The first time I realised clearly I was asking my partner to absolve me from being white

So I’m a progressive whitie, right. I say all the right things, I’ve spent ages examining my whiteness, feeling guilty, feeling responsible, and at the bottom of that pit, like somehow whiteness is wrong because of everything that’s been accomplished in it’s name. So I’ve done the work right?

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I’ve studied it, I’ve lived it, I’ve workshopped it, I stand up often and talk about how white people walk around ignorant of our privilege and how that plays out day by day in small interactions, and the ability to easily access all sorts of things, like constant employment, good service, easy bank loans, unsuspiscious shop clerks, great education, and lots and lots of other things big and small. I’ve examined my own responses to certain situations and realised how deeply ingrained my racism is in how I treat people, my expectations, my language, my practice.

I’ve publicly acknowledged how this shapes my life, how my privilege is only possible as a result of the oppression of black and coloured people. I’ve gotten over naming. I’ve spoken about how race is a social construction (i.e. a story we make up about who someone is based on an arbitrary genetic characteristic), and yet how it is real because of the ongoing impact on people’s lives. I’ve grappled with what to do with my privilege. Should I be ashamed (a la Samantha Vice)? Should I go lie on the beach and enjoy myself and hand over money for printing when asked (a la Andile Mngxitama)?

I rant against the kind of comments that people feel free posting online after articles that touch on race, the ones where white people get defensive, blame others, infer that white people are the only holders of culture and ‘civilisation’ (whatever that means). Who bemoan ‘the country going to the dogs’. I treat everyone with polite respect, and when there is space, with love and friendship doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. I judge, I examine why I get scared of black people walking down the road, and why I racially profile people based on name / colour / accent…

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Hell, I even married a black man! I’m a good whitie, not like those other ones, and I’ll demonstrate it in many ways, taking my partner’s surname rather than keeping my own which gives me a childish thrill when people do double takes. About a year ago, it hit me like a plank over my head that I had assumed that now I was married, I thought my work of dismantling my racism was done. Of course it isn’t, it never is.

And then, in a conversation with my partner in bed one morning, I suddenly saw how what I was doing was asking him to validate my reconstructed ‘good’ whiteness, absolve me of my guilt, shame, grappling, privilege, taking of that privilege. And I have no idea what to do with that. That our relationship can’t just be about the usual man-woman stuff, working things out, the bigger work of being in a relationship, there is no way to escape that race plays a part in that. And I wonder did I marry him cause he’s black, not because of who he is to me? Did he ever have a similar thought? I have some defensive anger about it too, why can’t it just be about two people in love? And then I recognise those white narratives I rant against that try and deny the part that race plays in our lives on a very fundamental level. And then I buy into the race doesn’t matter for a couple of seconds, and then I’m back to of course it does. And then I’m left with but how DOES it matter?

I think perhaps it may be an unsolveable conundrum, another plank come to bash me over the head and demand some further examination, work & thinking. Because truth is, marrying him doesn’t change my skin colour or all the things it delivers and has delivered to me on a silver plate. Absolution doesn’t lie there, and I have no idea where it does, or even if it’s necessary…

4 thoughts on “The first time I realised clearly I was asking my partner to absolve me from being white

  1. I have just finished reading a book called “Holding up the Sky” by Sandy Blackburn Wright. It was very intriguing to read about her attempts to integrate into Black African culture and the sacrifices she made. It’s not quite the same as your case, because she is a white Australian, but the issue of “what do I really love about this person” comes up. The question should not be what are you trying to say, but rather are you doing this marriage thing for the right reasons; your own reasons and not the world’s reasons. I would think that once you stop focusing on the issue of white guilt, you can start to focus on your relationship better.

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  2. Gosh, you’re really brave to actually analyse yourself like this. I’ve seen other White people trying to convey similar stories on the internet and get attacked – really bashed – by readers (most often by White people). It makes me sad how race is still such a big part of our daily interactions and our sense of self. You will notice I always refer to colour in capital letters when I write because being Black such a huge part of my identity and I assume that it is a huge part of other people’s identity.

    You write that in marrying a Black man you were perhaps asking to be absolved of your “Whiteness”. I wrote a story on this blog about my falling in love across the colour line for the first time. What I didn’t convey – besides the fact that I’d tended to be attracted predominantly to White boys before ‘falling in love’ with that ‘guy’ – was the fact that a lot of the time I was trying prove to ‘him’ that Black people were just as civilised and just as intelligent as White people. It wasn’t until I read Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks that I began to understand my behaviour. In my drive to remember what was good about our friendship, I suppressed what was painful about it: the way he teased my accent, my hair etc and our obvious class difference (he was from an ‘old money’ family and mine barely just middle class). There was also a realisation that while it would be relatively easy for me to adapt to his ‘circle’, his very nature made it clear he would be unwilling to adapt to mine.

    It’s quite sad and ironic that I’ve grown up to be one of those women who moans about White women stealing “our guys”. I think you are right, this race thing is (for the time being) is for the time-being an unsolved conundrum.

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  3. If we still care about this topic its our fault for giving it power. If an earthquake struck today it wouldn’t kill only whites or only blacks…it would kill everyone. That means we’re all in this together, like it or not. The topic of racism only matters to those unable to see that another person’s perspective is only that. I say live your life according to your morals and standards and let the idiots have permission to be themselves…white, black or other.

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  4. Keeping in mind the points made by furiouslydancing and TScott, I guess the real question is, “What drew you to your husband?” What made you fall in love with him? What do you love about him? Because at the end of the day, your relationship is about more than just guilt surely?

    I disagree with T Scott on the issue of the relevance of racism today because I don’t think the issue of race is that easy to dismiss. Of course I am aware this is just my perspective and my perspective is influenced by my experiences and I live in community where racial divisions are still deep. As much as many individuals strive to rid ourselves of racist attitudes, we do not live in bubbles. Other peoples perspectives – in as far as they inspire behaviour/actions towards us – do affect us. And I do think interracial relationships are especially difficult to navigate (although maybe gay/lesbian/transgender relationships are even more difficult).

    I have a relative who is married to a white spouse and I think she would agree you (the Author) “that our relationship can’t just be about the usual man-woman stuff”. And after the euphoria of the 1990-1994 democratic transition (the time during which their courtship and subsequent wedding occurred), things have actually gotten harder for them. There is this overriding fear of cultural domination on both sides and it is manifesting in an increasingly ugly tug-of-war/tug-of-love with her spouse and his family on one side and her and our family on the other side.

    Perhaps they would have done better to elope and cut ties with both families. But in your story, you do not mention any possible challenges with other people (i.e. your families, communities). So it seems that your problem is more with yourself: how you perceive yourself and your relationship on a one-on-one basis. Once again, I applaud you for being brutally honest with yourself. I hope in this honesty you do not lose sight of the real love (or the possibility thereof) between yourself and your partner.

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