Racial Trauma & My Interracial Marriage

Elle Dowd
Elle Dowd
Sep 16, 2019 · 7 min read

As a faith leader engaged in anti-racism work, I am always looking for resources that will speak to different people. As a white mom of Black kids, I had to learn the hard truth that loving my family didn’t mean I somehow magically escaped internalizing and being influenced by my socialization in a white supremacist society. Quite the opposite — my love for my children urgently compels me towards the need for all white people to do anti-racist work, including and especially myself.

Below is a guest blog by Madena Maxine, who volunteered her personal experiences when I asked the question: why should white people in interracial relationships care about anti-racism work?

I am a BIPOC woman who recently left my interracial marriage of 21 years and the BIPOC daughter of an interracial couple. They were married in Iowa, in the 60s when it was still illegal in many states. There is something beautiful about interracial marriages, or I should say, there can be great beauty in interracial marriages that stand the test of time. My mother was “white” (Irish/German) and my dad was “black” (African/French/Native American). I saw both great beauty and great tragedy in their marriage. There were complex carriers of generational trauma in each of their lives that impacted their marriage.

At the age of 7, my dad was escorted into the woods of Georgia by his uncle. He led him to where a black man had been hung and his dead carcass was used for target practice until there was basically nothing left of his body. I have written of this experience as part of my own healing as this trauma was literally passed down through my DNA (research Epigenetics). What happened to our ancestors affects us in a profound way on a subconscious level. And it greatly impacts our bodies. Ressma Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands does a great job of explaining how this ancestral trauma gets trapped in our “white” bodies, “black” bodies, and “blue” bodies. It is why otherwise “good” people behave in “evil” ways and perpetuate systemic injustices towards BIPOC and interracial couples.

I grew up in the church and what was so confusing for me and what I often spoke with Jesus and the Holy Spirit about was that what was taught in Sunday school and church didn’t seem to apply to my family and me. We would leave church, on our drive home (which wasn’t far as we lived in a very small town), as we passed other people who were leaving their churches sometimes people would swerve at our car or people would motion for us to “get out of town.” It was bizarre. Somehow, we were beyond the reach of the gospel message. After my parents both passed, we found disgusting letters and threats that had been sent to my parents from the “good” God fearing people in our town.

All of this, the ancestral trauma and my parents’ experiences as an interracial couple left them each hating their black and white bodies. My dad never said it explicitly, but he said it with his incredibly low self-esteem which he masked by being jovial and larger than life. He said it by raising us in an all-white community. He always said he stayed in that community so he would have an opportunity to change the opinions and perceptions of some people. Now that I have done some of my own work and I look back, I realize he had adapted the lies and myths of the dominant white body culture. He believed that raising us in white body culture was better than raising us in black body culture. I remember watching sports and if a black bodied athlete was asked a question and the athlete began his answer with, “you know…” my dad would almost jump off the couch and say, “you big dummy, if they knew the answer, they wouldn’t ask the question.” Anything that displayed stereotypical caricatures of black culture sent my dad into at least a 10-minute lecture. I was always told that I needed to be 10 times better than my peers at everything if I wanted to succeed. As a result, I attempted to distance myself as far as possible from any stereotype that might attach itself to me. Enter perfectionism and bearing the burden of being an example for an entire demographic.

I remember my mom actually saying that she wished she had been born black. She hated being white and identifying with all of the ugliness my dad had experienced and what they had experienced together. She carried the guilt and shame not only generationally, but as a witness to what her friends and family said and did to my dad and to them as a couple.

All of this and so much more shaped me and was a breeding ground for dialogue always running in my subconscious as I dated and chose my white bodied husband.

As a multiracial woman who was married to a white bodied man for 21 years prior to separation, mine is a cautionary tale for other BIPOCs. After the end to my marriage, which involved significant trauma, I began to do the painful trauma healing work. What caught me off guard about this work, was not the trauma of betrayal which I was navigating. What hit me like a tsunami was the racial trauma I didn’t know I was carrying due to overt racism and microaggressions, not only by society but by the family and friends I married into, and the racial trauma resulting from my husband’s silence in the midst of these violent, non-physical attacks.

Growing up, my dad would talk to me about not assuming a “white” identity and the importance of telling people exactly who I am. He was protecting me against not sharing my full identity and later facing retaliation from someone who would not want to be in relation with someone “mixed.”

I grew up in, lived in, and worked almost exclusively in all white spaces throughout my life. There wasn’t much opportunity for me to date another BIPOC. I remember being excited to go to college and the possibility of meeting open minded people and other BIPOCs. There were very few black bodied men at the private college I attended. There were a couple of men I felt a slight attraction to, but I was so conditioned to prefer white bodies that I never entertained the few opportunities I had.

The night I met my husband, I made sure he knew that I was multiracial. It didn’t seem problematic for him and yet he had many friends who did not hide their racist comments and jokes and he would never call them on it.

I was asked to specifically write about the damage done by “good” white bodied people in these relationships. I married into what everyone would consider a “good”, prominent, Christian, family-oriented, white bodied family.

I remember sitting around a table with his aunts and cousins getting ready for our wedding by filling netting with birdseed. His aunt told a joke about nigger babies. I didn’t know what to do. I was shocked, not that she would have that joke in her repertoire, but that she would say it out loud. I could tell by the reactions in the room the others felt the same. This language wasn’t unfamiliar to them, but there was shock that it would be verbalized in my presence. “There is no harm in telling racist jokes, it is just in good fun. It isn’t as though we are burning a cross or stringing someone up”, right? It was a very clear message that my being in this family wasn’t seen as something to embrace, but something they would tolerate.

As people exited the church and came through to shake our hands on our wedding day, I noticed all of his friends and family were saying the same thing to me: “You are so fortunate, you are a lucky girl.” After about 30 people, I thought, “What about how fortunate he is to have me?” Then I realized that what they were really saying is how fortunate I was to have been allowed to marry this white man and I had better be thankful that I was allowed to “marry up.” All these people were “good, God fearing” Christians exiting the church from our wedding ceremony.

These are messages I received all throughout our marriage that over time silenced and diminished me. Over the years, I would say something to my husband about the things his friends or family would say and he would glaze over it and say that is just how they were and that he wasn’t like that. There were many issues in our marriage; however, I believe the racist beliefs held by my husband were the basis for many of our issues. We are who we surround ourselves with and if we surround ourselves with people who on a regular basis make derogatory racial statements and jokes, we begin to internalize that thinking as our own.

I carried so much racial shame into my marriage that by the time I was married, I was ready to accept the way I was treated as the “norm.” So,my caution is especially for BIPOCs who have lived in, worked in, and played in white spaces with little connection to their marginalized culture. We adopt the ideas and myths and prejudices about ourselves from the company we keep.

I highly encourage not only white bodied person(s) in a partnership to do their anti-racist work; I highly encourage both/all potential life partners to go through some racial trauma work before getting married. For in doing this work, some will find their relationship is not actually viable.

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