Dear Prudence, the advice column at Slate has a case that I thought worthy of engaging to start the week. Prudence offered up some reasonable--and I think very careful thinking--in response to a black woman whose white boyfriend called one of her friends a "nigger."
"Unspeakable," the woman who wrote Prudence ended her letter with the following: "He came to me and apologized profusely and had tears in his eyes while doing so. I accepted his apology because it was completely out of character for him, but I am now questioning our relationship. What do you think?
Channeling my best advice columnist voice, here are my thoughts on the matter. What advice would you give her?
I can only imagine your hurt at having someone you care for use such language. One of the challenges of the post civil rights era, and especially the "post racial" multicultural moment where we as a society have internalized a "colorblind" set of scripts and rules for public discourse, is that white Americans have created bogeyman outliers who they can easily mock and deride as "evil" racists, "those people," or throwbacks.
The reality is far more troubling and challenging: the racist is looking at us in the mirror, he or she is our friend, neighbor, relative, or colleague. In many instances, white racism has simply moved to the "backstage" where it is couched in racial humor, tweeted online as a "joke," makes itself polite by using the language of "bad culture," white privilege laced opines about "American individualism," the Horatio Alger myth, or "real America."
Contemporary white racism also slips out in casual conversation when said person thinks they are among like minded people. This is a double hurt in your case because the great reveal was by someone who you consider an intimate. You had presumed that this white man who loves a black woman would not use such speech to describe another black person. You were proven wrong.
On these matters, my decision-rule is a simple one. People are what they do. People who say racist things are racists. People who say homophobic things are anti-gay. People who say sexist things are sexist. Of course, there are ranges of behavior here. A person who calls someone a nigger, and is then apologetic about it, is a different type of racist than someone who holds a Klan card. However, both party's attitudes and beliefs flow from the same fetid waters. In many ways, the latter is simply more honest and direct than the former about what is a basic disrespect towards the humanity and dignity of black and brown people.
Your boyfriend is a racist. I will repeat that observation: your boyfriend is a racist. At present, "racist" is a word that has been so overused and misapplied (largely because of the Right's cooptation of the word "racism" in order to make the category so narrow, twisted, and bizarre, as to only apply in the case of newspeak and other related white victimology fictions such as "reverse racism"), we are often afraid to use it even when necessary and accurate. In the case of your boyfriend, it is clear that he harbors anti-black animus which has crossed over into racist speech.
The question then becomes, what are you going to do about it? How do his attitudes make you feel? Are you willing to be the person who recuperates him? Alternatively, are you willing to concede that people are complicated, contradictory, and often befuddling? Your boyfriend would not be the first (or the last) white man to "love" an individual black person but have contempt for black people. Are you comfortable with accepting that fact?
I do not believe in political correctness litmus tests for everyone in your social circle. Life is not perfect. There are folks who you may like casually talking to at the bar, that you pair up with in a bowling league, or who occasionally come by for big social gatherings and block parties, that are also racists, bigots, homophobes, sexists, or otherwise intolerant. Your boyfriend of six months is not one of those people. Your standards must be higher in order to protect your mental health, spiritual peace, and personal safety.
The heart wants what the heart wants. You happen to be a woman of color who developed feelings for a white guy. I embrace interracial dating because I respect people's choices about their own happiness. I am also transparent: I have loved, been loved by, and been involved with women of many different racial backgrounds. Beyond the realm of the public, my particular brand of Black Pragmatism extends to the bedroom as well.
But, and again this is a problem particular to "post racial" America, love across the color line in this political and social moment comes with relatively little risk, danger, or consequence. During Jim and Jane Crow for example, you would likely have to have a substantive conversation about the color line and your relationship because the stakes were much higher, the risk of personal harm and social sanction much greater.
At six months, you may not have discussed how race impacts your personhood and life experiences as a woman of color in this society. You may not have talked about issues of child-rearing and identity. Perhaps, because you were in the early stages of your relationship, the two of you were caught up in the bliss of something new and wonderful. Accordingly, you had avoided the hard questions.
As I mentioned above, spiritual and mental peace are important for happiness. You cannot have a healthy relationship if you are robbed of those basics. One of the challenges of being a person of color in a society that is structured by systems of racial inequality, and where racial "micro-aggressions" take a heavy toll on black and brown folks' health and well-being, is that our experiences with racism are often denied by otherwise well-meaning white people.
Racism is considered a fiction of our imaginations, until we "prove" in a manner sufficient and acceptable to the White Gaze, that said events did in fact take place. And even then, black and brown folks risk being told that we are being "too sensitive" and to "just get over it." In a healthy relationship across the color line, you need to make sure that your experiences will be validated and respected. Do you want to have a relationship with someone where discussions of this nature start off not with good listening, empathy, and respect, but rather as an uphill battle with someone overly identified with Whiteness (as demonstrated by his racist speech) and who needs to be convinced that your experiences as a person of color are valid? Will you have peace in such a relationship?
In your letter, you mentioned your boyfriend's obvious upsetness and crying. When white people are confronted about white privilege, and also in conversations where their racism has been exposed, there are several common deflections deployed.
Tears are common. Instead of being reflective about their own values and ill-behavior, crying is a way of making you sympathize with them, and the hurt that comes with being embarrassed for their bigoted and racist behavior as either active or passive supporters of white supremacy. Your boyfriend's performance is a way for Whiteness to recenter itself in the conversation. Do not fall for the theatrics. Ask him to stop crying and to talk in a cogent and direct way about his values, beliefs, attitudes, and why he called your friend a nigger.
I would also like you to reflect on your 2 years of knowing him, and 6 months of a dating relationship. People show us who they are in little ways. What other things has your boyfriend said about black people? Has he ever said that you were "special" or "one of the good ones?" What is his social circle like? Who are his friends? What are his politics like?
Racists typically give many tells or hints as to what their true nature is. I doubt that this incident is the first one revealing your boyfriend's negative attitudes towards black people. Racism is not spontaneous; it is a learned behavior which is internalized and reproduced both consciously and subconsciously, as well as through day-to-day behavior. Are you willing to love someone with such a basic flaw in their character? You will have to decide.