Julian* was the first non-black man I ever seriously dated. Before him, I never gave interracial relationships much thought. They happened—I knew that—but they never happened to me. The only time men who didn’t look like me approached me was after having several drinks or while shrouded by the semi-anonymity of Tinder. Even then they were generally interested in discussing “the swirl” and how they always wanted to get with a black girl.
So when Julian showed genuine interest in me, I was shocked and extremely flattered—so much so that I bragged about it to my friends. As much as I hate to admit it, I mentioned that he was Latino anytime I could, knowing it would get a positive reaction. I quickly self-checked my fetishization, but at the same time, I noticed Julian was not similarly wearing my blackness on his sleeves.
Not that he was ashamed of our relationship. He proudly paraded me around and never hesitated to express we were a couple. He was loving, genuine, and thoughtful. More often than not, I couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to find someone like him. I thought he was perfect.
However, you don’t have to be in a relationship to know no one can ever live up to those expectations. He loved me, but he was also unable to admonish people who openly looked at my black skin with distaste. Instead of taking a stand, he swept microaggressions under the rug and masked them with kisses. At first, it seemed like these were the everyday concessions of interracial dating, but I soon felt his nonconfrontational, passive policy weighing heavily on my shoulders.
Once, Julian revealed that his grandmother “jokingly” said, “Be careful. You don’t want to have any dark babies.” To my knowledge, he never checked her on the comment, and we never talked about it again. I tried to explain away my feelings, but I thought about her words every time I hugged her at family parties. Despite her smiles, I imagined how the corners of her lips might turn down at the thought of our starting a family together. Not even my name written in glitter across a stocking at Christmas the next year could make me feel like I belonged. While I knew Julian couldn’t be held responsible for his grandmother’s beliefs, the pain of her words stung even deeper knowing he allowed her to say it without protest.
For Julian’s birthday, I recruited his best friend to help me pull off a surprise party. As we sat in the rented Airbnb after setting up, his friend said, “You know, I was surprised when I found out Julian had a black girlfriend.” I was taken aback, confused about why he felt it was appropriate or relevant to make a statement like that. He went on, “I never thought he would date a black girl, but once I saw you guys were serious, I figured, If you like her, go ahead.” In my mind his words translated to: We normally don’t deign to choose black women, but if you like her, I guess it’s OK. His friend nonchalantly disrespected me to my face. While Julian wasn’t present at the time, his physical absence mirrored his emotional detachment from the casual racism that hung over our relationship.
Three weeks before we were set to move in together and only days before my birthday and college graduation, Julian ended our almost two-year relationship. It was a surprise to everyone. We had spent the last year planning our lives together, traveling abroad and making decisions as a unit. All of our close friends believed we were heading for marriage.
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Needless to say, I was devastated. There are no words to accurately describe the feeling of a broken heart. It is as much physical as it is emotional, and I remember wondering if I was actually having a heart attack as I listened to him say, “I think it’s best if we step away from the relationship.” I like to think of myself as a strong person, but I cried every day for two weeks straight. Getting out of bed and going to work each morning like everything was fine was a wake-up call: This is what it means to be an adult. I blamed myself. I cringed with embarrassment, thinking of the job I declined to pursue because of love. I believed I had simultaneously ruined my career and lost the love of my life.
Eventually, a therapist helped me see there were fundamental missing pieces between us and, more importantly, within myself. We had problems like any other couple: communication issues, ex-girlfriend issues, priority issues, but one of our biggest problems was actually dealing with the interracial aspect of our relationship—something we prentended was auxillary rather than foundational.
I allowed my blackness to be compromised because I thought I was lucky to have someone like Julian. In the end, it only damaged me. Being black is inextricable from my existence, and although I desperately wanted Julian to be my be-all and end-all, the dissolution of our romance showed me I have to demand more from my relationships. I refuse to bargain with who I am to save my partner the discomfort of confronting those closest to him.
*Name has been changed