I Didn't Understand Allyship Until I Stopped Dating White Men
A female person of color explains that allyship is much needed—especially from white men.
When I decided, as a social experiment, to stop dating white men, there were several reasons why: I was exhausted from doing too much emotional labor. I was resentful that my white partners weren’t the allies that I wanted. I was fed up feeling tired for the majority of the time we were together.
At first, I misunderstood the source of our issues and in doing so, misdiagnosed all kinds of problems on my partners. It took halfway through my last relationship with a white man to realize that there was a line between his problems and his social conditioning. It wasn’t until six months after the relationship ended that lines started to become clearer to me.
The Importance of Verbalizing Emotions
I’ve dated mainly white men for most of my life. I’ve yet to unpack whether that’s because of my own social conditioning, my socioeconomic standing, purely personal preference or a matter of location and population density. Whatever the reasons, it came to a point where I needed to self-analyze what I was doing. There was a consistency to my behavioral patterns in these choices that I needed to understand. Why did I keep leaving those relationships feeling so hurt and tired? And why did it feel different when I was seeing another person of color?
Let’s recognize this: access to language is a sign of privilege. The language that came to me during my last relationship with a white man changed my life. Toward the end, I was able to start vocalizing critical distinctions of what I was experiencing emotionally. Terms like “emotional labor” and “gaslighting” were succinct ways to define the overwhelming feelings I was carrying with me. I used them as shields against the onslaught of my own confusion. Unburdening myself through these words were powerful releases that would come to save me a lot of pain and explaining.
I feel like “access to language is a sign of privilege” is the type of phrase that should be stamped on a coin.
Intersectional Allyship Is Instinctive for a POC
Part of the reason for my dating experiment was to draw a line in the sand on how much of my love and labors were divided between social conditioning and myself. This was crucial, and it took time: The process of unlearning takes longer than learning. I needed to give myself a break from the emotional labor of having to generally explain my trauma or defend my racial POV as a woman of color. I wanted to be able to have my intentional choices be accepted, not questioned for reasons that I knew to be racial, and would need to point out as such.
I dated actively for two years, intentionally avoiding white males. Some white men who became aware of my experiment were upset by my choices. They didn’t understand why this might be something I needed to do for myself, even going so far as demanding an explanation. It was great to know that I didn’t owe them one.
Dating strictly people of color was incredible. Peer acceptance within repression is a beautiful thing to experience. I felt my defenses relax and begin to take up less space. I felt the nonverbal language between my POC partners and me become easier—nonverbal communication is something that I consider to be crucial within relationships. I shared more of my trauma and it was seen with a different perspective, which made me feel more secure.
I quickly got a better idea of how I needed a partner to step up for me. When I was dating persons of color, they naturally found the moments where I needed support or camaraderie, without me having to explain why to them. Not having to do as much emotional labor—or sometimes not at all—was a relief. The experience of my existence felt validated in a whole new way.
Men Have to Learn How to Be a Good Ally
After a couple of years of dating, my friends and family challenged me to ask myself if the rules I’d put in place were really serving me anymore. And during that time I’d noticed that some of the issues I’d had in relationships were more about gender than race. So I decided to open the playing field back up.
So what did the experience teach me?
First of all, most men need to go to therapy and stop expecting their partners to help them work through trauma. Full stop. Moms and/or dads, please teach your boys to have healthy emotional boundaries. Women in hetero relationships are not here to be the carriers of their partner’s emotional burdens. Women—especially women of color—are already coming into the relationship marginalized on a social level, and we don’t need to be unnecessarily encumbered by our partners’ emotional immaturity. Men need to be responsible and mature about the work that they need to be doing for themselves and their partners.
But the most important lesson I learned during my experiment was to ask anyone I’m dating to do the work that’s necessary for them to be a proper ally to people of color. Looking back, I realized I’d never learned how to ask for allyship. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know how to differentiate those particular needs from the other ones I had. POC aren’t taught to ask for allyship, and white people aren’t taught to provide it. When I wasn’t dating white people, I found that support readily available. Interracial dating will always require more emotional labor from the person of color, no matter what, and those commitments have to be set up right away. Communicate those needs first, especially if you are in a relationship with a white person.
I Know My Partner—White or Not—Must Be a Social Justice Ally
It’s been such a relief to be able to define what allyship means to me when I enter into a relationship and to know that no matter what–even if the romance dies out–I’ll still have this person as an ally. Let your white partner know that the responsibility of protecting and dismantling systemic racism is on them, and do not choose to move further with that individual unless they can genuinely agree to be there for you in that way. If not, you’ll be entering a space that you may find all too familiar, including feelings of burnout, resentment and overbearing emotional labor.
White partners need to recognize that by entering a relationship with a person of color, they’ll need to not only be there romantically, but also to provide allyship, or the relationship will become much more challenging, taxing and unpleasant for their partner.