We are in an anti-racist revolution. And it’s about damn time. If you are white and in an interracial relationship, here are some questions you can ask to support your POC (person of color) partner.
People are protesting every day: chanting in the streets, writing letters to political leaders, signing petitions, donating to various organizations, contributing art and music and encouragement and empowerment.
But in order to ensure that this time of protest and awareness – following the unjust murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others – aren’t like some of the former media storms that fizzled out without much progress, it will take continued work through all forms of protest aforementioned. But this movement will also take a LOT of conversation – about what race means, about white privilege, about how racism manifests legally, politically, economically, and socially. It will take conversation with family, conversation with friends, conversation with coworkers.
And, of course, conversations with your partner.
Regardless of the racial makeup of your relationship, it’s important to have conversations about race and injustice, and about how to make the world a better, safer, more equalitable place for all.
However, these conversations are uniquely significant – for your relationship and own personal understanding – if you are white and in a relationship with a person of color (POC).
How to Approach this Conversation
Most of these questions are not a one time ask. Some of them you may have asked before. Answers to these questions now may not be the same as answers to these questions in a month, or in a year, or in 5 years.
As a black woman, I know that when it comes to reflecting and addressing the reality of being a POC in the United States, there is often trauma involved. As such, you should understand and empathize if your partner’s emotions, responses, energy, and/or mental capacity fluctuate and evolve over time.
Additionally, there may be times when race is all your partner wants to talk about, and there may be times they don’t want to share anything about it at all. If they don’t want to talk about it, then that’s okay. Do not force this conversation on them before they are ready.
Everyone is different, which is why question-asking is helpful, but listening is ultimately the most important factor. Remember, when it comes to supporting your partner, its about their preferences.
Here are 10 questions you can ask to support your POC partner:
1. How has “race” played a role in your life?
No two people have the same experience when it comes to race. Race – in terms of being “black”, “brown”, “yellow”, “red”, or “white” – is an arbitrary social construct, an identity that is placed on someone rather than understood inherently. My Nigerian parents, for example, were not “black” until they came into America and were called that.
Understanding how your POC partner defines and identifies themselves with a “race”, as well as any history of racist behavior they have experienced, will be a good starting point – especially if this is a completely new topic of conversation.
2. How does your answer to the previous question make you feel?
It’s easier to talk about what has happened in regards to their experience with race and racist behavior than how it made them feel. If they would rather not get into this, be understanding of that, indicate that you are open to hearing the answer if they ever want to share, and move on.
3. Have there been times when I have downplayed your feelings about a racial incident?
Many well-meaning people make the mistake of downplaying somebody’s emotions because they can’t (or don’t want to) believe that other people (or themselves) could possibly be racist. If you’ve ever said “maybe it wasn’t about race”, “maybe you’re overreacting”, “well…”, “I don’t think so”, etc. in response to a statement from your partner about a race-based incident, your POC partner may have shrugged it off but felt hurt inside.
Be open to hearing about any of these incidents, and open to trying to re-understand their perspective.
4. Have there been times when I have said something insensitive or something that has made you feel uncomfortable in any way?
Before you can support your POC partner moving forward, its a great idea to identify how things have gone in the past. If there have indeed been times where you have downplayed their feelings and they have not told you about it, this is a great question to indicate that you are open to hearing criticism of your own actions, learning, and moving forward with more understanding.
You may follow up by gently asking if there was a reason they decided not to tell you, because that could be revealing, opening up another topic of conversation that may need to be discussed (perhaps regarding trust, insecurities, honesty, fear of judgement, etc.).
5. What can I do to support you?
This is a great question for any sensitive or heated topic of conversation, because it demonstrates that you are there for your POC partner and are ready and willing to do what it takes to ensure they feel supported.
Be ready if there the support they need ultimately takes a lot of time and energy from you; on the other hand, be understanding if there is nothing you can do.
6. In the fight for equality and injustice, is there something you would like us to do together?
(e.g. researching petitions and laws, writing letters, selecting organizations to donate to, etc.)?
You should already be doing this work on your own, and they may or may not be participating on their own time. But if you share money, you might want to figure out places to donate to together. Or if you like to work together in general given your different skill sets, this could be a great opportunity to divide and conquer, using your separate strengths accordingly.
Example: Having access to more opposing mindsets, and having more emotional energy for it, John has taken on a lot of social media-based conversations and explanations. I, on the other hand, have been selecting petitions, writing to political leaders, and have the final say on which organizations we ultimately allocate our money towards.
7. Is there anything you’d like to get off of your chest?
I love this question because it’s a welcoming yes/no question with absolutely no pressure to say anything besides “no” if that’s how you feel, but also provides so much space for a big ol’ rant too.
There’s pressure in “how are you?”, because you have to confront how you feel, even if you don’t want to (and even if you end up fibbing and saying “fine”).
But with this question, saying “no” is not lying, and you can also say “asjidhfgoaisudfghiaeudhfgausdhgfawouidghfawdjsghoaiduhfgiuasdghqidfg”. Excellent.
8. How would you like to be supported when you are dealing with a race-based encounters in the future?
Just as everyone has different histories with race and race-based encounters, they will also have different expectation and comfort levels when it comes to dealing with them in the future, let alone having someone else be involved.
Some people may want their partner sticking up for them every time, some may want to stick up for themselves and just have their partner’s emotional support thereafter, some may want a combination depending on the type of situation. It’s totally up to your partner, and just like for all of these questions, there’s no right or wrong answer.
9. How can I improve in my discussions with family and friends regarding race?
A lot of people assume that if they are not racist, then that is good enough. There’s no reason to try and change other people’s minds about it. Some even assume it’s impossible to do so.
Everyone has a right to their own opinion about this, but depending on your family/friends and their interactions with your partner and/or your partner’s race, they may have a very specific opinion on how they would like you to address this topic with your loved ones. The best way to support your POC partner may to be to talk with other people instead of them.
It is my and John’s belief that the comfort of your partner – especially in terms of the comfort with being her/himself in her/his skin around your friends and family – should supersede any discomfort that may arise from a conversation about race with your family and peers.
On the other hand, your partner might not care, might prefer you avoid the topic unless they are genuinely concerned, or might prefer holding the discussion themselves.
If your family doesn’t approve of your interracial relationship, these questions may help you navigate that difficult situation.
10. Are you okay with me using your personal stories as examples, for additional perspective, within these conversations?
If your partner does want you to have these types of discussions with your family and peers, this is a very important question to ask first. You might not think that this is a big deal, but again – these experiences can be traumatic, and you shouldn’t assume that your partner is comfortable with you sharing their specific stories. If they are, this perspective could be very helpful in moving the needle with family/friends who don’t yet understand the impact of racism and/or don’t know very many POC. But you must ask first.
BONUS: What NOT to Ask Right Now
How are you feeling?
This is too general and too upsetting for a topic that tends to bring an overwhelming roller coaster of emotions. At the end of the day, supporting your POC partner is about meeting their individual needs. Choose instead to ask something more specific like number 5 “what can I do to support you?”, number 7 “is there anything you’d like to get off your chest?”, “what is your energy like today”, or simply “let me know what you need”.
What should I do to learn more about your race? Or What should I read to be more anti racist?
Please do not ask any POC right now to put resources together for your and create a lesson plan to learn about their historical, political, socioeconomic, and legal discrimination and struggles right now. It’s not their job, and you should figure out – through Google, social media, etc. – what the gaps in your knowledge are and what you need to learn.
What other questions do you think should be included on this list? Please feel free to share in the comments below.
Loving the old; exploring the new,
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