Therapist-Approved Tips For Talking To Your Partner About Race

Photographed by Refinery29.
The journey to becoming a better white ally to the Black community starts with yourself — and with those closest to you. Part of being an active ally is calling out your white friends, family members, and romantic partners on their problematic behavior. This might get awkward or uncomfortable, but that's no reason to stay silent, says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, licensed marriage and family therapist and the co-owner of BFF Therapy in Beacon, NY.
DeGeare says she's noticed that many couples she works with seem to be waiting for the "perfect time" to bring up difficult topics like race. "There is no perfect time," she stresses. In the past few weeks you may have heard the term "white silence is violence." It's true: Speaking up and using your voice is a significant component of active allyship.
If you and your partner aren't in the habit of talking about race, this is a great time to change that. Start by asking yourself exactly what you want to say — and why. "Do a little bit of the work internally to organize that for yourself," DeGeare suggests. "Is this coming up because this is in the media or is it coming up because six months ago or five years ago, your partner said something that really bothered you?"
She advises pulling out a notebook. "I would write out all of your questions that you have for your partner. I would write out all of these incidents that really got you emotionally charged, when you didn't know what to say, and sit with them," DeGeare says. After everything is on paper, read over your lists and figure out the top three things you want to address in your first conversation. As DeGeare puts it, "Sort these things out so you're not just being like, 'I think you're a racist.' Come from a loving place — and be curious with them."
Leading with curiosity — not aggression — is key. A good opening line: "What have you been thinking about, with everything going on?" DeGeare suggests. "Start in a really casual place to open up that conversation." If this is the first time you're bringing up race, expect to feel a little awkward. "The person bringing it up needs to be okay with being uncomfortable," she stresses.
Once you've opened the conversation, practice active listening, suggests Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, psychologist, author, founder of mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project, and host of the podcast "Couched in Color with Dr. Alfiee."Summarize what your partner is saying, then think and take a moment before you respond."
Also smart: remembering that you can't control how they respond. "Maybe they say, 'Oh I haven't really thought about it,' or 'There's work I need to do around this,' and you can go from there," DeGeare says. Introduce them to informational and educational anti-racist books, TV shows, and documentaries that you can listen, read, or watch together as a couple.
"The conversation really has to be about, before we even talk about this, how do we educate ourselves so that we can have a clear, socially conscious, social justice focus of the conversation?" notes Dr. Breland-Noble.
But there's a chance that your partner may say something that shocks you.
"[Racism] is so ingrained in a genetic level, so it's important to remember that some people are just like, 'Oh I didn't know I couldn't say the N-word in rap songs,' — and sometimes it's so much more than that," DeGeare says. 
If your partner responds in an aggressive way, well... it may be time to end it.
"Yes, dump that aggressively racist person," DeGeare says. "If they're really that racist, why are you with them in the first place?"
Dr. Breland-Noble echoes that statement. "If you're already feeling compelled to have the conversation and you're not feeling support from your partner, that's a whole separate conversation from just race. That's a partner who's not supporting you, period."
Talking about race and racism shouldn't be a one-and-done conversation, adds DeGeare. This isn't about checking off a box. Asking your partner once how they feel about current events, then never discussing race again misses the point. To be an ally, these conversations must be ongoing.
But they don't need to be long. In fact, DeGeare suggests setting a timer. Having hours-long conversations that go in circles doesn't help anyone. Doing the work to confront your own white supremacy is like a marathon: It takes a lot of time, and a lot of training, so go slow.
These conversations may never feel easy. (If they do, it might mean you're not digging deeply enough into your own complicity in the system.) But you're not doing this because it's fun. You're doing it because this is what needs to be done in order to enact real, enduring change. In the words of Layla Saad: "There is no feel-good reward at the end other than the knowledge that you are doing this because it's the right thing to do."

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series