When I heard the words, spoken so unexpectedly, I suppose I could have been defensive or indignant, given their acrimonious potential, their roots in a complex social and cultural history.
I was getting ready to head home after an interfaith service I’d attended with my boyfriend Zane when one of its participants pulled me aside to “share something.” I couldn’t imagine what he would say, but I certainly didn’t expect that he, a black man, would admit that seeing a black woman with a white man was something that had always aggravated him.
My guard went up. In the four-plus years we’ve been together, Zane and I have never been openly criticized or discriminated against for being an interracial couple. Yes, we’ve received the occasional disdainful stare, the inquisitive looks. And the first pictures of us together did surprise several of my family members back in St. Lucia, and in particular one aunt who confessed, obviously shocked, to having believed Zane was an African name.
But to have our interracial status so blatantly called to attention by a stranger — that was something I hadn’t experienced. Yet before I could even think about how to respond to his comment, he went on to say Zane seemed like a “super-nice” guy, it was obvious he made me happy and that after seeing us together that night, he was beginning to rethink his rigid, long-held stance.
I was stunned — first, that he would emerge with such a prejudice from a community that not only celebrated diversity but sought to honor our unity, even amid our differences. But I also was taken aback by his candor and sincerity. Prepared for a diatribe or rebuke, I’d been presented with a gift, one of both hope and affirmation, reminding me just how powerful a force joy can be. For while we have our challenges, like any couple, Zane and I have always possessed an inherent giddiness, a genuine gladness to be in each other’s company that often defines our togetherness.
We’d like to believe, despite the obvious physical first impression, it is this joy more than anything else that people perceive when they see us with each other. That may sound naive or perhaps dismissive of the debates ceaselessly raging around the issues of interracial dating, but from the moment Zane and I met, race was never an obstacle we had to overcome or even negotiate. Our decision to date wasn’t an act of conspiracy or curiosity that required justification nor was it intended as a put-down to our respective races, based on broadly assigning some negative attribute to that race on the strength of one or two bad experiences.
All of those arguments, all the analysis and laser-focus on the implications or expectations that may or may not come with dating outside of one’s race — we didn’t think about them then and we do not now.
When we first saw each other during a dance event at a yoga studio several years ago, Zane smiled and I smiled back. We laughed easily when we talked and found we could be silly with each other even then, and as our attraction grew over the course of several dates, we learned we had much in common. I dated him because I liked his joyful spirit and he felt the same way about me. As we grew to love each other, he became simply the man I love. And while I have personally felt the sting of racism in my own life, in our relationship, the outside world seems to have embraced us with a mostly untainted and ample tolerance.
Closer to home, we surround ourselves with people who are open and accepting, and our families have been wholly supportive of our relationship. Mine had been mixed long before I met Zane — besides my brother’s interracial marriage, my mom is of Indian heritage and my dad is black — and in his family, he and his sisters have all dated someone of another race at one time or another.
Yet we know we are luckier than some. I’ve performed the weddings of interracial couples who had family members absent from the festivities because they wouldn’t support their union and have seen other friends meet with resistance or rejection from their partner’s parents. Zane and I do not deny the realities of racism and the ignorance, fear and conditioning that fuel it, but we also realize we’re part of a different generation and a changing world, where racial harmony is something many our age and younger effortlessly encompass and model in our interpersonal relationships.
As a couple, we do make an effort to recognize and celebrate our individual heritage; we discuss the experiences that have shaped and continue to shape our thoughts and feelings about race; and we’re honest about our own prejudices and stereotypes. I’ve even admitted that before I began dating him, I’d professed I would never seriously entertain a relationship with a white man — though I’d attended predominantly white schools since moving to the U.S. from the Caribbean, though I have a wide and diverse circle of friends and have had any number of crushes on non-black males, though I’ve never let my race dictate my tastes in music, art, fashion and pop culture … though I consider myself to be open-minded and inclusive and someone who sees people for who they are as human beings. Yet having dated black men exclusively since my first boyfriend, I claimed I was simply stating a “preference.”
Today, I cringe to recall my prejudice in uttering those words. I didn’t consider them discriminatory at the time, but now they sound painfully intolerant. When I spoke them, I’d been talking to some girlfriends about tentatively being ready to date again after being a few years out of my last long-term relationship.
What I would discover, as I continued to grow through a period of introspection and healing in the wake of that relationship, is the more open to life I became and the more love and acceptance I offered myself, the less the race of a potential mate began to matter.
When, more than a year before I met Zane, I was captivated by a blond, blue-eyed Midwesterner whom I could see myself dating, I couldn’t have been more surprised. Yet he exuded a genuine kindness and goodness that, to me, were even more attractive than his boyishly handsome looks. Though nothing more would come of our friendship, I was grateful for what he helped me to see: that loving ourselves is what frees us to love and accept others and learning to be compassionate with our own failings allows us to be more gentle and forgiving with the faults of those who challenge us.
That’s an awareness I don’t often hear in all the dialogue about race relations.
It’s also what kept me from reacting judgmentally to the comments made by that man. Yes, I was moved that the happy affection Zane and I share ultimately made more of an impression on him than the color of our skin. But I was also moved to think of what he might have been letting go of to even admit as much to me, the parts of himself he may have been coming to make peace with.
And so I smiled and said “thank you,” honoring his beginning and his courage, and the truths, that when spoken, invite freedom and light to break through.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times