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When I was 15, I started dating a boy called Jeff*.
I'd first met him while he was dating my friend Dana*. We shared the same sprawling group of friends that would cluster around the mall parking lot of Friday nights and wander aimlessly in and out of the same Hot Topic, PacSun, and Auntie Anne’s, all dressed to the nines in the loudest, most ridiculous approximations of goth, punk, and skater fashion we could dream up.
Of course, all fell in and out of love with one another every week or so. Jeff and Dana were the golden couple of the group, but when they eventually broke up, I started noticing just how cute Jeff was. I was startled to realize that he was looking at me, too. After triple-checking with Dana that she was okay with our burgeoning crushes on one another, he and I started dating. He lived 45 minutes away from my miniscule town and went to a different high school, but he had a car, and we were determined to make it work.
Jeff had gorgeous brown eyes and the biggest smile. He was sensitive, soft-spoken and a bit shy, loved skateboarding and ska, and half his wardrobe was emblazoned with checkerboard prints. He was the sweetest boy I’d ever met, and it didn’t hurt that there was some serious chemistry between us.
Everything was going well until my parents started asking about my new boyfriend. There was no hiding the lingering late-night phone calls or the uptick in requests for rides to the mall. My parents had always been fairly lenient about my boyfriends, but I knew this time would be different. See, no matter how sweet, caring, or respectful Jeff was, or how well he treated me, there was one big problem. Jeff was black.
Or rather, as he liked to say, he was a “Halfrican.” Jeff’s mother was a white Jewish American, and his father was a black Englishman. He lived with his mother in a lovely house in a very nice part of New Jersey, and got good grades at his posh high school. To any normal person, he sounds like exactly the kind of guy you’d want your daughter to fall for.
Unfortunately, my Irish Catholic dad didn’t see it that way. He is an unapologetic racist, as are the majority of my other family members. It’s a part of him I saw so often during my formative years that I learned not to question it out loud, but I realized early on that it was wrong.
I never really had to deal with his contemptible views head-on until I started dating Jeff. Once he discovered that I was dating a biracial boy with dreads, he lost it. He shouted and seethed and refused to let me speak to Jeff on the phone anymore. Seeing him was out of the question.
To my despair, my mother quietly agreed with him, saying, “It’s just not right.” They relayed the news to the rest of the family, and the reactions were even worse. It became a family "issue." The rest of the family was "worried." Dad screamed at me whenever he saw me reach for the phone.
The worst part was trying to explain the situation to Jeff. Whatever I was feeling at that moment was undoubtedly a thousand times worse for him. While I wept from the shame of my family’s ignorance and unfairness of it all, he was forced to internalize the hateful message beneath it. All because we loved each other.
I now know that, as a man of color, he had probably undergone a million other microaggressions and outright confrontations before he’d ever met me, but at the time it hit me like an atom bomb. His pain was a direct result of my dad’s intolerance. I felt guilty for even getting involved with him in the first place, because I should have known that this would happen. Part of me had simply hoped that my dad would be better than that, and that he would see Jeff for the loving partner that he was instead of just looking at his skin. If only.
I apologized to Jeff for my family over and over, but I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had run the other way. Instead, he forgave me for my family's racism and still treated me the same as always. We managed to keep talking on the phone every night, albeit quietly and after my dad had passed out on the couch. He came to visit me after class, zooming over in his minivan to hang out with me in my high school cafeteria or on the picnic tables outside, stealing moments when we could. We spent a lot of time making out in that van, and exploring one another’s bodies in ways that were new and exciting for both of us.
I wanted him to be the first person I slept with, though we ultimately didn’t quite pull it off. (Remember how hard it was to get into mischief when your partner’s mom was right upstairs?). He did take me to my junior prom, though my parents wouldn’t allow him to come to our house for photos. We had to wait until we got to my high school to meet up with our friends, and then we posed for Jeff’s mum. My heart aches to think of how he must have felt, at 17 years old, standing there in his suit with his arm around my waist, smiling big and trying to forget why there was only one camera pointed at us.
Remembering how gracefully Jeff’s mother handled that fiasco and how kindly she’d treated me during my relationship with her son fills me with gratitude and shame even now. That woman allowed a racist’s daughter to date her son and come into her home, because she wanted him to be happy. I can’t imagine how much strength and grace it took for her to do that, especially given the kind of adversity she must have faced when she started dating Jeff’s father.
She showed me that there was another way, that not all adults were chained to their prejudices. She put the prom photos of Jeff and I up on her mantel at home, while my parents refused to acknowledge them. She showed Jeff that he deserved to love and be loved by whomever he chose. She was right, and my parents were wrong.
Six months of love notes, stolen kisses, and whispered phone calls passed, and the pressure from my family remained intense. It got to be too much. We started drifting apart, and ultimately split up. He and I remain friends to this day, nearly a dozen years after we met. When I asked him for permission to write this piece, his response was humbling. “That's totally fine with me. I learned a great deal about my own racial identity in society from our experience and that was probably the most emotional growth I went through in such a short time period in my life.”
It’s comforting to know that he took something positive from the experience, but I’m still sickened to think of how my family treated him. It sticks with me to this day. I love my family, but I despise and reject their views on race. Does that make me love them less? Honestly, it does. It pains me to say it, but it’s the truth.
*Names have been changed and identifying details have been omitted to protect the innocent.