I’m white. My husband is black. And after twelve years of marriage — and two FULL decades into the 21st century — people still don’t recognize us as a couple when we’re out in public together.
We’ve gotten used to the phrase “We’re together”, since we have to pull it out so frequently. My husband has impeccable manners, so if I approach a counter at the deli or a cashier at the store, he hangs back to let me ask my question. Almost every single time, after helping me, said cashier will ask him, “Can I help you?” And we say in unison, “We’re together.” Usually, it bums me out a little, but that’s the world we live in.
Today, though, it was even worse. I took my hubby out for a birthday brunch, just the two of us. After waiting on us — as a couple — for an hour, the waitress asked us if wanted separate bills. What?
Specifically, I said, “We’ll take the bill now,” and she said, “Will those be separate or together?” What in the world would make her think that we’d want separate bills? Especially since we are clearly a couple? And we aren’t young. We’re both in our forties, so why would she think this was our first date or something?
For all the white folks out there who might be reading this, this situation is what’s known as a micro aggression. It’s not intentionally racist or hurtful, but it’s an interaction that is full of race-based assumptions. I very seriously doubt this waitress asked the same question of all the other middle-aged couples having brunch this morning. And based on the last twelve years of having to let people know that “we’re together”, I know better. That waitress assumed that we aren’t married because I am white and he is black.
It’s subtle, but it still sucks. It sucks because we hear it so often. Yes, each time it’s just a small moment of the day, but it adds up. Each person who assumes we aren’t together — because we don’t “look” like we would be — asks us to defend our relationship in a way they don’t ask same-race couples to. If you are married to someone of the same race, you likely don’t know that feeling.
Constantly having to defend your marriage is not as painful as being turned down for a home loan or having racial epithets hurled at you, but it comes from the same history. I recognize that when it happens, the aggression part isn’t aimed at me. It’s aimed at my husband. My best friend. The love of my life. The best and kindest person I know. So yeah, it pisses me off. I am only aggression-adjacent, but damn I hate when you all don’t think this man belongs with me.
Imagine how often this BS happens to my husband when I’m not around. Imagine how often it happens to your friends and colleagues. My husband doesn’t come home and complain about it — it’s just a normal part of his life. And the black people in your life are probably not complaining about it to you either. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Every day. Way more than you think it is.
So here’s my advice for fellow white folks: don’t assume. Ever. Treat every black person you encounter as if everything about them is exactly like yourself. You don’t know them. So shut up and be nice.
And if they want separate checks, don’t worry, they’ll let you know.