I had a fight with my boyfriend this past weekend. Which isn’t exactly headline news for most people, but we hardly ever fight. And when we do, it’s usually over something so trivial it’s embarrassing to think about once we’ve both calmed down. Is Lady Gaga a truly unique artist or is she completely overrated? Is “American Idol” a reliable source of finding legitimate talent?

Those types of debates are not about pop stars or televised talent competitions. What is usually at stake is our egos. We both hate to be proven wrong so much that it borders on pathology. But this latest argument was different.

We were in my car, talking about a little bit of everything when the topic turned to race. I’m black and he’s white, so the subject comes up frequently. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time it involves horrendously offensive jokes and hysterical laughter. This was the .01% when it did not.

The taboo topic du jour was whether or not something had to be intentionally malicious for it to be considered racist. I argued that of course it did not. I was operating off of a complex conceptualization that embodied both individual discrimination and systematic and institutional injustice. It was the “racism equals prejudice plus power” equation that is the corner stone of most sociological, psychological and academic anti-racist arenas. By that definition, only white people possess the ability to be racist because they are the ones that hold the power.

My boyfriend was having none of that. He was steadfast in his belief that for something to be racist, it has to have harmful intentions. And what did he use to prove the accuracy of “his” definition? The dictionary. Merriam Webster’s mobile website version to be exact.

I was livid. Actually, no, I wasn’t livid just yet. More like baffled. I’d been with this man for nearly two-and-a-half years. How was I just now discovering that he’s one of those white people? The kind that has no clue about racism yet has the audacity to try to debate about it. The man grew up in a nearly all-black neighborhood, has mostly black friends and possesses a full deck of honorary black cards. We even joke about how in some aspects, his degree of “blackness” is higher than mine.  All that and he doesn’t even know what racism is? How the hell did that even happen?

In my opinion, “my life” was enough to articulate why I was right and he was dead wrong. But when I told him that, he brilliantly countered with, “No, that’s not what racism is. It says it right here on my smartphone. See?”

The fact that he thought an 11-word definition had more credibility than I did was beyond insulting. It was hurtful and it displayed a level of arrogance and prickdom I didn’t think him capable of. Bottom line, neither he nor Merriam Webster are the authority on racism and the concept is far more complicated than either of them can capture in only a handful of words.

My definition came from countless collegiate classes on the matter, tons of books and papers, an advanced degree and working and volunteering for nonprofits whose mission is to offset the systematic implications of racism through tireless service. Oh, and from also being black for the past 28 years.

I’m the black one. We make the rules. Duh.

But later, during our post-argument argument, I realized that Merriam Webster isn’t the only thing that shaped his interpretation of what racism means. His definition of the word has been molded by spending a childhood getting his ass kicked for being the white boy in the mostly black neighborhood. My boyfriend begins to list his own terrible racially based experiences. These are things that I knew about, but had completely neglected to consider in the midst of my own anger. I was so busy being offended that I forgot he had reason to be as well.

So black people can’t be racist? How do I tell that to his scared 10-year-old self? The little boy who had to dodge and hide just to make it safely home from school? Ironically, he’s the one in our relationship who has endured hateful and violent encounters because of the color of his skin, not me. In his experience, racism has been nothing but malicious. He has little reason to believe otherwise.
I still know, not just believe, that racism can rear its ugly head without someone intending to do concrete harm, That’s how it has manifested in my life. But, I was wrong to think that I was the ultimate authority on the subject simply because I’m black. Actually, that shit’s kind of racist.
This post originally appeared on XOJane. Republished with permission. Click here for more Shayla on XOJane! 

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  • http://gravatar.com/jamesfrmphilly jamesfrmphilly

    i’m all about race. my race. if you cannot be real why are you in the relationship?

  • Yb

    I think it’s a good way to weed out the ignorant, racism, privilege deniers when dating interracially. Would you want to have ended up marrying a covert, clueless racist? Nope.

    IMO I find that for black people, when dating out your race its better to date another person of color. But even with them comes ignorance and anti blackness at times.

    • KitKat

      To add to your comment, I find that it’s best to take your time and become friends first when dating outside your race, there are things that will come out in friendship, that often time stay hidden during a relationship.

  • http://fromthoughtsintowords.blogspot.com/ rkahendi

    I like the article, but I’m not so sure about the title. It seems too broad.

  • Lucy Lucy

    I tend to believe racism is more of a systematic issue. I mean, being picked on for being a white boy in all black neighborhood can’t compare to black men (with no record) not being able to get a job over a white convicted felon or black people not getting called back for a job because of their name or black people not being able to get housing or people of color being stigmatized constantly and we can’t even play our own race in movies, instead, they’ll hire a white guy to play an Asian. I could go on and on.

    • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

      Agreed! Not trying to take anything from the boyfriend terrible experience growing up or trying to undermine his pain but his experience is a dropped in the bucket sort to speak. The ending of the article lost me him stating his experience doesn’t negate his thinking towards racism. So yeah….. he experience discriminated/prejudice not racism and ALL IT ENTAILS per se. Sorry but this articles reeks of individuals who push and debate the magical unicorn of “reserve discrimination” instead of checking ALL discrimination and fight it as a whole but seperate and specialize it.

  • Skegeeace

    Ahhh! That was clever of you to name the article one thing, but end up saying another. I think two people in an interracial relationship should be able to discuss anything at anytime, so when I saw the title of the article I just had to read it. Thankfully, I didn’t see an argument against open communication between people of two different races, but an example of how NOT to think we have a monopoly on being victims of racism. Kudos.

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