So, You Married a Racist
There’s been an outpouring of grief and anger on the streets across the country and the globe in the aftermath of George Floyd’s horrific murder in the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, and the administration’s dangerously inept response to it that even prompted a scathing rebuke from his former secretary of defense, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis.
Floyd’s death is forcing many white people— perhaps for the first time — to acknowledge the systemic racism black people have had to deal with in America. This is a moment of reckoning and self-reflection.
In a recent episode of NPR’s The Takeaway, hosted by Tanzina Vega — a show that elevates the voices of people of color, women of color and all women — a listener from North Carolina recorded a response to a call out on what people are angry about now with a startling and clearly anguished confession: she has just come to realize how racist her husband is:
“This is a turning point. Even in my own marriage I am seeing racism that I don’t even think I knew existed to the degree that it is there. I think it is opening a lot of people’s eyes to the people around us who we thought we knew.”
It’s easy to miss red flags in our loved ones, or turn our eyes away from some bad behavior because they’re generally a “nice person.” As someone who’s a big believer in having hard conversations before you commit to someone — whether as a dating romantic partner, a live-in romantic partner, a spouse or a co-parent — and then creating a relationship contract based on a couple’s values and goals, I realize one thing I neglected to suggest is a discussion on race.
I realize that is one of the many problems in being white, which I am. As Tawny Newsome, host of the podcast Yo, Is This Racist, tweeted, “Black children don’t get to not understand racism.” White people have rarely if ever even questioned themselves or their privilege.
Now is the time to address that, not only with exploring our own biases and beliefs, but also with anyone we might become romantically involved with.
But what if you, like the North Carolina caller, realize you’re married to a racist? Now what?
That was a question presented to Slate’s advice columnist last year. After 10 years of marriage, a wife wrote:
“He insists he is ‘really not a racist,’ but these incidents are giving me an ugly view of him I didn’t see before. I believe he is a good person and is capable of changing this behavior. Can you give me some guidance on language I can use to help him do some self-reflection?”
The advice was not really useful advice — or actually any advice at all, sadly:
“I think what you’re really asking is ‘How can I tell my husband that he’s a racist in a way that’s nice enough, and gentle enough, and accommodating enough, that he’ll agree with me?’ And I’m not sure I can do that. … If he had demonstrated even the mildest interest in self-reflection, I might have some suggestions for you, but he hasn’t. He does not want to reflect. You have a racist husband who wants to say racist things, because saying racist things gives him pleasure.”
So, where does that leave people whose spouse is racist? Are they destined to live in misery together or divorce?
In a popular post on the now-defunct The Establishment, Talynn Kel, who is black, wrote about her husband, who is white — and racist. They did not divorce, which maybe many couples might, nor are they miserable together. Instead, Kel changed the narrative and put on the onus on her husband:
“Instead of focusing on how my Blackness affected us, we started focusing on how his whiteness affected us. He continues to confront his racism and doing the work to change his thinking and his reactions. He is rewriting himself and learning that his perspective is fucked up and he needs to continually straighten that shit out. It is his job to shoulder the burden of his ancestors and their history of genocide, rape, theft, and destruction of other cultures as they falsely promoted their illusion of dominance. It’s his job to check the racism of his family and friends. This is his role he took by being with me. It’s not an easy battle for us. He knows when I talk about oppression he doesn’t have a seat at the table. He knows that my understanding of racism overrides his.”
In a interview on the podcast Dear Sugar, Kel delves further into how that came about:
“I told him in the beginning, ‘You cannot avoid talking about race, because you are now with a black woman. This is not something you can ignore anymore. If you don’t want it to be a part of your life, we should just break up, because it will always be part of our relationship. … He went into a little bit of denial, but a bigger part of him was like, ‘I want to be with you, so what do I have to do?’ We spent years learning how to communicate about it.”
And without a doubt, their communication, which is hard for almost all couples to do well under the best of circumstances, is what is making their marriage work. Also, importantly, because her husband is willing to challenge himself to be better:
“I spent a lot of time saying to my husband, ‘Hey, you’re going to have questions, you’re going to have concerns, and you’re going to worry about how you sound saying certain things. I am willing to give you the space to talk about that so that we can try to figure some of this out.’ … The only way you’re going to call yourself out on it is if you actually are honest about what it is. You see it, you say you it, you articulate what’s happening with you, and then, when you notice it happening, you stop yourself. It becomes easier over time.”
Whether you’re seeing racist behavior in your partner or not, I can’t think of a better time to explore your thoughts and beliefs about race, individually and together.
I admire Kel for her patience and generosity while her husband works through his racist beliefs — I’m not sure I could do that. But the way they communicate about something that’s hard for both of them? That’s something all of us might want to model.
Want to learn how to have a relationship contract that addresses racism? (Of course you do!) Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore (please do) or order it on Amazon. And we’re now on Audible.