Whenever I’m standing on a subway platform, I play this game: I hover near a person I think is cute and try to slowly make my way over to him so we get in the same car. When we do, I look his way every so often to see if he’s staring back, to see if we’ve got what my best friend and I call “the affinity,” a mutual acknowledgement that we see one another. That maybe we like each other. I fantasize about our meet-cute. I wonder what it’d be like to talk to him. It’s a pretty good way to pass the time from Brooklyn to midtown.
For most of my adult life, I’ve dated white guys. I spent my childhood surrounded by black and brown kids, but when I got to high school, suddenly everyone around me was white. Like most of the girls in my class, I wanted attention from the boys. But while they chased after blondes and brunettes, I was ignored. And on those rare occasions a white boy kissed me in the copy-machine room at our high school, or when a white boy told me over the phone he had a crush on me, the acknowledgement made me feel chosen. It was addictive. The white boys I grew up with were cool: They rode their skateboards on private property. They smoked weed in their parents’ houses with abandon. I envied and desired their freedom. If they wanted me, I thought, it was because I seemed free like them. Cool like them. At 18, I was fixated on being attractive to them. Since college I’ve had five boyfriends, and all of them have been white. And those affinity moments on the train? They’re with white guys too.
White men have preoccupied me my whole life, from the schoolyard to the subway, but these days I’m seeing them differently. They’re no longer the object of my affection, a mirror for my self-worth, or an affirmation of my beauty. Right now, they seem altogether alien.
The night Trump was elected, I wrote about feeling lonely. I wanted to be comforted — but I wanted it to be by someone who had an inkling of the anxiety I felt for my family, my loved ones, and for myself. In the past, I’d have sought that comfort out in a white man, but that night I knew it wouldn’t be enough. It’s not that I don’t think white people are anxious; two months into Trump’s presidency, most of the white people in my life are activated. They’re in the streets, calling senators and congressmen, attending community board meetings, and holding sign-making parties. I’m glad for it. But while the political universes of my white friends are cracking open, I’m feeling more inclined than ever to cloister myself.
I’ve gone on a few dates with white guys in the last few months, and the same thing always happens. During a bathroom break or a trip to the bar, I’ll check my phone, and almost always there is a news alert telling me Donald Trump is attempting to curtail, or has just succeeded in curtailing, the rights of marginalized people in America. It’s an odd thing to then go back to my date and continue the performance of “getting to know you.” I fantasize about walking up to him and saying, “Gotta go!” before heading for the door, but instead, I sit down, and continue talking about which dystopian novel best describes our current predicament, or whatever. Even if I did want to talk about how I feel, I’m not sure I’d be able to articulate it, especially to someone with such a different frame of reference from my own. In those moments, I’ve wished to be sitting in front of someone who could relate. Despite knowing I can feel intimacy with white guys, right now what divides us feels like a chasm.
In every relationship I have with a white man, there comes a moment when they come to understand a simple fact of my life: that racism is an intimate part of my daily existence. Sometimes, they’re enraged — like the time when I called my last boyfriend after I left American Apparel in search of nipple covers for a white bodysuit. The store had some, but none that matched my skin tone. “Are they fucking serious?” he said in disbelief. And then there are the quieter times, the ones that weigh more heavily, that bring us closer together. Once, in my late 20s, my boyfriend and I were stopped by police, and I quickly became frantic about the weed in the car. He put his hand on my knee and reminded me that I was safe with him.
But, of course, for them it’s just tourism. Racism isn’t something white people need to face every day. And too many times, those same white boyfriends decided to sit out being my partner. I lost count of the times my boyfriend in my late 20s would tell me to “just leave” parties or social events when I complained of being the only person of color in his all-white friend group. Even more hurtful was the night he and I were standing outside a bar in Bushwick and someone we both knew started making racist comments. While I tried to explain to this man why what he was saying was offensive, my boyfriend stood there in silence. Later, I tried to convey how hurt I was that he didn’t say anything, but he didn’t seem to understand how bewildered I was. There are, in my relationships with white men, so many moments like that. No matter how close I held the mirror up to their faces, sometimes their good and liberal wells of understanding and compassion were simply inaccessible.
On election night, I thought about all those moments, and I felt overwhelmed at the possibility of taking that on over the next four years. Since Trump was elected, I’ve felt paradoxically alienated by white people finding or doubling down on their commitment to change. Somehow their politicization has begun to seem cartoonish, filled with performance and self-congratulation. It’s not something I understand or feel a part of.
But it wasn’t only on election night that translating experience felt so fraught. Communication is necessary for any healthy relationship, and in an interracial relationship it’s paramount. Every white man I’ve dated has, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, asked me to explain to them some aspect of blackness. “Can I say the N-word if I’m singing along to a song?” “How do I be a better gentrifier?” (I don’t know dude, I ask myself the same question every goddamn day.) I know that I shouldn’t feel compelled to always speak for my race, but I can’t expect a white boyfriend to stop asking some of those questions if we’re to come to a mutual understanding. Lately, though, I just don’t feel like answering them.
The other day, I was on the subway platform playing my usual game, and I caught the eye of a black guy. It felt different this time, like the flirtatious version of the “black nod” at work — an acknowledgement between two black employees who might not even know one another, but who have a shared experience. What I’m craving right now from a partner — more than feeling beautiful, more than anything — is a “black nod” version of a relationship. I know a man isn’t going to get me through the Trump era. But the less work I have to do to make him understand how I feel, the better chance I have of getting through the next four years with my head still on.