Relationships don’t look like they used to (and that’s a good thing). But what does it honestly take to make a modern romance work? As part of Committed, we’re exploring partnerships ranging from a textbook marriage between high-school sweethearts to a gay couple creating a life together in the conservative deep South.
I love my husband unconditionally, and we have amazing chemistry, but we’re also definite proof that opposites attract. He loves dogs, and before I met him, I was an aspiring cat lady. He was raised Mormon; I was raised a Methodist. He is white, and I am black.
None of these differences were deal breakers as we fell deeper and deeper in love, but even before America appeared to be on the verge of collapse, being in an interracial relationship came with its fair share of challenges.
From the beginning, I knew Xavier wasn’t like any other guy I’d been interested in. For starters, he seemed to express genuine interest in me as a person… unlike most of the other white guys I’d encountered over the years, who desperately wanted to add a black girl to their roster of hookups. I called interactions with these types of guys “science projects,” because they approached me like I was some sort of foreign specimen in a lab they just couldn’t wait to examine.
For a very long time, I allowed this. Growing up in the predominantly white suburbs of Fairfield County, Connecticut, the dating pool was pretty shallow for a black girl. In my hometown, the guys who were genuinely attracted to me (beyond mere lust) would never admit it to their peers—they’d have been ridiculed for actually liking a black girl. So in order to feel the touch of a man in my adolescence, I played the role of a “Jezebel.”
I grew up black in a mostly white area, so I was accustomed to casual racism. As a survival tactic, I learned how to disassociate every time I heard someone at a party “accidentally” drop an N-bomb. I was also under the illusion that because people thought I “sounded white,” it was possible for me to transcend racial stereotypes. I figured that as long as I was able to abide by respectability politics and not be lumped together with those “other lazy Negroes,” I could just be the token black girl. So I hid my natural hair under Brazilian bundles—not as a way to protect the beautiful kink that grew beneath it, but to assimilate more closely to European beauty standards.
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But then Xavier came along, and things felt different. I’d always thought “the butterflies” were bullsh*t, but anytime I saw him, that’s the only way I can describe how he made me feel. He has these crystal blue eyes that had a way of unintentionally staring right through me, and best of all, he really made me laugh. I was sprung. So much of my seduction technique relied on being fetishized that when I finally met a man who had no interest in doing that, I became even more enamored.
When we met, he told me he was from Chicago, which I thought was sexy, because I imagined he had all kinds of wisdom from being raised in a city so full of culture. Of course, he failed to mention that the first years of his life had actually taken place in Salt Lake City, Utah, which isn’t exactly a melting pot of diversity. Luckily, he’d been exposed to a mélange of different people during his time in Chi-Town, and had gotten the chance to develop a more worldly view.
Soon, Xavier and I were madly in love. But the second summer after we had moved in together, he went to visit a family member in Portland, Oregon. When he came back, he told tales of a magical land packed with breweries on every block and fine artisan cuisine spilling from food carts all over the city. Then he produced an engagement ring and persuaded me to move west with him. Once I’d officially been promoted to fiancée, we drove cross-country to our new home.
Of course, Portland was just as amazing as he’d described; this city is full of doughnuts shaped like voodoo dolls and an air of creative enthusiasm that encourages locals to “Keep Portland Weird.”
There was only one detail my husband had left out. As the weeks passed, I slowly started to realize that I hadn’t seen any black people since we’d arrived. Because my husband is white, the lens through which he views the world had allowed him to visit Portland and never think twice about the fact that it was such an overwhelmingly white city.
But for me, this lack of diversity came as a complete culture shock. Connecticut is practically as white as Portland, so on its face, the transition should have been simple. But on the East Coast, there was so much more exposure to diversity, and I’d worked in New York for several years. Outside of working in metro areas, I had a support system of friends and family to seek refuge with when I felt like a black person engulfed by white space. Portland lacked these important elements.
Thanks to Google, I quickly discovered that we were now living in a place that is often referred to “Whitetopia.” Not only is there a shortage of black people, but their lack of diversity was actually intentional, and the city has a long history of white supremacist activity.
Prior to moving, I thought I had mastered the art of navigating white spaces—being surrounded by white people didn’t strike me as something I’d need to prepare for. However, after I moved, I became more and more aware of strangers’ inherent biases against and irrational fear of black people. At first, I thought I was imagining it. Xavier thought perhaps I was being too sensitive… but soon, even he began to see it.
People we met were never overtly racist, but they seemed to tense up once they saw me approaching them, and they’d relax once they realized I was with Xavier. When he and I would go out, I noticed that people would often intensify their eye contact with my husband so they wouldn’t have to acknowledge me. On one fun occasion, a white waitress flirted with my husband all night, then referred to me as “Sister Girl.”
These unbalanced interactions became routine, and I started to develop severe social anxiety. As I grappled with the new experience of trying to converse with people who were too scared to engage in sincere and authentic conversations, I started to understand the different nuances of racism. I became very familiar with the word microaggression, and pretty soon, I realized that everything I was experiencing had been happening my entire life… I’d just never fully noticed it.
We mostly continue to face the same changes as every other couple. Even though race comes up, it’s not what defines how we feel about each other.
When my husband was around, these microaggressions—like people touching my hair—happened way less often, if at all. Pretty soon, I stopped leaving the house without him. I didn’t feel safe in the city.
For a little while, I became resentful of my husband; I’d never felt so completely out of place in my entire life. Xavier tried his hardest to sympathize, but how could he have predicted this transition would be so difficult for me, if I hadn’t either? To make matters worse, while I was struggling to find my place as a black woman in a pseudo-liberal city, Xavier was thriving in this “A White Man’s Paradise.” My resentment manifested itself in various ways. It ebbed and flowed, changing between tears and anger, and became a very rude awakening for the both of us. I suddenly understood the term for socially conscious people being called “woke.” All at once, I felt wide awake.
The tables seemed to have turned. My city-slicker husband had quickly grown accustomed to the homogeneity of his new surroundings, but suddenly, his formerly racially indifferent fiancée was completely hypervigilant about her race.
I started to become increasingly furious with institutionalized racism. While my husband was mostly willing to listen to me, the subject sometimes became a source of contention as injustice after injustice continued to roll in, and examples of race-based police brutality flooded our news services. There were days I felt so heavy from seeing the deaths of unarmed black men go unpunished. A special kind of rage began to fester in me; I was surrounded by white people, all of whom were able to go about their lives during a time of political unrest… and my husband was among them.
When I had lived in Connecticut, I knew I could go home to my family and feel the safety of being among my family members who looked like me and could immediately relate when I told them something was racist. In those conversations, no one ever cast a doubtful look my way or asked, “Are you sure they were being racist?”
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When you’re asked this kind of question at the end of the day, sometimes you’re just too tired to respond. Other times, you have no words to rationalize your humanity to your spouse. The rest of the world is so busy reminding you how very little your life matters, the last place you want to put in that work and explain yourself is in your own home.
As I tried not to slip into a deep depression, I focused on the biggest bright spot in our lives—planning our wedding. Planning a wedding was a way for me to appreciate the positive parts of our experience together. It wasn’t all bad; other than the racism, things were actually really good! We got a Boston Terrier puppy named Ralf Garfunkel. And creatively, I was producing the best work I had in years. Because Xavier was walking the puppy everywhere, he was getting increasingly healthier and svelte. And we were about to get married.
I was regretting the move to some extent, but there was and still is only one reason why I came here: I couldn’t imagine a life without Xavier. By then, two years had passed, and regardless of feeling like an alien in my new city, I wanted to believe there was a light at the end of this tunnel, despite the darkness of feeling constantly ostracized by my race. Even though wedding planning had its challenges, the process helped me take my mind off a lot of the negative aspects of my life. It also gave me a chance to introduce the people I’d left behind to our new life together. We had an incredible wedding surrounded by the people we loved most, and it was after that day that I finally started to feel at home.
I tried not to blame my husband for being unable to understand my experience. Since becoming “woke,” Xavier has learned a lot about his own privilege. He knows better than to get offended when I talk about dismantling white supremacy, and he doesn’t need to chime in with #notallwhitepeople to relieve his guilt. It’s hard to ignore that the world feels like it’s on fire right now, with so much political change happening throughout the country. Still, we mostly continue to face the same changes as every other couple. Even though race comes up, it’s not what defines how we feel about each other. And as with any other marriage, we vowed to love each other forever and no matter what… or at least until the world ends.
Jagger Blaec is a freelance professional journalist located in Portland, Oregon. You can keep up with her on Twitter @basicblaecgirl.