Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped a reader dealing with racist in-laws. This week, we heard from Refinery29 readers about how communicating about race impacted their relationships in the face of microaggressions and racism from family and friends.
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Vanessa, 31, San Antonio, TX
“I’m a product of a mixed-race marriage, with one of my parents being Black and the other Asian, so I thought I knew what I was getting into when I fell for my now-husband, R. Little did I know… My partner is white with Dutch and German ancestry. We come from different backgrounds — him from oil people and farmers. Although very Americanized, I was not even born in the United States and moved here as a toddler, following my military dad.
“Our relationship has evolved so much over the years. But, by far, I think the biggest adjustment we’ve made together has to do with how we talk about how he sees the world versus how I do. My husband is a very open and welcoming person. He believes in respect for others and will not use their race, background, or sexuality against them. But he also just didn’t see how many people do have those prejudices. I found myself jealous that he could just exist in the world freely, while I moved through it differently.
“When we were first dating, all of R’s friends were white. The gaming, the “Dungeons & Dragons” types. These friends, although they were always kind to me, often shared videos and jokes about other races, women, and LGBTQ+ folks. Additionally, one friend was a police officer and would disparage Black Lives Matter. (Looking back, my now-husband would agree that the situation was not ideal, and express that he’s not anything like those friends.) It was tough reconciling the fact that the guy I was dating was surrounded by a community I didn’t want to be in.
“When it’s just us two, we’ve always lived in our own world — we have our own rules. Heck, we even have our own language. But the “real” world was uncomfortable. I’ve never believed in going into a relationship to change a person. But as our relationship continued, my concerns grew louder and louder. Everything reached a pinnacle when Donald Trump ran for president in 2016. I vehemently hated what he stood for. Once R. joked he was voting for Trump and I tried to break up with him. I didn’t care if he was different from me in a million other ways, but knew we had to have shared values. We talked about this all night, and I told him: I’m not going to have a family with someone who is complacent with a racist president. I can sit at a cousin’s house while listening to Antifa musings on Fox News. I can stomach a Thanksgiving dinner with a grandmother in a Trump jacket. What I won’t deal with is a partner who wouldn’t support their family. I really stressed that if we had kids, they would be brown children, and people of color move differently from him in this world.
“After that, we talked more openly and frequently about race relations. He began to point out moments when he felt something was potentially a racist incident. Without me asking, he also decided to cut out people who he felt didn’t have shared values with, and I did the same. Since then, we have cultivated a large network of diverse friends.
“Before our big Trump-inspired talk, sometimes I felt like I was talking to a wall. R. would listen to what I was saying and was sympathetic then, but, after that argument and working on himself, he’s truly tried to be empathetic. He sees that his experience is so different from mine, my Asian mother’s, and my Black father’s. He tries to be more thoughtful and mindful in his everyday life. We both work to be honest and realistic in our relationship.
“Growing up, my parents actually didn’t talk much about their mixed-race marriage. While my husband and I talk about it a lot, we also live in a world where it’s hard not to. We plan on discussing race with our future kids, too. We also want to adopt, so we’ll have a lot to talk about.”
Zara*, 27, California
“I am Asian and my husband is white; we are both pretty liberal. As a couple, we’ve always discussed the differences in our family dynamics, but as time went on, we started having more difficult conversations about what it means to be in an interracial relationship and how to navigate each other’s issues (racism, privilege, etc). However, my husband’s family is very conservative — they are Fox News enthusiasts. During dinner one night, at the height of COVID and with the rise of Asian hate crimes happening all around the country, my father-in-law referred to COVID as the “China flu” and kept pushing the conspiracy that COVID was created in “a Chinese lab.” I stopped the conversation, said I found the sentiment hurtful, and pleaded with my father-in-law to stop calling it that. For one, it’s not a flu and, two, because he’s perpetuating further Asian hate and that language is fueling anti-Asian hate crimes across the country. I explained to him that I worried about my parents’ safety daily because of hate perpetuated by using language like this against Asian Americans. He vowed never to use the word again, but honestly my relationship with them has never been the same ever since.
“My husband was so dumbfounded about the conspiracy theory his father was repeating that he didn’t hear his dad call it what he did. My partner and I talked in great detail how it made me feel and he was upset on my behalf; he noted that he’d talk to his dad about it and try to get some clarity on the situation. There was no tension or animosity between us, as we spent the time to communicate about the issue at hand and allowed each other to have the space to talk about how we felt about the situation. But we are a lot more aware about what we talk about around my in-laws now. We try to steer away from controversial conversations and just keep it very superficial and light. There’s not much depth to my relationship with them, not the way my husband has with my family. The sad thing is, I used to care a lot about trying to have that close relationship, but now I don’t really anymore.
“I do have worries about our future children and how my in-laws’ language and behavior is going to affect our family in that case. However, when that time comes, I know I need to sit down and discuss boundaries with my husband and have him set those with his parents.”
KM*, 50, St. Louis, MO
“My husband is very committed to equity and inclusion. He’s a good person, and falling for him was so easy. But we have issues that go way back to before we were married when my white mother-in-law and her sisters went online and started “digging into my past.” They tried to find anything they could to discredit me, a Black woman, to my husband.
“Things came to a boiling point after we got married. I was pregnant after three miscarriages on his sister’s wedding weekend. My MIL aggressively told me not to upstage the bride because I was pregnant. I was confused because I had no idea where this came from or why she would even say something like that when I was having a hard pregnancy and had lost others. My husband later confronted her, and they got into an argument.
“By this time, she’d already flat-out told me she wasn’t going to be a babysitter or change any of my baby’s diapers, even though I’d never asked her to. She also wondered aloud how dark our baby would be before he was born. I told her that my child will be beautiful and well-loved. My MIL treated our little one okay until my sister-in-law had her sons. I overheard her say she was glad she finally had a “real” grandchild. When I asked her what that meant, she stammered, and I was done.
“I usually tell my husband to talk to his mom before I have to check her. My conversations with him about her behavior are pretty straightforward now because there’s no reason to treat our situation with kid gloves. When I first noticed her behavior, I felt bad that I had to bring it to his attention and tell him how awkward it was for me, but these conversations have evolved over the years. Just like any relationship, in an interracial relationship, you have to be a team with a united front, mutual love, and respect, but I feel the added pressure to make our relationship successful because people don’t expect interracial relationships to succeed in our divided society.
“My husband has stood up for us many times. He’s tried to talk to his mother rationally. He’s had arguments with her. He’s even stopped her as she said things that were hurtful. We’ve learned over the years that she’s got her own issues and she’s the only person that can work through them. But it bothers me that he still seeks approval from his racist mom at times, and I think it’s a shame he still has to talk to her about this at all after all these years. At this point, I’ve come to believe his mom is just going to be his racist mom. It just makes me sad that my husband has the mother he has.
“I’ve tried to mend this relationship in different ways over the years, but I’m at the point where I’ve stopped— I can be cordial, but I know that that is the extent of our relationship. And in the end, she’s the one missing out.”
Sasha*, 34, Portland, OR
“I’m a first-generation Caribbean-American. My mother is Black and my father is Indian. My husband is white and from England. We’ve been together for nine years. I’ve experienced several micro-aggressive situations with my in-laws that’s made my relationship with them strained at times. My father-in-law and my husband’s step-mom think that just because they “have Black friends,” they can make thoughtless remarks. Last year, during a family trip, they joked and perpetuated racist ideas about Ethiopians and poverty. I was shocked and immediately uncomfortable. I told my husband and he talked to them and told them this wasn’t okay, but they refused to apologize because they said it was a joke. I was so upset, we paid for a hotel because it was so uncomfortable being with them. They’d even begun to give me the silent treatment until, eventually, my father-in-law told me he was sorry, after urging from my husband.
“I’m the first Black person to join their family. They’re not bad people and they don’t intend to be malicious, but they’re willingly ignorant and haven’t ever taken the time to understand what it’s like to be the only person of color in the family. I feel like I have the weight of my entire race on my shoulders when they make ignorant comments. I don’t want to cause contention, but there are times I can’t hold my tongue, though I try to pick my battles. Sometimes, I feel responsible for ‘disturbing the peace,’ or causing issues between my husband and his parents. It can be an isolating feeling and I’ve often cried or gotten frustrated about it.
“All this has even caused conflict between my husband and me. Sometimes, when we’re alone, I bring up offensive things his family says. His automatic response is to defend them or minimize the situation by trying to clarify what they meant. This makes me feel worse because, in those moments, I feel misunderstood. He and his family are very conflict-averse. They’d rather sweep something under the rug than have a conversation that might be tense. Due to this, sometimes when I ask my husband to confront them about things they’ve said, he complains or has a slight attitude, though he has ultimately tried to talk to them about this several times before. I used to get angry with him and we’d argue, but now I focus more on trying to explain to him why a comment or “joke” made me uncomfortable. I try to have a conversation rather than an argument because, during the latter, feelings and emotions can easily take over and make a situation more volatile. I’ve realized if I want to handle things more productively, I need to explain the situation from my point of view first.
“I’m not sure if his parents will ever understand and it makes me worried for our future children. As a mixed-race person, I know you often feel confused about where you fit in as a child. But my family taught me to love who I am and appreciate all of my different parts. That’s how I want to raise my children. The last thing I want is for them to question or feel conflicted about the perception of any part of who they are by anyone — especially their grandparents, who will probably be an influential part of their upbringing. Simple comments can unknowingly create shame or self-hatred and I want to be conscious of that. I’m not saying that will happen, but words can sometimes create ripple effects in kids that we’re not even aware of.
“My husband and I tip-toed around the race topic early on in our relationship. I actively avoided it because I felt it could be uncomfortable. I started having racial discussions with him only after incidents with his family and when the police brutality cases were highlighted in the media. I’ve learned throughout my relationship that race should be a subject for you to discuss openly and often, with patience and a willingness to understand — not only when an issue arises. It shouldn’t be viewed as a taboo subject. It’s the reality of living in America and it’s the reality of your relationship.”
*Names have been changed.
Interviews have been condensed for clarity and length.
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