial intimacy. Because we trust each other and share the same racial politics, I can bring up concerns about her responses to antiblackness, unintended racism, or the dynamics of white privilege, and she can bring up concerns about how I express my views or talk about how she experiences the racial hierarchy. As a biracial woman, my girlfriend’s racial and ethnic experiences are very different from mine. She’s often perceived as “just” white. People generally react with surprise when they learn that her mother is Japanese and that she spent half her childhood in Tokyo. As someone racialized as a white woman, she acknowledges her white privilege. Her family’s Japanese heritage has further sensitized me to anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. And her experiences living in black communities from Harlem to Senegal and working with marginalized populations as a social worker and therapist have sensitized her to the intertwined realities of racism and colonialism. We’re both committed to acknowledging our differences and challenging our own biases. Neither one of us views interracial relationships as “the cure” to white supremacy.
To be sure, interracial intimacy has its challenges. But there can also be particular joys as well. I find that discovering common ground with someone of a different racial or ethnic identity can be a surprisingly delightful experience. I’ve had fascinating discussions with my white Jewish friends about our unexpected cultural similarities despite our otherwise divergent experiences. And with my lady, I’ve been astonished to learn that a black bi girl from Tennessee could have so much in common with a half-white, half-Japanese lesbian who grew up between two continents. We both feel like citizens of the world and know what it’s like to live outside the United States. We’ve bonded over our shared experiences of social exclusion—even though the causes of our exclusions were different. We both love being outside in nature, have an interest in synchronicity, and listen to random music like Deep Forest. Our tastes in wine, food, aesthetics, and humor largely overlap. When we moved into together, we discovered that we had many of the same books. We’ve created our own shared language composed of broken Japanese, Franglais, and ridiculous inside jokes.
But what we have is unique to us and involves an ongoing, daily commitment to nurturing our personal growth and contributing to our communities. It also involves telling the hard truths about power and oppression—and finding ways to sustain the trust required to bridge our differences.
Looking back on my own experiences with interracial intimacy, I no longer blindly romanticize interracial or intraracial dating. That’s just plain stupid. But I do recommend antiracist dating and friendship, regardless of the background of the folks involved.
This morning, as I slept-walked to the bathroom to brush my teeth, Bae called out:
“Are you awake?”
“Huh?” I stopped in the hallway and peered at her with half-open eyes. She paused and smiled at me like a Cheshire cat.
“Are you still sleeping?”
“I mean, I need my coffee. What’s going on?”
“Have you read the news?”
“Why baby? Why? What’s going on?”
“I’ll let you check the headlines.”
“No! Just tell me, dammit. I’m awake now. What’s up?”
“Did you hear about Meghan Markle?”
“DID SOMETHING HAPPEN TO HER?”
“Oh man, I hope nothing—”
“She’s engaged to Prince Harry!”
“Oh my god!”
Suddenly I was awake as fuck. I squealed with delight, jumped for joy, and starting clapping like a maniac. Then I walked over to Bae, who was laughing hysterically, and hugged her.
About the Author
Crystal M. Fleming, PhD, is a writer and sociologist who researches racism in the United States and abroad. She earned degrees from Wellesley College and Harvard University and is associate professor of sociology and Africana studies at Stony Brook University. Fleming writes about race, sexuality, and politics for publications including The Root, Black Agenda Report, Vox, and Everyday Feminism, and she has tens of thousands of followers on social media. She is the author of Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France. and How to Be Less Stupid About Race.