“My boyfriend and I had always known we were from different races. But that wasn’t the thing that really separated us.”–Tiphanie Yanique.
“My roommates saw your picture and wondered how I could be attracted to you.”
This was coming through the phone from the boy I was in love with. We’d been in love since we were kids. Now we were both in college, he in Colorado and me in Massachusetts.
“And you’re so great looking?” I responded defensively. “You’ve got a weird nose and…” “No, Tiphanie. You’re pretty. They thought you weren’t attractive because you’re black.”
This made no sense to me. It had made no sense to him either. True, he was white and I was black, but we’d grown up on the small island of Saint Thomas. Our high school was tiny; my graduating class was 21 students. Our bunch were Arabs, Indians, East Asians, African Americans, black islanders, white islanders, white continentals.
My boyfriend and I had always known we were from different races. But that wasn’t the thing that really separated us. His family was middle-class and mine was working-class — class was the main difference we felt and did our best to navigate. For the most part, our communities supported our relationship. The guys from my neighborhood called him light- skinned, a term for a black person with pale brown skin. They wanted me to know that he belonged. His parents gave me my first after- school job and invited me on their family vacations. He and I were like family, actually. Our different phenotypes didn’t make that impossible.
But our new communities saw us first as racial beings. He was just a white guy, and I was a black girl. Our common cultural background (Caribbean) became invisible. Suddenly we were not part of the same community at all and, surely, not the same family. He realized this sooner than I did. We were both in very white states, so no one thought it was strange that I had a picture of a blond-haired boy on my dorm-room desk. But he was being challenged because of my image.
The change came over us quickly. I began protesting for more black faculty on my campus. He was learning to snowboard. Before we left the island, we had known each other better than anyone. But we hadn’t known much about racial history and our places in it. Once we had to face America’s racism, we became foreign to each other. “You’re taking a class called black psychology,” he said, surprised.”Is that a thing?” By then I knew it was—and it was my thing now. I would ask him: “You’ve never heard of W.E.B. Du Bois? He was a vital player in black history.” I was now seeing myself in that history. And he couldn’t see where that put him.
We broke up that first semester. Race was now part of our everyday lives, but we didn’t know how to live with it together.
“Kind of like cousins” is how we explain our relationship now. It’s possible he could have a black cousin or that I could have a white one. But it’s a far cry from what we thought we would be for each other. We had thought we’d get married. Do I think racism robbed me of my one true love —the Caribbean boy; the white boy? No. The man I’m married to now is my true love. What I yearn for is who I was when I was with that boy. I yearn for that innocent girl who believed she could be part of any man’s history and he part of mine.
Yanique’s debut novel, Land of Love and Drowning, is out in paperback this month.
This article was originally published as “Love & Race,” part of a collection of essays about love by female fiction writers called “Love Stories” in the July 2015 issue of Cosmopolitan. Click here to get the issue in the iTunes store!
For the original report go to http://www.cosmopolitan.com/sex-love/news/a41797/land-of-love-and-drowning-novel-excerpt/