How to navigate low-key racist comments from your partner's family

Maxine McCrann
Originally Published: 

Leyla’s in-laws' attempts at connection, though well-intentioned, can be exasperating, to say the least. Once, her mother-in-law, who’s white, remarked that a neighbor’s multiracial South Asian daughters looked “just like” Leyla, who’s also South Asian. “But they didn’t look anything like me,” says Leyla, a 38-year-old wellness entrepreneur in the U.K. Another time, while watching a TV show featuring a family speaking Punjabi, her mother-in-law observed that they sounded “exactly like” Leyla does when she talks to her mom on the phone — except that Leyla doesn’t speak Punjabi.

“It makes me roll my eyes and think, ‘Oh God, here we go again,’” she says of her mother-in-law’s habit. (She requested that Mic publish only her first name to avoid friction with her husband and his family.) Pointing out that Leyla is “just like” basically any South Asian she sees implies that she perceives South Asians not as unique humans but as interchangeable members of a monolith. “We’re not all the same,” Leyla says.

These and other racial microaggressions — subtle racism conveyed in day-to-day interactions — are painful, no matter who commits them. But navigating racial microaggressions from a significant other’s family can be especially thorny. Here’s how they can impact your relationship, and how to deal, whether you or your partner are on the receiving end.

Why racial microaggressions from an S.O.’s family can feel especially fraught

Although you can experience microaggressions from anyone, research shows that they’re more hurtful when inflicted by those close to you — people you expect to know better, says Kevin Nadal, psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and a leading expert on the effects of microaggressions. Microaggressions from bae’s family members might introduce another layer of complexity “because you don’t’ necessarily love them in the same way that you might love your family, but you want to be accepted by them.”

And depending on how long you and your S.O. have been together, you might not feel as comfortable calling his family out as you do your friends, coworkers, or others you have direct relationships with, Nadal add. If you’ve been with your partner for, say, a decade, you might’ve developed enough of a relationship with their mother or cousin to confront them about a microaggression. But if you’ve just started dating, “that could feel really impossible,” Nadal says. You’re still getting to know them and their family, and you might worry that speaking up could hurt your budding relationship.

Although you can experience microaggressions from anyone, they can be more hurtful when inflicted by those close to you — people you expect to know better.

Microaggressions from a partner’s family are also trickier to manage. If someone you’re not that close to commits a microaggression against you, you can probably afford to ignore them, says Shantel Buggs, an assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Florida State University, who studies race, ethnicity, and intimate relationships. And if a coworker makes a racist dig, then you can report them to your supervisor. In contrast, families don’t have HR departments, Buggs points out, and “you can’t necessarily just ignore it because maybe you live with your partner. If things continue to get more serious, could their extended family end up living with you?”

These interactions could also force you to take a hard look at your relationship, which — let’s be real — can be pretty scary. “I think there’s going to be a higher expectation for your partner to defend you, and if they don’t, or if they don’t’ recognize that what their family is saying is problematic or harmful, it definitely ups the stakes,” Buggs says.

How these racial microaggressions can affect you and your partner

“When someone in a couple experiences a racial microaggression, it’s something that affects both parties,” Nadal says. If you’re the partner on the receiving end, he explains, you could experience anger, sadness, or fear. Or, you might feel uncomfortable and alone, like Tessa Argosino did while spending the holidays with her white ex-boyfriend’s family a few years ago.

Besides overt racism from his stepdad’s mother, who called her an “oriental girl,” she also experienced subtle racism from his grandmother on his mom’s side: She said Argosino, who is Filipinx and European Jewish, was prettier because she wasn’t full Filipinx.

Luis Alvarez/DigitalVision/Getty Images

“I just laughed it off because I didn’t want to make a big deal about it,” Argosino, now 24 and living in Seattle, tells Mic. “I felt like if I had reacted upset, no one would’ve understood or actually had my back.” Since it was her first time meeting an S.O.’s family, period, she was already nervous. “It didn’t make me feel very welcome," she says.

Over time, you might experience what Amy Steinbugler, associate professor of sociology at Dickinson College, calls “racial fatigue” from needing to be more attuned to microaggressions and everything else that makes you aware of your oppressed identity, Buggs says. “I think it can be very emotionally psychologically taxing,” she explains, especially if you feel that partner doesn’t understand why the microaggression happened, or why it bothers you. In other words, beyond the exhaustion of simply existing as a marginalized person, there’s the stress of always needing to explain yourself.

In the past, the microaggressions from her mother-in-law were a source of tension in Leyla’s relationship. Convincing her husband that they were problematic has “been a process. In the beginning, he didn’t really understand,” she says. “I don’t want him to take my side. I just want him to see my perspective.”

Although we often associate these microaggressions with interracial relationships in which one partner is white, they can occur in any relationship, Nadal says. Even if you’re in an intraracial relationship, “there’s still colorism,” or discrimination against darker-skinned members of an ethnic or racial group. And since all of us can have racial biases, these slights can also occur if you’re in an interracial relationship in which both you and your partner are BIPOC.

If you’re a person of color in an interracial relationship, though, these microaggressions may carry different meanings depending on your partner’s racial identity, according to Nadal. If they’re white, “a microaggression might feel very hurtful, overwhelming, sad, angry, frustrating because that white family represents white supremacy,” he explains. But if they’re another person of color, a microaggression from their family might feel “disturbing and hurtful, but not representative, necessarily, of white supremacy."

If you’re the partner whose family is responsible for these microaggressions, now you have to watch someone you love experience difficult emotions, Nadal says. You might feel at a loss for what to do. Maybe you choose not say anything to the family member who made the problematic comment because you don’t know how to challenge them or presume that’s how they are, and there’s nothing you can do to change them.

“But in not doing anything, now [you become] complicit,” Nadal points out — which can feel make your partner feel deeply invalidated.

How to deal

In a perfect world, you and bae would discuss race and racial dynamics — and how your families approach them — early on, before you bring them home to Mom, Nadal says. It’s important for any couple to prepare each other for certain personalities and tendencies in your families, but all the more so for interracial couples, he notes, “because there are going to be a lot of these racial and potentially cultural differences that may lead to not just microaggressions, but even just awkward dynamics.”

If you’re a person of color, this information can allow you and your partner to develop a plan for how to respond to or exit a situation that feels unsafe, Nadal says. It’ll also help you gauge what you’re willing to put up with in terms of microaggressions, rudeness, and the like, and give you partner insight into how to put you at ease if they sense that you’re uncomfortable.

But what about in the moment, when a family member makes a racial jab at you? It’s up to you to decide how you want to act, Nadal says. You might understandably want to avoid challenging your boo’s aunt, out of respect, fear of their family disliking you, or both.

And since all of us can have racial biases, these slights can also occur if you’re in an interracial relationship in which both you and your partner are BIPOC.

Afterward, though, Nadal suggests sitting down with your S.O. and expressing how Auntie’s comment made you feel. It’s important “for couples to be able to validate each other, understand where each other is coming from, while also tending to the person who is being most oppressed,” he says. In other words your partner needs to understand that the microaggression made you feel angry, unsafe, and so on — but while you might empathize with how hard it is for them to talk to their family, you’re the one most hurt, so your needs take priority.

Since your partner knows their family dynamics best, Buggs also recommends asking their advice on how to approach the issue — they might insist that it’d be better for them to confront their relative than for you to do so, for instance.

On the other hand, if you’re the partner whose family member made a racist slight toward your partner, Nadal says you need to speak up about why it was hurtful and problematic, and kindly ask them not to say things like that to your S.O. Argosino checked his grandma by telling her that her comment was “not alright to say” — but didn’t explain why. As a result, it came across as “kind of performative,” Argosino says.

It’s crucial to stand up to your family member in the moment, Nadal says. Checking in with your partner after a microaggression you let slide doesn't change the fact that you were complicit in the greater oppression that it perpetuated, he explains.

Calling out microaggressions aimed at your S.O. from the beginning “is really important because it sets the tone of what else is acceptable or allowed as that relationship progresses,” Nadal says. If your relative keeps saying them, remind them of your original callout.

At the same time, Nadal notes, you may want to consider whether this boundary setting is little more than a Band-Aid. “If somebody is microaggressing against your partner, that might mean that there are some deeper biases that may exist regarding your partner and race in general,” he says. Telling them not to make racist comments around your S.O. might not change the biases underlying them, meaning they’ll probably commit the same microaggressions against others, perhaps in subtler ways. If that’s the case, you need to decide whether to have a larger conversation about racism with your family as a whole, Nadal says.

Buggs agrees. When you and your S.O. debrief about the microaggression, “I think it’s also important to keep in mind what you want the ultimate outcome to be,” she says. “It can be as small as, ‘Hey let’s try to work on getting your family to not say these things when I’m around or when you’re around,’ all the way up to ‘Let’s have a really historicized conversation [about race]’…. I think that there’s a scale, and I think a lot of that depends on the receptiveness of the family members.”

All of this is to say that, especially if you’re a white person dating a person of color, you are responsible for educating your family members about racial microaggressions. The burden shouldn’t lie solely on your partner to cope with the damage these slights can cause. “Nobody is responsible for other people’s actions, but we are responsible for not bringing people we love into situations that will make them feel bad,” Argosino says.

If you’re the one who experienced the microaggression, some other outcomes you might consider getting out of your conversation with your S.O. could include an apology from the family member or simply spending less time with them, Buggs says. Leyla, for instance, firmly told her husband that she didn’t want to constantly hang out with his mom or be her bestie.

She recommends identifying your negotiables and non-negotiables. After one too many non-negotiables, you may decide to make the difficult decision to walk away from the relationship. As painful as it might be, “your own mental health and someone being willing to understand your race and culture, and where that sits with your values, is really important,” she says.