“Wait, you don’t put on lotion everyday?” Matthew scrunched his eyebrows and tilted his head. And I, mouth open and eyes narrowed, mirrored his confusion with my own question, “Wait, you put on lotion every day?” I have learned that is but one of the gobs of differences that exist between us. The more I fall in love with him, the more I learn how different we are.
Most of our differences are subtle.
We were both surprised at the other’s haircut frequency—him every week or two, me every month or two. “No Keith, you don’t understand,” he chided, “it’s all about the lines.”
I still remember date two—I swear it was date two—he asked me if I use a washcloth when I shower. “It’s a real question! Growing up, white people never gave me a washcloth when I stayed the night, only a towel. And in college, none of the white guys on my hall used a washcloth, and that’s not clean.” My shoulders hunched and lowered to cover the truth.
Another difference is Matthew’s paranoia about hand washing. The first time we cooked together, Matthew blocked me from the food. “Have you washed your hands? I didn’t see you wash your hands.” I side-eyed him and glared with a look I hoped conveyed his prejudice—So white people don’t wash their hands?
But Matthew has opened my eyes. Every time we eat dinner at a white friend’s house and we see our friend lick sticky thumbs while cooking or plate food with bare fingers, we both lock eyes—he with a knowing I-told-you-so look, and I with sheepish apology.
Not all of our differences are so minor, and when the major ones strike, we deliberate for hours to decipher their roots. Are our differences cultural or familial? An example: The first time we argued, Matthew became increasingly more expressive, and soon he amplified his voice to parallel his passion. Immediately, I cut him off, “Whoa! Why are you yelling at me?”
“I’m not yelling at you. I’m passionate,” he practically screamed at me.
Working intentionally to use “I-statements” and control my volume in a self-righteous display of my own calm conflict-mediation skills, I answered him, “Well I feel like you’re yelling, and I am trying to have an adult conversation.” As I spoke, I moved across the room towards him.
“Why are you coming at me?” he recoiled.
“What?!” my own raised voice resounded back.
“I’m trying to have an adult conversation too, and I feel like you’re coming at me right now.”
We have learned since that volume is a trigger for me whereas proximity is a trigger for him. Both triggers seem to have been socialized into us through our family systems and cultures. We are learning how not to trip each other’s triggers, but given how passionate and expressive we are, arguments may be an inevitable third in our relationship.
Some of our earliest arguments had to do with how public I wanted to be and how private he wanted to be about our budding romance. After too many repressed years in the closet, I wanted to scale Wait Chapel and megaphone my love to the world. Keeping our relationship “private” felt like an oppressive shove back into the closet, and it cut deeper coming from the man I loved so wholly.
In retrospect, I still feel that “private” is often a guise for “closeted” in the gay community. However, I know to nuance the assertion differently. Coming out is different for me (as a white man) than it is for Matthew (as a black man). The gay movement has a white face, so coming out meant at least one accepting community for me, which was not a given for Matthew.
Additionally, issues of black masculinity are significantly more complex and precarious. A level of white privilege eased my coming-out process, for even in coming-out my masculinity has only been marginally prodded. By contrast, Matthew’s masculinity has been aggressively interrogated at the social and political level before he ever hit puberty.
Racialized masculinity: the crux of so many insecurities between us. Early on, we tried to parse out the racial and gender distinctions of our love. Matthew asked if I had always been attracted to black men or if this was a phase of exotic fetish. In turn, was his attraction to me merely white supremacist socialization?
At the beginning of our relationship, Matthew questioned if being with a white man compromised his authentic “blackness” and his commitment to the black community. The question hurt me deeply, and I vented to all my black friends at Wake Divinity. But they all nodded knowingly, siding with Matthew and encouraging me to keep quiet and hold his hand through such moments of reflection.
What I am realizing is that every situation demands identity negotiation for Matthew, and as a white American I am never required to reflect on my whiteness. However, being in an interracial relationship racializes me and invites me to reflect on my whiteness and privilege in new, intentional ways.
I know that some of the differences I have mentioned are gross generalizations, yet they are real to Matthew and me. I could fill a hundred pages about the differences between us, some light, some dour. But after Matthew and I have tossed around our differing perspectives and practices, we find ourselves lying together with no words and no space between us. I am in love. So much unites us as one. Our shared passions and politics, callings and commitments mark our compatibility, not a shared culture or race—and so difference does not threaten us.
At the end of the day, I am learning about a love without reduction of difference, and that may be the love we are all looking for.