I once read a quote about how lonely it is to be in love. The writer posited that in becoming as close as we can get to another person, we highlight the impassable distance between us. And that distance permeates all human relationships. Everyone must bear their pain alone. There are parts of life that others can’t experience for or with us. No matter how in love we are. And while it’s healthy to accept that, it’s extremely difficult. So, when one takes this impassable distance and compounds it with a couple consisting of a marginalized person and a privileged person, it’s a recipe for moments of profound isolation.
We’ve all witnessed the trope in depicting interracial relationships: two people, one black one white, struggling to make their colorblind love last in a world that is trying to force them apart. But it never seemed realistic to me. I’ve been in numerous interracial relationships and the worst of them were the ones where we tried to pretend our skin tones didn’t matter. Blackness is a large part of my identity, social construct or not. It informs the way that I experience the world. How people perceive me. How I perceive people. I came to those relationships with a whole set of struggles that my partners neither experienced nor understood.
And the hardest part of any interracial relationship I’ve been in has not been sideways glares from passerby, it’s been trying to build a bridge over the color gap. Some partners were flat out unwilling to make a connection. For many, race is purely a political issue and they felt that they could separate support of institutional anti-blackness from its implications on me as a black woman. One just refused to talk about it. He asserted to me over and over that it wasn’t important, that it was only important if I made it that way. One thought that being with me absolved him of any racial responsibility. The only one that I am still friends with just listened. He knew he couldn’t understand, he knew he’d never know how it felt, but he let me speak on it, and supported me to the best of his ability.
Now, I am married to a black man. In many ways, he is a relief. He is a safe haven for me, and when I am upset about another daily micro-aggression, he empathizes with me, and I don’t have to explain to him why it’s personal. But in closing the gap that I couldn’t with previous partners, we’ve unearthed an insurmountable inch. I’m a woman. And he’s a man. And at times I have had to tell him why the protagonist in the romantic comedy we’re watching is a stalker (and not a fool for love). Or why I don’t like to walk down certain streets past certain times. Or why I feel pressure to martyr myself to motherhood. Or why it makes my skin crawl when men call women “females.” Or why I want to smash everything when anyone tells me to calm down when I’m already calm, or that I’m being harsh when I’m being direct.
There are things he doesn’t have to experience. There are burdens I have to bear alone. But I am lucky, I have a partner who empathizes with being marginalized, and doesn’t try to gaslight or “mansplain” things to me. Sometimes he messes up, because like any member of a privileged group, he has a lot of training to unlearn. But if something makes me uncomfortable, or troubles me, he listens, and he takes my word for it. He re-evaluates his learned behaviors in order to be the kind of man that seeks to change the kind of world that marginalized me in the first place. Still, he benefits from my oppression. It’s the way society is set up.
When your partner is privileged, it takes work to keep resentment out. It takes affirmation to feel like a team. It takes tons of counter pressure, pushing back against the weight of what’s internalized. When your partner is privileged, it’s not easy. Your partner must accept that they have been complicit in one of your life’s greatest obstacles. And you must forgive them for it. When your partner is privileged, it takes patience.
Everybody wants to feel seen by the person they navigate life with, and that demands that they see your struggle, too. They’ll never see it lucidly, though, because they’ll never be in your human suit. But it’s their responsibility to try to get as close as they can, and to be on your side whether they understand it or not. There are many marginalized groups, many points of privilege, and countless pairings of the two. Rich and poor. Cis and trans. Able-bodied and Disabled. No matter your circumstances, or who you choose to love, you deserve to feel safe, respected, supported, and heard. From the other side of the impassable distance. So you know that you’re not alone. Your relationship should depend on that. Don’t settle for less.