Getting There From Here: Interracial Intimacy- Part I

[Note to Reader: This is a rather long read I’ll warn you, and one that is organized more by the neurons in my belly than the ones in my head, but I audaciously, earnestly and genuinely hope that by the time you reach the end you will have discovered something new that will facilitate a greater empathy, awareness & passion for engaging in the life stories of different peoples. It started out as one post which I decided to break apart knowing the attention span of the average industrialized human being.

Part 1 will deal primarily with defining intimacy and with a bit of U.S. racial history, Parts 2 and 3 with my experience and observations. I would also like to make it clear that I DO NOT believe the relationship(s) between Black & White culture/people to be the only one(s) of relevance, importance or impact; it is simply the relationship(s) I will reference here because it is where my personal experience comes from and I practice not trying to speak others truths. Also, this is intended to be neither scholarly nor academic. It is what I believe today based on my experiences of yester days.

Disclaiming is done.]

– Part 1 –

     While reading up on yet another of my emotional-psychosomatic physiological conditions, also known as the side-effects of being a well-lived human being, my brain mixed together quite a few different bits of information and a peculiar concept came out of it: racial intimacy. Not dating or relations in the group level sense, but intimacy. I know this sounds soo Berkeley woo-woo strange but, please, dive with me.

Merriam-Websters online dictionary defines intimacy (noun) as:

1. the state of being intimate, familiarity;

2. something of personal or private nature.

 It’s a good place to start, but, of course, there’s also that whole defining a word by its root thing, so let’s take a step back and define intimate:

1.a. intrinsic, essential; b. belonging to or characterizing one’s deepest nature;
2. marked by a very close association, contact or familiarity;
3.a. marked by a warm friendship developing through long association, b. suggesting informal warmth or privacy;
b. suggesting informal warmth or privacy;

4. of a very personal or private nature.

Now, in this country’s history the separation of people into races has produced unique, specific & easily identified differences in how people go through the life experience and there is nothing more intimate than our experiences of our own lives. They are the basis of all culture, the ways we create by adapting to our particular circumstances. What is so strange is that despite the intimacy of our environment (we’re all in this together and have been for the last 500 odd years), for the most part, we seem to be unfamiliar with or unable to recognize, at the empathetic level, how these differences affect people. For example, while many white people may experience both shame & guilt for being descended from slavers, the descendants of enslaved Africans might experience shame in being descendants of enslaved people & it’s unlikely they would experience guilt in response to this truth. This results in the development of different coping skills to deal with these different feelings. They represent just two very distinct, profound & understandable relationships to the one reality that slavery was practiced.

Another reality is that regardless of how you’re related to it, it’s painful. It hurts to know that you carry the karma of slavers and it hurts to know you carry the karma of the enslaved, and it’s even more confusing (and therefore painful) to know that you likely carry both. Not to mention those who may have immigrated after the fact yet still have to grapple with this karma through their experiences here (talk about a goat rodeo!). When it hurts, how it hurts, where it hurts, and why it hurts are all different because the nature of the wounds is different, as are our relationships to them, but we are one in being hurt. We are also unified in having human reactions to being hurt, like denial, defensiveness, aggressiveness, stockholming (my verbification of Stockholm Syndrome) and so forth, all of which are easily observable in our world (the next time you think Uncle Tom, think Stockholm Syndrome and see how differently you understand the phenomena).

Intimacy, specifically in the realm of relationships, is one of those areas of life that has proven itself to be just as much of a conundrum for contemporary living in the United States. Capitalism thrives on the negative feelings that separation & isolation create while our industry-driven technology addiction keeps us more firmly attached to our gadgets than the people around us. Intimacy is something much sought after and little understood because the socio-cultural environment we live in does not openly acknowledge its existence as something both real and necessary for human survival; more often than not it’s regarded as something that merely improves a sexual experience. Yet, while reading an article (which did indeed have to do with sex) an idea of relational intimacy was presented to me that punched the ticket on this thought train: the creation of intimacy (remember, those definitions) is driven by interest. Damn.; obvious & profound.

Many of the relationships I´ve had in my life have been interracial, romantic or otherwise. Until the 5th grade, I lived in an incredibly diverse neighborhood in a different part of both state and country than most of my family. Once we moved to a shockingly less diverse, mostly upper-middle class white, part of town I attended my last year of elementary then jr. high and high school in an environment with incredibly limited access to people who shared my cultural background, as well as less access to the general diversity of my previous life experience.

So much of what defined life for me was simply not possible in this environment. Like learning Spanish from our next door neighbors to the South & Vietnamese from our next door neighbors to the North, or why not to use God’s name in vain from the Jehovah’s Witness’ across the street and how to swear like a sailor from the Irish family two doors up from them; I’m talking diversity way deeper than race here. The majority of my classmates came from very homogenous cultural backgrounds, they went to school with people who looked & lived like them, they lived in neighborhoods where people looked & lived like them, and they frequented environments where 90% of the people looked & lived like they did. And if this wasn’t the case, it was likely because they were the token family of differences in their environment.

There were many consequences of this vast difference of experience, some amazing & helpful, others not so much, but one that I didn´t understand until reading this article was that much of the not so much resulted from a lack of intimacy, a situation I still contend with. The lack of resources available for me to feel seen, understood & appreciated around my racial identity, especially at that time in my life, has had a unique, tangible, long-term & detrimental impact on my life, which in itself is a case in point. Whiteness as a culture/perspective is so pervasive that there is no need to create specified resources to support it, it’s de facto supported by the vast majority of what is created in the media which dominates our environment

Relational intimacy intricately involves knowledge (which the aforementioned media distorts quite regularly). It involves knowing someone for more than what they appear to be, knowing how they respond and are shaped by the dynamic interactions between their tangible and intangible lives and knowing something about what those lives are. It is not created by one person talking at or about another, it’s created by the active sharing of information that puts both parties in a place of being equitably informed, it’s the creative process called unity. One of the key factors of the continued racism of this society and culture are the spheres of knowledge that do not cross racial lines.

Growing up with a rich oral history tradition as a descendant of enslaved Africans, I was always privy to knowledge about U.S. history which most of my peers were not. I received a parallel education outside of school where almost all of my extra-curricular activities reinforced my sense of belonging within a strong pan-African diaspora. I was also privy to a certain amount of information, intimacy in the sense of familiarity as well as due to my cultural immersion, about their culture which was thoroughly unequal. And what made it worse was that most of them didn’t care that they didn´t know, there was no interest in knowing this part of me. Here’s where it starts to come together.  Interracial Intimacy Part II