That Time I Dated A White Guy…
Soooo my junior year in college, I consistently encountered this white guy who worked at the BP on Monroe down the street from my apartment. He was nice and flirted with me every time I went to buy gas, subtly suggesting that we should “grab something to eat.”
I blew him off until spring semester when I walk into my “Politics in Africa” class and there he sits. I sit a couple of seats in front of him and he says “this seems like the perfect time to ask you to be my study buddy.”
I appreciate his persistence so I agree. We decide to meet up for a couple hours every Thursday after class to go over that week’s readings and “grab something to eat.”
The first few weeks into this routine, we meet at my apartment or at a bar nearby. On the 3rd or 4th Thursday, he says “We always meet at your place. I was thinking next week we could meet at mine.”
Me: *side eye* Don’t you live with your parents?
Him: Yeah. Why? Is that a problem?
Me: Not for me but did you tell them I was Black?
*Pause: I was on familiar terrain but knew that he had never had to navigate this. I went to a catholic high school and remembered that there were only a handful of white parents that permitted the Black CCHS students in their homes. More importantly though, I knew how common it was for white kids to be way wrong about their parents’ racial beliefs. It’s like they just projected their (frequently more relaxed) racial ideas onto their parents because they hadn’t heard their parents say otherwise. This also made it profoundly clear to me how little white families discussed race explicitly.*
Him: No not explicitly but that won’t matter! My parents are die hard Obama supporters. They campaigned for him and everything.
(***pro-tip*** there aren’t a lot of things that serve as a proxy for anti-racism besides fighting against racism. Not what race your children are or who you voted for. In order to say you aren’t racist, you must being doing things against racism.)
Me: Tell you what, you tell them I’m Black and if they’re cool with it, we can do this next week at your place.
Him: Great. I’ll bring it up tonight at dinner.
Days went by and I didn’t hear from him. When I walked into class on Tuesday, his face turned beet red. I could tell he was embarrassed. I wasn’t letting him off the hook though. After class I approached him.
Me: Soooo? What happened?
Him: *low tone* “You were right.”
Me: I know. What happened?
Him: Well, we were all sitting at the dinner table: me, my mom and step dad, my grandma, and my two younger siblings. I say “I wanna bring a girl by next week” and they’re all immediately interested so I start describing you. I tell them that you are a junior at UT, you’re in one of my classes, and that I’ve been interested in you for awhile but that we really just started hanging out. I told them that you’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever met and that you went to Central [Catholic High School]. My mom even said “I like it. A good Catholic girl.” And I finished by saying that you’re a gorgeous Black girl. Then everyone’s facial expressions changed. There was a long silence then my dad said “Have you lost your mind? You don’t bring that girl anywhere near this house unless she’s pregnant and you intend to marry her.” My mom said “what on earth would drive you to do this?” I couldn’t believe they acted like that. And how have I not realized that they were this bigoted? I’m pretty ashamed.
I told him that I felt bad for him because I expected this but that it had shattered him in a way that attested to a wholeness growing up Black hadn’t afforded me. We didn’t hang out anymore after that although we continued to trade pleasantries in class and when I got gas.
Let’s extract the lessons from this experience explicitly to ensure that it moves our present dialogue about race forward.
1) Notice how my date interpreted his parents’ silence and voting preferences as positive/progressive racial views. This is indicative of how our society rewards silence about race. We equate “silence” or “absence of explicit racial hostility” with “openness” and “acceptance”. These! Two! Things! Are NOT the same! In fact, an absence of explicit racial discourse usually means that the person has uncritically succumb to implicit societal messaging about race which is typically rife with negative racial stereotypes.
2) Notice how his family’s (and especially his mother’s) racial schemas were at play. They were not outraged until he explicitly stated my race. Their cognitive schemas about race attached whiteness to my attributes intrinsically. Her comment, “a good Catholic girl” evoked imagery of a young white female with a host of favorable characteristics (piety, scholastic diligence, purity, etc) that was unsettled and challenged when he said that I was Black. Despite all his positive descriptors about my intelligence, scholastic commitment, and even my educational pedigree (in my town, private schools are a currency beyond just academics), my race fundamentally challenged everything that his mother (and by extension, his family) expected from the image in their mind of me and they were repulsed.
Also, notice the myths being dispelled here.
Myth 1: If Black people just behaved better, they’d be treated better by whites. This is non-sensical. First, I shouldn’t have to “earn” decent treatment. My humanity should compel decent treatment. Secondly, even when we perform (or out perform) as required (or comport with respectability politics), those achievements don’t surmount racial bias.
Myth 2: Racist people know they’re racist and act in overtly racist ways. No one thinks they’re racist. Ever. Even the most racist person doesn’t think they’re racist. So what separates you from them? Also, most racists, from the Jim Crow South all the way to the 2021 North, don’t wake up everyday looking to intentionally harm people who don’t look like them. I think a lot of people think this and they shouldn’t. Being racist doesn’t mean you go out looking for non-white people to harm. Being racist means that when you are confronted with an opportunity to evolve your understanding of race or you’re confronted with a situation where race is involved, you will likely make choices that protect your own comfort or in-group status or the status quo to the deprivation, deterioration, or degradation of those racially marginalized unless you consciously and deliberately work against those impulses.
3) Finally, notice how my date was paralyzed by his shame. He avoided me. He wallowed in his own disillusionment. He did not commit to working against the dynamics that led his parents to their bigotry in the first place. What I needed was his effort to uproot racism, not his pity or guilt.
It’s one of the reasons I’m so adamant about normalizing discussions about race, especially in white spaces. Racial equality isn’t possible without explicit, authentic, factual discourse. How you raise your kids is one of the most direct ways to bring the world closer to racial equality. This means that parents need to incorporate consciousness into their rearing and demand that educational spaces address race in their curriculum. This is especially true for white parents who traditionally have less explicit racial discourse in their homes. If our families/homes are little societies within themselves then each home centering racial equity is an opportunity for a societal shift. I’m just hoping we don’t waste it.