A couple of years ago I fell in love with a white guy. He had a ready smile and this habit of fluttering his blonde eyelashes when he was thinking very hard. We struck up a friendship after he asked to borrow my copy of “The Complete Works of Langston Hughes.” He was so totally white that I didn’t know he liked me. The thought didn’t even cross my mind. So the day he kissed me in the middle of a documentary about the Vatican I was stunned. But the kiss was soooooo good and before I knew it we were making out and then making love and then being in love. No one had ever loved me that fiercely. No one had ever made me feel so good. The first time we were together was the first time for either of us and as he slid into me and I ran my fingers through his hair I felt like something was coming full circle, like a lot of the things I had carried in my heart since I was a child had finally found a safe resting place.
He wasn’t the clueless type of white person. He knew everything there was to know about how race worked around the world. He knew everything there was to know about feminism and history and the fundamental power imbalances that existed between men and women, white and brown, straight and gay. That stuff was the foundation of my existence, part of how I personally worked to bridge injustice and though he understood how important these things were and more importantly how important these things were to me I could not shake the fear that by being with him I was somehow contributing to a narrative that started in slave shacks in America, in slave dungeons in Ghana and ended in centuries of exotification, erasure and self-hatred. Where I was from there was a certain type of woman who dated a white man. She was usually very confused. She thought white people were inherently smarter, better and more human than her own people. She dreamed of living in Europe or America and there was nothing she wanted more than light-skinned children with good hair. She spoke less than stellar English and always had a bad weave.
I had had natural hair all of my life, save for a year of bad decisions between secondary school and university and I thought, in a world of marginalization which said black people were ugly and unworthy of unity and loyalty, that a black man and a black woman truly loving each other was close to an act of revolution.
So I agonized about what it meant to love a white man, what kind of children I would be bringing into the world and how I could ever ensure they never felt better than the kind of black people who looked like me because everyone on my continent and the world at large kept reassuring them that they were worth more because they were half-white. I spent nights feeling resentful about the discrepancy in how my man and I were viewed, angry that to anyone who saw us together he would seem like the embodiment of enlightenment and I would seem like someone who was trying to leave her people and enter a new, easier world. Every time a black man saw us holding hands and glared at me across the street, every time someone assumed my man was my tutor or my student or some business associate because they didn’t put he and I together in a romantic sense, every time someone made a disparaging comment about never being able to sleep with a white person cos they were so pink and pale and “cultureless” I cringed. Every time some random white person beamed at the two of us like we were MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech come to life and went out of their way to tell us what a beautiful couple we made and how happy seeing us made them feel about the future of the country I felt like a fraud. It all seemed like a personal indictment. Sometimes when he was inside me I wondered how many images he might have subconsciously imbibed about Aunt Jemima, the AIDS orphans on CNN, the “video hos” on MTV and whether his love for me, in a world that had bombarded him with messages about my sexuality and fetishized me with the “Jezebel” stereotype, could ever exist purely on its own.
He reassured me that it could. He empathized with my struggles. But on some level he also found it unnecessarily analytical. He had told me once that he wasn’t the kind of man to tell me he didn’t deserve me and use that as an excuse to set low expectations of his behavior for both of us, that as far as he was concerned he was worthy of me. He would love me fiercely and dedicate himself to the relationship. He would put into it the kind of work that was necessary to succeed at school or at a job. I believed him and I believed in his love and I felt like we could face it together but I was never totally comfortable in the relationship. I loved him tentatively while he loved me entirely and he could always sense it. By the time I totally let go and let myself love him completely he didn’t love me anymore and the relationship ended.
I was devastated and in the years following I really gave what we had had a lot of thought. I realized I made a few big mistakes. The first is I brought too much historical baggage into the relationship. Though I’m not the kind of person who thinks problematic history can be wiped out by Kumbaya fireside humming and everyone dating outside of their race I do think if everyone is cognizant of how much work there is to be done that the differences can be bridged. I do think if the black person is not the one constantly expected to assimilate into the other person’s culture, both personalities and communities are respected and the other person is not dismissive of the black person’s lived experiences, that some equilibrium can be achieved. At some point the two people can stop “being their races” and just be two people who are trying to make a relationship work.
The other big mistake I made was in caring too much what other people thought. At the end of the day your love life is your own and finding someone to share a life with is hard enough. You have to learn how to make it about just the two of you. Either the rest of the world will fall in line or you will learn to make them invisible. When the two of you are wrapped in each other’s arms, falling into an abyss of touch and smell and taste, everyone and everything else will recede like the tide. And when you are awake and walking in the world reminding yourself of those moments will make the times of judgment bearable.
Finally, the third and largest mistake I made was in not fully accepting his love. On some unacknowledged level, I think, I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that someone would love me enough to want to deal with that kind of challenge when they could just be with someone who was more like them or whose politics made being with them a non-issue. In some buried part of me, I now see, I always thought that one day he would decide that being with me was too much trouble and finding someone less invested in what made the world how it was was a better and easier endeavor. I thought being fucked and then being left by a white man was the most shameful thing in the world and I didn’t want to give that a chance to happen. I didn’t love myself, in all my complicated glory, enough to believe that he could love me.
So, sistas, the reason behind this long tome is simply to say that be open to love wherever you find it. When you ask the universe for your mate try to focus less on the image you have of the “ideal black man” and the Barack-Michelle future with the 2.5 caramel kids and emphasize instead what kind of character you want, what kind of values best fit yours, what kind of man can love you when all the chips are down. Try to find someone who gets the things that are most important to you, who wants to help make you the most content version of yourself and who makes your toes curl at night. He might not look how you want him to look or come from where you imagined he would come from but if he looks at you like you are beautiful and holds you like you are precious and treasured let the rest of it go and give him a chance.
F.N. is a thirty something free-lance writer from Ghana. Currently, she is trying out a new life in Washington, DC