The vicious cycle of racism and abusive relationships

Evie Muir
·9-min read
Photo credit: Getty | Alice Cowling
Photo credit: Getty | Alice Cowling

From Cosmopolitan

There’s a photo of me in a Snow White costume aged five. I’m unrecognisable. A hard, plastic mask depicting the Disney character covers my face. Aside from being eerily purge-like, looking at this image I see a little girl who felt more belonging behind the mask of a fictional, animated character than she did in her own skin. Despite my favourite childhood films, Rodger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and Motown’s The Wiz, boasting diverse or all-Black casts, neither this limited representation (this was seven years before Princess and the Frog was released), nor the interminable affirmations my mum would shower upon me, could counteract the overwhelming white, heteronormative narrative in the playground and pop culture. The message was clear; white men are attractive, successful, and powerful; white women are beautiful, angelic, and popular. Women who look like me, are ugly, undesirable and different.

Growing up as a minority in the playground, we were at the behest of our peers who were already internalising and perpetuating racism. Why is your nose so big? You’d look better with straight hair. Can I touch it? No, you can’t play mummies and daddies. You can be our servant. I don’t have a Barbie that looks like you, sorry. No, you can’t play kissy cats; nobody wants to kiss you: your lips are too big. You can’t fancy Duncan from Blue, you can fancy Simon. You can keep watch, whilst 8 year old couples married under the “love tree”, ceremonies always hosted by the Sikh boy in our class. Neither of us ever had a love tree marriage.

In a world where almost 1 in 3 women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime, with acknowledgement that women of colour will endure more severe, more complex forms of abuse for longer, and with recent statistics showing that racism in schools is on the rise, generations of women of colour continue to be vulnerable to abuse as a result of their childhood experiences.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

I’m acutely aware of how my dating habits have been influenced by external factors; racial bulling, internalised racism, feeling culturally inept as a mixed-race Black girl raised by white family, and an absence of positive Black male role models. Bar a hand-holding fling with a mixed-race boy in year 7 (I distinctly recall friends matchmaking based on our “racial compatibility”), I’ve only dated white men. Their validation became integral to my sense of self. I was an insecure, self-conscious child who matured into a fragile, self-loathing adult, and as a result I’ve overcome a plethora of abuse from white, male partners.

From being objectified as a teen by a boyfriend who, renowned for his predatory behaviour, bragged he "only dated Black girls", to a boyfriend who silently permitted his parents' racist 'jokes' and bigoted political commentary (his parents said, "don’t bring home another Black one" after we broke up). When I was hired by Hollister– the first place that validated my appearance – he would jealously try to make me quit, resorting to physical violence that would leave visible bruises on my face, forcing me to cancel shifts.

One partner fetishised our hypothetical mixed-race babies, while another said my most endearing quality was that I looked Black, but didn’t "act Black." Some told me they "didn’t see race" and many Tinder matches were blocked after calling me "exotic" (I’m from Doncaster). More recently I left a deeply emotionally, physically, financially and sexually abusive relationship. My abuser, an architect in manipulating my vulnerabilities, once drunkenly admitted: "I could tell you were insecure, Black girls always are."

Months ago I was dumped via text after a painstaking conversation with a Tinder date. It read: "Nobody’s ever spoken to me this way. I can’t find you attractive, or feel like we’re compatible when it’s so personal and political. I’m not a perfect human." On our first meeting – weeks after the 2019 election – he admitted he hadn’t voted: politics was of no interest to him. Red flag! I asserted that it's a privilege to be apolitical and that he needed to check his before dating women of colour. Cue the white fragility. Being largely desensitised to self-centred 34-year-old white men who’ve never had their privilege challenged, his response simply elicited an eye roll.

While the audacity of these messages is laughable, re-reading them I find myself triggered. When you exist in a body that is deeply political, being told this is unattractive is not simply a comment on an extension of yourself, like someone not sharing the same hobbies. It’s a critique on what makes you fundamentally you. This is the same narrative I, and so many other women of colour, have grown up believing about ourselves. Our complexion, our hair and our features make us repulsive.

Rachel shares her experiences of how abuse and racism have overlapped, and how this has forged her dating preferences. "I’m into boys and girls so growing up, visualising myself with someone was always difficult," she tells me. "As a teenager I always went for white boys as that was more 'normal'; even now, I haven’t been with anyone who isn’t white. I’ve experienced racial abuse when dating white women too; my ex would say, "I don’t see colour" and I just ignored it. She’d tell me she had dated people of colour in the past, a half-Indian girl and another Black girl before me - she referred to it as "jungle fever." I laughed it off at the time, but looking back at it now, I should have put my foot down and said it’s not okay."

The normalisation of racism experienced throughout childhood desensitises us to the point that when we are subjected to it in our romantic relationships, it doesn’t present as a red flag. We are gaslit into minimising these experiences and dismissing them as normal. Because we’ve become accustomed to accommodating whiteness ever since primary school, and because the imagery of victims we see in the media rarely represent us or the nuanced ways racism equates to verbal and emotional abuse, it’s harder to recognise that we’re being abused.

Identifying abuse can be difficult, but acknowledging how we feel can signify the healthiness of a relationship. Often we find ourselves acting out of character, or adapting our own behaviour based on how others make us feel, or to avoid future conflict. Olivia’s experiences show how emotional abuse can present as subtle microaggressions that have a deep impact. "One partner would put me in uncomfortable positions all the time but expect me to remain silent. I remember his mum finding it funny when another family member did Black Face, and how it felt to sit in a room with everyone saying the N word," she recalls. "I knew I couldn’t say anything so I sat in silence. If I ever said anything he’d gaslight me by defending his friends and dismissing their actions. It really affected my mental health; for the remainder of our relationship I was terrified of saying the wrong thing in front of them."

These experiences embed lifelong wounds in our self-esteem and self-worth. They also influence who we date in the future. On reflection, Olivia feels "ashamed" that she was so submissive in the past, being someone who is very outspoken about racism. "I feel I was young and outnumbered. I would never allow myself to be put in that position now." Of course, nobody should feel that the burden is on them to speak out against or remove themselves from these situations, but it can be empowering if that's an option.

There’s a direct cause and effect correlation between the racism young girls of colour endure throughout childhood, and our vulnerability to abusive, toxic, co-dependent relationships in adulthood. This vulnerability is a distress signal for narcissistic perpetrators who thrive on a normalised foundation that sees us accepting less and tolerating more, after being forced to believe this is all that we deserve.

Eboni Harris, licensed relationship therapist and founder of Melanin and Mental Health and Room For Relations explains how experiencing racism as a child needs to be understood like any other form of childhood trauma. "When children experience trauma in the form of racism, they may seek approval from others which could make them a target for unhealthy relationships as adults. When you have ongoing negative experiences with others, you may start to believe this is all you can expect."

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Committing to anti-racism work in interracial relationships therefore is a moral obligation. Doing so ensures your partner is not intentionally or unintentionally harmed further. "It's no longer acceptable to just not participate in racism," Eboni continues. "When you choose to be in a relationship with a person of colour, you must advocate for their lives and rights like you would your own. Your actions must align with the love you have for that person."

As a Domestic Abuse Specialist, I understand that abuse should be measured by the impact it has on an individual; by that reasoning, not committing to anti-racism is an abusive act. As a mixed-race Black woman, now experiencing my first interracial relationship with someone who’s actively committed to anti-racism, I can attest to the refreshing and affirming novelty of no longer feeling in a perpetually uncomfortable state of self-betrayal; separating your romantic self from your political self. As a domestic abuse survivor, demanding more of a healthy relationship is non-negotiable. To be honoured as a whole person within an imperfect system, rather than being disregarded as an imperfect person within a system that your partner actively benefits from, is something I didn’t know I needed.

If you're affected by any of the themes in this article, you can find support and advice with Women’s Aid or Refuge.

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