As a sexuality educator, I think a lot about the meaning of relationships and how to talk about them with young people.
One issue that comes up often is how difficult it can be to navigate interracial relationships, even today. According to the many students, parents and colleagues I speak with about interracial dating, it is still loaded with challenge. And yet the teens I spoke to feel the dialogue, patience and general openness and acceptance required of one another has encouraged their growth and resilience. Their words and insights can help others push through those challenges and help parents and caregivers understand the challenges they face.
Which is why it is so important that parents try to understand what it’s like to be Black, and a teenager, in a relationship today. It’s a tricky time, and our children are living through racial awakenings and protests, a fiery political season, rampant racism and, of course, a deadly pandemic that is complicating everything in their lives.
Here, teens explain what they have faced, and what the adults in their lives can do to help.
When I asked Black teens how race factors into dating, Jalynn, 18, from Philadelphia, explained she wants to know whether a White guy is “genuinely interested in me as a person and not some sexual fantasy because I’m Black.”
Mac Buckham-White, 18, from Atlanta, talked about the sexual expectations Black men face. When White girls express an interest, he said he “feels that I have to play the role of a stereotype. Putting up a front like that can be really stressful. One of my insecurities is not living up to the hype.” He adds, “When I’m in a relationship, the performance anxiety loosens up and I feel like I can connect with my partner on a deeper level. It’s more meaningful and enjoyable.”
Many said they try to do some research before dating someone, reaching out to mutual friends: Who has this person dated before? Have any been people of color or, specifically, Black? What politics do they express on social media?
The issues faced by our teens who date someone of a different race are many, but today’s generation seems to be making strides that previous generations didn’t. Still, many of the same issues exist, and our kids want us to know that.
Is this safe?
Teens found that interracial dating adds an extra dose of vulnerability to their relationships that can be exhausting. They still feel eyes on them when they are with White partners. And yet, says Jameson, 18, from Philadelphia, his former White girlfriend didn’t notice those same looks. That just highlighted their different realities, he said. In fact, she once suggested they take a shortcut through an alley late at night, and he had to explain why that would be risky for him to do.
That vulnerability was also felt by an 18-year-old from San Francisco who prides herself on being independent. And yet, while in her White boyfriend’s neighborhood, she’s “trusting them to protect your Blackness in their White space,” she said. She was taught to never need a White man but finds herself “needing this one.”
And Black boys emphasized how stressful it is to meet a White partner’s parents, still. “There is so much pressure to be as proper as I can be,” one said. “I need to compensate for a stereotype.”
Talking to teach, teaching to talk
The teens I spoke with found that it can be difficult to communicate their reality as a Black person dating a White person to their partner. But it’s necessary to maintain a healthy interracial relationship. “It’s an interesting opportunity to get into all of the layers and complexities of relationships,” says Noelle Sanderson, 18, from D.C. “It is also a tremendous challenge because if you can’t reach a mutual understanding, it’s tough to move forward.”
The teens admitted there’s a solidarity and ease when dating within their own race. “If Black Lives Matter comes up and I’m dating within my race, I feel a sense of solidarity and affinity with my partner,” Jameson says. “It’s a relief sometimes to be able to just talk to them without having to teach.”
These teens said they want allies, but it’s not always simple. They wished for open-minded acceptance — a genuine interest in what it’s like to be a Black American. They also valued a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them. Their partners need to be willing to call people out because many people come across as supportive of social justice but then talk in questionable ways behind closed doors. “If you are there, say something,” Noelle urged.
Jameson acknowledges that “it can be hard to speak up in a moment when something racist has been said. It takes time, practice and growth to keep your composure.”
When asked about sexual orientation, many acknowledged that identifying as anything other than straight is challenging. “With so much trauma surrounding difference, embracing difference is scary,” says Nadine Thornhill, a sexuality educator in Toronto who identifies as a queer Black woman. She pointed out that young Black people are already more of a target than their White peers because of race, so identifying as gay or queer would make them even more vulnerable.
All parents want to keep their children safe. Maintaining the equilibrium of minimizing harm and wanting kids to live their truth and find love can be challenging for some Black parents, she said.
A Black San Francisco father of two teen girls said he wants what all parents want for their children when it comes to relationships: love, joy and respect. And he wants to protect his girls from harm. He has spent a lifetime witnessing the racism that characterizes so much of American life, and wonders how to help his daughters navigate the intersection of romance, sexuality and race.
Thornhill used the natural Black hair movement as an example. Many Black girls have had to adapt their bodies to fit in and cultivate White cultural acceptance, specifically their hair. The message is to “get that mess together,” she says, to ensure that others are comfortable with your body.
By the time the girls become adolescents, they’ve been socialized to believe their needs and wants are less important than the expectations of the dominant culture and are less likely to insist on consensual sexual interactions. To cultivate agency and autonomy, Thornhill says, parents should be more explicit about a young woman’s entitlement to comfort, safety and pleasure in their own bodies.
“Provide love and support and be the safe person to hold space for children to vent and ask questions, and remind them that it may take time to be brave enough to be who you fully are in the world, but it is always okay to be that person with me,” Thornhill advises parents.
Meryl Heyliger, a parent and psychologist in D.C., talks to young people about how being part of a Black minority in a White-majority culture can feel isolating. She encourages families to create opportunities for kids to be with other kids with similar identities to build community and affirm identity. Nonprofit organizations, churches and other groups often provide opportunities for Black children to see themselves in their communities in ways their school may not.
Heyliger contemplates the impact of adults putting young Black people in settings where they are one of a few, and then creating the expectation that they must find someone to connect with. Some of the kids discussed how they don’t feel Black enough to date within their race and are naturally drawn to White partners because that is the community where they spend most of their time.
A Black school administrator in San Francisco said adults should ask their teens, “Who are you and what do you want to get out of any relationship?” He says it’s important to make sure Black teens understand that the stakes and risks are higher for them than for their peers. “We need to help young Black people weigh those risks and understand the difference between what they need to really be afraid of and what calculated risks can allow them to enjoy themselves while ensuring their safety,” he says.
Every relationship is unique because of the individuals who come together to create it. One thing all caregivers should note: These teens shared with me simply because I asked and was willing to listen until I heard the truth. That is ultimately what we all long for: an authentic connection in which we experience a sense of belonging and acceptance.
And so the most important advice to adults who want to know how to help their children have healthy relationships? Listen.