White People in Interracial Relationships Better Understand Racism, Sure, But at What Cost to Black Partners?

During his interview with Oprah, Prince Harry admitted that it took being in a relationship with Meghan Markle, a mixed race woman, for him to learn about racism and his family’s racist legacy. For many white people, their attempts to gain a deeper awareness and understanding of concepts such as “white privilege” and “systemic racism” were prompted by the increased visibility of police brutality against Black people this past summer, particularly in the case of the murder of George Floyd. However, up until the last few years, many white people have only educated themselves about race in a deep, meaningful way when they’ve had a direct connection to someone affected by racism, such as a partner or a child. (Ahem, Prince Harry.)

Research has shown that white people often enter interracial relationships quite naïve to the realities of race and racism. Communities and social circles are notoriously segregated in America. Add to this equation growing up in fairly white social circles that espouse colorblindness and are sheltered by white privilege, it’s not hard to believe that many white people enter into interracial relationships assuming racism is practically a thing of the past.

“My upbringing and the system I was brought up in and what I had been exposed to, I wasn’t aware of [racism] to start with,” Prince Harry told Oprah. “But, my God, it doesn’t take very long to suddenly become aware of it.”

These kinds of issues happen in so many interracial relationships, even when massive institutions like the British Monarchy aren’t involved.

In my own research studying interracial couples all over the country on Black/white heterosexual couples, most white partners reported rarely talking about race growing up. As Tom*, a 33-year-old doctoral student engaged to an Afro-Caribbean woman, shared, “Race wasn’t really talked about [in my family]” but there was a sentiment that “there should be racial equality.”

As these couples start to spend more time together and their worlds merge, the white partner may engage in conversations about race in the news, witness their partner experience racism, or observe their own parents treating their partner differently than the white partners of their siblings. Ultimately, they begin to open their eyes to the realities of being a person of color in our world. One of these moments, according the Prince Harry, was when conversations were initiated by his family members over concerns about the “skin tone” of his and Meghan’s potential children and “what that would look like,” presumably to the public. More specifically, both Harry and Meghan said Harry’s family’s concern was over how “dark” their son Archie’s skin would be.

These issues happen in so many interracial relationships, even when massive (and ancient) institutions like the British Monarchy aren’t involved: Tom’s fiancée, Layla*, who is also a doctoral student, shared with him her concerns about his family, such as when his mother would introduce her children and their partners to family friends, Layla—the only one who wasn’t white—was also the only one not given a descriptor such as “girlfriend” or “fiancée.” Tom was skeptical but changed his mind after a “strange” conversation with his mom about bringing Layla to his cousin’s wedding. She “was wanting to ask my aunt if it would be okay [to bring Layla] because she’s Black. [My mom wanted to know if my aunt] would feel offended if Layla came.”

While there is no comparison to the difficulties that their Black partners face in a racist society, it’s important to note that these journeys are not easy for white partners. As Prince Harry voiced, they might be hurt by learning about family members’ racism, particularly towards a person they love. Despite how many times Prince Harry tried to appeal to his family, it was ultimately members of Parliament, not his family, who denounced the “colonial undertones” in the British tabloid coverage of Meghan.

“There was an opportunity—many opportunities—for my family to show some public support,” Harry said. “Yet no one from my family ever said anything. That hurts.” And these actions—or lack thereof—ultimately led to the couple leaving their official roles as senior members of the royal family and made their relationships with Prince William and Prince Charles further estranged.

I saw something similar play out with Paul*, a 32-year-old white businessman who confessed that his parents’ treatment of his wife Tracy*, who is Black, “eats” at him. “They won’t give her a chance,” said Paul. When I got in touch with Paul a few years after our initial conversation, he explained that his parents’ racism was taking a toll on his marriage to Tracy, and, in order to save it, Paul had to distance himself from his parents—a painful decision that he did not take lightly. However, he refused to let their racism destroy the love that he and Tracy have for one another.

If we rely on interracial relationships to do the heavy lifting for white people to develop an understanding of racism and how traumatic it can be for people of color, we’re doomed.

Most white partners who enter these relationships with little knowledge about racism often rely on their Black partners to do the work of educating them. But that is problematic ethically, creating more intellectual and emotional labor on behalf of Black partners. Not to mention, this is part of a wider pattern in our society where white people—whether they are friends, co-workers, or loved ones—rely on the Black people in their lives to operate as “agents of epiphany” by guiding them into a “racial awakening”—in other words, they lean on Black people to teach them about the deep-seeded and deeply flawed structures that every person in this world should not only be aware of, but actively fight against. In interracial relationships, this could take the form of an ill-informed comment made by the white partner (not unusual in the beginning of these relationships), which can result in emotional and psychological stress and fatigue for the Black partner.

Our society goes through ebbs and flows with anti-racism allyship. Interracial relationships will likely continue to be one of the main avenues for white “wokeness,” especially if our current period of allyship wanes again. Prince Harry says he “spent many years doing the work and doing my own learning,” which is a great initial step, but there is still more active work that needs to be done in order to fight racism. While love can transform and open people up to the realities of our world and the lives of others, interracial marriages are still statistically rare. That means more anti-racist conversations and actions need to happen in white households. Relying on interracial relationships to help white people develop an understanding of racism is simply not enough. Prince Harry, don’t stop doing the work.

*Names have been changed to protect the subjects’ identities.

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