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It was a dark and stormy night—not that K could tell, considering she was three shots of vodka deep into her Saturday night and dancing with reckless abandon to Top 40 music at a college party. Everything was going well: her hair looked great, she was surrounded by her friends, and she was dancing with a pretty cute guy she’d just met on the dance floor.

But just as she turned around to say something to the man who’d spent the last two songs with his hands on her hips, he suddenly recoiled away from her, his face twisted in monstrous disgust.

“Oh, gross,” he shouted over the music, “you’re black.”

These are the horror stories that women of color share with each other over spooky campfires. Stories of classroom crushes who say things like “You’re so much prettier than other Indian girls.” Tales of white boyfriends who, without a hint of irony, make racist jokes and insist they can’t be racist because they’re dating a non-white person.

I once had a one-night-stand tell me that I “didn’t smell like other black people,” as if I were one of those hairless cats, an animal bred to be less offensive to his senses.

Dating can be an awful affair for people of all genders, races, and orientations, but when you’re dating across categories of privilege, romance can be even more terrifying. Everyone’s had the experience of frantically wondering if their crush likes them back, but many women of color must also frantically wonder if their crush sees them as a human being.

Take S, for example, whose romance with white friend-of-a-friend J started as many college hook-ups do: bonding over shared musical interests, hanging out in the park, fooling around after parties.

“In my mind, we were well on our way to a well rounded friendship,” she explains. “In retrospect, I never listened to the signs.”

He told her she was “beautiful for a black girl” and incessantly used AAVE slang in their conversations, but it wasn’t until he unceremoniously ghosted her after her birthday that she realized the “cute band boy that [she] thought was [her] friend” had only seen her as a racial experiment—a little sexual tourism, so to speak, a “walk on the wild side.”

For people who haven’t experienced racial microaggressions in their relationships, it’s hard to understand just how insidiously harmful these seemingly small encounters can be. Many people responded to Buzzfeed contributor Ella Sackville Adjei’s retelling of her one night stand making racially insensitive jokes with comments like “All sounds pretty harmless and normal to me.”

What these commenters don’t realize is that these encounters are not isolated incidents. When my white ex-boyfriend casually told me that I only got into the prestigious college we attended because I was black, his statement wasn’t just a woefully misguided understanding of how affirmative action policies really work. It was also reinforcing a message that I and other women of color had been hearing for our entire lives: That because I wasn’t white, I was “less than.” That message hurts when it comes from a racially insensitive joke on a sitcom, a rejected job application  or brutal police violence.

But in a dating relationship, that pain takes on a new dimension. It’s one thing to be called a racial slur by a stranger; it’s another to hear someone you care about, and someone you believed cared about you, use that racial slur to describe you to their friends. I know countless women of color who have languished for years in relationships with white men who they loved deeply, trying desperately to understand how this person who was so important to them could say things that hurt them so much.

Indeed, I was one of those women for whom racial insensitivity escalated to emotional and verbal abuse. While my ex-boyfriend used the fact that he was dating me as a shield against accusations of racism, he simultaneously used racially abusive language to undermine my self-esteem and manipulate my behavior, a horror story that is unfortunately common among women like me.

Women of color live at the intersection of racial and gender oppression, and that means navigating a minefield of daily reminders that some white menwill never respect their basic humanity. Think of it like street harassment: It’s not as though every man on the street will catcall you, but after the fifth, tenth, or fiftieth time, you learn to protect yourself by avoiding certain street corners, always wearing headphones, and perfecting your resting bitch face.

And the same goes for interracial dating. Not every white man I’ve had a romantic entanglement with has treated me poorly. But I’ve been fetishized, ridiculed, and insulted by white paramours enough times to be a little wary when a new white man enters my life. Does he like me because I’m exotic? Because he thinks he can control me? Because I seem available? How can I know for sure?

Of course, the answer is that I can’t know for sure. But what I can do is follow my heart, keep an eye out for warning signs, and carry coconut oil with me at all times. Like holy water wards off vampires, I hope that it will keep me safe from the monsters outside my door—and the ones inside my bed.


This post originally appeared on xoJane. Republished with permission. Click here for more Haylin Belay on xoJane!

Image Credits: xoJane

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  • Eestimaad

    A few things:
    1. It is easy to forget in guarding against subtle forms of racism (ones that are not openly aggressive and/or violent but operate in a more subdued but potentially just as damaging way) that some of your own views and even choice of words may be hurtful to others – and yes, it IS racist to try to minimize people based on race / color EVEN IF they are “white”. You use terms like “women of color” freely, and yet you don’t for a moment think about the implications OF that term, for example. If having brown skin makes you a “woman of color” or “person of color”, then what does that make people of European descent? Colorless? A blank slate, devoid of hue or content or a heritage as rich and varied and diverse as your own? Think about that for a moment. REALLY think about it. Drop the defenses and consider it. You freely throw around the term “white” as a blanket term for all people with what to you appear to be European features, without considering that NOT EVERYONE is ok with being called a color – especially a color that is not even a REAL HUMAN SKIN COLOR. When’s the last time you ever saw a person with white skin? I mean, ACTUALLY white – like the color of this page? The only people with skin even close to that color are albinos. You refer to yourself as “exotic” – so then what are European women? Plain? Ordinary? Boring? Exotic refers to something which is unique and different. So are European people not exotic? Ever seen a blonde woman in China? She’s definitely exotic there. Furthermore, if you call an Asian person “a yellow person” in the media – you’d be lambasted as a racist monster. If you made a joke about “black people” and referred to ANYONE with brown tones to their skin as “black”, you’d also be called a racist. If you called a Native American person a “red guy”, the same thing. So then WHY is it that you feel perfectly secure throwing around “white” so freely? Because SOME who identify themselves as being a part of that group seem to be OK with it and even use it to define themselves? By that logic the “n word” or “c word” are perfectly ok since some “black” and “yellow” people use those words among themselves. Yeah, bet that never even OCCURRED to you given that you have this incredibly misguided view that “white people” are all somehow linked to or responsible for racism or slavery (yeah because “white” groups have never been enslaved or murdered by the millions in all of history) and therefor are fair game for any sort of anti-white sentiment or defamatory remarks because hey, they had it coming, right? This has gone on now for so long that you actually have a generation of white-apologists who are taught from a young age to feel GUILTY for being white – to view themselves as owing “people of color” something – so guilty for acts of racism and slavery they never committed and that their ancestors never committed. They’re now SO thoroughly brainwashed with this notion that they are a shameful thing, lame, athletically incapable, dancing impaired, plain, colorless, Ugg-boots wearing, pumpkin spice sipping, pasty, weak, slow, non-exotic, non-interesting creatures that they ACTUALLY BELIEVE IT and spend MUCH of their young lives regretting having been born so very “white”. Even though their skin is no lighter than many Asians. The media perpetuates it, comedians perpetuate it with impunity (all the “white people be like this, black people be like this jokes), films perpetuate it. White men can’t jump. White people can’t dance. White people are painfully out of their element in the real world and can’t handle any situation outside of the comfort of their urban lifestyle. The recent film “Get Hard” comes to mind. White people can’t fight. White people can’t run. But it’s all A-ok to hold these incredibly racist stereotypes because, hey, in the western world, the financial elite are by and large “white” even though the VAST majority of the “white” population – more than 99% – are middle to lower class income earners and actually fall BELOW asian immigrant earners in the US on average.

    2. Having brought the racism you hold without realizing it to your attention, I will say that racism from European phenotypes toward those they date by way of experimenting and “playing in the jungle” IS a problem and SHOULD be addressed. I just wanted you to be aware that things YOU say off the cuff which perhaps to you seem harmless CAN be taken as an offensive, demeaning thing by “white” people too. Yeah, even lame old whitey has feelings. Go figure. I will ALSO say that this is NOT a one-way street. You think you are the ONLY ones to realize you’re just being dated as a racial experiment, or have racist things “jokingly” said about you by a partner who didn’t think it would be a big deal?
    A little background on myself: My family is mixed. I have Estonian, Russian, Finnish, Polish, and several other groups from the European part, I am 1/8th Native and part East Asian as well (some of my ancestors were from around Mongolia). Though it was more obvious in my Grandparents and Great Grandparents, I look primarily like the Eastern European part of my heritage. Because of this, I am constantly assumed to be “only” “white”. My fiancee, for the record, is Chinese. It isn’t a fetish thing, and I had Asian features in my own family history so that’s hardly something new to me. I spent time in China with her and lived with her mother for a while in Hangzhou. We traveled around the entire country including remote regions. In my time there I experienced MORE than a few racist reactions and comments, but even in the US I find subtle comments or hints of general ignorance about me. I speak Mandarin Chinese. Yet while there, I was constantly approached in English even though I could just as easily have been born there for all they know. It was assumed, always, that I was some stupid tourist who didn’t know customs and would fall victim to scams and was too ignorant to follow simple social customs or even use a pair of chopsticks (kuai zi) which, by the way, I mastered by the age of five, having grown up with Chinese culture from a very young age and learned to write my name and other things in Chinese early in grade school – my teacher was Chinese, as was my mother’s friend and her son whom I played with when I was 3 or 4. My family were foreign, too, so we felt closer to other foreigners even if they looked different. In the US, I’ve had Chinese people talk right behind my back, assuming I could not understand Mandarin, about how I was “stealing” their women when they saw me with my Chinese girlfriend. I’ve dated one other Chinese girl before, and it DID turn out I was an experiment as far as she was concerned and though I fell in love with HER, to her, I was simply an experiment to see what it was like to date outside her group. For the record, I did not ask out either my fiancee OR my ex – they asked ME out. While in China, it was apparent I was viewed, being a 6’2″ brown haired Eastern European looking guy, as being exotic and I did get a lot of attention from girls – but for the wrong (racially motivated) reasons: many there find the thought of a “mixed baby” really exciting and view westerners – those who look European – as being rich sperm doners. It is a REAL problem for those who do fall in love with someone from an Asian country because this happens a LOT. Not every “white” guy has a completely “white” family (take mine, for instance), and not every “white” guy dates Asian women (or women of other groups) due to some sort of fetish. You CAN have cultural connections and find certain things more attractive (I have never personally found the European phenotype to be attractive) without it being some weird fetish, but people just LOVE to label any “white” guy with an Asian girl a “creepy fetishist with yellow fever”.

    But it didn’t end there. Subtle racism or at very least racially motivated differences in how we are treated are things that are everywhere and experienced by EVERYONE – NOT just “people of color”: the other day I had dinner at a Chinese restaurant – filled with mandarin speaking Chinese people – with my (CHinese) fiancee and her (Chinese) mother. I looked around. Everyone had been given kuai zi (chopsticks) without question. Everyone. When they served my table? Two pairs of chopsticks and one fork. Because hey, I’m European (at least they think so – not realizing I’m mixed) so I must not know how to use chopsticks! You might think it no big deal, but let’s reverse that and see where it leads: a Chinese man walks into a French restaurant with his French fiancee and French mother in law. The customers around him are all given forks and spoons. When it comes time to bring the silverware out to his table, the Chinese man finds that the waiter has brought – in a French restaurant – two forks and one pair of chopsticks. Do you think for a MOMENT that would not become a big news story about racism in the US? You know DAMNED well it would. But reverse it and somehow it’s no big deal. I let it slide – I find it very annoying, but I let it slide – but the point is, everyone experiences racism. Everyone. Even the ones you view as being the racists. Doesn’t excuse THEIR racism. I’m just saying that it is ubiquitous.

    Be weary of your choice of words regardless of if you are talking to a “white” person or not – it IS possible to be racially insensitive to even a “white” person. Especially someone of mixed heritage who just happens to *look* like their European family.