I turned over in bed, embracing the cold of absence. My thoughts spun a web of sappy love poems and hopeless wishes, an eighteen year old’s unrequited-love lullaby. I slept with my phone grasped in my hand, hoping to feel his heartbeat through it, or at least a vibration to suggest that he, too, was awake.
This was the simplicity of lying on the precipice of love. Love often arrives with elegance–a fresh bouquet of roses, incense, breakfast in bed, 100 candles burning in a field (come on, we’ve all seen Grey’s Anatomy).
Love demands to be noticed.
Love is the most striking person in the room, and love knows it. Love embraces, hard, and doesn’t ever really let go. But that’s just love, and real love never stops at the Shonda Rhimes level romance. Love moves so quietly from this simplicity into a raveled complexity that I swear one day you wake up and you’re ravaged by it: this new, entangled partnership.
While I’m sure every couple has their own story of complexity, I can tell you that an interracial relationship has a specially curated one, built methodically through hundreds of years of racism. Maybe I’m being dramatic, but eventually, in an interracial relationship, you wake up in a bed next to both a stranger and a lover.
You wake up unable to recognize yourself underneath the whiteness. You wake up unable to recognize the man you love under all of his internalized oppression. And yet love swells between you anyway.
I wish for a version of this story that did not demand complexity. In that story, my partner Joseph would be safe walking down the street at night. In that story, there wouldn’t be the bones of black and Native American bodies buried as graves unnamed under my parents’ home.
In that story, my nation would not exist as it does, with its chronic habit of forgetting and repeating. But that’s not the country I live in, and so I have learned to navigate the complexity. The good news is the complexity of loving while navigating race has become synonymous with loving at all.
Fast forward five years beyond that hopeless romantic clutching her phone pathetically in bed; as 2017 melts into spring, I am looking forward to marrying Joseph at the end of May.
Just a few weeks following on June 12 is Loving Day, which will mark the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, a Supreme Court case from 1967 that overturned all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States. Just 50 years ago, 16 states still had laws that allowed them to give felony charges to people in interracial marriages.
When I found out how recent this court ruling was, I was surprised—and yet I wasn’t. Even in our Northern state where there has never officially been anti-miscegenation laws, the winds of these discriminatory laws have still blown our way.
It’s nearly impossible to write about race-based issues without feeling as though I am selling out my significant other for click bait. And yet, our society is so ensnared in racism that it impacts even our closest relationships, and I don’t believe that it is discussed enough.
When we allow ourselves to keep our eyes open to see each other for who we really are (yes, skin color and all), our relationships can take on a new depth that we forfeit if we feign amnesia about our not-so-distant history. Joseph and I were forced rather abruptly into confronting the dynamics of an interracial relationship while riding public transportation in Chicago.
Chicago was the city we always dreamed about
It was the neighboring star to Minneapolis that always shined so much brighter. We were too broke to afford a real vacation, but we were in Chicago for the night and we were determined to see as much of it as possible.
We were on the way to a live poetry event, dressed up and leaning on each other, taking in the full experience of the L. I remember thinking that in cities like Chicago, public transit is a great equalizer. People from all neighborhoods, professions, races, socioeconomic classes, marital statuses, and ages all cram together on this humbled train. It’s beautiful, really. I still think so.
It was in the middle of this thought when a from muttering across the aisle brought me back to reality. In the seat was a middle-aged black woman, wrapped in too much clothing for the mild March weather, looking a bit weathered herself. Still drunk with idealism, I thought:
Now this is true “urban” culture. A woman like this would never share a space with a three-piece suit back in Minneapolis.
I smiled my “polite privileged person” smile at her and continued to soak in my surroundings. The muttering got louder, though, and I started to make out some words: “Demons, possessed by demons I tell ya.” I looked at Joseph; “Who is she talking to?” Joseph stared straight ahead and gave a subtle shake of his head.
The woman stopped mumbling for a few sobering moments to spew out wildly: “How dare you date a white woman! We need you for our girls, and they’re taking all of the good ones. Demons. You’re full of demons I tell ya.”
The whole train car fell silent.
A few families gave Joseph sympathetic stares, but the woman was still mumbling her sociologically sound but unprecedented hated, shaking a bit now, and no one dared interrupt her.
When we stepped off the L, people stopped us to tell us that the woman was “crazy” and she didn’t know what she was talking about. And honestly, they were probably right. But did it matter? As soon as we got a few blocks from our stop, my face melted into a puddle of hot tears. I couldn’t stop thinking she’s right, she’s right.
Joseph calmed me down, but I would never forget this moment and how all at once she seemed completely delusional and yet entirely logical. In her version of our love story, I am not a woman. I do not even get the title “villain.” I am merely a symbol of a system that has failed her and her people. Again, and again.
I can’t say that this event in itself changed our relationship drastically, but her words may as well have been the epigraph to our journey into a real partnership. After this, our relationship unraveled and woven back together many times over as we learned more about ourselves, our nation’s history, and our own relationship.
Without the woman on the L, maybe our ignorance wouldn’t have broken open soon enough to make our relationship to love each other in all of our intersecting identities.
Even if it’s not a romantic relationship, we are all faced with the choice to relate to people of different races than us. Whether it’s with friends, colleagues, neighbors, service workers, or spiritual leaders, I would urge you all to try to see them in their entirety: race and all. When we confront reality with open eyes, our hearts will open wider as well.
At the conclusion of the Loving ‘V’
Virginia trial, the court ruled that: “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State. These convictions [upon Richard and Mildred Loving] must be reversed. It is so ordered.”