bell hooks and Loving a Feminist

I love a lot of things about my man. He’s funny, he’s honest, he works hard, he reads. His intellect and his artist’s eye will blow you out of the water. He’s well-traveled. You get the idea—I think my boyfriend’s amazing. I’m sure a million other girls would say the same about their significant others.

One of the things about this man that I will always remember is his reaction to this conversation between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks (who I was delighted to see address the fact that the lowercasing of her name backfired). I live on the internet and am constantly reading articles all over the place, seeing funny images and comics, commenting on statuses and blogposts…and so I’m constantly sending my boyfriend links. Anything that makes me think of him, that I think he’d laugh at or otherwise appreciate, that I need him to share in my rage about, I send it to him. My guess is that he only sees about 20% of what I send because he does not live on the internet— but what he does see, we usually talk about. I’ll never forget the morning I woke up, looked at my phone, and saw a text from my man— who, six months before, had no familiarity whatsoever with feminism— that said:

“I love bell hooks.”

Could there be anything more beautiful?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like we (or anyone) have been able to completely escape the patriarchy. We had a lengthy argument one very early morning about the state of my armpit hair. We debated once, for days, women changing or not changing their names after marriage (and we come back to the topic often). Just recently, he told me that sometimes you have to let a man be a man and a woman be a woman. Outraged, I asked what on earth he meant by that, especially when he already knows darn well what kind of woman I am.

“I think,” he said, “my manliness would be when I say I’m done talking about something. And your womanliness would be when you just keep right on talking about it anyway.”

Which of course, I did.

There have also been times when racism goes completely over my head because I’ve never had to deal with it. We’ve both said, wittingly and unwittingly, sexist and racist things. The difference, I think, between now and before we were together is that we address those things, acknowledge them and learn from them, which sometimes is all you can really do.

By human standards, I’m a little new to the relationship game. I’ve been with my boyfriend about a year, and before that I’d been pretty darn single for almost four years. So I’m maybe not the MOST experienced or seasoned person to give romantic advice. I imagine, however, that when you’re with somebody and plan to do it for a long time, you find a lot of good in everything they are in do. Even in their annoying habits, even when they say the complete WRONG thing or don’t shut up when they need to, hopefully you even find a little good there (or at the very least, some amusement). I’m coming to appreciate most aspects of who my man is, and I hope that feeling is mutual.

It’s not hard to appreciate that he loves bell hooks, though, and there’s a Beyoncé/bell hooks post forthcoming.

Racism in the Family

My last post ended with a harsh statement, and I feel I’d better elaborate. Calling someone a racist is often thought of as the end, an accusation of a terrible crime bringing to mind the KKK, nooses and lynchmobs. But the cold hard truth is that we’ve all internalized racism in some way or another. This doesn’t make it okay, but it should at least make it easier to recognize. Often (particularly for white people) we enact racism in a way that we can’t even see, and because we can’t see it, we are immediately offended when it is pointed out to us. A person of color, however, doesn’t need to have racism pointed out to them: they experience it directly and perhaps on a day-to-day basis. Rather than write an essay on white privilege, let me take a quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fabulous book, “Americanah” to try and convey what I’m talking about:

When you go shopping alone at a nice store, do you worry that you will be followed or harassed? 

When you turn on mainstream TV or open a mainstream newspaper, do you expect to find mostly people of another race?

Do you worry that your children will not have books and school materials that are about people of their own race?

(For more information, read the book. Or just hit up google. Go to the library. Even better, hop on tumblr and search tags like “racism” and “white privilege.” Hell, ask a black friend to be completely honest with you about their feelings on racism. The least you can do is listen without taking it so personally, because let’s face it— you’ve probably used them as a shield in some verbal “I’m not racist, I have a black friend”-type defense.)

More about all this social justice/racism/privilege stuff later.

What I’m saying is, it’s unfortunately normal to internalize a little bit of racism or sexism. Like useless and potentially toxic materials we take in when we eat, these things are there in most of the media we observe. Oftentimes, perhaps most times, carrying that shit with us is unintentional.

But my grandfather is not that type of racist.

To steal a quote from my boyfriend, my grandfather is probably the type of racist who might hear a statement like, “I’m not a racist, but I sure do wish all those black people would go back to Africa,” and nod in agreement. I get the feeling that, like Abraham Lincoln, my grandfather would have freed the slaves and then tried to get them the hell out of here. My grandfather is the type of racist who admires the way black people worship in church, the way black musicians have that extra rhythm, who once saw a black boy being made fun of in school and felt bad but did nothing, who thinks that intelligent black people are somehow the exception. He is the type of racist who has no problem talking and working with any person of color…he just doesn’t want them in his family.

I might be a little resentful.

Let me explain.

I’ve always been close to my grandparents— I’ve been very lucky when it comes to my family. My college graduation and my grandmother’s death weren’t far apart, and during that year I mentioned in my first blogpost, when I was working minimum wage jobs and trying to plan out my life, my grandfather and I sort of became anchors to each other. We had lunch weekly, we went to visit out-of-state family members together, we reminisced. I learned so much from him, about my family, about history, about his political views (always so very different from my own). Most importantly, I learned that people on very different planes of opinion can still love and respect each other, and maybe even find common ground. Our relationship reminded me of an India.Arie song: “If old people talked to young people, we’d be better people all around.”

My grandfather and I had done so much for each other’s perspectives. I hoped this situation, my relationship, would be something to widen his perspective on race. My grandfather loved and respected me, had always encouraged me in my studies and my travels, had scolded me for not becoming a doctor so that I could take care of him, and had never once remotely implied that I should just find a rich husband. There was also the fact that, as far as men go, my man is pretty great. Handsome, funny, smart, well-traveled. Not just good with people, but genuinely interested in them and what they have to say. My grandfather would need a pretty big wall of denial to think otherwise.

But what would drive it home, I thought, was that my boyfriend has the same hometown as my grandfather, the same name as my grandfather’s brother, and served in the military just as my grandfather and most of his family did.

So I told my grandfather about my boyfriend, his name and where he was from.

“He’s not black, is he?” my grandfather asked. I couldn’t believe it.

“Yes,” I said.

“I don’t know if I like that,” he said. “I always thought a cardinal shouldn’t be with a bluejay.”

On a bird, differently colored feathers may denote different species. But that isn’t so on a human being. I’ve seen the insides of many different human bodies, and the ingredients are much the same— fat, blood, muscle. Bone if you go deep enough. I told this to my grandfather. It didn’t seem to drive the point home.

“You talked about bones?” my little brother said later. “You should have told him that we’re all white on the inside.”

My boyfriend and I laughed. But my grandpa’s thinking bothered me for multiple reasons. Some were based on principles. Others were purely selfish— didn’t he love me? Why couldn’t I change his mind?

I did end up bringing my man to Memorial Day. He and my grandfather shook hands, chatted, and were friendly.

This is awesome! I thought.

Weeks later, my grandfather took me aside and said, “You should be with a nice white businessman. Your friend should be with one of those beautiful dark girls from Ebony magazine.”

I’m not sure why a businessman, but otherwise, I followed my grandfather’s logic pretty well: my “friend” and I didn’t match, and so while he would never say an unkind word to my man’s face, he would always silently disapprove of his relationship with me.

So What Happened Next?

Well, when we saw each other again a week later, and the next day, and the next, and that kept happening continuously…I figured out that we were probably an item.

Also, he said, “We are dating, right?”

Not long after that, my mother asked why I was never home anymore…who was he? Thinking about it now, I’m almost a little insulted. She couldn’t think of any reason more exciting than a man? Maybe I was out adventuring. Maybe I was going out to clubs or had become a drug addict. Maybe I’d gotten a new, night shift job. Unfortunately, parents know us far better than any of us ever want to admit, and mine know that I am not remotely as interesting as I think am.

So I told my mom about my man. That wasn’t so bad. She was sweet and understanding when I needed her to be, as she so often is.

Telling my father, however, was a little weird. Telling my father anything can get a little weird, though, because with him nothing is ever what you’d expect. Let me attempt to put him in perspective. At 19, I proudly told him I passed up an opportunity to try marijuana, and in seriousness, he asked “Why didn’t you?” At 23, I told him there was no way I got a job with a prestigious agency because I’d smoked marijuana in the last year, and he disappointedly said, “I didn’t know you did that.” My father is a man who reads books not for stories, but to temporarily enter another world and absorb the ambiance as though he were wandering in and out of a garden party. He’s a man who isn’t remotely religious, but has read the entire Bible and quieted family dinner parties by pointing out the cruelty in the Old Testament. He is a registered Republican, but hates Mitch McConnell and has voted at every possible turn for Ralph Nader.

Just to give you an idea.

On the subject of boyfriends, my conversations with my father have been simple. When I started dating at sixteen, he told me, “If you can have sex without getting pregnant, that’d be good.” I’d barely even kissed a guy yet.

So when, at twenty-three, I told him about my new boyfriend, I shouldn’t have been surprised when he told me to think twice about marriage, because it makes you legally responsible for all of your spouse’s debt. If they die, you’re the one who pays off those student loans.

(On a personal note, let me say that marriage is something I often imagine. In terror.)

Then, my dad asked me, “Is he black?”

“Yes,” I replied, surprised. “Why did you ask?”

“Some things you just know about your kids.”

I can say with some certainty that I’ve never known my father to be racist. But to my death, I will never understand what he meant by that remark. At the time, it worried me. Now, it merely confuses me.

After a few minutes of talking, my dad said, “Why don’t you bring him to Memorial Day?”

By this, he meant bringing my new boyfriend to my extended family’s Memorial Day picnic. Which was a cool thing to suggest— it meant he wanted to meet him, and it meant that he understood in the things I said how important this man was becoming to me.

But it was also a worrisome, gut-wrenching prospect. Because the picnic was at my grandfather’s house. And my grandfather is a racist.

The Beginning

Nearly a year ago, I began dating a man whose skin was (is) a different shade than mine.

And thank god for that, because I’m so uncomfortably pale that many have been blinded by the sun reflecting off my skin. Kind of like a Twilight vampire, only less like a diamond and more like a fluorescent lightbulb.

But I digress.

I’m a white woman, my boyfriend is black. Let me clarify and say that I’ve never really had a type. I haven’t exclusively dated black men or white men, and the same goes for my boyfriend and the women he has been with. I’ve been involved, in varying capacities, with multiple “races” simply because I’ve been involved with multiple men. I’d probably call it a coincidence. Some might call it diversification. Others might call it promiscuity.

Whatever.

The point is, I wasn’t looking for any particular type of guy. In fact, I wasn’t even really looking for a guy. Or a girl. I was just working, and a dark-skinned man with locks walked up to the counter I was standing behind.

“Where’s my tequila?” he said. I struggled to remember what he was talking about, but I had recognized him before he’d even opened up the glass door of the shop. We’d met before.

Like many 20-somethings, I found myself with a virtually useless Bachelor’s degree and a steady cashiering job to help me save money while I camped out at my parents’ house and tried to figure out what the hell to do next. Somewhere (perhaps on the internet, or maybe from a family member), I heard millennials referred to as a generation of overly-qualified cashiers. It was a dishearteningly accurate statement.

I felt much like a child again. In fact, when I first spoke to my future love, I was reading a Batman comic book that my mother had brought home for me. I was 23. It was a newer Batman book than I was used to— Dick Grayson, I think, was Batman. Bruce Wayne was nowhere to be found, which already made it unfamiliar territory, and it turned out to be about Batman trying to stop a particularly twisted serial killer. (I know, it’s Gotham city, they’re all twisted— just trust me.)

Anyway, it was a great graphic novel, and I was utterly gripped by the story when the shop door opened and I looked up in terror.

“We didn’t mean to scare you,” said one of the men who had walked in. Both were black.

“Oh!” I said, and in an effort to show them that I was not only not a racist, but also totally smooth and cool, I held up my Batman comic and said that they’d caught me at a really scary part. Then I began to flip through the pages to find the goriest scene so far. We started to talk about Batman, and then about anime. (I didn’t know anything about anime, and I still don’t, but when a cute guy is talking to you, you work with what you have.) My future love, deep-voiced, locked and adorable, asked about a type of tequila that came in a pistol-shaped bottle. I told him my boss could order it for him and took his name and number.

I can’t speak for my boss, but I know never called him. I wasn’t sure if he’d wanted me too, and what would I say? “Hey, I don’t think your tequila came in but it doesn’t matter— I’m fun enough to hang out with sober.” It sounds like a pickup line recommended by some kind of 50’s homeschooling anti-alcohol program.

I forgot about him until his name, similar to an old folk singer’s, came up in a movie. Not long after that, he was back in the store asking about that bottle of tequila.

I scrambled to find it, realized it hadn’t been ordered, and then kept talking to him anyway. Finally he said, “You know, I really came back here to see you.”

“I was hoping you would,” I said honestly.

That’s how we met. It wasn’t online. It wasn’t planned. It wasn’t glamorous. It just happened, and it was perfect.

When I got out of work, we went for a long walk together. I’m not sure if any person is ever 100% genuine at any moment in their lives. But I’d like to think that the two of us were mostly pretty honest with each other from the beginning. It was an attitude that would help us as time went on.

Being together has been an eye-opening experience. As a white person in a society that basically sets lighter skin as an aspirational value, you can bet I haven’t had to deal with too much racism in my time. As a man, my boyfriend hasn’t dealt directly with much sexism. And so this blog is about us, the things we teach and learn from each other, and the things we learn simply by existing as an interracial couple.

To start with, anyway.