Updated: Jul 1, 2020
The reality of structural racism is finally out of the shadows and is entering the national consciousness. For African Americans, it is not new. We have always been aware of the profoundly insidious and negative impacts of racist institutions, racist policies, and the blind denial of most white people that structural racism is actually “a thing.” We know that race is ever-present in the United States, and it affects where we live, where we work, and how we interact with the world. However, many Black people are unaware of how racism affects Black love. Unfortunately, it has a profoundly negative impact that needs to be understood.
Black parents socialize Black children to racism at a young age. We learn to be “careful” around white people. We censor what we say, and what we do to make white people feel more comfortable. We moderate our emotions in white spaces and most places outside of our homes or churches are white spaces. We dial back our emotional engagement and hide our vulnerability. We learn to “fix our face” even when we are angry or hurt or scared. We learn that expressing frustration or anger at racist encounters in the moment it is happening will get us labeled an “angry Black woman” or a “dangerous Black man” at a minimum. We are expected to accept the “good intentions” of “well-meaning” white people at the expense of our own pain.
We learn how to hide our genuine emotions so well that we believe it is our natural state of being. We forget that this is learned behavior practiced over a lifetime. We take pride in keeping it moving even while living in a society that aims to devalue us, limit our ambitions, or kill us if we “appear threatening.” We do this to survive. On some level, these perverse experiences make us more resilient. We learn strength in the face of unrelenting oppression and learn to navigate difficult situations we did not create. However, resilience born of racism has devastating consequences for Black relationships.
As a couples' therapist, professor, and researcher who specializes in Black relationships, I see the consequences of this “resilience” all the time. Perpetually being on guard obliterates the desire to trust – anyone. Everyone’s motives are suspect, not just white people. We have great difficulty trusting each other. I cannot think of one Black couple that I have ever worked with that did not have trust issues on some level. Not one. Black people see vulnerability as a weakness, and we take that perspective into our romantic relationships. Most Black men and women are very sensitive to any perception of being taken advantage of. Even a whiff of disrespect can be intolerable and the fear of being emotionally vulnerable is palpable.
Frequently, I see couples reach a stalemate. They are willing to work on their relationship to a point. But, no one wants to be the first one to risk being vulnerable to the other, without a guarantee that vulnerable disclosures will not become weapons in future arguments. Black couples are terrified of giving their partners the “upper hand.” What these couples do not understand is that they have been trained to view every relational encounter as potentially threatening. It is not personality.
In the process of unpacking stalemates, we often discover past experiences of racial humiliation. Most Black people have witnessed a boss, co-worker, teacher, or classmate openly demean Black people without consequence. Racism is not one dimensional. It is layered and for Black people, it is quite literally everywhere. It is not a mystery that many Black couples struggle in their intimate relationships.
The good news is that with the support of a culturally attuned therapist, Black couples can learn to keep their guards where they are necessary and learn how to safely connect with their partner. When couples understand the impact that racism has had on their own and their partners' behavior, they can reframe what might have considered personal failures as predictable responses to assaults on one’s dignity. This perspective has enormous benefits because it frees couples from feeling locked into destructive patterns and provides hope for positive change. They begin to see each other as a source of support rather than someone they cannot trust. Partners become buffers for each other’s negative racial experiences in the world. Home becomes a sanctuary rather than yet another battleground. Thus, by creating nurturing and loving relationships despite enduring relentless oppression, Black love becomes a revolutionary act.