DWB (and DWBWWWP): When Couples Run Silent, Run Deep

Partners' varying interpretations of Driving While Black scenarios feed silence.

Posted Jul 01, 2014

Jared Sexton, Director of African American Studies at UC Irvine, stated that “hegemonic and uncritical defense of interracial relationships rests upon an assumption that love and racism are somehow mutually exclusive and counter-posed to one another. However, a recognition of and critical engagement with the constitutive role of racism and white supremacy in the formation of the social conditions for interracial relationships does not preclude the possibility of love.”

This is to say that we do not wish to exchange pop culture’s, and academia’s, slamming of interracial couples as problematic, deviant, replete with pathology with its antithesis, an uncritical championing of interracial couples as panacea for society’s ills— Jim Crow, segregation, anti-miscegenation laws, and white supremacy.  There is the potential for interracial relationships to challenge racism implicitly by flouting the invidious hierarchy of white over black—if their partnership demonstrates mutual respect and equanimity—and multiracial families do challenge racism by dispatching the dichotomy of white vs. black through the creation of children who are both (like President Obama). But these couple and family relationships are transgressive and transformative only to the extent that they do not fall into the same kinds of hierarchical power relations along the lines of gender, race, class and their intersections that go on everyday in the larger society. One way couples and families can try to avoid the usual traps of patriarchy, racism, xenophobia, and classism is by resisting the effects of silence, by observing and then actively engaging the palpable effects of these structural inequities that operate both “out there”, and right here, inside their relationship.

When I interviewed partners individually for my book, experiences with racism, and discussions of, and negotiations around, racial and ethnic differences were quite open and candid. In conjoint interviews, though, these topics appeared to be a source of tension and were frequently dropped like a hot potato. Some couples couldn’t change the topic fast enough, especially those who appeared uncomfortable discussing differences in general.  “Gender roles, or expectations?  Who, us? We have no differences to discuss.”  And “We're just like any other couple.” Couples may choose to avoid discussions of difference, and their everyday experiences of prejudice and racism, for a host of reasons.  Both male and female black partners may adopt a code of silence out of family allegiance or loyalty (i.e., “some things just aren’t talked about”, especially in “mixed” company) or concerns that their partner may not be empathic to their experiences. When a partner of color experiences racism, say, being pulled over for DWB, or DWBWWWP (or Driving While Black While With a White Person, for the uninitiated), the white partner’s silence, or lack of affirmation, may serve to reinforce the learning that some people do, and some people don’t, understand the myriad ways racism manifests itself in everyday interactions. When a white female partner observes her black male partner being issued a ticket by a white male police officer for driving 5 miles over the speed limit, can she acknowledge the possibility that this scenario might be suspect, or an outright crock? Or will she see this as racial baggage, or “seeing race in everything”?

Eric Yamamoto and Harlon Dalton addressed how public discourse about race frequently invokes the language of healing, but often at the expense of suppressing “forthright” talk about race and racial history in the US.  Public race talk, which features phrases such as “playing the race card” and backlashes against affirmative action, fails to take seriously the material and psychological residuals of social institutions and policies such as slavery, Jim Crow, and persisting differentials in access to quality education, financial aid, and equal justice. It is interesting to note that such processes of non-engagement are also frequently reflected in the therapy room. The tremendous power of normalizing discourses (Foucault 1980) can influence interracial partners, and helping professionals, to consciously or unconsciously collude with one another to the extent that a dominant discourse such as “no race talk” organizes the dialogue, and subaltern and marginalized discourses are avoided, minimized, or dismissed in the therapeutic conversation.  As I will discuss further in the next posting, clinicians can intervene by making explicit the sweeping scope and power of the rule "no racial history/talk” out there, and then work to subvert this generalized, normative "truth" in the therapy room.

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.


Dalton, H. (1996). Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites. New York: Anchor Press.

Foucault, M.  (1980).  Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings. New York: Pantheon Books.

Yamamoto, E. (2000). Interracial Justice: Conflict and Reconciliation in Post-Civil Rights America. New York: New York University Press.