It had been another tense ride home. As he drove, we both focused our eyes on the road. Why was dating so hard? We both liked each other. We went to the same school, shared many friends, and were on several varsity sports teams. Why wasn’t this enough to make us happy?
I sat in the passenger seat, fidgeting with the cord on the red hooded sweatshirt I was wearing–his football sweatshirt that I wore proudly. I was finally his girl, even in public. I had no idea of the risks he was taking.
“People say you’re using me,” I told him, wondering if it were true. My mom was one of the people who gave me this idea. Society gave me similar messages. Black boys supposedly dated white girls to improve their status. I never considered that my family was probably on the same economic level as his, or possibly even lower. I didn’t yet question the hierarchies, who made them up, or why.
At age 15, white supremacy to me meant membership in the Ku Klux Klan. It wasn’t a poor white girl at an inner-city school desperately seeking love and acceptance.
I must have confused him even more. My words probably hurt and angered him. I was supposed to love him, and I said sh*t like that.
He was composed, gentle, and kind. I realize now he probably already had a lot of practice with microaggressions. He simply asked, “How am I using you?”
It was a valid question, and I couldn’t look at him. Maybe I knew I would see the truth. It was possibly easier for me to deal with the rejection I had already prepared for than to consider the people who looked like me were wrong.
I was ready to deal with a jerk. I had a lot of experience with people who hurt and manipulated me. I expected him to choose the playboy lifestyle he already had a reputation for. I was prepared for that.
I kept looking ahead. I shrugged and fiddled some more with the sweatshirt cord.
I forced a response to break the silence. “I don’t know,” I said as my mind processed thousands of messages that told me I was a special prize because of the color of my skin. I didn’t feel like a prize, and something inside me likely knew that if I were, it had nothing to do with my skin color.
He was right to ask, and I wish I had a better answer. He had gotten very little from me, especially considering what most teenage boys hope for. We weren’t having sex. I wasn’t fully acknowledging him as a human being. My home life was a mess. Yet I assumed I was the prize because I was a white girl willing to put one toe barely in the waters of interracial dating. If anything, I was a consolation prize at that point in my life.
*If you know my work, you know that I use the word racist for its impact, but I don’t think it’s productive for conflict resolution. In this story, if I were dismissed as a racist to the core forever, I might not have become the advocate and activist I am today. That does not excuse my racist thoughts, beliefs, or actions in that brief relationship. I promise you I will reach out to him and give a complete apology.
I am angry at myself for not questioning my beliefs more deeply when I first had an inkling that they conflicted with the unity I had been taught in school and church to value. I am sad that I might have exacerbated his self-doubt and feelings of lower worth. I wonder who else has treated him so poorly. I need to step back and process a decades-long conflict I didn’t realize I had.
I share very personal stories like this with you because I suspect you have them, too. Maybe they don’t involve dating, but a friend or someone at work. It could be a relative’s partner or your boss. It might be a total stranger who you judged harshly, moved away from, or clutched your purse when he passed. It could have been a slip of the tongue, a stupid joke, an attempt to bond, or a bad habit you decided not to break. Regardless, it’s time to resolve these conflicts and set everyone free.
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Nance L. Schick, Esq., is a workplace attorney, ethno-religious mediator, and conflict resolution coach based in New York City. Her goal is to keep you out of court and build your conflict resolution skills so everyone has a better work experience. She helps managers and business owners have empowering conversations about emotionally-charged issues such as gender, race, religion, and disability. She is creator of the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process, author of DIY Conflict Resolution, and an award-winning entrepreneur acknowledged by Super Lawyers (ADR, 2018 & 2019), the New York Economic Development Corporation/B-Labs (Finalist, Best for NYC 2015 & 2016), U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2015 Blue Ribbon Small Business), Enterprising Women Magazine (Honorable Mention, 2014 Woman of the Year awards).