I sat in bed, my then-partner lying down with his head in my lap as I stroked his hair and we discussed what to make for dinner. It was a warm, cutesy moment, until he broke the comfortable silence by blurting out, “Imagine you’re in a supermarket and a kid comes up to you and asks, ‘Are you this color because you drank a lot of Nesquik?’”
I let out a confused giggle, and even made a half-assed joke as a retort, before bewilderment completely took over me and the words began to ring in my ears. What happened next is a blur, but I vaguely remember trying to put some dinner together while looking up his question on the internet to see if it just happened to be a thing white people were curious about.
In her talk at TEDxStanford, clinical psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum talks about the time one of her three-year-old son’s classmates told him his skin was brown because he drank chocolate milk—an innocent theory that had perhaps developed as the child began to notice and question visible physical differences between him and his peers. But my partner wasn’t a child. As we went over why this question had occurred to him, he mused that he thought it would make for a comical situation. If only it was that simple for me.
I couldn’t shake it off, no matter how hard I tried. I kept visualizing how I would react if such a scene were actually to occur. Why would my 25-year-old partner think the color of my skin could prompt a child to wonder how it became that way, unless he also saw it as unnatural?
The bizarre question that he considered a harmless joke led to a discussion that lasted overnight and ended with both of us in tears, wondering if his inability, or rather, unwillingness, to understand why his “joke” had hurt and offended me spelled the end for us.
It being both our first times in an interracial relationship, I’d been keeping an eye out for any incidents that could act as telltale signs of subtle racism. I’ve always felt like being attracted to men inherently means I always have to be on my tiptoes, keeping my eyes peeled for the one problematic thing they do or say that would completely ruin whatever we had. But the additional racial power dynamics at play made me even more wary.
The first time it happened wasn’t too long after we started dating. As I scrolled through my phone one evening, I came across a newsletter listing opportunities exclusively for freelance writers of color. I remarked to my boyfriend how the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. had made everyone want to hire people of color. Without looking up from what he was doing, he laughed and nonchalantly remarked, "reverse racism." When asked to clarify, he faltered and said it was a joke, but that he also thought excluding white people amounted to the same injustice that had been meted out to people of color for centuries, although not in so many words.
This led to the first of many arguments that culminated in what I’ve come to regard as the “Nesquik incident.” My friends told me it was probably because he wasn’t aware of the racial disparities in the media industry, and that I should give him another chance. I listened to them, while also wondering if I was the one overreacting, which is what his friends suggested. Considering they had also been blessed with white privilege, I didn’t expect them to understand that what they considered “dark humor” wasn’t funny to me.
The premises that were supposed to make many of their jokes funny were often the reasons marginalized groups end up becoming victims to discrimination. A 2013 study in the U.S. found that anti-Muslim jokes normalized tolerance of Islamophobic discrimination by making people feel less bad about their own discriminatory tendencies. People in a position of privilege can get away with being ignorant, because they’ll never have to endure the larger impact of their seemingly lighthearted jokes. But I tried my best not to let my partner off the hook without explaining my position to him.
The first few times it happened, I’d try to keep my cool and break everything down into bite-size chunks for him to understand. I’d try to list everything I thought was wrong with what he said—reverse racism wasn’t a thing, creating space for people of color wouldn’t exclude white people from spaces they’d enjoyed centuries of power in, it wasn’t cool to joke about these things just because his Black friends also did it—even though all I wanted to do was simply to explode in anger and disbelief.
Over time, however, trying to reason, explain, and educate got too exhausting. I couldn’t comprehend why someone who loved me, respected and cared about my culture, and stood by me whenever I needed him was having such a hard time understanding why something hurt me so much. I knew it would probably help him to know my side of things, but if he didn’t learn the first five times, none of my bullet points, carefully worded texts, or links to articles were going to help him the next time it happened. As a fully grown, educated, financially independent man with all the world’s resources at his disposal, I also expected him to know better, or at least to want to know better and put in the work it needed, even though at times I was ready to forgo my own expectations out of my love for him.
He often told me he didn’t want me to forgive him just because I was sick of fighting; he wanted to understand where I was coming from so he would be careful not to repeat it in the future. As sweet as that was for him to say, his words didn’t seem to translate into action; he grew defensive every time I so much as hinted that these jokes stemmed from racism. Unless white people are willing to embrace their discomfort with conversations about race and replace it with self-awareness, any labor people of color put into these conversations will go to waste. Additionally, the onus doesn’t lie on us to educate them on how casual remarks and intentional jokes they make in jest actively endanger our mental health and dictate the way we’re treated in society.
A few months after the Nesquik incident, I was talking to a friend who was in a similar position with her partner. He would often make jokes and harmful remarks about people of color, which would result in them getting into a massive fight that always ended with her doing the heavy lifting. It was difficult, she said, agreeing that it might be wise to question if the relationship was even sustainable in the long run. Last month, they got married in the cutest Zoom wedding. She mentioned that they’d had a similar argument the night before the wedding, but that she hoped it would get easier as time goes by. I wish the same, and couldn’t be happier for her. But I’m also too exhausted trying to make it as an immigrant of color in a white-dominated world to risk a lifetime of trying to educate someone when it’s not my job to do.