I speak from personal experience when I say that 2020 has been defining for me. As an African American woman married to a white British man, the racial unrest that unfolded globally over the summer after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police catalysed a number of frank and difficult discussions in my own personal circles that led to great change.
The Black Lives Matter movement brought hidden racial biases within many countries to the forefront – countries that vehemently denied racism was ever a problem, just a far-fetched thing that happens “over there in America”.
But for me, it also ignited some difficult conversations at home. The racial aspect of my interracial relationship was always in the back of my mind. And while racism wasn’t a central topic at the beginning of our relationship, it certainly became one in 2020. For a long while, my husband couldn’t understand, let alone appreciate, just how different the path I tread is from his own, even as we walk together hand in hand through life as husband and wife.
I think we were so focused on understanding each other’s personalities and quirks in the beginning of our relationship that we didn’t really talk about race – and I’ve come to learn we absolutely should have. Race is a part of our identity, and for any mixed-race relationship to work I think it’s absolutely vital to know each person’s view on all aspects of racism.
Yes, our marriage has love and mutual respect at its core, but the vast disparities in our life experiences could have driven us apart. At times I needed support and empathy but instead my husband assumed I might have played a part in provoking others who I believed targeted me based on the colour of my skin. “Maybe they were having an off day,” he would say, and that sounded like he was defending a complete stranger. And while there have been other white people who doubted my experiences with racism, I expected my husband to be the opposite: the one person who believes I am the most reliable witness to my racial experiences.
He did not recognise racism where racism existed, only identifying it when the offence was clear as daylight. Nor could he grasp why I was so affected by the highly publicised deadly moments of racism in the US that led to the widespread protests. Little did he know that, as a Black woman who has been assaulted and spat at simply because of the colour of my skin, I go about life in a constant state of survival.
So how did we move beyond our worldly differences to come back stronger together?
It started from accepting that much could be learned if only we actively and fearlessly listened to one another. And we started to explore our racial differences, we found ourselves diving into unfamiliar waters. We analysed our experiences as a mixed-race couple and we found that defensiveness and gaslighting can surreptitiously impinge on the loving space, shutting down empathic listening and meaningful conversations.
I realised that I was asking my husband to suddenly grasp nuances of my experience as a Black woman that I had never required of him before. I had to learn to simply accept that there are some things that he will never totally understand. He realised that he’ll always be coming from a place of learning when it comes to race. We had to both realise and admit our limitations. That’s a hard thing to do. But our relationship became better because of it.
This year was an opportunity for many interracial couples to reaffirm their love and support for one another in the face of intolerances, both covert or otherwise. Or perhaps it was a reality check for a few – a realisation that, in some cases, a difference in lived experiences can be just too much even for love to reconcile.
A fear of change is natural. But for me, the fear of maintaining the status quo is worse. I believe we’ve passed that. This crazy year has changed me. It has catalysed conversations between people. It has challenged my marriage and made it stronger; it has sharpened my sense of purpose in life, and it has helped me see that I must use my voice and speak up.
And as 2020 draws to a close, I take comfort in the signs that times will change. Truly understanding our differences is not supposed to be a short and simple journey. It has the ability to unite us and strengthen relationships – if only we’re able to honestly admit what divides us first.
Tineka Smith is co-author with Alex Court of Mixed Up: Confessions of an Interracial Couple, which is available on Audible