This essay is the second in a series on having conversations about the legacy of oppression, confessing complicity, reducing the harm we cause others, assimilation racism, building emotional resilience, and the practice of knowing and telling the larger experiences of our lives. The authors founded a consulting group focused on identity in 2014.
“We are going to split up.”
During an anti-racism training some years ago, we learned a lesson that deeply informed our work as educators, creators, passionate critical thinkers and specialists in the field of interracial relationship studies. We’d come to the point of the training where the conversation turned to an in-depth examination of how white people and Black people have internalized racial superiority and inferiority, respectively, and would split into racial affinity groups to safely have this conversation. White-identified people were instructed to go in one room, breaking down the lyrics of the Macklemore song “White Privilege.” People of color were instructed to break down the lyrics of “All Falls Down” by Kanye West.
This activity is an example of a training practice that attempts to demonstrate what it looks like when white people admit to and reform their racism (Macklemore) and Black people see the error of their self-deprecating ways (Kanye). This activity creates only two sets of experiences of racism rather than all the ways racism has fractured our identities. These practices assign a permanent and simplistic experience of racism without addressing ways to transform racial trauma or hold people accountable; they merely breed shame. We become complacent in the comfort of “knowing the right answers.”
What does a “safe” conversation about race mean? What if your race is less clear to you or to others? What if you identify as one race and your partner, mother, spouse, child, grandparent, identifies as another? And what message does that send about the responsibility to break down and identify the way racism shows up in our lives?
Some of our social justice spaces have perverted the idea of safety, one that was born out of the physical and emotional protection necessary for the survival of marginalized groups. It has led to faux spaces of inclusion that are inherently unsafe. Racial affinity groups are often a safe place to navigate identity. They are places where deep healing from racial trauma can occur. These kinds of private healing groups are necessary for survival and are not what we experienced in this antiracism training outlined in the article introduction. Ruth King, international teacher in Insight Meditation and emotional wisdom coach, states that Racial Affinity Groups should tune into your own experience, maintain compassion, allow the other person speaking to share their experience free from judgment, and reflect on your emotions in reaction to what is being shared. Not so in this antiracism training. People were afraid to take risks, ask questions or have the self-awareness, humility and flexibility to make mistakes and hold themselves accountable in their process of growth.
In other words, affinity groups done wrong have the potential to create spaces where we subconsciously, and sometimes consciously, see the group as monolithic — an unspoken expectation of sameness. On the other hand, when done right, we begin to see the vastness of experience and dynamic intersections of self that those we are akin to hold. This, in turn, allows us to hold our own complexity and contradictions.
The reality is that race is always with us, in all our spaces, racially homogenous or otherwise. The work of addressing racism is missing the conversation around interracial relationships as tools for our growth. Race also intersects with the rest of our identity and to deny that is to continue to fracture ourselves. We are all racialized and we all must reckon with the ways this alters the reality of what we have the capacity to become. Even the struggle of writing this article as an interracial author duo forces us to face uncomfortable questions. What can we say together, what can we say separately? When should we use “we” in this article text? The truth is, we, as a society, have not been taught how to be in interracial relationships.
The challenge of conversations about racism is that when we fracture our identities into what parts of ourselves hold power and which do not, it makes it hard to express that we all have the power to break cycles of oppression. In attempting to address, or not address, race and racism, we have vacillated between these two extremes: separating the races or embracing the “melting pot.” We either believe in this idea that we can separate by race and safely have the conversation about the effects of racism or that we should adopt the colorblind belief that allows us to pretend we live in a “post-racial” society. We hope in our work to challenge ourselves and others to get in touch with the antiracist changes they can control in their lives such as examining internalized messages, understanding history and policy all while building emotional resilience and informed loving relationships.
We all struggle to be in interracial spaces doing this work because we are still obsessed with binaries — a “good” and “bad” dichotomy of personhood. In this country, we are taught to see “racist” as a pejorative rather than descriptive term. What we are left with are rooms full of people disconnected from the pieces of their identities most necessary to create the internal shifts and policy changes we must embrace to move forward out of denial and the belief that change is too big for us to play a part.
What we need is the radical acceptance that we will be undoing these messages for the rest of our lives and that at any moment we can participate in or reject white supremacy culture.
The best place, the toughest place, and the most accountable place to do this work is in our most personal and most intimate relationships, especially when those relationships cross racial identities.
Interracial relationships ask us to understand our own identities and how they are shaped by history. They ask us to navigate the way systemic inequity shows up in our interactions.
For these relationships to thrive, we have to form intentional communities that support our interracial relationships, friendships and workplaces. Our communities should ask us to have a healthy understanding of our racial identity instead of pretending differences don’t exist. They also should require us to go beyond reducing our relationships to the difference which results in tokenism, exoticism, and fetishism.
To avoid resentment, we have to vocalize our truth when we experience oppression in the relationship. To avoid violence, we have to hear it and atone for it when we are the ones who commit the oppression.
Liana Maneese and Sydney Olberg founded The Good Peoples Group + Center on Interracial Relationships. They can be reached through their website at thecenteroninterracialrelationships.com, Instagram, or Facebook.