I didn’t know what hurt more, the anonymity or the words themselves.
They stung like salt on a wound, pushing deeper and deeper the longer I looked.
The comment looked tiny in the shadow of the photo I had just posted to my Google account. The racist language could almost go unnoticed, with its tiny lowercase letters. But once I saw it, I couldn’t let it go.
The picture itself was one of my favorites, something I was proud of: My longtime boyfriend kissing me on the lips as sunshine streamed from the window behind us. Our skin tones contrasted the way I always admired. I remember telling him that when we first met, laying my hands across his chest, as if to magnify his rich dark brown next to the cream color of my skin. I felt we fit together like two puzzle pieces: the yin and yang of one another. Not everyone saw it this way.
The anonymous commenter, apparently, thought my boyfriend’s skin color made him a word that I would never use. About him or anything else. And I, apparently, was a “degenerate” for loving him.
I couldn’t stop the world from expressing its opinion.
The notification came when I was sitting in a classroom, on break between teaching classes. I should have waited until after school to check it, but curiosity overtook me. Teachers and students filtered in and out — not one of them I could confide in. So I looked up and started surveying the room for the culprit. Was it an ex-boyfriend? A student? A co-worker? Were they watching me right now or snickering behind a computer? I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was like my phone burned an emotional hole in my pocket, even though I was quick to delete the comment. I never expected that something so innocent as posting a photo would lead to such hate.
What kind of person would leave a bomb like that on a social media page? I spent a fruitless hour googling and Facebook stalking. But there was nothing but a fake name and one of those blank profile pictures. I even looked up the definition of “degenerate,” just to be sure, just to double-check. I learned it’s technically someone “having lost the physical, mental, or moral qualities considered normal and desirable; showing evidence of decline.”
That didn’t help. It only confirmed what was starting to sink in: that this person, possibly others, view the love of my life as subhuman. They think our relationship is immoral.
It’s 2016, I reminded myself.
It’s 2016 … and the date doesn’t matter.
Until meeting my boyfriend, I only knew about racism. I have a degree in education. So I studied it in books, discussed it in many classes. Grappling with racism was integral to my studies.
My boyfriend and I even talked about it when we first got together. We were both aware of the difficulties that came with interracial dating. We knew that trying to be “color blind” would only leave us blind to reality. I was committed not only to being in a relationship — but being in a relationship with a black man in America.
I felt the racial and cultural difference between us and noticed the privilege of my whiteness. Mostly these were subtle things like double-takes from strangers at the grocery store. There were also more difficult things, like watching my boyfriend place his wallet on the dashboard rather than inside his pocket. Just as a precaution. He doesn’t want to reach for it if he gets pulled over.
But this more direct encounter with racism hit me harder than anything else. I felt genuine shock. So much shock, in fact, that my hands shook as I dialed my boyfriend’s number.
He picked up and I immediately spilled the story about the anonymous comment. “OK,” he said.
He asked a few more questions to make sure I was safe. But he remained unfazed by the incident. Meanwhile, my heart was still racing, and I couldn’t stop looking over my shoulder. How could he be so composed?
He has always been the calm one, the voice of reason in our relationship. But I still expected a different reaction. Something a little more intense. When I saw him later that night, we sat down and talked about it. I asked him why he seemed so calm. He said he wasn’t surprised. He knows there are people who feel this way. It’s only a matter of time before they express their opinions. “It isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last,” he said.
It took a little time for that to sink in, as uncomfortable as it made me feel.
Then I kissed him on the cheek and felt the tide of 1960 wash over me.
After three years with him by my side, I am starting to lose the privilege of being oblivious, to being shocked when our relationship is belittled.
I’m also learning a little something about surprise. As a nation, we can’t talk about racism. It’s buried too deep. So white people especially don’t always recognize it when we see it. I never thought about it before, but being surprised is itself a sort of privilege.
A recent graduate of Metropolitan State, Michelle Fiedler teaches English at an alternative high school.