Walk With Me (#4): White Women & Interracial Relationships

An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.

We’re all just walking each other home. — Ram Dass

Dear Asha,

I want to ask a question, or questions, about interracial relationships, and what’s “right” to do, as a white woman.

I have been in relationships with black men, including one that caused a pregnancy, which I terminated, but still think about constantly. I don’t know if it’s “right” or “wrong” to bring a biracial child into this world, with the current political climate. I don’t know if it’s “right” or “wrong” that I want to be in a relationship with a black man, when there are so many pressures not to be, including the idea that it might be better for him if he’s not with a white woman. I am trying to figure out how to navigate being a genuinely personal person, while also being politically aware.

I’m also worried that as a white person, I could never be a ‘good enough’ mama to a black child, because maybe I won’t understand what a black child needs, even though I want to have a child with this man.

I would really appreciate your advice.

Sincerely, CP

Dear CP,

First off, the fact that you’re even asking yourself these questions puts you head and shoulders above many white women in the United States, so kudos to you for that. I don’t think there are definitive answers, but asking the questions is a beginning.

In response I’d love to launch into a Lin-Manuel Miranda-eque diatribe about “love is love is love is love” but it wouldn’t be honest, and it would not honor the complications of interracial relationships that you yourself acknowledge. In the last 53 years since the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that laws against interracial marriage were unconstitutional, interracial relationships have become commonplace, but that does not mean that white supremacy has ceased to exist, or that racism does not come into play in interracial relationships.

I also have to state upfront that the conversation about interracial relationships between black and white people, which is what we’re talking about here, is different than the conversation about interracial relationships between white people and people of color who are not black. It’s different because anti-blackness is a particular, and virulent, aspect of racism, and it holds a particular significance in the history of the United States. We love whoever we love, but choose who we pursue. If you are choosing, as a white woman, to enter into a relationship with a black man, I believe you need to understand those differences.

I grew up in a family of cross-racial adoption. My parents were never supposed to be able to have their own children, so they adopted my older brothers, both of whom are black. Then, after 10 years of marriage, my mom got pregnant with me, which complicated an already incredibly complicated situation.

The younger of my older brothers is actually biracial. His biological mother was white and his biological father was black. My brother was a pretty child who grew into a very handsome man.

When I was in middle and early high school I used to carry one of his school pictures in my velcro wallet. In the same way that kids now look through the pictures on each other’s phones, kids used to look through the pictures shoved into each other’s wallets back in the day. Every time a white girl who did not know me well would come across my brother’s picture in my wallet, she would inevitably say, “Oh, he’s soooo cute! Is he your boyfriend?”

My response would generally be along the lines of, “Ew! He’s my brother”, to which they would immediately respond, hungrily,“Then can you introduce me to him?” Those girls would instantly be put onto my list of “White Girls Who Fetishize Black Men And Cannot Be Trusted.”

My brother did not have the same aversion to such girls, almost exclusively dating white women most of his life. I can only think of a single black woman he dated until he was in his late thirties, and my brother chased tail like it was his job.

When I was about 16 years old, which would have made him about twenty, we were walking home from the Metro together. As we walked along the sidewalk I asked him, “Why do you always date white women?”

I will never forget. He laughed, and responded bluntly, “Because black women won’t put up with my shit.”

The white girls he dated brought their racism and internalized sexism, which taught them to accept his poor behavior. He brought his sexism and internalized racism, which taught him to scorn black women. Talk about a shit show.

Do I think that all black men choose to date white women for the same reasons as my brother? Absolutely not. My brother was an ass. But, he was also acknowledging some of the many complicated truths of racism that can come into play in interracial relationships. Though I’m trying to focus on you and your concerns in this particular letter, I do think it’s important for you to ask him, “Why a white woman?” Does he have a history of dating black women or women of different races, or is it only white women? If so, why?

If he is not open to conversation and reflection on the racial complications of your relationship, or his previous romantic choices, he is not going to help you in your own learning about racism. He will likely also bring the same lack of consciousness to his parenting, if it comes to that. I think that matters.

The issue with the white women that pursued my brother was one of objectification, which was racist. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, know that a white woman once asked him to get her pregnant just because she thought he would give her “such a pretty baby”. Just because you aren’t acting in an overtly ugly way to black people doesn’t mean you aren’t racist. Fetishizing black people, treating them like shiny, pretty objects that you collect because it gains you some sort of social status or gets you hot, is dehumanizing. It may be racism with a velvet glove on, but it’s still racism.

As a white woman I think you are obligated to investigate this in yourself. You may determine that is not what is motivating you to enter into a relationship with a black man. Fair enough. But if you don’t dig into that question fully I think you do both of you a disservice.

Unpacking our racism is a life-long commitment I think all white people should make, whether or not we are in romantic or familial relationships with black people. If you want to have real relationships of any kind with black people it is required. You do not get a “get out of jail free” card for racism just because you have a black partner, or a black child, or a black friend. Ever. You are going to have to embrace a constant, lifelong practice of confronting your own socialization as a white person in a white supremacist system. If you do not, it will poison your relationships and hurt or endanger the black people in your life, period.

There is also particular history around white women and black men in this country that I believe you need to understand if you’re going to embark on the kind of interracial relationship you’re contemplating. One of the most well-known examples of that history being Emmet Till, a 14-year old black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Except he never did whistle at her. The white woman, Carolyn Bryant, lied, and has never faced consequences to this day for causing his death.

White women have been willing parties to the death and imprisonment of black men in this country thousands of times, going all the way back to slavery and continuing to the present day. We have that kind of power in white supremacy. You may never turn on a black man you’re involved with, but his community may rightfully always fear that day is coming. If you want to be in a relationship with a black man you have to learn your history and understand the larger historical context in which your relationship fits. No one can afford your ignorance.

Which brings me around to black people’s response to white women entering into relationships with black men. There are black folks who will never trust you, and they don’t have to. Their safety, to the extent that there is any safety for black people in this country, depends on being wary of white people.

There is also a particular response that many, if not most, black women will have to your relationship. It is rooted in large part in the way that black women have been scorned, erased, and denigrated, most especially by many black men. You did not create this history, but if you choose to enter into this relationship, you will become a part of it. Many black women may never forgive you for that, or accept you as a sister, and they don’t have to. You will have to be humble and figure out how to not take that personally, because it’s not about you exactly. Except it is. It’s very, very complicated.

None of this means that you don’t have a right to enter into a relationship anyway, but don’t think for a minute that any black person is obligated to welcome you with open arms just because one black man loves you. You earn trust, just like you earn respect, by the way you act over time. If you want to earn the trust of black people in your life, commit to being both anti-racist and patient. It may take your whole life, but it will be a life well spent.

You wrote that you fear you could never be a “good enough” mama to a black child that you might have with this man. I would advise you to toss out the word “good” entirely, because women torturing themselves about being good enough is a trap constructed by patriarchy. Except it left the door open, trusting we’d keep ourselves in the cage. Walk out that door, and don’t look back.

That said, I don’t think that any one person is “enough” for any child, no matter how much you love them. Children need a community to hold them and raise them up. If you become the mother of a biracial child, then you are going to need black people, and specifically some black women, in your community to help you and your child understand and love their blackness. And when I say “in your community”, I mean in your circle of people you listen to and depend on for council.

I am aware that I also just said that many black women will not forgive you for being in a relationship with a black man, or having his child. And yet you need them, I think, to properly raise that child. Both things are true, and you will have to figure out how to navigate the complexity. That is what you are signing up for, make no mistake.

If your partner is the only black person in your life that you have any kind of intimate relationship with, or if all of the black people you are connected to have come into your life with him and may leave with him if you all ever separate, then you’re going to have to make a conscious effort to change that.

Most of us like to think that we will be with our children’s other parent forever, but statistically that just doesn’t bear out. Just like women should have their own money, white women in relationships with black men should have their own black people in their community. Otherwise, the day may come when your black children are asked to move in an entirely white world when they are with you, a world where they will experience racism and have no one who truly understands. No one wants that.

But, please, if you don’t already have black people in your life other than through your partner, don’t just approach black people in the hopes that they will help you understand how to raise a black child. That smacks of entitlement, and no black person owes you that emotional labor for free. Focus on building relationships which are enduring and mutual, in which you are accountable for building trust. Then you will have a foundation built that can withstand the weight of helping you raise a child.

My mother, who raised two black men, actually had quite a few black friends. But she didn’t encourage the kind of intimacy with them that would have allowed for her to ask for help with understanding how to raise black boys, or to allow them to raise concerns about how she was raising her black boys. She, and my father, thought that just by putting my brothers in the proximity of other black people (we grew up in Washington, D.C., a majority black city) they would understand their blackness by osmosis.

I would encourage you not to go down that road, because it will not serve your child. Black role models through tv, movies or books are really important. Experiences in black spaces are also crucial. Black and biracial children need to see, and be around, people that look like them. But just experiencing black people outside of the home isn’t enough. They need black people in their intimate circles that they can turn to and depend on, and you need a more varied and nuanced experience of black people than you can get through just your partner or consuming media.

As for your family of origin, you’ll have to think long and hard about how they will receive a biracial child into their midst. Don’t assume they will be universally happy about it, or will never do or say anything racist to or around your child. If you’re not willing to go to the mat over racism with your family for the good of your biracial child, I’d rethink whether or not you’re ready to mother that child.

Having said all of that, you might think that I am opposed to interracial relationships or white women raising biracial or black children. I’m actually not. I’ve been surrounded by interracial relationships, and biracial kids, all my life. I’m actually sitting here thinking about several handfuls of them right now, and wishing they were here to talk through this with me, because I’m sure there’s something I’m missing. As a white woman, I inevitably miss things. It’s why I cultivate relationships where I am accountable to black people.

As a white woman, you can absolutely have a healthy, positive relationship with a black man, and you can raise healthy, strong, amazing biracial children with him if you choose to. But there will always be parts of their existence that you won’t understand or share. There will be things you cannot teach your child that they need to know and understand in order to stand fully in their power. Keep that at the forefront of your mind, and make sure you build a community over time that can hold all of you in your differences.

When we enter a relationship none of us know everything, or everyone, that will help us to grow and thrive. Certainly, most of us don’t know squat when we have kids. All we can do is stay humble about all we don’t know, keep asking questions, keep learning, and love our people as best we can.

As I said at the start, I think by asking these questions you’re on the right track, but it’s just the beginning. Whatever choices you make, keep asking questions, keep learning, keep loving.

Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.

XO, Asha

Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at ashasanaker@gmail.com. Let’s walk each other home.

Asking questions, telling stories, giving my people information they can use to make change happen.

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