* Note to Reader from Part I: 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 III –
This lack of understanding created a situation where intimacy was blocked, there was no traffic between narratives. We’ve all been there, felt that obstacle, that thing in a relationship that you just can’t seem to get around, over or under, when connection just isn’t there. The block was already so vast at the age of 14 that it precluded our abilities to see each other in our full forms. Had they had any interest in increasing their knowledge it would have increased the level of intimacy possible, and increased the possibility to develop healthy, full relationships. The lack of interest killed the potential intimacy. Had there been an expressed interest I would have felt recognized, appreciated for my differences and empowered by the potential value of what those differences brought to the table. Instead, I was overlooked, talked down upon and shut out from being fully seen. I can count the number of white friends I made at that school with less than one hand. The reason is because I was not able to develop an adequate level of understanding, and therefore the emotional trust and safety also necessary for intimacy, with most of my white peers. They didn´t get it because they didn´t care and it was the not caring more than the not knowing that made genuine, personal relationship impossible.
The only person I dated in all 6 of my years at that school was white though more by his skin than culture per se. He had none of the other markers of the status of his other white peers, not the money, the lifestyle, or the bubble. this difference made his reality closer to mine, we were both knowledgeable about crime, neglect & abuse, vacations spent at home, limited financial resources; we had a level of intimacy of life experiences available to us that did not exist with my other white peers of different socio-economic standing. His understanding of the life conditions that often accompany brown skin in this country thanks to centuries of societal neglect meant that I didn´t have to defend or prove certain aspects of my reality, which I constantly had to do with other classmates who were only intimate with an essentially homogenous, white, middle-class life experience. When I moved to Portland a decade after graduating from high school I quickly, and sorrowfully, lost the hope that what I had experienced were the simple teenage growing pains people outgrow.
While gaining certification in poetry & independent publishing I began dating someone who was 10 years my senior, southern and white (he was also a Virgo which makes no astrological sense with my Libra, but I´ve always been a risk taker). As someone who has never really experienced living inside of a comfort zone I can honestly say I don´t know the difference between risk and breathing for they have always been so intricately intertwined, but that’s a whole other traumail. We fell in love quickly, and out of it with as much rapid-fire pacing, and while we had many other issues, one that loomed large in our relationship was race. For all the intimacy we shared as mainstream outsiders & book loving fantasyphiles who felt daily showering to be a little overrated, we shared almost no racial intimacy. Well actually, he shared none with me. I’d gone to college in his hometown, and had been educated with other people much like him, comfortable, privileged & normalized. This would not have been quite as clear to me had I still been living in Oakland where the environmental diversity does much to offset certain kinds of strain, but in Portland this was huge. My own image in the mirror was the most brown-skin I might see all week, especially once my brother left the city.
When I would walk, well anywhere really, all of my movements were followed by curious eyes, always questioning, wondering about my obvious difference. There was absolutely no space other than my workspace that I felt seen for being much more than black and therefore different, whatever that meant to the observer. One day while walking back from lunch I found myself on a street corner with a wrap on my head, earphones in my ears, and the unmistakable sensation of being watched. I looked up. I was surround. Five white people stood around me all with their necks craned and direct attention on my body, curious, yet none of them would meet my eyes when I looked up. One white woman actually ran away from me one night when I approached her to ask for directions; she had been standing still… ironically, I was with a friend, another white woman, who was too afraid to ask her. We got on the trolley stunned. I wondered if/what the woman who ran from me told her friends or family once she got home. I let my friend ramble about how weird it was for a few moments while I stilled the anger in my body before pointing out the elephant, “I’m black.” She froze. It hadn’t occurred to her. I could never make these kinds of experiences up. Who would want to?
While due to my previous life experiences I understood the societal & psychological functions at work in his struggle to come to grips with this being a major problem for me, he had none of the familiarity with the dynamics of my life needed to make reciprocal intimacy, nor appropriate support, possible. I also had an understanding of his life experience from having been socialized around it, though, of course, this was not reciprocal. And once again, though he tried as far as his self-image compelled him, he didn’t really want to know, because not knowing was comfortable and as a middle-class white male he was conditioned for comfort. Ultimately his actions admitted that his comfort zone mattered more to him than sharing the oft times painful information about my life experience, which in that environment were heavily influenced by my race, that intimacy requires. For me it was my life experience, simple & raw; for him, it was a great leap into discomfort to acknowledge the annoyance & pain that I felt daily as a result of living in a racialized society where my brown skin was considered strange and his white skin was not. It was more comfortable to dismiss my experiences, ignore the emotional content of them & rationalize the behavior of people who hurt me, not because he wanted to hurt me but because he didn’t have the knowledge to integrate the information into his life in a functional way, an almost tacit social survival skill for black people in this country.
This inability to safely, openly share and accept knowledge around racial dynamics has proven itself time and time again to be a major stumbling block in my relationships with white people as friends, lovers or any position that requires a certain amount of intimacy. There are of course exceptions to this rule, but they are just that, exceptions. Me as the more context aware party is generally perceived to have the problem rather than the problem actually being an empathy crippling level of ignorance about both what´s at play and what´s at stake. Without consciously being aware of this division in understanding, the situation quickly becomes psychologically and emotionally abusive, just a microcosm of the macro issue of race relations here. I am frequently put into positions to prove my experiences relating to race as legitimate, valid & intelligently interpreted, as if simply because something is related to race I suddenly lose all the credibility my education, experience and manner otherwise afford me. I believe that when people are able to treat their interracial relationships with specialized caring- putting the unique needs of the individual/situation in front of you before preconceived notions or personal assumptions of what’s needed- this breach in intimacy may be healed, but only through developing an actively engaged knowledge base that is equally rich & informed from both perspectives. As with all relationships, it takes both parties and we have a lot of work to do.