Let me just begin by saying, I was raised by white people. I wasn’t adopted. I have two Black parents, but I lived in all white neighborhoods, went to white schools, and never in my entire childhood did I have a Black teacher, doctor, or librarian.
That being said, I never wanted to be white, but I did believe the white version of reality was worth imitating. I believed that, both consciously and unconsciously, until I was about 22 years old and moved to Brooklyn and began to unlearn my white education. Ironically, it was a white European man who taught me to not simply tolerate my skin color and physical features, but appreciate and love them. It was my Spanish husband who gave me the language to appreciate the beauty in my dark skin and the sexiness of my ass. And for that, I gave him my heart and we got married.
Ten years later, we had two sons. We left Brooklyn to live in Philadelphia. We found a multiracial neighborhood where our neighbors were Black, white, and other. Unlike my own all-white upbringing, the life we created for our family felt perfectly diverse. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, we took our young sons to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration. Life looked so good.
Then, Trayvon Martin was murdered. I was devastated. Then, his murderer was acquitted in July of 2013 and a rage I never knew before erupted within me. When my sons asked me why his killer didn’t go to jail, I had to look into their little brown faces and say, “Because obviously Black lives don’t matter.”
The acquittal of George Zimmerman bitch slapped me into a racial reality that I had previously never known or felt.
It almost seems naïve to say that, before the betrayal of Trayvon Martin, my husband and I never had cause to argue about race. It’s not like Trayvon Martin gave me my racial consciousness, but, just as the election of 45 opened my eyes to the depths of misogyny in our society, the acquittal of George Zimmerman bitch-slapped me into a racial reality that I had previously never known or felt.
And, yes, it was a bitch slap; It was both harsh and unexpected.
I understood racism, but I didn’t fully understand that a system grounded in white supremacy can, and will, regard Black life as both unnecessary and expendable.
With my eyes newly opened, I started to question everything with a new urgency. While my husband was equally enraged by what was happening in the world, I didn’t feel like he would have the answers I sought because he is not an American and because he is a white man. So, I did what I often do when I am struggling with a question I do not know the answer to: I wrote about it. I wrote my way through my questions and growing distress. I wrote a book about colorism. I wrote an op-ed piece arguing for the capitalization of the letter “B” when referring to Black people in print. I wrote blog posts and essays, anything to help me better understand this country’s history and current politics. My husband, as he always did with my career, cheered me on and supported everything that I did.
But when Donald Trump got elected and gave people permission to show off their ugliest selves, it became very clear that we were living, not in the United States of America, but in the Divided States of America; it appeared that white people were on one side and the colored folks were on the other. For the first time in my life, I actually found myself suspicious of white people as a group. I wondered if, lurking among the people in line at the bank, was someone who would like to see me dead or simply found my very presence offensive. I became acutely aware of the ways white supremacy invades all levels of society and human behavior.
“You’re really starting to sound like you hate white people,” my husband said to me recently. I paused before answering because I understood where he was coming from, but I know what’s in my heart. “I don’t hate white people,” I said. “I hate white supremacy.” But I knew what he meant. It’s hard to talk about the evils of white supremacy without sounding like you hate white people. And it’s hard to teach your brown children about the evils of European colonization when their father comes from a European country that basically graduated magna cum laude in the colonizing arts.
Clearly, I needed some perspective on this situation. I asked some of my friends how they were dealing with this delicate situation.
My friend Cynthia, 49, grew up on military bases in Europe and Asia. She’s Black and her husband is white. The two of them went to medical school together and married soon after. They have two sons. Life seemed to be going fine until Trayvon Martin was killed. His death forced Cynthia to acknowledge a racism she had never experienced before, having grown up outside the United States. It radicalized her parenting and she became very intentional in teaching her children about Black history and racism. “I wasn’t like this before,” she told me. “I wasn’t talking Black power politics… but I felt like I had to protect my kids.”
Cynthia’s husband, Charles, didn’t respond in kind. Cynthia said there were too many times that Charles scoffed when she would share a painful experience that had a racial undertone. Charles seemed unwilling to accept what was happening in the world. “That’s when I realized his inability to empathize with what I was feeling,” Cynthia explained. “He was dismissive of my anger and my fears.”
Ultimately, Cynthia decided to divorce Charles. She says it wasn’t only about his unwillingness to engage in the country’s escalating racial politics, but that it definitely played a major role in showing Cynthia that the man she married couldn’t be her life partner.
I wondered if I misjudged my husband’s ability to really get it. Could he stop thinking like a white man, humble himself, and see the world through my eyes?
I understand Cynthia’s feelings. Last summer, my husband and I were driving our son to summer camp in Michigan. On the way, we decided to stop for a bite to eat. I wanted to grab something at a rest stop on the highway, but my husband said a friend had given him the name of a diner to try. The friend was Black, but the idea of driving into a small town in the middle of a red state put all my spidey senses on high alert. When we arrived at the diner, I refused to get out of the car. I told my husband I wasn’t going anywhere until he checked the place out. I didn’t know what it was that I wanted him to look for, but I told him to keep an eye out for white men with red hats and shotguns.
My husband thought I was overreacting. (Full disclosure, I am known for being a bit of a drama queen.) But I wouldn’t budge, and I was incredulous that my husband wasn’t taking my fears seriously when the Klu Klux Klan was boldly recruiting new members all over the country. In that moment, I wondered if, like Cynthia, I had misjudged my husband’s ability to really get it. Could he stop thinking like a white man, humble himself, and see the world through my eyes? We did end up eating at that diner, and the food was bland and tasteless.
Two of my friends, Monica, 52, and Brittney, 42, both Black women married to white men, gave me serious side-eye when I asked them if they ever questioned their relationships — of course they had. Monica’s husband is Jewish, and have both felt their marriage grow stronger these past few years. “More than dividing us, Trump has brought us even closer together,” Monica told me. “We’re finding ways to fight white supremacy together and raise our daughter to be a proud Black Jew.”
Brittney shared a similar explanation for why her relationship with her husband has not suffered in the era of MAGA hats and Tiki torches. “Carl and I come very close to sharing a racial consciousness,” she explained. “We both know how racism works and how it is perhaps the most important force in national and international life.”
I talked to more friends who shared that they’d had moments of doubt about their white husbands in these Trumpian times. “Would he stand up for me in the face of a blatant racist act?” one friend wondered. Another told me that she no longer speaks to her in-laws in order to stay married to her husband. The stories I heard were vast and varied, which leads me to believe that my thoughts and my experiences are neither extreme nor unusual. I would never say Donald Trump brought my husband and I closer together, but his election did force us to have deeper, more meaningful conversations about race. Sometimes there are tears, sometimes laughter. Sometimes there are escape plans for leaving the country.
The fact that my husband is not American means that, while he does understand this country’s painful past, there are missing pieces in his identity-politics knowledge bank. And while I get a paycheck every month for being a professor, I don’t want the responsibility of teaching my husband what I wish he already knew. I am getting better, however, at voicing my concerns. I am not afraid to tell him what he needs to learn. And I know that we’re going to be okay because he takes my suggestions, educates himself, and does the work. He always has — it just feels like the stakes are higher now. So, he has promised to read more, pay more attention, and give me the benefit of the doubt when the issue revolves around race and white supremacy. And, in return, I have promised to stop making colonizer jokes at the dinner table.