For many Americans—and more specifically, white Americans—the months following Floyd’s murder would mark the first time that conversations surrounding race relations and systemic injustice became truly unavoidable. During this time, many folks grew more comfortable having uncomfortable conversations, sitting with that discomfort, and working toward growth—and that’s reflected in the nuanced understanding surrounding interracial relationships that’s grown this year, which has contributed to the beginnings of collective healing.
During season two of Dating White, which launched May 7, Battle, a certified sex and dating coach, and Njaka, an artist and mindfulness teacher, discuss mainstream media examples of interracial relationships that demonstrate a new depth of conversation happening around them.
To cite some examples from this past year, 82 million households watched Bridgerton, a Regency-era drama focused on the love between a Black duke and a white noblewoman, within the first four weeks of its December 2020 release, breaking records as Netflix’s biggest launch. In January, 33.8 million people watched Kamala Harris, the first Black and the first South Asian person to become Vice President of the United States, get sworn into office as she placed her hand on a bible held by her white, Jewish husband. In March, over 17 million people watched Oprah Winfrey discuss with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle how racism against Markle forced them out of royal life. Millions have kept up as Matt James, the first Black man to lead a season of The Bachelor franchise, had a brief falling out with the show’s winner and his now-girlfriend, Rachael Kirkconnell, after news broke as the season aired this past winter that she had attended a racist antebellum-themed party in college. And though many might not be aware of it, George Floyd’s girlfriend is white.
None of this is to say that positive, nuanced depictions of interracial love didn’t exist prior to last June. But, the presence of so many high-profile interracial couplings, paired with a more widespread interest in racial equity has created space for new, ongoing discussions about interracial relationships that now carry more depth and empathy.
The presence of so many high-profile interracial couplings paired with a more widespread interest in racial equity has created space for discussions about interracial relationships.
Interracial marriage was only legalized 54 years ago (Michelle Obama has been alive longer than interracial marriage has been legal), and many are still resistant to the idea of it. In 2018, 17 percent of 1,500 participants in a YouGov poll said interracial marriage is “morally wrong.” And even among Americans who don’t feel that way, a taboo undercurrent—held by both Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and white people alike—is still often associated with interracial relationships. Even I, a Black woman who has been happily dating a non-Black man for over five years, feel annoyed that the one and only Black Bachelor ended up with a white woman. Why is that?
It’s often-overlooked complexities like that which led Njaka and Battle to launch their podcast in the first place. Relationships are already hard. But when you introduce racial power structures, they get even harder. For example, Njaka grew up areas heavily populated by white people and is of mixed Indian, European, Black American, and Nigerian descent. She has exclusively dated white men, and given her upbringing, she believes it’s natural she developed this romantic “type.” But that doesn’t mean her racial background has had no bearing on how she feels about her dating experiences. “I think that I thought because they were dating me or choosing to spend time with me, that they couldn’t, in fact, be racist,” she says.
She’s now realizing that race was actually a wedge within many of those relationships. During her longest relationship, which spanned seven years, Njaka went engagement-ring shopping with her partner four times. “He just had all this hesitation about committing to me and it was really painful to understand where he was coming from. It wasn’t clear at first—there was just this looming confusion of like, ‘Well is it me? What did I do? Am I not a good partner? Do you not love me enough?’ to ‘Oh, actually you’re so concerned about what your racist parents think…’ That is painful.”
If interracial partners tiptoe around discussions of race, they’re not able to fully discuss and digest what it means to be in a healthy relationship together.
And that’s just one example from her past interracial relationships of having gaslighted herself into believing problematic racial dynamics couldn’t possibly be present. In actuality, though, if interracial partners tiptoe around discussions of race and even pretend that they can’t come up, they’re not able to fully discuss and digest what it means to be in a healthy relationship together and what each partner needs in order to feel safe and seen.
Millions watched the After the Final Rose special of The Bachelor that took place after the racially insensitive photos of Kirkconnell leaked online and saw James explain why he couldn’t be with her. “The most disappointing thing for me was having to explain to you why what I saw was problematic and why I was so upset,” James told Kirkconnell. “When I questioned our relationship, it was in the context of you not fully understanding my Blackness and what it means to be a Black man in America and what it would mean for our kids.” While Kirkconnell’s actions weren’t directly targeted at James, whether she knew it or not, they were targeted at his identity, thus proving extremely hurtful.
Being able to have conversations about race within the scope of an interracial relationship is crucial—and, according to Battle, public examples of such discourse happening, like with James and Kirkconnell, is helpful for facilitating broader conversations and wider change.
“What this movement is doing for all of us is saying you have permission to feel however you feel and [to] express that.” —Myisha Battle, Dating White co-creator and co-host
“Anyone who is the minority in a relationship with a white person, at some level at some time, fears that the person that they love is a potential problem. And it’s something that not a lot of us have comfort addressing,” says Battle. “What this movement is doing for all of us is saying you have permission to feel however you feel and [to] express that… It causes tension, but I think that tension is good. I think that tension is progress. I think that tension is a result of us holding our tongues for too long and not saying, ‘I’m uncomfortable in a world that is inhospitable to me and I fear that you are part of the problem, not the solution.’”
Njaka, for one, has noticed a change in how she has been showing up in her own relationships with white partners. “I will ask really direct questions,” she says.”The last person I dated, I had a list of questions for him: How are you dismantling white supremacy? How are you protecting and loving Black women?…He had answers, and they were good answers, and it made me feel safe. I’m also feeling a lot more empowered to advocate for my Blackness.”
Beyond her personal growth, Njaka hopes that Dating White listeners will take away a greater appreciation and understanding for the intricacies of interracial dating. “I’m hoping that people, at a very minimum, when they see two people who do not look alike [dating], that they have tenderness and reverence for the complexity of them being able to get together and be together—because it’s not easy,” she says.
Njaka urges white and white-passing listeners who are in interracial relationships or have interracial relationships around them to do the work to understand how race, white privilege, and power can show up in relationships, and to understand the impact of their words and actions. “The oblivion of other people can be really harmful,” says Njaka. “It’s different to talk to white friends about dating because they’re like, ‘Oh my god, he’s a f**k boy,’ and they just don’t really account for the fact that I have brown skin and that might be a factor in why some of the things that are happening in my dating experiences are happening.” What can come off as rude but benign behavior, for example, could in fact be a microaggression.
As far as what healing looks like, ongoing conversations can help. The Markle and Prince Harry interview with Winfrey displayed what happens when a white partner acknowledges and understands the role race plays in interracial relationships, with respect to the steps he took to protect his wife and son from the racist tabloids and lack of proper security. “For the family, they very much have this mentality of, ‘This is just how it is, you can’t change it, we’ve all been through it,’” he said during the interview. “But what was different for me was the race element—it wasn’t just about her, it was about what she represents.”
The more we discuss the role that race plays in interracial relationships, the easier it will become for interracial couples to connect and explore the depths of their relationship. White and white-passing partners will become better equipped to support their partners. And people of color in interracial relationships will feel safer voicing their concerns, whether those concerns are related to race to or not. And that continuing to play out is progress.
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