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The first hiccup was so innocuous that it only revealed itself to be a hiccup with the benefit of hindsight. We'd been dating for a few weeks when she asked, "How were you even single? You're a good-looking black man with a really good job. You should've had a girl in every city."
"I don't know. I guess I'm just not that smooth."
"Not the smoothest, but smooth enough to be trouble."
"Girl, I'm not trouble. I'm innocent. Can't you see my halo?" The conversation pretty much descended into laughter at that point. At the time I didn't interpret the question as being particularly racial. I was ten years younger than my peers at work, and I rarely encountered any other black people of any age with a similar position.
But my interpretation of that conversation changed when I received a forward from her a few months later. Her forwards were nearly always dirty jokes, so when the comment was "you'll really like this," I presumed it either just another dirty joke or more "shoppers of Wal-Mart" pictures.
What it actually was was a list of stereotypes and grossly exaggerated statistics about black people and education, intelligence, criminality, and laziness. It wrapped up by noting that black people "enjoy" life like this. As in "what people need to understand is that the problems black people have aren't a product of racism, they're the product of being from an inferior culture."
I struggled to grasp why she'd sent this to me. Was this some sort of weird congratulations for having "transcended" my race, or a messed-up way to break up with me?
When I got to her place to discuss the e-mail I wasn't in the best of moods. When she tried to kiss me, I pulled away from her, and we wound up arguing in her kitchen.
"I really just don't understand how you could send something that racist to me. Did you really think I wouldn't find that e-mail offensive? How can you even say you care for me with a straight face if you're sending me stuff like that?"
"Don't say that! You know I love you. The e-mail wasn't offensive — it was sad. Black people don't have to live like that, they could choose..."
I cut her off and held up my hand, wiggling my fingers at her. "Um, you do know I'm black, right?"
"I know, but you're different. You're educated and you have a good job. I don't really see you as black."
That was a twist of the knife. I'd been told all my life (by blacks and whites) that I wasn't "really black," either due to my clothes, the way I speak, the way I grew up. Was this the inevitable conclusion? I wind up dating women who are racist, but don't see me as black? Just a white guy with curly hair who doesn't need sunscreen?
"That's nonsense," I snapped. "Black is the color of my skin, not my education and income. Either way, I don't understand why you thought you could send me something like that."
"I wasn't trying to hurt you. The e-mail wasn't racist — it was just stating facts."
"You do realize this is the same kind of garbage that the KKK would say, right? The same type of language and everything?"
"Come on, you know I'm not like that! It may be similar language, but you know I'm not a racist."
Her last statement threw me for a few beats, not because of her words, but because of the look in her eyes. She looked hurt. It was a bizarre thing to process — the racist girlfriend is supposed to be the one who doesn't want people to know, someone who gets off on the fetish or taboo aspect of the situation. You're not supposed to see hurt in her eyes when you confront her. She's not supposed to be afraid of losing you.
"No matter how you spin it, calling people inferior because of their race — not to mention saying I'm not black because I'm educated — is racist, period. I don't think I can be with someone like you. I can't be in a situation like this."
She tried to reach out to me. "Please don't say that. You know how I feel about you — can't we just forget..."
"No, I can't do this. I just can't."
She started to cry, and I instinctively reached out to comfort her. But she backed away from me and shook her head, walking over to the stove and turning away from me so I couldn't see her face.
I had always thought that if I wound up in a situation like this it would be easy to leave, but people are complicated, and it's hard to separate the layers we love from the layers that repulse us. I'd wanted us to have a bitter confrontation that would confirm my worst fears about our relationship, reduce her to a racist caricature, and end with my triumphant exit. Instead, I found myself standing awkwardly in her kitchen, struggling to reconcile the fact that this racist person was also a kind woman who loved me. Taren had one of the biggest hearts I've ever seen on anyone. But I still wasn't going to compromise myself for her, no matter how much it hurt to lose the side of her that I cared about.
I hate admitting this, but I took two steps towards her, stopped myself, and then turned around and let myself out.