When Shän and I started dating, I would joke that we were the opposite of everything a couple was supposed to be.
She was 33, and I was 19.
She grew up poor, but I was Middle Class (sometimes on the lower end).
I’m from Texas. She doesn’t eat meat.
She was initially my boss. I was her employee.
We were both women.
I’m fantasy, and she’s science fiction.
All joking aside, I never expected that we would run into the most issues because of our difference in skin color. In case you didn’t know, she’s black, and I’m white. We’ve been together for 6 years, moving beyond the barriers that others placed upon us — those who thought we would never last because I was too young or she was too mature.
But I can grow. I can empathize with the fact that she grew up in the projects — I knew others who weren’t far from it themselves. We no longer work together, and we trade off between Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I’m not afraid of gaining knowledge. I can even embrace meat alternatives.
As a white girl, though, there’s still a lot I have to learn.
We live in Saint Louis. Home of Cardinals Baseball, Toasted Ravs, Provel Cheese, and, oh yeah, Ferguson. Not sure if you’ve heard of it. You might not have, if you decided not to use a computer, watch television, listen to the radio, or converse with anyone in the past year.
The Beginning: Ferguson
I didn’t know what I didn’t know about racism until I had to. Until last year. Until Michael Brown’s body was allowed to rot in the middle of the street. (No matter where you stand in the Michael Brown Debate, you have to admit that no single person’s corpse should have been left in the street. Where were the medics? Why did no one move his body? Did anyone even attempt to stop the bleeding? Why was he left there for four hours? Who thought that was okay?)
I remember the first night the protests began — the first night they got really bad. It was a Monday. It was actually the same day Robin Williams was announced dead, from an apparent suicide. Why is this significant? Because my partner, due to the circumstances of the life — of the racism, classicism, sexism, and heterosexism (AKA homophobia) — that she has to live, has severe depression and PTSD. It was bad enough for the day to be surrounded by the suicide of a national icon (a man I love and look up to, as well). But then she tried to leave the apartment for fresh air.
There wasn’t a single place that she could go to. Everything was closing early for fear of the rioters (not protestors — learn the difference). She felt self-conscious, daring to go to the mall while Black. She was forced to return home. We stayed inside for two straight days, working from our sixth-story loft while we stared at Social Media, watched the news, and checked police scanners. This was an issue with racism. And this was an issue that was way too close to home.
South Grand is probably our favorite neighborhood in Saint Louis. Shän is vegan, and many of the restaurants in that area have something other than a Veggie burger or a salad for her to eat. Plus, any neighborhood with a bookstore gains an “A” from me. We watched as that neighborhood began a peaceful protest and ended with broken windows, tear gas, and the arrests of people we knew. People we spoke with often.
I was confused. I had seen the racism in Saint Louis. There were places Shän and I simply didn’t travel to because it was not the kind of area that would welcome an interracial couple. I heard stories from friends about things they encountered. The Delmar Divide was a common STL topic. But I’m part of the ColorBlind Generation. Television taught me to ignore the differences and accept everyone for who they are.
That’s what we were taught to believe. That doesn’t mean it’s right.
Being colorblind allows us to ignore the experiences of others. To say “I’m sorry that happened to you, but I’ve never run into that before, so I don’t think it’s real.” Because if we’re colorblind, we can’t accept that someone else has experienced racism. “You and I aren’t different — anything you’ve experienced, I should also experience. I should at least be able to see when it happens. And I’ve never seen it happen to you.”
ColorBlind ignores the color and focuses on the “blind.”
So when I saw the destruction of this city that I was still new to, I was shell-shocked. But I didn’t know that it would only get worse as time moved on.
Black Lives Matter
After the riots calmed down, the rest of the city pretended to fall in suit.
*Before I move forward, I’m going to quickly say that the protests that followed Ferguson, the murders across the country, were not sudden — they were normal for people of color. They are normal for people of color. The only difference is that people are speaking up about it, and others are backing up their voices.*
On a personal level, however, things got worse for us as a couple. Going out to restaurants, waiters would turn to me to ask for the bill and avoid contact with Shän. People stare at us as we walk down the street or go to cultural functions. And don’t get me started on the amount of people on social media who have revealed their true selves.
But these seem small, right? People staring. Waiters ignoring her. People who don’t know anything about racism making comments about People of Color.
But when you’re a person of color, these types of microaggressions happen every single day. I experience them as a woman — men speak over me, people backhandedly compliment my weight, people are “proud” of me for choosing salad or wearing makeup. But imagine having those microaggressions, plus ones from people who will blatantly ignore you because of the color of your skin, people who will talk slowly to you because they assume that you don’t have the same level of education as you, and people who look for reasons to move your otherness to another room, company, or even city. They compound. They weigh a person down. They ruin a person’s outlook on life. They lead to depression. Anxiety. PTSD. They are not okay.
We experienced the world as the Black Lives Matter movement came marching forward. Saint Louis painted billboards that read “Blue Lives Matter.” Posts were made stating “All Lives Matter,” demonstrating how badly the majority cannot recognize the minority. Shän continued to communicate with people who didn’t understand the difference.
Black Lives Matter does not mean that other lives don’t. But what we encountered as a couple is still nothing compared to other cities. Nothing compared to the murder of people with darker skin than I. Black Lives Matter because no one cared about Black Lives until now. Black Lives Matter because they are endangered in this country. Black Lives Matter because if a young white man was left dying in the streets because of something illegal he’s done, his portrayal on television wouldn’t include the word “thug.” Maybe his cop would have been indicted.
The most frustrating thing that has come out of this is the white fragility that has popped up. There are so many people who seem to think that people of color deserve what they receive (because no person of color was ever wrongly arrested or given trumped up charges) and that the same thing would happen to white people. It wouldn’t. Sorry. I started to tell people this — to find my own voice in the “new racism” — but I was afraid of my privilege.
I can use my privilege, once I’m brave enough to recognize it. I can use my privilege to help other people. To stand up for Shän and show others that she’s a human being as well. I can use it to demonstrate that my friends are people, too. But I’m going to be honest. I had some white fragility. “I’m NOT RACIST,” my mind wanted to shout from the rooftops. That colorblindness was creeping up on me again. “I DON’T HAVE WHITE PRIVILEGE.” It wasn’t possible. I grew up lower middle class, mostly. I went to school that was majority latino and black — I was even the only white person from 4th-6th grade. My best friends were black. Every meaningful romantic relationship I had was with a person of color. How could I possibly be privileged?
But I am. I am privileged because I was allowed to interrupt my teachers growing up. Because every ticket I could have gotten in this city turned into a warning. Because I was able to easily change jobs. Because I can speak my mind at work and not receive any consequence. Because when I walk into a room, I can see a sea of faces like mine and not a single like my partner’s.
But I shouldn’t see a sea of faces like mine in a city where the population is mostly 50-50.
Empathy is not the same as being black (I.E. Diversity matters).Yesterday, I encountered someone who I thought was a real human being, but he was probably just a troll. He claimed to be empathetic to people of color, but still felt that an organization he was part of didn’t need any leaders of color. “I can be empathetic to people of color and make the right policies for them. I don’t need any people of color on my board.” I’m sorry, what? You’re going to make policies that affect people of color without any people of color as decision-makers in your organization?
We need more people of color in leadership positions to create change. Just because you’re friends with someone who’s black does not mean you have an “insider’s view” and can make decisions for people of color. Just because your partner is black, that doesn’t mean you are black. Just because you “empathize with their situation” that doesn’t mean that your policies will do anything to help them. The policies that are currently harming people of color were already made by people who empathized with them. Let’s not forget that Segregation was initially meant to be a “good thing.” At least black people were allowed to go to school now, right? (See how that logic is skewed?)
I love my partner — I wouldn’t trade being with her for anything in the world. But I will never lie and say that it’s easy. Relationships are hard enough without extreme differences, but learning is half the battle. And racism is our biggest war. The least I can do is demonstrate that I’m on the right side.