Those teachable moments

By Allyssia Alleyne

Those awkward times when you have to talk about race

I’m black. My boyfriend is white. We’ve been together for three-ish years now.

Sometimes I tell myself it’s no big deal and that no one cares that we’re different colours because, you know, denial is fun. I like to pretend that we’re living in some post-racial era heralded by Obama and Paula Patton. But when you run into side-eye and unsolicited stares from people across the racial spectrum, you’re forced to acknowledge that racial differences are still considered a big deal. And the only thing worse than acknowledging these differences is actually sitting down and talking about them.

Now, most of the time it’s smooth sailing. We have dinner and sleepovers like any other couple. We hold hands and argue in the streets. We’re regularly told that we’re adorable and/or “so cute together”. But there are other times.

When we were in Boston this past summer, kissing on street corners and getting lost, I couldn’t help but notice the number of black people staring at us. Luckily, everyone was too scared, polite or far away to actually say anything.

I’d assumed the boyfriend hadn’t noticed until he asked me about it when we got back to the hotel room. Why were all of these black people staring at us? Not so naïve after all.

This brings up one of the hurdles of being in an interracial relationship. Every now and then you have to play both the interpreter and ambassador for your race.

My first instinct was to brush the question off with some sort of dismissive joke. These questions can be uncomfortable to entertain and awkward to respond to. Sometimes I wish the boyfriend could just know the answers, but at the end of the day, I have no reason to expect him to.

There are some things that, if you’re not black, you probably don’t fully understand. I mean, if I were dating a black guy I probably wouldn’t have to explain what a relaxer is, or why so many black woman object to black men dating white women. I probably wouldn’t have to explain why it’s never okay for a white person to say the n-word or why certain skin tones are considered more desirable than others. But a different race often means a different cultural context, so every now and then I’ve got to play teacher.

In that same vein, talking about race and marginalization can be tricky. (I often joke with the boyfriend that we’re at opposite ends of the privilege spectrum, but it’s one of those jokes rooted in soul-crushing despair.)

I’m usually hesitant to tell the boyfriend about times I’ve experienced racism or felt pissed off because of someone’s ignorant comments. This is mostly because I don’t see the point of sharing something he has no real way of responding to. No matter how much he loves me, the boyfriend can’t understand what racism feels like, and he can’t tell me everything’s going to be okay. He can sympathize, but sympathy is empty and rarely what I’m looking for in those instances. Luckily I have black friends and family to share those feelings with, but sometimes I can’t help but wish that I could turn to my partner for that.

But not all of our moments of disconnect are race-related.  The fact that my boyfriend knows nothing about rap or hip-hop (unless you count, inexplicably, Nelly’s “Hot in Herre”) isn’t an issue of race. (Check out any suburban high school or Sneaky Dee’s on a Wednesday night for proof.) The fact that I didn’t grow up with holidays in Aruba has nothing to do with the fact that I’m black, and everything to do with the fact that my parents were broke. I’m sure Quincy Jones’ kids did a ton of travelling.

I like to focus on those differences. They’re much easier to explain and to dismiss.