Western Privilege and Interracial Relationships

Sara over at A Little Bit of That Too has been sharing a number of humorous and informative posts about her intercultural relationship and personal identity journey, which she is satirising via the Partner of a South Asian (POSA) Identity Development Model.

Her posts and comments by fellow bloggers made me think about the role of racial privilege in interracial relationships. I’m sharing these thoughts here as many of the twists and turns between me and L are very much associated with our relative experiences of racial privilege/disadvantage:

I would love to hear more about other people’s experiences of white privilege in their relationships, because it’s been such a source of tension between me and my partner. While I’m not white, I’m certainly ‘whiter’ than him. I’ve grown up in the west with all its privileges, including material wealth and stability. I’ve never experienced racism in finding employment, in dealing with bureaucracies or police, in obtaining visas and moving freely around the world etc…. My partner on the other hand, is a black African guy in a country where (African) blackness is still rare, poorly understood and exoticised.  He has not only experienced prolonged institutional racism via the immigration system, but also everyday racism, often from people in positions of power associated with governance institutions (especially police), not to mention the racism he’s faced in finding employment.

All this has made L very suspicious of what he calls ‘white’ institutions – governments, police, schools, employment organisations,  welfare organisations…the list goes on and on. He sees all of these as instruments of control and gets extremely frustrated with me when I show any kind of trust in them (e.g. an African friend of his went missing for a bit once, and my immediate reaction was to go to the police). It reminds him that I’m in a position where I can work these institutions to my advantage, whereas he feels targeted by them.  And it exposes the gulf between us – while I may be critical of these institutions and institutional racism in theory, I can remain aloof to them in practice. He has no such luxury.

For a guy as well, I guess it can be quite emasculating to struggle for things that everyone else (i.e. those with ‘white’ privilege) takes for granted – like finding employment and securing a stable income. (This is some conjecture on my part – he is quite vocal on issues of racism but silent on issues of masculinity). When these frustrations really build up, he can express some pretty intense anger towards white people, and their taken-for-granted privilege; an anger which is directed at me in our heated debates. “You have such a white colonial mindset, thinking you know better than me what’s good for me”. I’ve asked him to please not bring global race relations and world politics into our personal arguments, but again this request is a function of privilege – the privilege of assuming that racial power relations play out in a political realm that is somehow independent of our personal lives and every day existence. Geez, my reasoning sounds pathetic even to me: “I don’t go around saying that you have a black mindset, so please stop commenting on my race” (read: “I can’t help that I’m privileged, just like you can’t help that you’re black”).

As he gets so personal and argumentative when discussing politics, I’ve deliberately stopped conversations on current events. Palestine/Israel; the west’s hypocrisy in focusing on China’s human rights record given their own doubtful human rights record; the west’s recent vilification of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi…these have become NO GO topics, even though we actually hold very similar political views.

Anyway…blaaahhhh…I guess all I’m trying to say is that I find this a very difficult issue to negotiate!



Filed under Interracial Relationships, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

14 responses to “Western Privilege and Interracial Relationships

  1. americanepali

    I hear what you are saying. Institutionalize racism runs so deep, even with people who pride themselves on being racially conscious, its scary. I took a cultural studies-race, gender, identity class in college and watched this fascinating documentary. I really need to contact the professor and ask the title, because I can’ t remember it, but it at a huge impact on my perception of my own views of race. The documentary basically followed several men of different ethnicities while they were on a retreat, and recorded their conversations on race and identity. There was both a black and a white man who really stood out. The white man just didn’t get how deeply racism ran, until the black man made him realize that in the US “neutral” means “white”– I hadn’t even thought about it in that way either– it really opened my eyes.

    • Me three on the title!

    • R

      Fascinating stuff. Can you please let me know the name of the doco, if you could?My ancestry Is Indian. My ex gf is white. We conflicted on matters of race substantially. In a relationship racial divide, living in “different worlds”, in a sense, can be magnified.

    • Bharatiya Nari

      “The white man just didn’t get how deeply racism ran”

      Let him go to India. Then he’ll see just how deeply racism can run.

  2. Thanks for your comment! L actually finds people who pride themselves on being racially conscious but who work in government and welfare institutions which perpetuate instutional racism more racist than just your standard red neck. He sees redneck-type racism as personal bias, as opposed to welfare attempts to ‘help the poor black people’ and thereby interfere in other people’s lives. I’m different – I share the critique of institutionalised racism, but I find the redneck-variety more personally hurtful and offensive. I would love to know the title of that doco if you ever find it out!

    • R

      I agree with L. I’m prepared for “redneck racism”. It’s liberals who pride themselves on their tolerance who I’m troubled most by. Sometimes (in my experience) people in that category find it hard to understand more subtle, but equally insidious, forms of racism. Even find it hard to accept that they may be perpetuating it.

      • Hi R, thanks for dropping by. I agree that self-declared ‘tolerance’ makes a lot of people blind to more subtle, insidious forms of racism. And because these forms tap into deeper, structural racism, they’re more damaging than “redneck” variety racism.
        I still find “everyday” racism (coming from rednecks, or migrants towards other migrants) hurtful though, even it I find ignorant liberal racism more annoying and ultimately more damaging. I can’t help but take those everyday throw-away comments personally.

    • Bharatiya Nari

      “He sees redneck-type racism as personal bias, as opposed to welfare attempts to ‘help the poor black people’ and thereby interfere in other people’s lives.”

      The best way to avoid that is to avoid the welfare system altogether.

      Don’t take a single dime from them.

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  6. Bharatiya Nari

    I think people are going to have to get over racism. It exists EVERYWHERE. Who knows? It may even be a human trait that evolved millions of years ago as a survival mechanism.

    Develop a thick skin and move on with life.

    • Racism exists everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally.

      I don’t think it’s a survival mechanism that’s evolved with time and written into our genes. If it was, it would have strengthened with human evolution – I would have grown up hating all my neighbours and friends (who were all white) and they would have all hated me! Also, it would mean it makes no evolutionary sense for me to be with L (same goes for all the other interracial relationships I see around). Racism is very much a social, political and historical phenomenon.
      But it is also CONCRETE, with concrete effects on your life that are not so easy to get over. In Australia, the migration system is such that, if you fall on the wrong side of it (which is easy to do, because it’s so bloody arbitrary), you can be detained indefinitely. We’re talking about years out of your life – an entire chunk when you’re sitting around doing nothing, dreaming and hoping and dreading and anxious; never knowing what’s going to happen to you the next day (if you’ll be released or deported). And every time you walk down the street and a cop stops you but not your brown girlfriend, every time you apply for a job and they ask about that gap in your CV, every time your girlfriend screams because she can’t control her temper and the neighbours call the cops because they assume you’re thumping her…you’re reminded of all those years and all that shit. Now the fact that L has been through these things and I haven’t (of course I haven’t, I was born into much more privileged circumstances) places HUGE strains on our relationship. Of course we’re trying to grow thick skins and get over it, but at the moment everything is so raw, still so hindering (e.g. trying to find meaningful, professional work despite those gaps), that all we’re really doing is scraping the surface and trying to work through it. I know that putting all these issues down to broad sweeping, in-vogue concepts like ‘privilege’ and ‘racism’ is probably very simplistic, but we all need a way to process our experiences, don’t we?

      • Bharatiya Nari

        Regarding growing up hating everyone else in the world that is not like you, that’s not what I mean by “racism”. Racism seems to develop along a continuuity. Harmful racism is when you keep someone from employment in your company solely based on their race. A non-harmful form of racism is someone who on principle will not date or marry outside of their race. Such a person doesn’t “hate” other races, in fact they me close friends with people from other races, but a sense of racial loyalty keeps them dating or mating with someone from their own race.

        The irony is that some Desis will say they are only attracted to other Desis but if a white person says they are only attracted to other white people then those Desis will call them “racists” but somehow them doing the same is not racism.

        I’m sorry to hear about the difficulties your bf is facing in Australia. I have heard some African and Lebanese immigrants there have created gangs and are targetting Indian immigrants. When the news first broke the PC government, cops and media did not talk about the ethnic backgrounds of the criminals and Desis everywhere wrote blogs about how horrible and racist White Aussies were and called for their blood. When news got out that the perpetrators were of African and Lebanese descent, these very same Desis called for “nuance” in assessing the situation.

        Sheer hypocrisy.

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