Guess Who's Not Coming To Holiday Dinner? Overcoming Racism In An Interracial Relationship

The holiday season approaches and I want to share with him my family. Yet, after two years of dating, I already know that my family considers him a trespasser, too.

Dec 4, 2013 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

image
 
Stop and Frisk, a controversial policing policy in New York City, becomes real when it enters your home. The neighborhood of Crown Heights, where I live with my boyfriend Elijah, has seen an increase in the amount of law enforcement on the street. In fact, the NYPD likes to stand on our roof to make sure no unwanted trespassers find their way up.
 
My boyfriend, an immigrant from Guyana, of Sudanese decent, is one of those trespassers. While I am away, he climbs the stairs to our roof to look out toward the Manhattan skyline, a luxury in our 115-year-old building with few actual amenities. Upon reaching the roof, he is greeted by two NYPD officers. They tell him he is trespassing. He gently explains that he lives in the building. They tell him not to move, flashing lights on his face. They ask for his ID. They give him a 50-dollar ticket and tell him to leave the premises. He tries not to become angry. It will only make things worse. He walks back downstairs to our apartment and slams the door behind him. 
 
This feeling of being unwanted in one's own home is mentally and emotionally stressful. Elijah has lived in New York City since he was quite young; I have only been there three years -- I am greeted with open arms by developers, as a white outsider, while the natives of many Brooklyn neighborhoods are pushed out, for racial, cultural and economic reasons. 
 
I want to get away. I want to take Elijah to a place of warmth, a place that offers me unconditional acceptance. The holiday season approaches and I want to share with him my family. Yet, after two years of dating, I already know that my home in Providence, Rhode Island, my family there, considers him a trespasser too.
 
Two winters ago my parents picked me up from the train station for a long weekend visit. I sat in the backseat, listening to them complain about traffic or notice a new building construction out the window. 
 
"I met someone," I say.
 
They both look back at me through the rear view mirror. My father's eyebrow rises. 
 
"His name is Elijah."
 
"Is he Jewish?"   
 
"Well he's North African, actually, from Guyana."
 
I don't remember if the car stopped, the breaks slammed, or my father's heart exploded first. I sat back with a dull ache that would only grow in intensity from there.
 
My father is not alone. The exploding heart is, unfortunately, not uncommon, and not only reserved for the admittedly small-minded. Parents who grew up fighting for racial equality find themselves becoming social frauds as their beloved children fulfill the ideals that they fostered. This cognitive dissonance is confusing and painful. The progress that I would like to think we have made over the last 50 years as a country is ephemeral and fuzzy, punctuated by a silence that does not quite recognize the underbelly of Baby Boomers who hold onto racist ideals, disguised as tradition, whispering softly, or screaming loudly, behind white fences and closed doors.

These doors remain locked to outsiders, to cultural trespassers, not allowed in on this secret conversation meant to preserve and protect the purity of races over time, a chilling and terrifying echo that booms during the holidays toward unwanted visitors, and stops and frisks those who get too close.
 
In my family this threat, this trespasser, is Elijah, the man that I love. The root of the backlash against interracial couples by white families is the ugliest racism of all, I believe -- a racism where white people whisper from ear to ear that their privilege be preserved in their physicality -- that their white bodies never mix with brown bodies.
 
As long as their skin remains white, they remain powerful.  And when non-white families stand against interracial couples it seems different to me -- perhaps more about remaining present in the landscape, stopping the white washing from pushing out further and in more damaging ways. 
 
When I think about it, though, my parents never whispered or screamed. Perhaps what is most disturbing is that my father, especially, has always been the perfect picture of love to me. I grew up watching him clean up our neighborhood, run a non profit, and work 35 years as a public school teacher, he himself of a humble background.
 
He welcomed people; he taught me to welcome people.
 
Everything seems like a knife stabbing me backward, our strained conversations now dangling between “The world won't understand!” and “What if you have children?” and “Wasn't it understood?” My father wanted me to pick up on the hate that he never demonstrated, and wants to call it tradition or an unspoken rule now that it has surfaced. These questions he asks me seem like an apology, confused himself by how deeply the racial divides in our country have become.
 
This reality does escape me. I am often battling between the struggle for love and the struggle for racial equality, forging a war that could result in the loss of one family to pursue another.
 
This mental anguish we experience as a couple, this hatred toward Elijah and I, is also common. We are not just an Italian American woman who fell in love with a Sudanese man, but a canvas for others to throw their ignorance and hate and pain. It's always present. I watch the comments on YouTube concerning an innocent Cheerios commercial pile up with scathing intensity. I hear my mother grow silent when I mention Elijah's name, wondering how he could possibly understand me or us. I watch old Italian men on the train stare at us with disdain that could break a heart.
 
I feel enraged when a young lady in the park walks over to me and makes a racist comment about the attire of a young man near her that neither of us knows. I shake as my older brother tells me Elijah better be perfect if we get married since all his faults will be placed under a racial magnifying glass, and scream when my younger brother says it's no big deal, he'd certainly think about dating someone outside his race, if it weren't for his parents. The sincerity in his eyes let's me know he's actually looking up to me.
 
I see Elijah become irate when his aunt mentions that our child would have good hair. I yell and throw the phone when my Nonna, who lives in Northern Italy, tells me that the white race is clearly superior, and I should know that. I silently cry in the coffee shop that just outside of two Caribbean women have stopped Elijah asking him how he could date such a ducky white girl.
 
We have come a long way, they all say. Don't go backwards, they say. We struggle to please each person in our lives, while still forging a space together, mindful of each reminder that what we are doing is much bigger than us, and we damn well better know it. 
 
I find myself confronting my privilege as a white person daily, and when Elijah doesn't want to talk about it, or brushes it off with experience, I fall to the narrative I was born into, othering him for not understanding my pain. I admit my own racism, I wonder if I am a part of the problem, if I am not asserting myself enough as an advocate, and to what extent I should even be speaking out. When a girl comes with her father to look at a free room in our apartment, I see years of history in the way this white man's face drops when Elijah enters the living room of the space he calls home.
 
This is what I can't understand, no matter how much I try to fight for our love through tears, and yelling at my parents, and tossing in agony when I am alone. I can't understand what it feels like to not be white in a white world. And I never will. 
 
But should I give up? If I stop trying to understand, I am admitting my weakness, as I watch Elijah handle such hatred with grace, shaking the hand of this man in our living room, teaching me that the fight is all we actually have. I'm tired of living in secrecy so my parents can sleep better at night. I am tired of being unsure and brushing the relationship off to people who don't understand. I am tired of pretending not to hear racist comments from guests at family parties. I don't want to hold back any more tears when my brother whispers of course Elijah is welcome here, in the same soft, unspoken whisper, that has also served to keep him out of our home for so long. 
 
Elijah suggests we attend Orphan Thanksgiving, or Reject Christmas this year, self-named gatherings of friends in Brooklyn, who have also become trespassers to their families' homes, because of their lifestyle choices. He even suggests that we host one ourselves and invite people over to be a part of the space we are trying to create.
 
He says this all with a tinge of pain, because he doesn't want to pull me from my family, but can't help but want to stop them from pulling me from him. I realize that in a world that categorizes, and polarizes, and stops and frisks, that creating family and spaces of love is the most inspiring way that we can fight. We can't stop the culture that spins around us in contradictions. But we can notice the moments of pause in the chaos, the moments where we feel home.
 
Even in the city where we met, one layered with a history of police brutality, we have elected a mayor whose family represents change and equality and a small glimpse of the future that we want. It's not perfect, it's not without a lot of pain, but it's a start. 
 
Staying on the phone for hours with my Dad, trying to change his mind, is tiring, and confusing and emotionally draining -- I have found, through my relationship, the best way to stand up at the holiday table and say this is the man I love is by putting that love out toward the world with our presence as a couple: posting our photos on Instagram, telling our story, learning about each others' cultures with delicate care in solidarity, standing together as the symbol others have made of us, never shying away from the tide that pushes back.
 
We can fight by welcoming others, just as my family somehow taught me as a child, into our space, so like no one feels like a trespasser in our presence. Maybe, someday, tradition will be called racism, the stops and frisks will never go unnoticed, the whisper in American homes will stop -– and the doors will swing open, or at least creak to take notice of some relentless and steady fight for equality happening on the outside.
 
If I have to spend the holiday away from one family, it's only to ensure the future of another, and the thought that maybe they will eventually meet somewhere, with love and understanding, in the space between the fight. 
 
[EDITOR'S NOTE: We have made the decision to disable comments on this article.]