by Guest Contributor Danielle Small
I always thought relationships would get easier as I got older.
Back when I was in high school, I lived in a small Wisconsin town where white people were 95% of the population. Obviously, my high school boyfriend was white. Every time we went out in public we grew accustomed to the stares, the pointed fingers, the gasps, and the whispers. And that was the every day racism. There were also the not so subtle instances, like when a boy in his high school (we went to different high schools) went out of his way to get Taco Bell’s special Halloween black taco shells and put it in my boyfriend’s locker with a note that said, “Eat this, bitch.”
Needless to say, when I moved to New York for college, I was hopeful at the opportunity to somewhat escape the prominent role of racism in any future relationships.
But life is never that simple.
I’ve been with my current boyfriend for three years. He is mixed race, specifically German and Haitian and has light brown skin and wavy black hair. He identifies as black. I never really thought much of his physiognomy until I saw how other people perceived our relationship. Some of the troubling instances were all too familiar.
The first differences I noticed happened when I would hang out with any dark-skinned black male friend of mine. I noticed that most of the time my friends and I were together in public, someone would come up to us and say, “You’re such a cute couple” or “I can tell you’re in love.” They assumed we were together because we looked like we belonged together.
But when I’m out with my light-skinned wavy-haired man who I’m very much in love with, most people don’t assume we are together (unless we are engaging in hardcore PDA), let alone comment on how in love we are with each other. Unlike the times I was in the company of my dark-skinned male friends, people seemed to think there was a disconnect between our hues. My boyfriend and I did not look like we belonged together.
The most extreme example of people refusing to acknowledge our relationship took place when I lived in my school’s dorms one summer. My boyfriend slept most nights in my room for three straight months and my black suite mates still assumed he was just a friend. I mean, what else could we have done to hint at the contrary? Have sex in the communal kitchen?!
Now think about that for a moment–not the kitchen sex part, the refusal to acknowledge our relationship part. Over the past three years we’ve been on hundreds of dates and the only people who assumed that we might be a couple were the street hustlas that sell roses. And they were just trying to get paid.
But it took me a while to think anything of the above until I started to connect it to other experiences.
Often when guys hit on me and I tell them that I have boyfriend, they panic. First they let out a nervous chuckle and then they say something to the tune of, “Oh, shit. Umm, never mind. I don’t want him to come after me.” After which they nervous chuckle some more and skedaddle faster than an ACME cartoon character.
After a few encounters like this, I wondered why the mention of a boyfriend would evoke such a frightened response. When my white friends tell guys that they have a boyfriend, the guys don’t respond with fear. They just keep on harassing them. And so I examined myself (a dark-skinned “thick” “curvy” black woman) and I looked at media examples of what kind of guys girls who look like me are paired with. Let’s just say it’s never with slim light-skinned dudes. Since my body type and skin color are often type cast in the role of ghetto seductress, people who look like me are often paired with a muscular black dude of equal dark-skinned-ness a.k.a. scary ass black dude (who often plays the role of drug dealer or some sort of enforcer). So these men who hit on me expected a Ving Rhames or Terry Crews look-a-like to give them an old-fashioned blaxploitation-esque ass whooping for daring to look at their girl, yet they were far from the truth.
(Side note: his massive body aside, is anyone scared of Terry Crews after his hilarious robot dance in The Longest Yard? But I digress.)
Connecting these two types of experiences, I started to understand why the world or at least just New York City didn’t think of our relationship as normal or at least something that made sense. I started to realize that people saw our relationship as an anomaly, even as much as an anomaly as me dating a white guy. And that’s when I began observing the same dynamics I thought I had left behind in Wisconsin.
When my boyfriend and I are holding hands in public (which forces people to assume we are a couple), we get different reactions from different types of people. When dark-skinned black men pass us on the street, they look at my boyfriend and then at me and then look back at my boyfriend with the kind of look that says: Why is she with him? And I get the same look when we pass white girls, like they’re wondering why he would be with a dark-skinned girl when he is so close to passing for white (This is especially prevalent in the winter when he hasn’t been out in the sun and becomes paler). So far we’ve only received these bold side-eyes from these two groups, but we’re not holding our breath. Who knows who will give us what looks in one or two years?
It’s interesting because I thought that since I was committed to a black guy, I would no longer have these kind of racialized encounters when it comes to being with my partner out in public. Because I already had enough of these kinds of experiences in Wisconsin–the stares, the rude comments, the gasps, etc.
I asked my boyfriend if he ever noticed people staring at us and he replied that he saw it all the time. It’s something he’s become used to when it comes to dating dark-skinned black women.
As a black woman, I’ve long known that I could never truly immerse myself into the wonders of any relationship without race playing any sort of role. But, for real. I never saw this coming. I knew about colorism before I met him (and experienced it a little bit in the form of backhanded compliments from guys: “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl”) but I never experienced it on such a strange personal level.
Although we are some decades removed from institutions enacting the brown paper bag test, the effects of intra-racism and colorism are still tangible. And what happens when someone who really doesn’t think my boyfriend and I don’t belong together decides to send the message through force? That’s a real concern I harbor.
People tend to see the effects of racism as just black and/or white. But the nuances of colorism, intra-racism and media depictions bring added depth to the repercussions of racism and the perceptions of what racism looks like.
Right now my boyfriend and I just ignore the stares and we don’t need some random stranger creeping on young people in parks to validate our love. We love each other and that’s all that matters to us.
But at least now we’ll be prepared for this upcoming Christmas. He and I are going to visit my Wisconsin hometown together, so he can finally meet my family. And so as I type right now I am doing finger push-ups so I can have a strong and bulked up middle finger to serve as a response to all the stares, rude comments, gasps and whatever else may come our way.
Racism really is a hell of a drug.