Hi Sahaj: I am 44 and Black/White mixed; my boyfriend is White. My parents experienced a lot of racism and joined the military. They moved my siblings and I across the U.S. to hopefully raise us away from it. Growing up, we were held to high standards for behavior, and it was ingrained in us to always follow the rules as best we could. The effect of this is that I continue to follow rules and am quite nervous when they are broken.
Since my boyfriend did not grow up like this, and also has the privilege of being White, he is often frustrated with my behavior. For example, we went to a sports game, and he wanted to examine a section of seating that was roped off. I was nervous to do so but he couldn’t understand my hesitation. I’ve explained how I grew up, and why I act the way I do, but this keeps happening.I think in general I am pretty fun-loving, open to adventure and open-minded, but the need to be safe and remove myself from potential conflicts is pervasive. I see a therapist regularly, but he is not open to counseling.
- Hesitant Girlfriend
Hesitant Girlfriend: This specific example of not wanting to examine the closed seating section at a sports game sounds like one piece of a larger issue. Your boyfriend doesn’t seem to recognize how you may be perceived by the world differently - and thus experience the world differently - than him because of your race.
Reflect on how often - and when - you and your boyfriend have this kind of argument. Do they all tend to be related to public safety? Or are there times you feel like your boyfriend gets frustrated because your preferences are simply different? Are there repetitive feelings that arise every time? Does he often invalidate your emotions? Do you tend to shut down in response to his frustration? Identify patterns and roadblocks; these reflections can shed light on how these situations impact your sense of safety and understanding in the relationship with your boyfriend.
Would something have happened if you got caught looking at the closed seating area together? Probably not. Would you have been treated differently if you were caught without your boyfriend? Maybe. There’s no way to know, but you have certainly been taught to consider this. You’ve internalized the narratives your parents learned - and passed down - from the racism and subsequent fear they experienced. Don’t rock the boat. Follow the rules. Behave. It’s not merely about being “open-minded” or “adventurous”; it’s also about protecting your safety.
It’s impossible to separate yourself from your racial identity, and only you can really understand how this impacts you. It’s important for you to reflect on this because self-awareness can offer more insight into what you want to share with your boyfriend. I can’t help but wonder if this is the first interracial relationship for either of you, or if generally talking about race is uncomfortable for him. In all interracial relationships, having deeper conversations about race and identity is key. This shouldn’t be just in reaction to situations like at the sports game but rather embedded throughout your relationship to create a safe space where you can both exist fully in your identities.
Be honest with yourself about your boyfriend’s interest in understanding you, or even whether he has an issue talking about race that needs to be addressed for you to feel comfortable in your relationship. Your boyfriend may feel frustrated that something seemingly small to him is up for debate, but his frustration should not supersede your fear. Instead, you both need to be able to talk about these things in the same way you may talk about the fact that one of you repeatedly forgets to close the kitchen cabinet all the way after opening it. It may seem small at first, but small problems often lead to big relationship issues.
Given that you feel your need to avoid potential conflict is “pervasive,” I want to note that generally, when someone isn’t spontaneous, or fears bending the rules, there is often a baseline of stress, worry or anxiety at play. Think about how these feelings actually impact you - and to what degree. For instance, do you lose sleep, or struggle breathing, or have negative thought spirals that are hard to manage? These can indicate effects on your day-to-day functioning that should be addressed through continued professional support.
You can find a way to build bridges regardless of your differences, but that requires empathy, curiosity and listening on both sides. Your feelings are valid. It’s important to gain clarity on if your boyfriend is really interested in understanding them.