Loving a Black person isn’t the same as fighting for Black lives
My boyfriend and I have a game we play whenever we’re out in public. Whenever one of us spots another interracial couple passing by, we’ll give the other a little nudge and whisper, “Look, an us!” Sometimes it’s an older us; sometimes it’s a more stylish version, or a queer version, or a rebellious teen version. Every time, though, we share a smile, because it’s nice to be reminded that we aren’t alone. While interracial couples now make up more than 10 percent of all new marriages in the U.S., partnerships like ours are still uncommon enough — or taboo enough — to garner stares when we’re out in public. I’ve noticed that police tend to stare the hardest, and whenever I catch them looking, my stomach drops.
As a white cisgender woman from a rural community, my early interactions with police barely left an impression. My boyfriend, on the other hand, vividly remembers each time he was stopped and frisked on his way home from his South Brooklyn high school, and all the times he’s been arrested just because he happened to be Black in public. They see him as a threat, and me as a potential victim. I may be safe around them, but he isn’t, and even my whiteness can only offer so much protection.
There is this prevailing notion among some white people that having a close relationship with a Black person means that you cannot possibly be racist.
It can offer some, though, and as the one who holds that power of unearned privilege, it’s my job to find ways to use it to support and protect him and the other Black people in our lives. As author and sociologist Crystal Fleming wrote in her book, How to Be Less Stupid About Race, “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.”
Of course any relationship requires hard work, sacrifice, and communication. But white partners need to understand how those normal challenges are amplified when the person they love is struggling to survive under a white supremacist system designed to tear them down. And that intimate work of loving someone takes on a whole new dimension when your partner is living under constant threat of violence from the racist police state.
It’s only been 53 years since the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Loving vs. Virginia case declared state bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional and effectively legalizing the practice decades — sometimes centuries — after the laws prohibiting them were first entered onto the books. Each year on June 12, Loving Day, people gather to remember and celebrate that landmark decision, which finally made it legal for straight couples to marry regardless of race, and also helped pave the way for further marriage equality for LGBTQ couples.
A lot has changed in those 53 years, but the Black community and its allies are still engaged in that same fight against white supremacy, racism, and police brutality. The arc of history still needs correcting, and the recent nationwide uprising against state violence and police brutality that was sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery has made clear just how much work there is to be done. During this current moment, white accomplices have a chance to actually be useful, and it is imperative that we get it right.
There is this prevailing notion among some white people that having a close relationship with a Black person means that you cannot possibly be racist. This is a wrongheaded and ignorant way to think about the subject, yet the “but I have a Black friend!” excuse has long been treated as an accountability-avoidance card. And to add another layer, just because you're in an interracial relationship — or have dated or slept with Black partners — that doesn't mean that you're automatically insulated from racism or no longer complicit in white supremacy. Your proximity to Blackness isn't a magical shield. It's a responsibility to those who have allowed you to share that space with them.
Loving a Black person isn’t the same as fighting for Black lives. The sooner that white partners realize that it isn’t enough to simply consider oneself not racist, and one must be actively, vehemently, radically anti-racist, the sooner they — we — can finish the work of dismantling white supremacy once and for all, and show that we are worthy of those who love us.
Being white and loving a Black person means being eager to listen, to learn, and most importantly, to show up and fight for them. It means educating yourself on the Black liberation struggle, consuming Black literature and art and political theory, interrogating your own privilege and internalized racism, and actively betraying whiteness at every turn. Instead of spouting off about how you “don’t see color,” you need to acknowledge and honor your partner’s Blackness and every part of their identity. You need to know when to mind your own business, and recognize that some spaces are not meant for you and that your presence there may actually be harmful.
Your commitment to your partner means committing to fighting for all Black lives, including the Black trans lives that are among the most vulnerable, and those who have been impacted by the prison industrial complex and racist criminal justice system. It means engaging in direct political action in support of Black lives and political issues that impact Black communities. It means identifying where your privilege can be useful, and understanding that it is your role to center and amplify the Black voices leading that charge. It means understanding that if you have children together, they will be Black, and you will need to educate yourself on how to help them celebrate and feel connected to their Black identity, history, and culture. You will also have to learn how to talk to them about the police.
If you’re a white woman involved with a Black man, it also means understanding why some Black people may not approve of your relationship, and accepting that it’s not your place to argue. There is a long and bloody history of violence that has been perpetuated against Black men by white men who sought to “protect” white women from an imagined threat, and the complicity of the white women who allowed it to happen in their names. The fetishization and sexualization of Black men’s bodies has deeply racist roots, yet is still upheld everywhere from porn to protests.
Your proximity to Blackness isn't a magical shield.
We hear echoes of the white women who have actively worked to uphold white supremacy and exploited their place in that hierarchy to inflict violence upon Black men in the voice of Amy Cooper, and that of every other racist Karen caught on video threatening a Black man’s life just because she can. Carolyn Bryant Donham knew that she was condemning Emmet Till to death when she pointed him out to her husband and lied, but she did it anyway — and waited decades to confess that Till had never whistled at her at all. White lies have taken countless Black lives.
Knowing this, knowing the risks your partner is taking to be with you, means that the bare minimum you can do is to call out racism wherever it rears its ugly head, no matter how close to home that may be. I know from experience how uncomfortable it can be to rebuke your dad over a racist remark, or to call your grandma and confront her about her pointed word choices (the man I love is many things, but as a son of South Brooklyn, he’d be the first person to tell you that “articulate” is not one of them).
It’s hard, and it can cause rifts that are difficult to repair, but guess what? That’s your problem. Confronting or even cutting off white friends and family members who can’t accept your relationship or the humanity of your partner comes with the territory. It’s not acceptable to expect your partner to put themself into an unsafe situation or endure your bigoted family’s microaggressions just because you don’t want to have an awkward conversation. It’s not their responsibility to educate your racist uncle or ask him to leave the dinner table when he starts mouthing off; it’s yours.
Every love story is unique, and every one of us comes to them from a different place. My partner and I met through our involvement in anarchist activist circles, and while our shared radical politics and commitment to anti-racism provides a sturdy foundation, there are still many things about his experience that I will never be able to understand, and so much work I need to do. But it’s on me to continue doing that labor of learning and unlearning, and to keep showing up for him and his community. It’s my job to keep on loving him as hard as I can, while trying not to immediately fear the worst if he’s a few minutes late coming home and I hear sirens in the distance. All he needs to do is survive (and stop wearing his boots inside the house).
Like Richard and Mildred Loving, we just want to be left to live and love in peace — but that's simply not an option until we're all free.