I’m always interested in how white people speak with each other about race. When privy to such conversations I’m content to sit back and do the listening equivalent of watching a tennis match. It’s pleasing to me. I always learn something of the Other’s interior life; that final frontier that the lever pullers of residential segregation intended for whites only. I had this sense of a rare treat then, while reading writer Kate McGovern’s recent confessional to New York Times readers that her recently ended relationship with a black British man had changed her. “Could I be with a white guy?” after Daniel, she wanted to know, flipping the script on the black comedian’s, ‘Once you go black you never go back,’ schtick. Short answer: yes.
Daniel and I talked about race a lot. Some of our friends, other mixed-race couples, never really acknowledged their differences: they chose the path of “colorblindness,” whatever that means. This approach wasn’t for us. Daniel often joked that if our children came out of the womb without Afros, he was putting them back. His blackness mattered to him and was a source of pride and power; it was a cornerstone of his identity. If I failed to see that, I failed to see him….
McGovern then describes her ‘change:’
Racism can matter to [white people], make us angry, but it usually isn’t personal. Personal is yourself, or your mother, or your child. Or your partner. Understanding intellectually that black men are at risk in this world is one thing; fearing for Daniel’s safety was something else entirely. And that doesn’t go away just because Daniel has.
At first glance it’s a short trip, from this deeply self-aware essay to the popular millennial notion that interracial love is the way for us to finally achieve racial harmony. Particularly if we mix all the children (for reference, see the under-5 population of Fort Greene, Park Slope and Prospect Heights, Brooklyn), there will be no racial differences left to fight about.
But is falling in love with our racial opposite the only way to make racism ‘personal’? Is having children with our racial opposite the only way to understand and care about each other? If entwining our loins is our highest hope for racial harmony, we’re selling short our human capacity for empathy and misunderstanding the roots of prejudice. Growing up in mono-communities doesn’t cause racism or prejudice; something else–particularly, someone else–teaches those behaviors.
I’d bet money that the “change” McGovern describes Daniel as provoking within her, predates her having met him. She hints as much. “Daniel didn’t teach me that race matters, nor was that his job. I was raised to think critically about such things,” she says. I wonder if Daniel didn’t simply stretch a capacity within McGovern that was already there–nurtured by her parents and I’m guessing, the mostly white Boston community in which she was raised.
I re-read McGovern’s essay a couple of times today. I didn’t expect to, but a couple of off-hand remarks communicated a sophistication about race that I rarely see in The New York Times or elsewhere: “”colorblindness” whatever that means” and “Daniel didn’t teach me that race matters, nor was that his job.” McGovern gets it. Contrary to popular belief, the struggle to reclaim one’s humanity while living under a racial and racist system is not only the bane of black existence. It is the burden required of whites in America as well—and McGovern appears to have shouldered it. She appears to have wrestled with race for a sustained period of time, years perhaps, and come out on the other side, a fully human being. If ever there were a bright, shining path to racial harmony, that struggle is it.