The US is being rocked by two separate but related public health crises: COVID-19 and systemic racism. Protests are taking place in every state following the murder of George Floyd, and long-overdue conversations about race are happening in many homes. As a relationship expert, here is the question I have been asked many times recently: How do I talk with my white male partner about race without sparking defensiveness and conflict? The person asking the question is nearly always a White woman, partnered with a White man who shares her political ideology (i.e., both will vote for Joe Biden in the Fall) but who is reckoning with his Whiteness differently than she is (i.e., she’s enraged and activated; he’s aware but calm).
This is a critically important question because as Black people are flooded and exhausted by the collective trauma of racism, many White people are trying to figure how to be allies. As a White woman (raised by White men, raising a White man, and married to a White man), I feel a responsibility to discuss how White women can talk with both love and accountability to their White partners. Black and Indigenous People of Color cannot dismantle systems of oppression without the allyship of White people, and what I know for sure is that courageous conversation with the people we love is a form of activism.
White Men, White Women, and Racism
Differences in how intimate partners reckon with race are inevitable because we are constantly navigating all kinds of differences in our intimate relationships. When we look at how our cultural identities (race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, etc.) shape our intimate relationships, it’s helpful to recognize two aspects: similarity and centrality.
- Similarity: How similar are you and your partner on whatever dimension of cultural identity is being explored? Here, similarity means that you both identify as liberal or progressive.
- Centrality: If you think of your identity as a pie, how large a slice of the whole pie is this for each of you? Here, centrality is about how much of your bandwidth is devoted to reckoning with systemic racism.
For heterosexual couples with a female partner who is more activated than her male partner, there are likely many factors that make her "slice of pie" larger than his and that drive her frustration with his calm.
Calling out “Karen” culture
Although we have been talking about intersectional feminism since Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term in the 1990s, the recent Central Park incident crystallized for many White women the fact that we have focused far more on the challenges we face as women than on the privileges we experience as White people. The stereotype of a “Karen”-- the privileged White woman who wants to talk to your manager-- represents the collective demand on White women to examine how we participate in, and benefit from, our whiteness, and it is a very alive aspect of the larger conversation right now.
Degrees of privilege
It has been long established in the research that women are more likely to identify as Democrats than men, and younger women are even more likely to identify with progressive policies than older women. Although younger men are catching up, and most are more progressive than their fathers and grandfathers, privilege creates blindness to inequalities of all kinds until and unless we choose to ask questions and learn. To become aware of systemic racism is to move from comfort to discomfort, and the process of how each of us deconstructs whiteness is influenced by our gender.
Fear that this will break us
The work of author and professor Ibram X. Kendi is helping us understand that there’s really no such thing as "non-racist." There are actually only two options: racist and anti-racist. This can be unsettling for those of us whose previous idea was: “My partner/boyfriend/husband is OK because he’s not voting for Trump.” Some of us are realizing this bar is very low, so we are now heading into uncomfortable but vital conversations with our male partners. Research by the Gottman Institute has clearly indicated that the most important quality in a healthy heterosexual intimate relationship is how a man understands and responds to his female partner’s negative emotions. Conversations about race are therefore a forum for female partners to practice speaking their truth without sugar-coating it for fear of “shutting down” their partners and for male partners to practice staying present, humble, and engaged even if they feel uncomfortable.
Suggestions for Courageous Conversations
Here are some suggestions to help you engage in courageous conversations with your partner, conversations that can yield expanded perspectives, deepened commitment to anti-racism, and increased closeness and trust.
- Go “meta: I encourage couples to go meta before vulnerable conversations. Going meta means talking about talking. Start by checking in with your partner: “I’d love to talk with you about the current crisis around systemic racism. When would be a good time?”
- Set the stage: Context matters. Use your history as a guide. What helps the two of you cultivate non defensiveness during difficult conversations? Examples include being sober, walking side-by-side rather than sitting face-to-face, and ensuring you aren’t rushed or stressed.
- Remember that none of us can be understood outside of our context: Keep your partner contextualized in their identities, their family system, and the growing up experiences that created their perspective. Far from letting your partner off the hook, your compassion will reduce your partner’s defensiveness and inspire your partner’s introspection. Given a 400-year history of systemic oppression of Black Americans, it is wholly inevitable that White people will have internalized some racist ideas. While we are not responsible for our inheritance, we are responsible for our legacy, and your empathy for your partner’s struggle is a powerful motivator for change.
- Be rsponsive not reactive: Your conversation may begin reactively because you find your partner’s comment to be problematic, but make sure you widen your conversation. It can be helpful to read or listen to something together and engage responsively from a place of curiosity and learning together. As you and your partner talk, commit to deep listening rather than debate.
- Model humility: As the quote from Kendi that opens this article highlights, the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession. Your willingness to acknowledge your blind spots, growing edges, and screw-ups makes your relationship a safe space for your partner to do the same.
- Address the ghosts: When we bump up against resistance, our partner’s or our own, it can help to explore ways in which old core wounds are being triggered. For example, your partner’s sensitivity to criticism may stem from growing up in a family that practiced discipline via humiliation. Our reactions to conversations about "macro" issues like racism cannot be separated from the "micro" dynamics of our life stories, personalities, and individual pain points.
- Recover and celebrate: Breath has been a powerful metaphor these days as we deal with a pandemic that compromises breathing and as we hear the echo of George Floyd’s final words. Breath involves an inhale and an exhale, each wholly dependent on the other. Think of these reflective and challenging conversations as the inhales, but don’t forget the exhales. Silliness, play, pleasure, and distraction refuel you for the next growth-promoting conversation about race.
Being an ally to your White partner as he reckons with the impact of privilege cannot be the sum total of our anti-racist work, but it is a vital form of activism nonetheless. We need to ensure that we aren’t focusing on our partners’ problematic approach in order to avoid looking at our own blind spots. As an intimate partner, your influence matters and can be leveraged to create change in your home that radiates into the world. The personal is, and always has been, political.