If your partner said something that you just can't get out of your head because it gives you a bad feeling, then it’s worth talking about. What do you do when the person you’re dating says or does something racist? Whether what they did is “blatantly” racist or “borderline” racist (by the way, there’s no such thing because racism is racism), this coming from somebody you care about is challenging, but you still need to confront it. If you condone or ignore this behavior, you become complicit in the problem.
In wake of the Black Lives Matter movement gaining more traction, people have been a lot more vocal about anti-racist conversations and activism in their personal lives. Social media has been flooded with support for the BLM movement — but it’s important to remember that activism doesn’t stop at social media, and in fact, it can be fairly detrimental to only post without actually taking a stance IRL. If your actions don't match your words then, do you really mean it? Like the saying goes: it’s not enough to not be racist, you need to be anti-racist. Many anti-racist social media accounts suggest having conversations with your loved ones about systemic racism. This call to action is necessary, and thinking about talking to crushes and significant others, I want to make it clear that while it’s necessary, it can still be super challenging.
When they make a generalization about a group of people based on racial and/or cultural stereotypes, it’s important to recognize that a generalization is being made and how stereotypes negatively impact communities by placing societal boundaries around what they should act. Or perhaps they’re saying something to exoticize you and/or a community; “I only date people of *race* because they are *stereotype* and I don’t think that’s racist.” In this situation, not only are they fetishizing, but they’re also denying that this is racist, when in fact, it is. Explain that such problematic thinking is an example of objectifying a race. Avery Francis says it best: “Fetishizing Black women is not the same as accepting Black women.” Francis also has some great tips on how to initiate these conversations about race with your loved one, such as focusing on why it’s important to you. (BTW, if you’re not following @averyfrancis, you are totally missing out.)
My personal favorite because I get it at least once a month is “people/you are taking this way too seriously” accompanied by the “it was just a joke.” Spoiler alert: it’s not a joke when it’s offensive. Along with the activism that’s become super popular on social media, tone-policing has inevitably also become popular. A lot of the times, people get super uncomfortable with the fact that they’re engaging in problematic and offensive behavior, and denial is a common coping mechanism. Denial that what they are saying and doing is problematic is the perfect example of privilege-- being able to set parameters around what you’re saying without considering that everything we say and do is consequential, regardless of intent. Explaining how intent doesn’t always match up to the impact and consequences of what is being said or done.
While I give these examples and cookie-cutter responses, I want to take a moment to say that none of this will be easy. It’s so much easier said than done, and it might even feel like there aren’t enough articles to read, people to get advice from, or podcasts to listen to, to prepare you for the difficult conversation that needs to unfold. But it’s so important to be hopeful that your partner/crush will be responsive and open to learning. They’re not going to be happy that they’ve been engaging in problematic behavior, but in the long run, they’re going to move forward by continuously learning, unlearning, and listening; that’s the best-case scenario.
Talk it out — directly and ASAP.
You’re definitely bound to feel a bunch of emotions: anger, sadness, confusion, frustration, and so much more. It can be hard to find the right words to express how the things they're saying are problematic and part of a bigger problem. When you’re bringing up the offensive comment or action that made you feel uncomfy, be direct.
“Hey, when you did/said *action* I felt *emotion*. It makes me wonder where you stand on *insert issue here.* We need to talk about this.”
Don’t beat around the bush or ignore the comment or action, only to bring it up weeks later. If something feels wrong to you, bring it up in the moment. Chances are, if you bring it up much later, it’ll add a whole other layer of complexities and issues to the conversation, because that indicates you’ve been dwelling on the issue for some time. That can take away from the main issue you originally wanted to focus on: their problematic behavior.
I asked relationship expert Faith Dulin, marriage and family therapist, for advice on how to go about having these conversations and she had some awesome insight. Dulin advises, "If your partner says something offensive, check in with them. Have a curious approach instead of a critical one. ‘Are you saying..?’ or ‘Help me understand where you're coming from.’ When couples are able to have an exploratory conversation with the goals of listening, understanding and giving your partner the benefit of the doubt, it becomes productive and not defensive or argumentative.”
Put down the rose-colored glasses.
As much as you want to focus on the good parts of your relationship with this person, if they don’t agree with some of your core values, you need to confront your compatibility. Racist comments and tone-policing are harmful, not only to you, but larger communities of people. If your partner fails to understand that and your own cardinal values, remember that you’re never obligated to stay with somebody just because you’ve shared good moments in the past and present. Faith has some really good advice when it comes to putting down those rose-colored glasses.
“There are probably a lot of shared values between the two of you that facilitated your initial attraction. Openly discussing deeper topics that mean a lot to you, can be bonding. There may also come a time when you need to foster mutual respect and agree to disagree. If your partner develops a pattern of hurtful, racist or problematic comments, it's time to set a boundary.”
Dulin also suggests using a line such as this one, or a similar one, to set boundaries: "I've told you that feels offensive to me. I won't engage in these types of conversations with you."
Ask them to do some research, but only if you have the energy.
While it’s simple to suggest that you continue to educate your partner with resources such as Instagram posts, books to read, and articles, it’s much easier said than done. It could very well come off as condescending to them, or they may even ignore your suggestions. Additionally, while it’s great to make suggestions, think about how often you may have to take time and energy to send them resources. Are they willing to put in a genuine effort on their end, and is it sustainable to continuously put in work?
While doing this, take care of yourself and your mental health—be aware of your own emotional capacity to have these conversations, because you don’t owe anyone an explanation as to how their behavior has consequences!
Get at their intentions.
Be mindful of your partner’s intentions when you have these discussions about their problematic behavior. Are they willing to change their actions because they genuinely want to, or are they doing so to appease you? Ensure that they’re not just looking for praise from you and others. While also admitting that learning and unlearning is a long process, they still need to do the work! Allyship and anti-racist education is a continuous process, one that suffers if it’s simply performative.
It’s hard to know when somebody’s being genuine with their activism, but for me, I try to keep myself in check when I do activism work by constantly telling myself to remain critical of not only others, but myself too! Am I getting angry or defensive when somebody calls me out for being problematic? Am I doing things behind the scenes of social media? And am I putting the onus on myself to educate myself rather than expecting others to teach me? These are questions that can help keep us and our intentions grounded, and perhaps worthwhile to pass on to your partner or crush. I’ve been vulnerable with my loved ones when they start to exhibit problematic behavior by reminding them that nobody’s perfect and that we need to remain critical of our own actions and be open to learning and unlearning.
Rethink your relationship.
All in all, the most important takeaway from all of this is to remember is that your emotions and values are valid—if somebody says something to offend and belittle you or go against what you believe in, you have every right to question that relationship and wonder if it’s time to break up with them.
The issue of having a relationship with or a crush on somebody who exhibits problematic behavior is a disturbing one, but a very real one. While I refuse to be sympathetic to racists, I know that working through this is so much more than “dump your racist partner.” It’s a difficult and emotional thing to talk to a loved one about how their behavior is detrimental to you and/or others. Since these conversations are long overdue in our society as a whole, what better place to start than in our own relationships?