In the eighth grade, I began what would become a three-and-a-half-year, cross-country, interracial relationship with a girl I had never even seen. We met in a chatroom and talked endlessly, converting the virtual space to an imaginative one where we could have adventures between learning more about each other’s lives. Within two months, we said that we loved each other and consequently affirmed our belief that love need not know physicality to be true. Every bit of media I’d consumed in my fourteen years up until that point told me that this could turn into a nightmare, but my heart had resolved itself. She was the world to me. Almost four years after breaking up, I can still remember our anniversary.
There is something beautiful about being able to love someone irrespective of whether you can touch them or what they look like. The problem was that I knew society, both external and internalized, would not let that be. In the chatroom, I had surmised that most people were white, including Her. The problem was that, “in real life,” I was a young, milk chocolate man with an emphasis on the chocolate. It was at this point that my blackness became my secret, one I was simultaneous unashamed of and afraid to reveal. It was easier to seem race-less. Being anonymous online was the closest thing to racial privilege I’ll likely ever have. I carefully avoided any reference to how I looked to preserve it.
When we agreed to exchange pictures of ourselves online, I was palpably nervous. At this point in my life, grappling with race was off the table. It was a subject far too divisive, complicated, and bound to cause confrontation. Somehow, though, a shaking that echoed throughout my body told me that being black was reason enough for this girl to reject me. I was giving up the luxury of being race-less (which is always misunderstood in this country as being white) to come out to the reality that I could lose someone precious to me because of something as out of my control as the color of my skin.
She seemed mildly surprised but otherwise uninterested when I told her. We ended up not breaking up there, which isn’t to say that race didn’t become a factor. We once talked about how non-traditional our relationship was and that many people wouldn’t be used to it. I was thinking about how we had dated for two years before ever meeting in person. She was focused on our status as an interracial couple. There were also moments of inadvertent fetishizing on her part and times when I didn’t feel she empathized with issues of discrimination as much as I did.
What I didn’t know when I told her was how much the information actually shocked her. Having quietly grown up in a nearly all-white, small town, and having only known one other black person, She thought of black people as abrasive, blunt, and loud because of messages she’d picked up from the media. Thinking of me as black made her uncomfortable and nervous, she’d tell me years later. She had unwittingly fallen into a racist trap. Full of worry, she explained what I’d told her to her mother who mimicked her racial panic with all sincerity. Luckily, in seeing how ridiculous it was and feeling defensive for me, She was able to realize how wrong she’d been to feel like my race defined who I was.
Reflecting on this episode in my adolescence now, I can see it for what it was: the tip of an iceberg known as white supremacy. In any structure of society, being a person of color can be dangerous in ways that being white isn’t. Cyberspace is no different. While I spent my time worried about the otherization that I would face if people knew I was black, most people in that chatroom had the luxury of never thinking of their race as a disadvantage. By default, it was a safer space for them. When making their self-deprecating lists of why potential spouses might not be with them – were they not funny enough, not attractive enough, not cool enough – none of them would ever have to be afraid that the color of their skin might factor into why they were rejected.
In fact, the thought probably hasn’t even crossed their minds. Few probably have interrogated their own blind luck to be born white in a world that has systematically devalued the beauty standards, and therefore bodies, of non-Europeans. Most probably haven’t really thought about how this and the media play into the fact that they’ve only dated other white people. Instead, they’ve probably just given it a big ol’ Kanye Shrug and thought that it was just a preference or coincidence. Isn’t reaping the benefits of hundreds of years of global and cultural devastation while being ignorant of it the most blatant form of white privilege?
The feeling of trepidation I experienced all those years ago returned when my white professor in Communities and Race Relations – who thankfully kept it all the way real – asked the class how many of them had family members who would be upset if they dated outside of their race. I looked around. At least half the class, which was admittedly mostly white, had their hands raised. Well, fuck me.
It’s one thing not to be “boyfriend material.” It’s another to be “I could never take you home because my parents are racist” material or “I really like you, but my family will never accept this” material. It’s a special kind of hurt when it comes from people you like or care about, especially when they say they care about you too. Furthermore, it’s not just a black and white issue.
Despite impacting everyone, racism in United States is deeply rooted in anti-blackness. It exists within PoC spaces, as well. It snuck up on me while having a conversation about Eurocentric beauty stands when a Latina friend of mine said, “Personally, I’ve never been attracted to a black guy, but…” She didn’t seem to question why she felt that way, but thought that the sentiment was necessary to affirm in our conversation. Another Latina friend of mine straight up told me that her parents wouldn’t allow their daughters to date black guys.
I’ve been there. I’ve dated Asian girls who were hesitant to tell their families about me because they knew they had relatives who would be against it. It’s beyond unpleasant to have your very existence be associated with shame or hatred, by people you care about, by your country, even by the members of your own diaspora.
White privilege in dating is symptomatic of much larger issues in our society and the fact that I had to worry about being black as an anonymous teen online shows how ridiculously pervasive it is. Is it not enough that my race still makes me subject to housing discrimination, that black people still are hit with the majority of hate crimes and that two white women pleaded guilty to one of these murders a little more than a month ago? Is it not enough that a racist drug war makes me a likely candidate for mass incarceration or that higher penalties starting from preschool to high school could have likely fed me to the school-to-prison pipeline? Does getting higher interest rates on future mortgages because of my race not satisfy this beast, what about the fact that my name alone is too “black-sounding” to get me hired in some places or that politicians gerrymander and pass laws so that my votes can’t count for change even if I can cast a ballot? Nah. Society’s ideas of me as a thug or as ugly or as uneducated have to mess with my dating life, too.
I point all these things out as a person of color and as a person of conscience. Institutional racism may be endemic, but racism itself is an epidemic that implicates us all. It can be found in the most intimate of moments, like when two people fall in love but are worried that their races could tear them apart. Ethical, compassionate people need to interrogate this in themselves and in others. I love being black, as hard as it is sometimes. I don’t have the privilege to not realize how my race impacts my life. Ending that privilege and everything it stands for is key to ending white supremacy.