I had a fight with my boyfriend this past weekend. Which isn’t exactly headline news for most people, but we hardly ever fight. And when we do, it’s usually over something so trivial it’s embarrassing to think about once we’ve both calmed down. Is Lady Gaga a truly unique artist or is she completely overrated? Is “American Idol” a reliable source of finding legitimate talent?

Those types of debates are not about pop stars or televised talent competitions. What is usually at stake is our egos. We both hate to be proven wrong so much that it borders on pathology. But this latest argument was different.

We were in my car, talking about a little bit of everything when the topic turned to race. I’m black and he’s white, so the subject comes up frequently. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time it involves horrendously offensive jokes and hysterical laughter. This was the .01% when it did not.

The taboo topic du jour was whether or not something had to be intentionally malicious for it to be considered racist. I argued that of course it did not. I was operating off of a complex conceptualization that embodied both individual discrimination and systematic and institutional injustice. It was the “racism equals prejudice plus power” equation that is the corner stone of most sociological, psychological and academic anti-racist arenas. By that definition, only white people possess the ability to be racist because they are the ones that hold the power.

My boyfriend was having none of that. He was steadfast in his belief that for something to be racist, it has to have harmful intentions. And what did he use to prove the accuracy of “his” definition? The dictionary. Merriam Webster’s mobile website version to be exact.

I was livid. Actually, no, I wasn’t livid just yet. More like baffled. I’d been with this man for nearly two-and-a-half years. How was I just now discovering that he’s one of those white people? The kind that has no clue about racism yet has the audacity to try to debate about it. The man grew up in a nearly all-black neighborhood, has mostly black friends and possesses a full deck of honorary black cards. We even joke about how in some aspects, his degree of “blackness” is higher than mine.  All that and he doesn’t even know what racism is? How the hell did that even happen?

In my opinion, “my life” was enough to articulate why I was right and he was dead wrong. But when I told him that, he brilliantly countered with, “No, that’s not what racism is. It says it right here on my smartphone. See?”

The fact that he thought an 11-word definition had more credibility than I did was beyond insulting. It was hurtful and it displayed a level of arrogance and prickdom I didn’t think him capable of. Bottom line, neither he nor Merriam Webster are the authority on racism and the concept is far more complicated than either of them can capture in only a handful of words.

My definition came from countless collegiate classes on the matter, tons of books and papers, an advanced degree and working and volunteering for nonprofits whose mission is to offset the systematic implications of racism through tireless service. Oh, and from also being black for the past 28 years.

I’m the black one. We make the rules. Duh.

But later, during our post-argument argument, I realized that Merriam Webster isn’t the only thing that shaped his interpretation of what racism means. His definition of the word has been molded by spending a childhood getting his ass kicked for being the white boy in the mostly black neighborhood. My boyfriend begins to list his own terrible racially based experiences. These are things that I knew about, but had completely neglected to consider in the midst of my own anger. I was so busy being offended that I forgot he had reason to be as well.

So black people can’t be racist? How do I tell that to his scared 10-year-old self? The little boy who had to dodge and hide just to make it safely home from school? Ironically, he’s the one in our relationship who has endured hateful and violent encounters because of the color of his skin, not me. In his experience, racism has been nothing but malicious. He has little reason to believe otherwise.
I still know, not just believe, that racism can rear its ugly head without someone intending to do concrete harm, That’s how it has manifested in my life. But, I was wrong to think that I was the ultimate authority on the subject simply because I’m black. Actually, that shit’s kind of racist.
This post originally appeared on XOJane. Republished with permission. Click here for more Shayla on XOJane! 
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  • well written, it actually is a good thing that you discuss race, it is apart of life

  • Houston

    I was operating off of a complex conceptualization that embodied both individual discrimination and systematic and institutional injustice. Said Malcome X’s daughter…

    • Houston


  • Ravi

    poor white guys, It’s so hard out there for them.

  • Gosh. This was one of the most incoherent and confusing articles about interracial relationships I’ve ever read.

    The picture and caption is pretty bad: it seems like it’s confirming the angry Black woman stereotype and it’s worse because we don’t know who the woman is (I’m assuming it’s the author?). Did XO Jane do this deliberately to exploit a stereotype?

    Also, about the caption: if men have to “watch what [they] say” to her, why is she in a relationship with anybody? If you’re that angry and defensive you need therapy, not a relationship.

    The other troubling thing was the line about constantly talking about race and racism with her boyfriend. I’ve been in relationships that were interracial or inter-ethnic all my life and I’ve never had that sort of relationship, particularly with White men; I’d take it as a red flag that we weren’t relating to one another as people but their was some “jungle fever” fetishization ish going. My last relationship was six years with my ex (Italian) and years into the relationship we realized we’d never had an argument about race. The only conversations we did have about race were to say that White Supremacist Southern types are insane, etc…

    If I’m dating someone it has to be pretty obvious from the start that we’re on the same page about racism and White supremacy; I don’t have time to waste debating racism or tip-toing with anyone.

  • I think what the author has written is healthy and valuable for bringing into the public forum how people view sensitive issues like racism. For him getting is ass whupped on the regular for being a different color is how he thinks racism operates. I may not agree with him but I understand how consistent ass whuppings can frame things in a person’s mind. Her experience as a black person in America informs her that racism can be more covert, more subtle and more insidious. I am hopeful that there exchange is educational.

    As to the commenters who want to scold her about her choice of friends or lovers, you all need to chill. Stop with the segregation forever speeches…. they never worked for George Wallace and they are not going to work now. The reason we are living in a world where racism is waning is that people are interacting, loving and talking. That more than anything helps to overcome the ignorance and fear that belies so much of the racist POVs that have shaped our society to date.

    Most people who enjoy privilege are really not that aware of the privilege they enjoy until it is put up in stark contrast to the lives of those who are not so privileged. Even then they may be resistant to that exposure has it may call into question their owwn sense of themselves. It is very easy to take pot shots at the people who enjoy the privilege of color but please know that the difficulty of life is relative.