If You're White, Here's How To Listen When Your Black Partner Talks About Racism
Black people don't have the luxury of choosing to ignore racism. If you're white, the conversations about racial bias, police brutality, and white privilege that have been heightened by George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade's senseless deaths may be new to you, but it's not the Black community's job to educate white people. Becoming a better ally means seeking out anti-racism resources, taking actionable steps to fight racism and white supremacy, and above all, listening to the experiences of Black individuals. If you're white, here's how to listen when your Black partner talks about racism, because your SO should know they have your support.
In interracial relationships, it's imperative for white partners to be conscious of the racial disparity in education, representation, and the criminal justice system, among many other things. While a white person may be tempted to express their own feelings, apologize, or get defensive, initial conversations about racism with their Black partner should revolve around their SO's pain, not their own. The best thing a white partner can offer during conversations with a Black SO is support and a listening ear, not opinions. Here are some tips for navigating conversations about racism with your Black partner if you're not sure how to get started.
How Can A White Person Effectively Support Their Black Partner?
When discussing your Black partner's experiences with racism, the best thing you can do — according to Dr. Cindy T. Graham, licensed clinical psychologist and founder and owner of Brighter Hope Wellness Center — is seek to "listen to understand and not listen to respond." As she explains, "Too many times, [white] people listen from a position of defensiveness and therefore provide counterarguments rather than truly listening to what is being expressed." Keep in mind that not all experiences are the same, and listening to your SO's individual experiences with receptiveness rather than defensiveness is critical.
You don't have to present a solution for systemic racism, and you can't relate to the traumas of racism yourself, but you can help your partner work through their feelings. If you're not sure how to offer support, then ask your partner what sort of assistance they need, and remember that small gestures go a long way. As sex and relationship therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT suggests, "Rather than asking, 'What can I do?,' which can feel like an ask for more labor from a person who is already tired, try asking, 'Can I do something for you right now?'"
Above all, acknowledge the existence of systematic racism, and create a space where your SO can speak freely and without qualification. "Try not to squelch anger or frustration," Jor-El Caraballo, LMHC and co-founder of Viva Wellness, says. "Know that their feedback and their expressiveness might hurt you as a white person." Your partner may point out ways in which your own behavior is rooted in racial bias, and you should be open to potential feedback. If you're committed to listening, learning, and growing, your partner might forgive any missteps you make along the way.
What Should A White Person Be Mindful Of During Conversations About Racism?
Before engaging in a conversation about race, you'll want to make sure your partner feels safe and comfortable expressing themselves. "It is important to remember that many Black people do not have a lot of space for expressing themselves in work and in mixed social settings," Dr. Bedford E. F. Palmer II, licensed psychologist and author of Daddy Why Am I Brown?, explains. "Most Black individuals are forced to code-switch, shifting their outward presentation to one more acculturated to white social norms while in public. Code-switching is stressful, as one must add a layer of translation that may or may not feel genuine and authentic." Make it clear throughout the conversation that your partner doesn't have to censure themselves. If your partner feels they actually do have to censure themselves for you, that's important to discuss, and you should be receptive to that feedback.
A white person should also keep in mind that their Black partner may be receiving a lot of communication right now from others seeking to offer support, and they may feel overwhelmed. "While the support is encouraging, this is also increasing the mental and emotional load Black individuals are having to bear — especially those who may be one of very few other Black people in their social environments," says Dr. Graham. Give your SO control of the conversation, and accept the fact that they may not be prepared to delve into a discussion about racism at any given moment. "Do not push, but do not avoid the topic as though nothing is going on," Dr. Graham says.
How Should A White Person Approach Conversations About Racism?
For discussions as sensitive and uncomfortable as these, it's imperative for white people to determine whether or not their Black SO is ready to have this conversation. According to Caraballo, a white partner should first check in with their partner to see if they're open to having a constructive conversation in that moment. "Simply asking to have the conversation helps create a dynamic in which the Black partner has the power to pause if they need to in order to find relief through all that's going on," Caraballo explains.
In order to approach these difficult conversations, a white person should express desire to learn more about their partner's experiences. After acknowledging the presence and relevance of racism in your lives, let your partner know that — if they want to talk more about it — you are listening. "It is important to lead with listening because there is a lot to learn about another person's experience of race, and until you listen, you cannot understand," says Francis. Remember that it's OK to feel uncomfortable while discussing race and white privilege, as that discomfort is what will help you learn and grow.
What Questions Should A White Person Ask?
Being an active listener requires asking questions, though it can be difficult to know the right questions to ask. Dr. Palmer recommends presenting your partner with open-ended questions that require an answer beyond "yes" or "no." As he explains, "The best questions would make it clear to your partner that you are more interested in understanding them and their experience than wanting them to teach you about race and racism." Be sure to let your SO know they're not compelled to answer everything. "It is OK to ask your partner a question, and it is also OK for them to not want to answer," Dr. Palmer says.
Some questions you might ask include:
- How does racism affect your life in ways I may not realize?
- What sort of microaggressions do you face?
- What do you wish I understood about your experience?
While it can be difficult to fully grasp an emotional experience you haven't had yourself, listening for emotion words can help — and if your SO doesn't use any, try asking about their emotional state. "An example might be, 'That sounds like a terrifying experience,' or, 'How did you feel when they said that? How are you feeling now?'" says Francis. Be genuine in your curiosity, and try to comfort your partner in a way that is supportive and empathetic. According to Francis, unhelpful responses include forced optimism, blaming, denying, and making the situation about yourself.
How Should A White Person Respond To Difficult Conversations?
Hearing your loved one's experiences with racism for what is possibly the first time may be painful, but it's important to prioritize your partner's feelings over your own in the moment. According to Dr. Palmer, "The conversation should not be focused on the needs of the white person's but should instead be centered on the experience of their partner. This means these conversations should not be focused on sating the white partner's curiosity, nor should it be about addressing their feelings of guilt, shame, fear, or anger."
When participating in conversations about racism, a white person should actively listen with kindness and humility rather than making their own emotions the focus of the conversation. "It's important to emotionally prepare yourself to stay present with your Black partner as they share their experiences," Caraballo says. "It's also important to know that you will be imperfect and that's OK. You showing up and caring enough to explore this with them is a great place to start."
What Is The Best Way For A White Person To Be A Good Ally To Their Black Partner?
Being a good ally means being proactive — your Black SO cannot be relied upon to provide your education. "Commit to learning more about race and racial inequality," suggests Francis. "Do not require or expect your partners to teach you; yes, you will learn from them, but they do not want to be your instructor. Instead, read books, listen to podcasts, look up educators of color and pay them for their work." The more you educate yourself, the less likely you are to unintentionally say or do harmful things and the more likely you are to hold yourself accountable for racial bias.
As well as educating themselves, white people can learn about the many ways to get involved. "Support takes many forms and can range from personal (i.e., intervening when you see your partner being discriminated against) to more public (e.g. donating to causes)," Dr. Graham says. "Take inventory of one's own strengths and the wishes of your partner to decide which course of action is best for you and your situation."
Make sure you demonstrate to your partner your commitment to becoming actively anti-racist. "This doesn't just look like protesting but could look like self-education, personal development, and even therapy," says Caraballo. "There are plenty of resources to advance your knowledge that do not require education from your partner." Rather than asking your SO to speak for all Black people, learn more about their specific experiences, and expand your knowledge to better understand the experiences of others.
The most uncomfortable conversations are often the most important. If you're white and in a relationship with a Black person, you should engage in dialogues about race and racism, and not just right now. As Dr. Graham explains, "Understand that this discussion is not a one-and-done conversation but instead is one that needs to be ongoing." Not only will these conversations will make your relationship stronger — they will also make you a stronger ally to the Black community, which is more important than ever.
Shadeen Francis, LMFT, sex and relationship therapist and licensed psychotherapist