Meeting the Best Person I Know Came with a Price
I met my husband when I was a junior in college. My school encouraged trips abroad, and I chose to go to Trinidad with a group of eight other English majors. I had dreadlocks, listened to Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild, and I assumed I'd meet a Trinidadian boyfriend who'd know the words to India.Arie's "Brown Skin." When I got to St. Augustine, however, I spent more time with the rest of my college group than with the locals. I was one of the only black people on the trip, but we were all Americans, and our foreignness bonded us more than our color divided us.
Immediately, I was endeared to my husband's sense of humor and inclination for fun. We went to $2 double features every Wednesday night and danced to Sean Paul at the local clubs. I called my mother toward the end of the trip and told her about him. "Be careful," she said. "It's going to be harder for you because he's white." I was hurt. I argued with her; I told her she didn't know him and didn't know a thing about us. I was 19, and finding the love I'd pined after for so long felt more important than any thought society might have about it.
My husband and I were inseparable for the rest of that school year. My line sisters dug that he went to Afro-American Society meetings, and his group of multicultural friends were unfazed by a nonwhite girlfriend. After college, we spent a year in the Dominican Republic doing civil rights work. We traveled to different beaches every other weekend. We made tuna pasta and ate it by candlelight. We binge-watched 24 on a portable DVD player. Whenever we went out, though, people couldn't stop staring at us. Men and women addressed him as señor and wouldn't look me in the eye. A few months in, I learned that many strangers thought I was his prostitute. It was the only way they could reconcile us being together.
I was eager to come back to the states and start our real life, but there were problems waiting for me here too. Once, a white acquaintance of my husband's sang along to the song "Ridin'" and then explained that "ridin' dirty" meant driving without insurance because apparently that was something black people did. Another white "friend" said that the police had harassed him and his buddies the night before but should have had better things to do than try to intimidate a bunch of white kids.
My husband or I always corrected these people, but that didn't make me feel less isolated. Afterward, my husband assured me that those comments were rare examples of ignorance and that most people didn't think like that. Even so, I was bitter. How could he tell me to ignore situations he hadn't had to experience? But I knew he was only trying to make me feel better, and I told myself the offenses wouldn't interfere with our relationship.
A year after we were married, we found out we were having twins. I'd never felt so close to my husband as when I saw glimpses of him in the children I'd carried. I'd never seen such a tender side of him as when he woke up in the night to swaddle his daughter. But something serious and mighty was growing inside me: When it came to my children, I couldn't accept anyone's assurances that racism was dying out. People would tell me sometimes that my children were so beautiful because of their coloring, or they'd assume I was my children's nanny, and I would respond with a ferocity that I didn't know I possessed.
At the same time, instances of police violence against blacks became more and more visible. Police had been maiming and killing black people for centuries, but these acts were now being caught on tape. The issue was all over social media, and I began to learn a language that explained all the anger I'd felt but hadn't voiced. When George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin, I saw again that much of America believed that it was reasonable to be afraid enough of an unarmed black boy to kill him. These weren't just the fringes. Juries were making the same determinations again and again and again.
My husband was similarly affected. He took on diversity initiatives in his workplace and mobilized his friends for protests. He listened to Killer Mike and read Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander, and he shared this new knowledge with his white family. He often hung a Black Lives Matter flag on our Highlander and drove through Oakland, waving it around, but it had become difficult for me to divorce the massive white world from his white face. His proximity had become a constant reminder of whom this world prized and whom it did not. If he was impatient with me, it felt less like a byproduct of marriage than the great weight of the world's devaluing. I lost my temper more than I used to. My response might have seemed like anger, but beneath it there was a deep, deep sadness that I'd never be viewed as whole rather as a stereotype, a projection, a fraction of a human, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. And yet, there was this person beside me, my husband, who would always receive the benefit of the doubt.
His privileges started to leap out at me. Each one I identified made me more upset. I suddenly understood how long I'd needed our relationship to be immune to race, and all the anger and sadness I'd buried began to rise. There was guilt, too, for the joy that I'd found through my union with a white man. The life that we'd built had been like a fortress for me—one that protected me—but I no longer felt comfortable settling into this protection. I'd start an argument during our closest moments because being happy with a white person seemed incompatible with honoring the suffering black people had endured for centuries. I felt like I needed to be fighting the man at all times, even in my own house.
But who would win if I brought that fight into my family? There is a place for rage, and I have the right to feel it, but what kind of revolution could be spurred by me turning that rage on myself? I am devoted to justice in every form, and I will always take action toward it. But nothing would be gained from disrupting the love that had bloomed in my heart. This love is a contribution to the whole world, and this love has made me the best I could become.
When my husband and I were in the Dominican Republic, we got up early one morning to swim in the ocean beneath the rising sun. A Dominican man ran over to us. He had something to tell us, he said, speaking to us in English. "I'm happy when I see you," he said. "I'm happy when I see you because you're different colors, but you love." Then, seemingly embarrassed, he hurried away. My husband and I joked about him for years after that. It seemed like a quick, easy comment at first, the kind of thing someone says without real meaning. Now, I look at it and wonder how I missed its depth: the acknowledgment of the effort that goes into choosing unlikely love. The recognition that meeting the best person I know came with a price.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton is the author of the novel A Kind of Freedom. She lives in the Bay Area of California with her family.