My boyfriend is white and rich. I’m nei­ther

I’m nei­ther.

Glamour (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - Words by RENIQUA ALLEN

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.”

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