Relationships The Distinct Anxiety of Interracial Dating
“The reality is that training wheels aren’t meant to last. They exist to be discarded after use.”
I don’t remember when we met. It was around the age of eleven; a time of change before children become hardened by the world around them.
I do remember wearing my soccer jersey and cleats as she, our team’s manager, sat next to me on the bus; younger kids giggling at us, wondering what we were up to. She wore dirty Vans and followed me and my friends around during our skating phase. I nervously asked her, via AOL Instant Messenger, if she would be my girlfriend. I also remember breaking up, as teenagers do when a relationship means nothing more than minor flirtations, and becoming serious again, in high school. And I remember losing my virginity to her; her asking me if I was sure, since she had already lost hers, and me, wanting to share the moment with her, saying I was.
Then, not long after, I remember laying on her bed as she said, “Today, some nigger girl at school told me she liked me. ”
Nigger . . . girl? I thought. This girl, who flung the words with the same indifference as if she had said, “I got a C on my math exam,” was white. She was many other things—my girlfriend, my classmate, my principal educator on matters of sex and romance. But, in that moment, I saw her as none of that, because I couldn’t see her.
Instead, my mind froze, paralyzed by an onslaught of questions from the moment she said those words. Did she just let that slip? I wondered. Did she call people “niggers” when I wasn’t around? As the questions multiplied, they took on more disturbing forms, especially since she, who just said “Nigger girl,” had met my mother, a Black woman. When they met, my mother regarded her with the same kindness she showed any of my friends. And my girlfriend greeted her with a polite “hello.” Would she classify my mother as a “nigger girl?” I wondered. A “nigger woman?”
I can’t remember what happened after that. I must have blacked out. What I do remember is the distinct anxiety that wrapped itself around me. Instead of producing sweaty palms and gut-wrenching nausea, this anxiety manifested as questions that still meet in the alleys of my mind, blazing most fervently whenever I date white women.
Such questions revolve around if my partner’s parents will accept me, if my manhood will live up to her expectations, what I will do if she ever says “nigger”—whether in passing, or even “nigga” while singing along to a popular song—and why I put myself in situations where I have to weigh the cost of silence versus the benefits of romance.
Months after the “nigger girl” episode, I left my old girlfriend behind and began college in New York City. But what I couldn’t leave behind was the distinct anxiety that had gotten under my skin. In the same way I had plans to grow, to evolve, to discover myself in new contexts, so did the questions that followed me. I was unaware of how difficult it was to evict tenants of the mind.
It was nighttime. An autumnal wind passed through Washington Square Park. I was sitting on a cold slab of granite facing the barren fountain. Next to me was a classmate from freshman year, but she and I had recently become better acquainted at a party I threw. This was now our sophomore year and I liked her. We spent hours sitting together; on benches in Gramercy, in parks, in my room, in dining halls, and anywhere else we could speak without being bothered. We shared books, wrote each other letters, and were competitive when it came to academic achievements. She even called me by my full given name—Matthew—which no one did, except my parents. All of this kindled a romantic fire inside of me that was white-hot before our lips ever touched.
“You know,” she said, smiling, “you’re the first and only Black guy I’ve ever been attracted to.”
First and only Black guy. I turned the phrase over in my mind, like when my high school girlfriend said “nigger girl.” But the incongruity between her words and smile didn’t paralyze me like the phrase “nigger girl” did. At the time, I believed the experiences were not equal. I may have said, “Oh, cool.” Or possibly smiled back at her. But I let it slide. Years later, after more experiences as a white woman’s “first and only” Black man did I realize that those two moments are, not only different shades of the same problem, but also flat out racist.
The questions, of course, came knocking. And though I was older, and more equipped to handle them, I couldn’t wholly ignore them. I asked myself if I should feel guilty about being this woman’s ready-made racial starter kit; complete with one mocha-colored body, curly, but not nappy, hair, and a brain. I tried to justify these experiences by claiming that everyone needed to start somewhere, and that being a first doesn’t mean you will forever be an only.
But all of my emotional gymnastics always ended in the same realization: For many of these women, I was nothing more than a pair of training wheels, security incarnate, so they could see if they enjoyed the ride before deciding whether it was too dangerous. The reality is that training wheels aren’t meant to last. They exist to be discarded after use.
The reality is that training wheels aren’t meant to last. They exist to be discarded after use.
Years passed, and with them came different relationships, with both white women and women of color. I changed. I felt immune to the pains of my past: I was making a significant amount of money; dozens of people looked to me for leadership; I spent most of my time in an industry where race is dressed up in the flaccid garb of “diversity initiatives.” For a moment, I truly forgot I was a person of color, made into what our 21st-century society engineers us to be: confident, goal-oriented, and post-race. But the distinct anxiety eventually returned, adapting to new situations, refusing to die.
I was in bed with a woman next to me; the last time we would share a bed. Due to a foolhardy mix of “the wrong stuff,” I couldn’t sleep. So we talked. I told her about how when my Jamaican grandmother came to America, she thought snow was cotton falling from the sky. This woman, though she had work in the morning, remained awake, silent, listening to me.
When we first began dating, her silence was nourishing. Not because it prevented her from saying things that would hurt me, but because it made me appreciate her words that much more. I had never been with someone so selective with their words. When we would go out to a club, she would dance and light up the dance floor, electrifying me. Uber rides to her home in Queens, my hand in hers, didn’t feel meaningless. We worked together and I was proud that she also got to see the professional side of me—making speeches, achieving goals, and even acting a fool. I believed that what I had with her was one of the most meaningful relationships of my life.
But in bed with her, as I recounted my personal history, how my race colored it, her silence ate away at me. We’d discussed life on Mars, our favorite music and books, and other harmless topics, but never did we venture to anything even skin-deep. That moment in bed felt like our last chance. I wanted to mention that when the snow fell from the sky, it melted on my grandmother’s rich, dark skin. I wanted to ask her what skin that dark meant to her, if anything. But I didn’t. I was afraid she might think I was being archaic. After all, we were in the 21st-century; weren’t we supposed to be post-race?
But I was overcome with guilt for not being brave enough to break the barrier of silence that existed between us. Paralyzed by my own anxiety, I was stuck in a catch-22: I didn’t want to be “the guy who always has to talk about race,” even though I never discussed it with her to begin with. I asked myself if, through continuing to pursue interracial relationships, especially those where neither parties ever audibly recognized the interracial part, I was more a part of the problem than some bastion against white supremacy. The answers, just as much as the pervading onslaught of questions, scared me.
This distinct anxiety––this relentless self-interrogation––is something that people in same-race relationships can’t know. Because, on top of everything that exists in relationships, there lives an added layer that is always present, though it has taken on different forms throughout history. In the 20th-century, the defining factor of many interracial relationships was “us against the world.” See films set in the period: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, A Bronx Tale, Loving, A United Kingdom, and many others. These were films focused on 20th-century interracial relationships where the biggest obstacles were external factors: governments, tribes, neighborhood friends, or parents.
But today, the added layer permeating interracial relationships is internal. It’s “us against us,” where, in order to survive, two people have to tackle this false dream of colorblindness and say, “you are you and I am me, and we have to reconcile that.” When two people form an interracial relationship, they must realize their responsibility to see each other as people to whom the world attaches different prejudices and consequences, potentially invisible to the other. Otherwise, you risk internalized trauma, oppressive isolation, and a destructive sense of racial dysmorphia that ferments into poison, infecting everyone you come in contact with, beginning with yourself.
To believe that we live in a post-race utopia is a lie made more powerful by silence.
And what you’ll find, when the stakes are higher than ever, are a set of questions that can only be answered with action, not silence. Your partner asking, “Why do you always have to bring up race?” will make you doubt yourself, ask yourself how they can love you if they don’t know all of you. “We’re going to make the most beautiful mixed-race babies,” will make you question if your partner believes your future child’s biracial beauty will protect them from the same bullets that pierce black and brown skin today. But the loudest question, in my head, is, “Am I an imposter?” Because to believe that we live in a post-race utopia is a lie made more powerful by silence.
The distinct anxiety I feel never goes away, but today I am better at recognizing the red flags: people who claim to be “colorblind,” who sigh when the topic of race is brought up, who attempt to tell me who I am or am not, who remain silent when an unarmed person of color is killed, who automatically assume the role of devil’s advocate in the wake of racist tragedies, who make me feel as though it is an honor and a privilege to be chosen by them as their “first and only.”
I’m dating again. And although I can’t guarantee that I won’t make mistakes, I know I am better off because I no longer shun the distinct anxiety that lives within me; I trust it now more than ever. No longer do I categorize seemingly innocent, yet still racist, remarks as “forgive them, for they know not what they do,” nor do I accept silence as a proxy for understanding. Today, I need action; an exchange of words that shows me my partner both wants to know, love, and accept all of me, and vice-versa. So long as I remain open to interracial relationships, this distinct anxiety will persist. But instead of being a dead end, I now see it as guardrails to a new beginning.