How to Respond to Microaggressions in an Interracial Relationship
My partner was kind and intelligent, but relationships do not exist in a vacuum.by Anuradha Varanasi
When I left India to move to New York City for grad school in 2018, I knew I had to be prepared for a massive cultural shock.
But after settling into my new apartment, I realized the only aspect of living in NYC that was surprising to me was the rampant racial segregation in all five boroughs of the city.
As a foreigner in a new city where I knew no one, I immediately turned to apps like Bumble BFF and Tinder to connect with like-minded people. The first friend I made in NYC was a bisexual African American woman.
During our first meet up, we immediately hit it off. We spoke at length about our experiences in trying to navigate the city's dating scene as non-white women.
Out of curiosity, I asked her if she might consider dating a white man again after an unpleasant experience. She immediately said no.
"I just can't put up with all the microaggressions," she said.
How racial microaggressions manifest in interracial relationships
Microaggressions refer to everyday verbal or non-verbal snubs or derogatory actions — whether intentional or unintentional — directed toward individuals of marginalized groups.
Some forms of discrimination are no longer as brazen or brash as they were in the past, but that doesn't mean they're not harmful. Although racial microaggressions are subtle, their effects have been described as "death by a thousand cuts."
And for good reason. Researchers have detailed how racial microaggressions can lead to trauma and depression for those targeted.
As a science journalist, I had read about the impacts of racial microaggressions from an academic point of view. But my friend's answer initially confused me.
I finally understood what she meant during my first interracial relationship two years ago.
I was dating a kind and intelligent man from Austria (who I will give the pseudonym Alex). Alex was well-read and cultured, and a superb listener.
But after a few months into the relationship, I realized relationships do not exist in a vacuum.
While Alex and I were together, I experienced multiple racial microaggressions that left me feeling alienated, frustrated and hurt. They mainly took place while we were in public settings.
When we would go to restaurants or bars, servers and bartenders would blatantly ignore me. I used to see white customers getting their orders before me, even though I had arrived earlier and tried to order my food and drinks before them.
But when I would try to bring this to Alex's attention, he would say the waiters were just busy. I wondered why those episodes made my blood boil until I read about the three types of microaggressions — microinvalidations, microinsults and microassaults.
Bearing the brunt of microinvalidations alone
Here, I was facing a type of microaggression called a microinvalidation.
Microinvalidations are statements that tend to "deny, negate or undermine a person of color's racial realities," writes Kevin Nadal, a counseling psychologist at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in a CUNY Forum paper.
Back then, I swept those incidents under the rug because I did not know how to handle them. Repeatedly left to fend for myself in public spaces, my feelings of anger and resentment intensified toward my now ex-boyfriend.
BIPOC individuals are expected to carry two burdens: single-handedly educating others, while speaking up on issues that directly impact them, said Shaina Singh, a Texas-based psychotherapist and dating coach.
Even though I attempted to tell Alex I need him to speak up on my behalf, nothing changed. Instead, he said he had social anxiety and felt uncomfortable about standing up for me.
I had experienced one of the most common microaggressions in an interracial relationship: My partner failed to speak up against microaggressions in a public setting and left me to defend myself alone.
"Having social anxiety and feeling uncomfortable are excuses I often hear from others when asked why they do not speak up around racial issues," Singh said.
"Another excuse or justification I have also heard is when a white person claims they have the trauma of their own and don't have it in them to speak up."
In interracial relationships, the partner with racial privilege needs to do their own work around racism and know how to recognize microaggressions.
"A partnership with a secure attachment and a powerful bond will have conversations around speaking up, showing up, and be able to sit with discomfort," Singh said.
"The partner with privilege will also be able to see the pain they inflict on the partner when they place all the burden of speaking up and showing up on the partner with the marginalized identity."
Seemingly casual forms of microaggressions: microassaults and microinsults
While Alex and I were in a monogamous relationship for nine months, he attempted to understand my perspective and was kind and considerate.
We had honest conversations around racism and inequalities. Still, sometimes his off-handed jokes unintentionally left me seething with rage.
One evening, while we were walking in the park, I told him how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and arrests had become increasingly common in 2019.
He then joked that I should not be so worried about ICE, because I came to the U.S. legally, right?
This type of microaggression is also known as a microassault: when someone makes an offensive joke or comment and tries to pass it off as humor as a way of denying prejudice, or in this case, flaunting their privilege.
It left me grasping at straws, trying to figure out how to cope with the anger of being on the receiving end of these unintentional microaggressions.
I knew he was a genuinely good person who cared about me. But these episodes of obliviousness drove a wedge between us.
A few months after Alex and I broke up, a white American man I went on a few dates with insisted I meet his parents.
Barely an hour after meeting his mother and talking to her about my work as a journalist living in New York, she told me how surprised she was that I could speak in "good English".
This was a microinsult, which are often guised as a compliment. These statements are discriminatory toward ethnic minorities, Nadal writes.
This woman's statement was offensive, as it implied that Asians are not well-spoken.
When I talked to my date about his mother's comment, he looked embarrassed but brushed it off as ignorance.
"It is important for people in interracial relationships to pay close attention to intent and impact and assess if their partner changes after they are given feedback," Singh said.
"So, if your (partner) refuses to grow, evolve, and continues to hurt you, then it's time to call it what it is."
Addressing power dynamics in interracial relationships
Differences in interracial relationships could stem from diverse and varying family values, class, socioeconomic status, culture and religion.
Addressing those differences should first begin with establishing similarities, said Rana Khan, a marriage and family psychotherapist based in Canada.
"Establishing similarities to me is like warming up the seat. You feel more comfortable and become less guarded. That way, couples can tackle the larger concern — the differences," he said.
When it comes to differences, validation techniques can go a long way. They involve listening to your partner and giving them the time and space to express themselves without inserting your own thoughts or opinions.
For example, Khan said, a person may tell their partner about their experiences feeling like an outsider all the time, in every setting.
Validating that experience would look something like, "That sounds difficult."
"Invalidation would be when you want to contest that, or when you disagree with something. 'You have no reason to feel like an outsider,' or, 'Why do you feel like an outsider?'" Khan said.
"The beauty of validation is that you don't have to agree with your partner, you just have to listen and imagine what it must be like to be in their shoes. And, if you can't imagine it, then to be real and just say, 'I have no idea what that must be like for you.'"