My husband and I are both white Irish citizens. I am finding it extremely difficult to talk to him about Black Lives Matter. Like countless others, the video of George Floyd’s death filled me with rage and sadness. When my husband made a joke about #BLM on his Facebook page recently, I tried to advise him about the insensitivity it carried. He launched into a tirade about how irrelevant it is to Ireland, and that we are too easily influenced by social media. He said it has been blown out of proportion, and there are more horrifying things going on in the world to be concerned about. It greatly upset me, which mystified and frustrated him further. How do I continue these discussions constructively, without him gaslighting me?
You are aware that your husband’s attitudes are problematic, but I think it’s worth closely examining what his behaviour is revealing about his character generally, both so you have a clear vision of the issues here, and you can articulate to him why his dismissal of both these conversations and your emotions have been so upsetting.
There are many resources online giving information and useful talking points to discuss racism with white people in your social circle. But you can only have constructive discussions with someone who wants to participate in them, and so far your husband hasn’t given any indication he is willing to do so.
There’s a common refrain among white people that goes something like “I don’t have a racist bone in my body”, “I’m not racist, but” and (most often when confronted with evidence of their racism) a defensive “I’m a good person”.
So let’s be clear: it is simply impossible to grow up in a world where our history, media, education, pop culture and societal attitudes are fundamentally founded on and shaped by racism and white supremacy and not absorb racist attitudes through osmosis. It’s impossible. And the problem arises when we assert that being called racist is worse than the racism we inflict; when we are so convinced that we are “good people” that we refuse to engage with any evidence that we are racist, because it feels like an indictment of our entire character.
This idea is uncomfortable to many, but it’s important. As white people, if we begin by acknowledging that racism but commit to unlearning and dismantling it, it’s actually a far more productive position. It means that when we are confronted with evidence of our own racism, our core sense of ourselves as “a good person” isn’t completely, irreversibly shattered – on the contrary, evidence of our racism presents us with an opportunity to change our behaviour and to live up to the values we choose, rather than the ones we’ve unconsciously absorbed. You can be racist and trying to be better, and the decision to keep trying becomes the mark of your character.
You are demonstrating this. You are a white person who has decided that equality, respect, empathy and the work of anti-racism are more important to you than staying within your comfort zone, remaining in privileged ignorance, and allowing racism within your social circle to fester, unchecked.
Now let’s look at your husband’s actions and how they reflect on his character and his values. He is hearing stories of systemic racism, of individuals’ experiences of racism, of the killing of black people by US police, of black people in Ireland who experience repeated, ongoing racism – and he’s making jokes about it. He is deciding that because he personally does not experience racism, it does not exist. He’s ignoring the countless experts, academics and writers whose insights and information about racism is easily accessible; he’s ignoring the countless black people who have shared their experiences of racism; and he’s still asserting that he knows better than they do.
He is not only declaring that he – a white person – gets to judge the validity of black people’s experiences of racism, but that he gets to decide what would be a “proportionate” amount of attention to racism and the killing of black people.
And let’s look at his statement that “more horrifying things are going on in the world”. What are these “more horrifying things” that he’s referring to – and what is he doing to combat these issues? Is he proactively involved in ending the suffering and oppression of other marginalised groups, or other heinous cruelties being inflicted around the world – or is he in fact doing nothing for anyone more vulnerable than himself, and simply using this rhetoric of there being “more important things to care about”, to not care about anyone? And if he is doing some good in the world, why does he believe that his passions and focus are “more important” than the work of anti-racism, instead of respecting the importance of this work, too?
Your husband has demonstrated racism, insensitivity, a lack of empathy, a lack of curiosity, an unwillingness to listen to and respect people’s lived experience, a wilful ignoring of facts and evidence, and the arrogance to presume that he has nothing to learn and that he knows better than people actually affected by an issue. He is contributing to the dehumanisation of and racism against black people. And he’s not respecting your emotions or demonstrating a desire to engage with you on issues important to you. This is the person he’s choosing to be.
Of course you’re upset.
I believe that you married your husband because he has some good qualities. It’s never too late to start learning. But his response is demonstrating his current values. Start your conversation here. Express how his dismissal of other people’s experiences, of the mountain of evidence proving systemic oppression, of your emotions, are all deeply disappointing and upsetting, and not indicative of the values you thought you shared. Express your own desire to better yourself, and how embracing respect, humility, empathy, curiosity and a lack of defensiveness is helping you learn – and tell him that you want him to join you in learning. Ask him what values he would like to live up to. Ask whether he’s willing to learn, to listen, to empathise, to engage in conversations that could make him uncomfortable but protect more vulnerable people. Start by asking him what type of person he wants to be.
Then, listen. Listen to the choices he makes when the woman he loves asks him what values he wants to live up to; when he’s asked to have some respectful conversations about racism. Listen to the choice he makes when asked to do the literal bare minimum, for a white person he’s married to.
Your husband can choose to learn and do better, or choose to remain actively, wilfully racist. And if he chooses the latter, you’ll have to decide whether you want to stay with him and silently endorse his racism. The right choice is obvious in both instances. Don’t let him convince you otherwise.
Roe is a writer and Fulbright Scholar with an MA in Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State University. She’s currently undertaking a PhD in Gendered and Sexual Citizenship at the Open University and Oxford.