How to Talk to Your Partner About Race

Published on: 20 Aug 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD
mixed race couple

The journey to becoming a better white ally (or accomplice) to the Black community starts with personal reflection and the courage to engage in difficult conversations. I am always surprised when I hear about an individual who struggles to talk to their romantic partner about something as serious as race. Personally, as a Black woman married to a Black man with two Black children, race is part of the fabric of my world. I often say to people, “I live in this body 24/7, there is no way for me to ignore race nor would I ever want to.” For others, who don’t have to consider their race everyday, it can feel like an intimidating topic to dive into.

Although these discussions can be uncomfortable and challenging, they are vital. I would like to get to a point where White people feel as comfortable discussing race as they do the night’s dinner options.

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How Do You And Your Partner Fit into the Conversation?

In both my roles as a professor and as a therapist, I am often asked how to approach difficult or “controversial” conversations with people who disagree with you. This question usually comes from people who have the luxury of not having these types of difficult conversations on a regular basis.

There are a few different types of couples that struggle with these conversations. The first group would be white individuals who have a romantic partner (or partners) who are also white. The second group would be BIPOC individuals who have white romantic partner(s). We might also consider the difficulty of the conversation for a biracial individual, who must negotiate their own racial identity while navigating these conversations with their partner. Although these conversations may not be too dissimilar, there is more nuance required for white individuals with Black romantic partners.

For white individuals with Black partners — the first thing to understand is that, just because you love someone who is Black, doesn’t mean that you will understand what it means to be Black. For example, I am the mother of a non-binary/trans-queer individual and a Deaf woman. Even though I love my kids, as a straight, cisgender hearing woman, I will never know what it is like to be them.

How to Start Talking to Your Partner About Race

It’s important to talk about race with your partner, but many avoid doing so because it’s a loaded, heavy topic with much baggage to unpack. Sometimes it can feel impossible to know where to start or how or how to navigate the conversation. While this is true, it’s integral to work through that discomfort. Take initiative and start the conversation, I promise that talking about race will feel more natural over time.

Here are some tips that will hopefully enable you to begin productive conversations about race with your partner:

  • Start by understanding your own feelings
  • Do the pre-work of self-reflection
  • Stay informed with the facts by reading books by BIPOC authors. I recommend Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates as a good place to start
  • Listen and acknowledge your partner’s feelings with empathy
  • Get into the habit of having uncomfortable conversations about race and other issues
  • Be prepared to be shocked or surprised by your partner’s position on race
  • Know your talking points and do your research regarding racial issues so you can speak to some of your own biases, experiences, and address any misinformation you may have heard
  • Pick your battles. You’re not always going to have exactly the same views as your partner, but know which ones are worth letting go of so that you can come to an understanding or agreement on the larger issues
  • Point out your shared values and remember that you’re a team
  • Don’t be afraid to tell your story

Moving Forward

By creating space for these important conversations in your life, you are allowing an even deeper connection to form between you and your partner. Often the things that challenge us most are the ones that have the most power to strengthen our connections with others.

If by opening these discussions, however, you find that you and your partner don’t see eye to eye, or the differences begin to affect your relationship, you might want to consider seeking out couples therapy in order to speak with a licensed couples counselor who will help you work through differences you may encounter during your discussions on race and enable you to engage in constructive conversations moving forward.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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