My last posting talked about the message we get from society to “not go there” and talk about race. The language of healing is okay, but forthright talk about race and racial history in the US is still taboo and largely prohibitive. Parallel to this messaging, or discourse, in the larger society, 14 of the 20 interracial couples I interviewed were constrained by rules of non-engagement around the topics of racial difference, history, and race relations.
What does this mean for couples? Lots of silence. Here is one example:
Robert: We camped out the whole trip, and one night we hear guns going off, and these thoughts are going through my mind: I'm down here in Tennessee, camping out with a white woman in the middle of nowhere.
Interviewer: Like what kind of thoughts?
Robert: Well, they could come up on us and see a black man with a white woman, and, well, lynching. I tried to put them out of my mind, but those kinds of thoughts just kept coming back. I didn’t tell her until we got home.
Consider how many instances of fear, intimidation, and perceived social injustice go unvoiced by partners of color who saw them, or believed someone else would see them, as “isolated incidents.” If Robert’s fear of being lynched is viewed by himself, his wife, or the therapist as "one particular event" in the life of one black man, then his experience is reduced to a single moment floating outside of social, historical, and political contexts. But Robert’s experience does have a context, and he is not alone—he shares a context with Trayvon Martin, James Byrd, and James Earl Chaney (see the 2008 documentary Neshoba: The Price of Freedom).
It is my hope that helping professionals will move to affirm interracial couples’ power by acknowledging their agency in choosing particular strategies, even when they may not be the best things to do for say, 3 or 4 decades in an intimate relationship. When a partner refers to how he or she has silenced ethnic, racial, and/or family histories, or a partner demonstrates compartmentalization of components of his or her identity (e.g., “it’s a family thing, not ethnic”), we can acknowledge the usefulness of these strategies at particular moments in their lives in a racist social context. By legitimizing couples’ past use of dominant discourses as survival strategies, we share power with our clients instead of taking it away by judging these phenomena as problematic, and ripping them from the contexts that give them their meaning. After affirming couples, we can then create opportunities to discuss how much energy has been invested in efforts to suppress important components of their histories and selves, and how this energy might be applied toward devising new strategies that allow creation of more inclusive, wholistic identities. We can acknowledge the sweeping scope and power of the rule "no racial history/talk” out there, and then work to subvert this generalized, normative "truth" in here by discussing: How the rule is manifested in a variety of contexts (e.g., work, school, etc.) by what does not get discussed, how that is helpful or unhelpful, and then what kinds of things probably would not be addressed/broached in the therapy room. Then you’ve got a list of topics to explore in future sessions.
In sum, professionals who wish to be helpful (not all are) can give interracial couples credit for their survival skills, engage the constraints imposed by the use of discourses learned from the larger society, and then invite partners to consider using alternative discourses to re-author their narratives, both about themselves and their histories and identities as an interracial couple or multiracial family. We want to make room for multiple identities, some of which are cued by the space and place we pass through, and whom we are fortunate enough to have with us on our journey.
Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.