This weekend I went to a family wedding. I was thrilled to see my niece, who I have known since she was a little girl, walk down the aisle. Watching the father-daughter dance brought tears to my eyes. The music was great and people got their drink on with great gusto. All in all, it was a day to be remembered. This sounds like a typical wedding, doesn’t it? We all know the clichés.
My partner and I have been together for more than 20 years now. Through ups and downs, we keep on fighting. One of our most constant negotiations is race, because I am black and he is white. I knew before we even arrived at the church that I would be spending the entire day without seeing another person of color. I knew at the end of the night no one would be stumbling around slightly tipsy on the dance floor barefoot doing the electric slide. The best I could hope for was that they would have the good sense to avoid the Macarena or that hideous chicken dance. Those are two things you don’t see at black weddings.
For the most part, his family and I get along well, but that does not mean being surrounded by them doesn’t leave me with a strong sense of dysphoria. Well intentioned comments and carefully chosen words make up a large part of our speech patterns to avoid dealing with the elephant in the room. No matter how progressive they believe themselves to be, I am essentially the square peg in the round hole. The very absence of any other person even remotely considered raced speaks volumes about their regular interactions outside of those with me.
At weddings, we invite family and our nearest and dearest friends. With the cost of the modern-day wedding, it causes us to prioritize who we deem important in our lives. Even as some might refer to that co-worker of color with whom they occasionally have coffee as a friend, when it comes to shelling out more than $100 a plate, suddenly that friend’s appearance at a wedding is decidedly not important. Friendship is a word bandied about far too easily, and it is only during life’s major moments where we can see who we truly value.
I know the dysphoria I felt at my wedding was mine and this was not something many of the guests would acknowledge, even to themselves. My body represented change and an inclusiveness I didn’t even remotely feel, despite the exchanged kisses, hugs, and well wishes. When you marry outside of your race, you’re not only getting your white partner, you’re getting you’re white partner’s family and all that it entails. The family events, which for the most part should be race-neutral gatherings, shift to those fraught with problems a lot deeper than who isn’t speaking to whom.
Despite how far we have supposedly come, the truth of the matter is that most of us lead highly segregated lives. If you doubt that, do a church tour one Sunday morning where you will discover that despite worshiping the same God, whites and blacks do not share the same pew on a regular basis. While it would be wrong to purposefully seek out people based in race, the absolute absence of those who are raced, or the token inclusion of one person, speaks volumes.
It’s hard enough to be the only black person in an all-white workplace, and that is why the spaces which we occupy in our free time need to be as safe as possible. It is highly likely that while your partner may be racially conscious, your partner’s family is not, leading to moments of extreme tension where you must choose between defending your dignity and keeping peace. It means going to a family event and looking around to see not a single face that looks like yours. It means always being on your guard, where you should be relaxing and having a good time, and this is especially true at events where alcohol is served.
There will never be a position of a representational person of color, but that does not mean that whiteness will not seek to make you that, even as they claim you as friend and family. You become proof they are progressive and inclusive, that any negative behavior does not reflect upon them, but the entire race to which you belong. There is no room to act the fool — even for a moment.
Interracial relationships are difficult, and, believe me, I speak from experience. Most of the pressure comes from the outside, and though it may be well-intentioned, that does not mean it does not hurt. I wouldn’t trade my partner for the world, but I do believe that with all of this recent encouragement for black women to seek out white spouses, we should be having honest conversations about what this will mean in our lives and the circumstances we face. When you marry inter-racially, you are never just the daughter-in-law or the sister-in-law; you are the black person who married into the family, and that won’t always be a comfortable position to be in, even at happy events like a wedding.