I was two years into my relationship with the love of my life and I couldn’t stand the sight of him.
We hadn’t seen each other for months. Shortly after our first anniversary I took a temporary job with a conservation agency in Belize, finally acting on my long-time dream of living abroad. To our mutual surprise, we found that what began as “casual dating” was too serious to cut and run. We agreed to try long distance. Before I finished processing what that meant, eight months had passed and we were reuniting in Guatemala to travel together.
Every day of my Central American immersion was a new challenge to my U.S. middle-class white girl worldview. I was fresh out of the Belizean rainforest, where I spent six months trudging behind Mayan rangers with a GPS unit dangling lamely at my waist. I was starting to recognize my privilege and the white saviorism veiled as “expertise” that brought me there. And then my partner appeared in the Guatemala City airport with high-tech hiking pants, a man bun, and god-awful white Nike slip-on shower sandals he bought in a moment of panic in the Philadelphia airport.
I’d missed him acutely the entire time we were apart but I was immediately irritated by his presence. He wanted to be as close to me as possible at all times, to kiss my neck or whisper inside jokes in my ear. I wanted to scorn him for his bourgeoisie childhood, for his fear of communal showers and his overpriced airport sandals and his assumption that he couldn’t get shower shoes in Guatemala. Looking back, it’s not surprising that we only made it a few days traveling together before we had one of our worst fights ever.
I was showering one morning when I caught sight of something on the wall in front of me: a ball of chestnut colored human hair, carefully twirled into a piece of grotesque wall art. I recognized his work. When we met, he was a clean-shaven business man, but within months he tossed off the shackles of the corporate world and grew out his hair and beard. By the time we reunited in Guatemala he had thick shoulder-length hair that he didn’t know how to handle. He pulled out strands every time he shampooed and then gathered it all together and stuck it to the wall.
It was weird and disgusting and I cracked. I addressed him with such spite and hatred in my voice that I’m surprised he didn’t shrivel away on the spot. The words flowed out of my mouth before I heard them, unreasonable and petty and mean. He was wounded. I thought about how he’d traveled down here to join me on a trip that was my dream, not his. It somehow made me even angrier.
A few days later I snapped back to reality as we hitchhiked up the side of a volcano on our way to a remote hot spring. Sitting in the bed of a local man’s pickup truck, I watched his long hair whipping around his face in the wind and my heart overflowed with affection for him. This man was raised frequenting no-less-than-4-star-hotels and was willing to help me hail a truck despite barely sharing a language with the driver. I knew he felt the wild, cathartic joy of the moment in the same way I did.
Our relationship repaired quickly as I reacclimated to being with him. We finished traveling, returned to the States, and moved to Brooklyn. He got an undercut and I dyed my pixie cut blonde. We grew more self-aware and progressive together.
With time (and therapy), I began to unpack the hang-ups that caused the hairball fight. I came to see how my parents’ messy divorce impacted my ability to trust love; how my repressed queerness had twisted my relationship to sex; how my childhood insecurities played out in our interactions. With each breakthrough I was flooded with appreciation for how strong and beautiful our relationship had become.
And yet, a dissonance remained. Two years after that fight in Guatemala, I was still experiencing sudden unprompted bouts of hatred towards him that made me want to run away to the woods and learn to forage wild mushrooms.
And then, a few months after our fourth anniversary, I attended a two-day antiracist training with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. It was not my first time thinking critically about race. I’d been obsessed with the topic since I became a gentrifier, reading and consuming nothing but antiracist thinkers. I had started to recognize and interrupt some of my own racist thoughts and impulses, to rewrite the American history in my mind as a story of theft, rape, and murder. I was prepared for the discomfort and unresolved questions the training would likely raise for me.
I was not, however, prepared for one particular new concept: internalized racial oppression. I listened with horror and dread as the trainers explained the psychological impacts of internalized racial inferiority, how being raised to believe they are inferior based on their race leads people of color to develop patterns of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. And then, before I could brace myself, we moved on to the psychological impacts of internalized racial superiority: the traits white people have developed over generations as a result of being socialized to believe we are superior based on our race.
The list of thought patterns that accompany internalized racial superiority felt like a personal attack, like my therapist coming out on stage and calmly reading her notes from my case file. Guilt. Perfectionism. Anxiety. Feelings of superiority. Dissociation. Depression. Self-hatred. Black and white thinking. Shame. Individualism.
At first, I recoiled with shock. But as we discussed further I started to connect the dots. American history, our political and social realities, made this list of white pathologies inevitable.
It starts with the obvious and oft-critiqued contradiction between America’s stated ideals (“all men are created equal”) and the slavery, genocide, and theft that built this country. To justify this morally, White American Culture has performed all kinds of internal backflips and emotional contortions. We defend the myths of the American Dream and the meritocracy to this end, to be able to say that we earned what we have, that we worked hard and thus deserve our privilege. We distance ourselves from the broader culture of racial oppression: well I’m not racist, or I’m from the north, or my family never owned slaves, or I have black friends, or I was born poor/disabled/Jewish/queer/female and so I am not the problem. The result is that now, 400 hundred years after we started these tortured self-justifications, we idolize the individual and despise any affiliation with our group identity, our whiteness.
I was raised in a good, kind liberal household that taught me of the great human rights abuses of the USA. I was taught to identify as a good person and to know that white supremacy was evil and oppressive. I was born to be an individual above and exempt from whiteness.
In fact, there was nothing more important to me than my individuality. What was I otherwise — Taylor Swift and the KKK and Panera Bread? No! I was Caitlin. I had the uniquely white privilege of being defined by my individual personality rather than my racial group identity.
My partner had always threatened this in me. My ability to be self-sufficient and independent, to thrive on my own merit, was endangered by a close partnership. He wanted to share references and traditions and culture, but I was an individual whose self could not be defined by my cultural context.
Of course he enraged me in Central America. I had just spent eight months as the ultimate individual, as the odd one out in most spaces. I was thriving in the world as an independent young woman. Who was he to come by with his inside jokes and affection, with his blatant whiteness, with his socialized superiority and arrogance? He was reflecting my privilege back at me, and I was ashamed of it. I was ashamed of myself. The shock of intense self-loathing paired with the threat he posed to my individuality was too much for me to bear.
But in reality, he had never once tried to claim me as his. He’d always seen my individualism as the force it was inside me and accommodated me accordingly. He let me take up as much space as I needed, sending me off to Belize with a smile and a wave. All he asked for in return was my partnership and my tolerance of his own pathologies. We were just a pair of white kids struggling to see through our distorted socialization to appreciate each other as whole human beings.
All along, the cause of my cognitive dissonance around our relationship had been my whiteness. And somehow, with the patience and generosity of an angel, he’d been able to hold on to me through four years of identity crisis.
I left the training that day on cloud nine. A mere 48 hours earlier I had hated myself, my whiteness, my complicity. Now, one step further in my anti-racist journey, I was freed to feel human for the first time ever, to feel connected to my community and my family and my partner in a way that once threatened me. I had broken through the invisible barrier of my whiteness to see myself and my relationship clearly for the first time.
I was four years into my relationship with the love of my life, and I was in love.
This essay won honorable mention in the 2020 Creators of Justice awards and was originally published on International Human Rights Arts Festival website.