A Black woman friend who also has a white husband confesses at the height of the George Floyd protests: “Times like these, I don’t know why I’m with a white man.”
“That’s a thought I’ve had,” I say. Black people are fighting white supremacy with a force unlike any I’ve seen in my lifetime.
This time, the fight hits more personal, too. I had trouble being around white people at the onset of it; my rage was too thick. In my own house, it feels disloyal not to assume the battle lines. It’s like I’m stunting the cause of my life through affiliations that subvert it—most centrally, my husband. At night, sleeping beside him, I feel the guilt of betraying my people, of betraying myself. More than that, I feel lonely.
There is a balm for this sort of collective pain my people are experiencing. We have been supplying it to each other for centuries. In conversations with my Black women friends, I have felt soothed not by any one thing they’ve said, but by the gentle power of their complete understanding. And then I go home where I can’t help but see the country’s shadows in my husband’s face.
Let me back up. My husband is woke. He’s a senior director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging for a prominent tech company. He frequents protests more than I do, often with our children. He’s quick to correct microaggressions when he notices them. He’s viewed by many in our community as an accomplice who understands the history and weight of white supremacy, the perspectives of Black people fighting for equality, and the relevant corrections that might begin to upend generations of injustice. I am prouder of him than I can say.
Nevertheless, he’s a privileged white man: he’s been given the benefit of the doubt in schools, in the workplace, and just on the street for thirty-eight years. The comfort that comes from being appraised in that way can’t be overstated. It’s evident in the way he carries himself, the tone of voice he uses, the rights he assumes. Sometimes I read him as entitled. How could he not be? Our country has raised him that way.
The country has raised me the opposite. I expect to have my opinions discounted. I am paid less for equal work. I work harder because it’s assumed I’ll make a mistake and if I do, it will reflect on my entire race. I swallow my own anger so I won’t be viewed as bitter. I code-switch around whites so I’ll be viewed as safe. I bring my husband along to doctor appointments so I’ll be viewed as worthy. I tense up around the police. At thirty-seven, I am still teaching myself to use my voice.
On the weekend following George Floyd’s murder, at the height of the protests, my husband, grief-stricken and overworked, cried. I comforted him, shelving my own sadness for a time that has not yet come. Later, his white friends will ask us how we’re doing and then zero in on him, saying in front of me that it must be so hard for him right now given the nature of his work. How is he holding up?
When, later that night, I point out the irony of that display, how dispiriting it was that even in their attempt to ally they were so fundamentally flawed, my husband says he doesn’t remember it.
“Did you notice?” I ask.
He says no. He didn’t notice. He feels guilty about his misstep, I can tell, and the guilt is a certain wedge between us. He says he’s tired and turns over. He won’t be able to hear me tonight.
The thing is, I’m tired, too. For once, I want to not have to explain why I’m hurt. I want him to notice on his own whatever racist slight has stung me. I am tired of dragging him over into acknowledgement. I want the balm of understanding—that wordless resonance I felt with my Black women friends—to envelop me from inside my most intimate bond.
Ultimately, my husband will move past his guilt and apologize. He’ll speak to his people; he’ll do whatever is in his power to make things right. Part of the reason he does this is because he understands that the toxic power dynamics in this country can’t help but affect our power dynamic at home, and that to snuff them out in the world, he, as a beneficiary of that power dynamic, as a beneficiary of that privilege, needs to snuff them out at even the most microscopic level.
More than that, my husband loves me and wants me to be happy. He sees our lives as blended, our potential for happiness as linked, and for those reasons he’s able to demand change in himself. If he was still acting from a place of guilt, the way he was when I first asked him about his friends’ remarks, that change wouldn’t have been possible. The guilt would have kept the conversation about him; it would have obfuscated the bigger picture, the interior work that is necessary for sustained progress in our marriage, and in the country. Because he’s willing to do that work, especially when it’s uncomfortable for him, I have deep faith in us, even though I have to dig deep for it sometimes.
This is where our story and the country’s may diverge. There’s an influx of support streaming in from white people right now. Black people are hearing from former colleagues and associates they never thought they’d speak to again. Any white progressive worth her salt is posting black squares or the latest instructive memes on privilege. Donations to bail funds are soaring, and yet most Black people I know are suspicious. How could they not be? It’s hard to know what sparked the sudden onset of concern. If it’s guilt, it won’t lead to sustained impact, just as it wouldn’t in my own relationship. In a few weeks, the concern will start to dwindle as will the support, and unfortunately, without the commitment of allies, the movement will falter. It is white people’s problem after all, racism. They’re the inventors of it, and they’re the carriers and the wielders. Its demise rests in their hands.
Maybe something different is going on, though. Maybe there’s awareness now, beyond my own family, that our lives are blended. Our potential for happiness is linked. The time certainly feels distinct. COVID-19 has kept us isolated for months, yet aware of a greater connection. Perhaps the realization of our shared humanity has contributed to a new day. Perhaps it is the realization that the same white supremacy that elected the leader who landed the country in this mire is responsible for George Floyd’s death. Perhaps the sense of helplessness the virus has provoked has lent whites a hint of what it might feel like to be at perpetual mercy. If through one of these threads, whites have glimpsed our predicament as part of their own, our reprieve as necessary for their own liberation, if they view themselves as inevitable contributors to this system and thus fundamental keys to its dismantling, I am as hopeful for unity in the country as I am for it in my own house. Even if sometimes, to reach that hope, I have to dig deep.
Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s most recent novel, The Revisioners, won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work and was a national best seller as well as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, was long-listed for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, won the Crook’s Corner Book Prize, and was the recipient of the First Novelist Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. She lives in Oakland with her family.