My boyfriend is white and rich. I’m neither
there we were, eight months after our first date, driving to my boyfriend’s family’s holiday house for a week-long visit. We were like the interracial couple in the film Get Out: I was a young black woman, riding in my boyfriend’s Toyota Prius to one of the whitest places in the country, not knowing what to expect. I was nervous about meeting his family for the first time, but as a woman of colour with middleclass roots, I also worried how I would fit in with people who were not just white, but upper-class with Ivy League degrees.
I imagined being alone in the dark woods with limited WiFi service, surrounded by stacks of old and well-off white people. My career as a journalist covering politics and policy had given me a glimpse into this upper-crust world, but that wasn’t the same as dating into it. As we drove on, I wondered whether I would somehow end up in the ‘sunken place’ or, more likely, a place that felt just as lonely, isolated and distant.
When I first met Peter through a dating app, I didn’t know anything about his background. What attracted me was how similar we seemed: he had a post-grad degree, a commitment to social justice, parents who never married and chronic lateness issues. We had a good first date at a random bar in the city, until he took me up on my less-than-sincere offer to split the bill. I wondered whether or not to go out with him again (I’m a modern woman, but I still believe that if a man asks you out on a first date, he should pay). In the end, I decided it made zero sense to penalise someone for being broke, which I convinced myself Peter was. He was a school teacher who lived in a studio apartment. He talked about Marxism and socialism, and believed in a revolution for the working class.
I must have been blinded by love, because as we continued dating, I missed all the obvious signs that pointed to his wealth. I thought nothing of Peter’s debt-free Ivy League degree. His apartment was in an up-and-coming neighbourhood in the poorest part of the city, but it had high ceilings and city views.
Peter and I talked a lot about race – it was hard not to. I told Peter of my ambivalence about dating across racial lines when the world was so polarised. I explained my worry about somehow abandoning my race by dating him and my fear that I couldn’t write about issues in the black community with someone white on my arm. I was honest with him about my concern about being a fetish or some sort of rebellion against his parents. And we still managed to fall in love. Our talks
about race were often uncomfortable, but we seemed to be having all the conversations that ‘woke’ young people were supposed to have to make sure we didn’t repeat the mistakes of generations past.
Then one day, after six months of dating, I started to Googlemap the directions from Peter’s apartment to a friend’s place, but I couldn’t remember his exact address. I knew the name of his building, though, and my Google search pulled up an article about the apartment next door to my boyfriend’s, which was for sale. The headline said it was the most expensive apartment in the neighbourhood – nearly R14 million – and it was clear from the pictures it wasn’t even as nice as Peter’s. My mouth dropped open. For the first time, I realised that my sweet, socially conscious activist boyfriend was rich. I asked Peter about it, and he explained that he wasn’t exactly rich, but his family had some money and helped him get the apartment, and live above the means of an average teacher. I felt betrayed. Angry. I didn’t even know at what or whom. But it stung.
I had dated white men before, and while I couldn’t relate to their racial privilege, most of them had struggled financially, and we had that common thread to at least superficially unite us. But with Peter things weren’t the same. After I found out about his financial status, I felt that I couldn’t relate at all. And while I remained blissfully in love, I worried about how our differences would impact our lives.
I stumbled through many of these initial conversations about class with Peter. I got mad at him, mad at seeing what it meant to be a young, white, rich man. Sometimes I couldn’t tell whether he was benefiting from his race or his class – or both. Although I sometimes forget about his privilege, because he can be hilariously cheap (the bumper on his 13-year-old car is held together with tape), there are other, subtle traits that reveal the advantages he has had: the confident bass in his voice when he talks to police; his freedom to move to any new neighbourhood he wants. He walks through the world as if no one has ever told him no, whereas I walk through the world like no one has ever told me yes. Sometimes it all makes me want to scream.
And some days I do. We’ve had it out because one of his elite peers asked whether my mom and I were “well travelled”, clearly implying that we’d been too poor or uneducated to leave the country while Peter stood by and said nothing.
Our fights may seem petty, and some would say they’re not even technically about race and class, but they were always about who has power in our society and who doesn’t – things that are important to me to hash out. And slowly we began to do just that. Our fights turned into deeper conversations about our pasts and feelings. We began to have the really tough discussions about how class impacted his life and privileged him. We still don’t have all the answers, but we are making progress.
I loved my childhood, but I often wonder if my family – had they been allowed to accumulate the same wealth as Peter, or been given middle- and upper-income jobs instead of struggling away under segregation laws – would have lived in a penthouse apartment. If law enforcement didn’t constantly chastise black people, would we have that same confident bass in our voices when a policeman approaches? Would my dreams have been different?
As someone who believes in a more equitable world, I wrestle with what my presence in a place like this will mean. I never envisioned any princess-like life, and this certainly isn’t that, but I have to admit that I am benefiting from Peter’s privilege. He uses his account to rent Airbnbs when we travel (some renters discriminate based on race), talked to police when I needed to file a report after a car accident, I’m even moving into his apartment later this year.
I feel icky about all of this, like, “Do I need some white dude taking care of me?” This relationship has made me question what exactly people like Peter are supposed to do with their privilege.
Ladawn Black, a relationship expert, says that while unions bridging race and class often present problems, those aren’t insurmountable. “Initially, you’re trying to figure out the race thing, but then you step into a bigger pool of ‘the way I was raised versus the way you were raised’. So how do we live? How do we educate our children? If success looks a certain way for you but it looks totally different for your partner, you need communication on a higher scale,” she says. Being able to talk to each other about these issues is key, says Ladawn, as is having a supportive partner who validates your feelings, loves who you are, and can help you understand their world and family.
Riding up to the holiday house that first time, my real fear was not whether I would connect with my boyfriend’s family, but that they would be judging me. Thanks, in no small part, to my strong relationship with Peter, his family welcomed me with open arms. I didn’t end up in the sunken place or feel alone. But through it all, we’ve stopped pretending our differences don’t matter. Instead, we’ve learnt how to understand them and appreciate them.
“I’d had a glimpse into this uppercrust world, but that wasn’t the same as dating into it.”