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How to navigate race while dating: 5 bits of advice from experts

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Alex Shea, a 24-year-old black woman in Houston, was having trouble explaining to her boyfriend, who’s white, why she was feeling so triggered by the recent protests over police brutality.

“I was getting overwhelmed with everything having to do with my race; I just couldn’t talk,” Shea said in a phone interview.

When she showed her boyfriend a video of a police officer treating a black woman violently, her boyfriend didn’t think race played a role in the interaction. He noted that police can be aggressive with anyone, Shea said, and that things now aren’t as bad as they were in, say, the 1950s.

“I shut down a little bit and felt uncomfortable talking to him about it,” she said, adding that every time she would look at him, “I would think about that moment.”

Meanwhile, Shea said, her boyfriend was so “blissfully unaware” of racism in America that he didn’t realize how his statement hurt her. Eventually Shea explained to him “the differences in the degree of brutality with different races and how it’s not equal.”

Her boyfriend apologized, saying he wanted to remain open and talk about these things — and that helped, she said.

Shea and her boyfriend have been together 10 months, and this was the first time they were openly discussing race. Many couples, interracial and not, are having discussions like these. The Washington Post spoke to daters, love experts and a romance novelist about how to navigate them — and how singles can confront their biases while dating. Here are five pieces of their advice.

If you’re online dating, reconsider your bio and any filters you have.

Some dating apps and sites (such as, Hinge and OkCupid) allow users to filter their matches so certain races or ethnicities don’t show up as potential matches; Grindr recently removed that function in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. “Racial filters perpetuate racial bias,” said Adam Cohen-Aslatei, a former managing director for Bumble’s gay dating app, Chappy. He now runs S’More, a dating app in which all users’ photos are blurred and only gradually revealed after they’ve exchanged several messages.

Some app users state their racial preferences in their bios. While daters might feel strongly about such preferences, some experts advise that limiting yourself might impede your search for love. When Laurie Davis Edwards, a love coach in Los Angeles, used to run searches for online daters, she and her staff would encourage them to cast a wide net. “You want to do as little filtering out as possible,” she said.

Consider what this question is really about: “Have you dated someone like me before?”

Early in interracial relationships, singles might ask if their partner has experience dating a member of their race. It can be a heavy question, said Thomas Edwards, who coaches men on their relationships and is a black man married to a white woman (Laurie Davis Edwards, above). A big part of this question has to do with comfort, Edwards said, adding that it’s essentially asking: “How comfortable are you being with me? Someone who looks like me or has a culture like me?”

Davis Edwards pointed out that someone asking this question is often seeking certainty and might be wondering: “ ‘Will we work out? Can I be vulnerable with you?’ It’s a facade because … nothing is certain.”

“My experience dating white women doesn’t indicate my success” with others, Thomas Edwards said.

Amari Ice, a black gay matchmaker and relationship coach in the Washington region who works with single black men, said the person asking this question is probably trying to “determine how much work they have to do to interact with you.” If you’re dating someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience with your culture, you’ll “have to be willing to occasionally be disrespected or offended,” and if you vocalize those feelings, your partner might “push against that.” In a relationship, if the other person is open to learning, Ice said, “I might be more willing to engage in this experience.”

Be willing to examine your own biases and educate yourself.

Ice noted another place racial bias pops up: “If you want to date someone exotic, that’s a bias,” he said, noting that seeking out specific identities can be a form of tokenizing someone or objectifying their identity. “If you only date black people, and none of the [other] people in your life are black, you might be tokenizing.”

If you’re in an interracial relationship, don’t expect your partner to shoulder the burden of educating you on their culture, Ice added. He suggested reading books and hiring an anti-racism educator. “Learn from a person who’s in the culture what to do or how to not perpetuate white supremacy,” Ice said. “White people will ask their black friends, ‘What should I do?’ ” To that question, Ice responds: “You have to recognize that with minorities, we live in a racist society every day. There’s already a lot of heavy lifting that black and brown people are doing every day. ... You want to take the personal responsibility for your own education.”


Jasmine Diaz, a black matchmaker in Los Angeles who’s married to a Puerto Rican man, said the most important thing someone can do when their partner discusses experiences with racism is to listen. “Listen to the experience of a person and try not to dismiss it,” Diaz said.

Jasmine Guillory, a romance novelist whose books feature interracial couples, said one of the “biggest red flags” she sees in conversations like these are when a white partner plays devil’s advocate rather than believing the person of color’s experience.

“In my books — if I’m writing someone who is a hero in a romance novel, a hero isn’t going to say: ‘Maybe they didn’t mean it that way.’ ” What are things her heroes — and real people in interracial relationships — might say that would be helpful? “I’m sorry that happened to you,” Guillory said, adding “sometimes you don’t know how to respond, especially if it’s out of the realm of your experiences. Just sympathize with someone. Ask them: ‘What can I do to help? Do you want me to just listen? ... Do you want to be alone right now?’ ”

Guillory said you don’t have to do it all in one conversation. A supportive partner might follow up and later ask, “Is there more you want to talk about this?”

Talking about race can be uncomfortable. Embrace the discomfort.

Conversing about race can create intimacy, Davis Edwards said, even if it’s difficult. “All intimacy doesn’t look like rainbows and hearts. Some intimacy is uncomfortable.”

Shea knows this firsthand. When her boyfriend dismissed the notion that law enforcement officers kill people of color at a higher rate than white people, she figured he didn’t want to listen to her stories or try to understand her experience as a black woman. After hearing the reassurance and that he’s willing to learn, she feels better. “I’m glad I feel safe and comfortable to talk to him and have those uncomfortable, awkward conversations,” Shea said, “and that we’re getting to the point where they’re not awkward anymore.”


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