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|How I Dealt With My White Husband’s “racism Fatigue” by waystofatloss1: 2:08am On Jun 24|
[b]Married ten years to a Haitian woman, I could not help but see that the subject of racism had gradually become a source of alienation between us. I present her story here, in her own words, as a way to give voice to her concerns and, perhaps, to come to grips with my difficulty in more deeply sharing her experience as a woman of color.
It surprised me when my husband, Michael, an American, started to feel exhausted listening to tales of racism in my life as well as various run-ins with the same in New York City. What do you do when your partner seems out of sync with a core part of yourself? I have been an active participant in trying to right society’s wrongs: fighting against the marginalization of the Palestinians, working to get out the vote in black communities, and, as a judge in Haiti, refusing to accept the institutionalized discrimination against people without means. So, I initially tried to be patient with him, forcing myself not to scoff or roll my eyes at his Pollyanna-ish views but, after a while, the truth was undeniable: I was getting sick and tired of my husband’s so-called racism fatigue.
He said that I attributed virtually everything to racism. If I got a bagel with less butter than his, he said I would cry racism. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but he said that I suspected racism so often that he had the nerve to tell me that I reminded him of Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall who was paranoid about seeing anti-Semitism at every turn.
For a long time, he tried hard to show me that not everything is attributable to racism. He reached for more benevolent interpretations of events and interactions so much so that I became his polar opposite: just as I virtually saw racism everywhere in our society, he wound up attributing nothing to it. You can imagine how awkward this felt, especially because my skills as an attorney made winning an argument rather easy. His “brilliant” strategy of passively listening to me, minimally responding didn’t seem to be working. I would continually press him, asking him what he thought, didn’t he agree with me, and so on. After pitifully witnessing his feeble attempts to appear interested, I sometimes would accuse him of being a racist. He knew I didn’t exactly mean it but it hurt him nonetheless.
When we were together, he rarely saw an instance of discrimination or racism, perhaps attributable to living in Manhattan or just being a white guy. Over time, though, I wore him down, virtually forcing him to start seeing things from a different perspective, making it harder to rationalize my experience as something unintentional or benign. Much of the racism in my life had become quite normal to me but not to him. A number of incidents seemed particularly eye-opening to him, remarkable by virtue of their unexceptional, almost banal, nature — nothing near as meaningful as what we are all going through after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery. A few months ago, I was in the elevator in our building with an older white woman. Looking at me in my tightly-fitting workout clothes, the woman said:
“Are you a trainer here?” (Our building has a gym.)
I shook my head.
Continuing to smile, the woman said: “Do you work in the building?” (Our building is chock full of black nannies and housekeepers.)
The woman seemed flummoxed, so I said: “I live here.”
“Oh, yes, I see, hmm.” The woman looked away.
This intrusion on my day, out of the blue, minding my own business, angered Michael. While not fazed in the slightest by it, I was amused by his indignation. I kindly allowed him to vent, if not rant (if only he was better able to do the same for me).
Thinking this might be an opportunity to help him more deeply relate to my experience, I asked him to try thinking of something similar that happened to him, that suddenly intruded on his day. He came up with a rather pallid incident with his first wife when they were living in Phoenix. During one of their screaming matches, they heard this rustling outside the empty air-conditioner sleeve and a woman’s deep, husky voice yelled:
“Shut up, you Christ-killers.” The argument immediately stopped and they began rolling around on the floor, hysterically laughing at its ridiculousness, not because they weren’t Jews, which they were, but for the insanity of the thought applied to them. Hmm, not much to make out of that.
In December, I was walking in Central Park, coming home from visiting a friend in Brooklyn, pulling an L.L. Bean rolling bag. Two young, white women, holding hands, passed me, and then one abruptly turned back and approached. Smiling, the woman held out her hand and said: “Here is some change for you, ma’am.” I took the change, said thank you and the couple went on their way.
When I told Michael what happened, he initially laughed at the pure absurdity of it: a fit, professional woman being mistaken for a beggar or homeless person! I handed him the change and he counted it, “congratulating” me on being $1.49 richer. He asked me why I didn’t say anything; it could have been an educational moment for that couple. Why bother, I said, it wouldn’t do any good. Perhaps there was a charitable instinct under their condescension, he suggested. I blithely said that it was no different, in principle than driving or picnicking while black, just not as deadly or disturbing.
The coup de grace was when we went to see Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera. I needed a foam-seat cushion to see over the taller man sitting in front of me. I got one from the coat check and left my driver’s license as security. After the show, I went to return the cushion and retrieve my license. A white woman started flipping through the cards without asking for my name. She eventually pulled one out and handed it to me. It had the picture of a dark-complexioned, black woman. (I’m lighter-skinned.) It was not my license. The woman seemed puzzled, saying that I must not have left my license. I asked her to look again, this time giving her my name. After much searching, she pulled out my license. The woman seemed embarrassed, barely muttering an apology. The ordinariness of this was striking: all this woman could see was my color — in the cultural center of New York City.
Why do I share these stories with you? Certainly not in any way to equate them with what countless black people have suffered over the ages. It would be a waste of my time and yours if it was just to say that racism exists in our society. It would be almost as wasteful if it was just to show how I deal with racism with, I hope, some degree of equanimity. I do share them to tell you what I discovered about my husband and maybe what helps partially explain why so many goods, decent white people up to this momentous moment have done nothing to right the wrongs perpetrated at the founding of this country. It seemed that he did not want to think the world was as ugly as I often perceived it. The racism and casual cruelty clearly felt repugnant to him but it was far easier for him to experience it from a relatively safe distance, like marching en masse to city hall to protest the murder of Mr. Floyd, demanding systemic change. It was a hell of a lot harder experiencing it up close, seeing its impact on me and not being able to do anything about it!
To be clear, I make no excuses for my husband thinking he could shield himself from my pain through his racism fatigue. But, over the years, as my experiences penetrated his shield, he became more human. It’s possible that feelings I have had to deal with (and manage) all my life in order to navigate through this world of ours stimulated unresolved, unexamined issues in his life, maybe stemming from his troubled childhood, but that’s for him to figure out. In the end, while he cannot deeply relate to all my feelings as a woman of color, perhaps he has learned that he doesn’t have to numb himself to his pain as a way to avoid mine.
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