The Silent Struggle of Interracial Relationships

When you adore your partner, it’s hard to imagine anyone wouldn’t.

I love my boyfriend more than the world. We complement each other and push each other to be our best selves. We’ve shared so many experiences together, and after the years we’ve spent together, I can’t imagine life with anyone else by my side.

After we moved from my partner’s hometown in Texas to a more conservative, small city in the Northwestern U.S., I noticed something odd. Compared to my friendly, outgoing partner I’m hardly a social butterfly. He was always the one who made friends fast thanks to his charisma, humor, and infectious smile. But while I’m definitely much more reserved, I was making friends and connections in our new home much more easily than he was.

It wasn’t something that was immediately obvious, but when we passed our two-year mark in the new city and he didn’t have one person he could call a close friend, it was hard to deny.

Racism often isn’t what you think it will be. In fact, you sometimes don’t even notice racism at first. Sometimes it’s the look on your coworker’s face when you introduce your partner at the company Christmas party. Sometimes it’s a friend-of-a-friend’s comments that they “didn’t expect” you to be seeing “someone like that.” Sometimes it’s another nice apartment you’re more than qualified for, but still don’t get despite months of searching and applying. That’s something that I’ve had to learn along the way.

We expected that we might have to deal with some discrimination once we moved, but I didn’t realize just how difficult it would be for him in this new environment. Neither did he; he had lived in Texas all of his life where his appearance and culture didn’t bat an eye. It wasn’t that he hadn’t experienced racism there, but it was just a different kind. The guilt I felt for even suggesting we move was immense. How could I have put someone I loved so much into such a horrible, alienating position?

***

My partner has brought so much joy to my life. We are more alike and relate better to each other’s backgrounds more than any other partner I’ve had, despite what people might assume when they look at us. He’s also brought many new perspectives, traditions, and experiences to my life that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to explore without him. I didn’t understand why other people here couldn’t recognize just how great he was.

We reached the peak of our stress when my partner was arrested for “prowling” while walking home from work one night. While he hadn’t done anything wrong and was released later that night, we didn’t know where to go from there. If he couldn’t even walk home without looking “suspicious” because of the color of his skin, how could we ever expect to live comfortably in this place?

Both of us were depressed. While my social life and job were going great, I felt sad and anxious most days because of how much it hurt to see the person I loved more than anyone else in the world become withdrawn, angry, and alone. I couldn’t imagine how he felt.

***

Forty-three percent of American men experience chronic stress, but the percentage of men of color who experience traumatic stress is even higher. Researcher Michael Marmot says, “Chronic stress is characterized by ongoing activation of the ‘fight or flight’ system that is normally activated only under acute self-protective stress.” Marmot’s work has shown that the constant bombardment of racism, discrimination, and lack of opportunity creates these symptoms of chronic stress in the body. Marmot’s work also showed that social engagement — having a sense of community and belonging —  is critical to positive health outcomes.

We felt like we were spinning our wheels. We were so desperate for our lives to go back to the way they were when we lived in Texas. It seemed ridiculous that a place that’s infamous for its conservative politics and a history of poor race relations would represent a haven for us, somewhere where we could feel safe again, but that’s how bad it had gotten.

However, even that wasn’t an option at the time — we were broke from too many months of my boyfriend being stuck at a dead-end job he was overqualified for. He had lost his work transfer when we moved from Texas because the woman who was supposed to be his supervisor in the new city didn’t think he was a “good fit”. He had worked for the company in the same position he was transferring to for over five years and had nothing but positive referrals, but he just “had a feeling.” My heart broke when one day, after he had been actively searching for better opportunities for months, he told me he was thinking about changing his name so employers wouldn’t be able to tell what his race was when he applied for jobs.

Finally, a small relief came from an unexpected place: an invite to a private intersectional feminism Facebook group. This would come to be where we would finally find community. It didn’t change what our experience had been like, but it was a small comfort for us to know that there were other people out there who might be able to help. We shared what our time had been like in the new city with this group, and began to take steps towards healing some of our wounds. Knowing that we weren’t alone made the biggest impact.

***

There are lots of challenges that come with being in a relationship. It can be even more challenging to be a part of an interracial relationship. If you’re white, it’s a glimpse at the discrimination, blatant and covert, that people of color face every single day of their lives.

While you can’t take the pain of that away, you can do your very best to provide safety and support for your partner. Get involved in your community. Learn about allyship and do work that helps change the status quo. Remember that being in an interracial relationship does not exempt you from being racist. Be prepared to confront situations that make you uncomfortable, the types of situations that people of color face frequently.

But above all, be prepared to love your partner openly and with joy. Interracial relationships are just like any other relationship in lots of ways. You’re two people who have found someone that makes them feel appreciated, valued, and loved, and that’s something worth being excited about.

Victoria is a writer who lives in the northwestern United States. She loves strong coffee, long runs, and taking care of her two very cute pet roommates.

2 Comments
  1. Reply Tricia Barker
    Tricia Barker August 9, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I was in a long-term interracial relationship, and I noticed how both white men and women were friendlier with me when I was not with him. It broke my heart to notice this. I think he was accustomed to stares and coldness and wrote people off quickly who behaved like that. When you live in a conservative area it is more difficult than I imagined it might be in this time period.

    • Reply
      vroseber August 9, 2017 at 9:48 pm

      Tricia,

      I’m sorry to hear that you’ve been in similar situations but it is always a little comforting you don’t have to face it all on your own. Talking about our experiences is so important, even though that can be difficult in itself.

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