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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 men will 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.