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What Makes Our World Go `Round
The sun comes up and begins another day of work, kids, family, and the rest of life's slings and arrows. We take each day, add it to the ones before, and call it a life. But in each one of these days, where does our marriage, our relationship with our spouse rank in the long laundry list of responsibilities? For a relationship to work and stay healthy, we must take responsibility, pay attention, and make an effort—effort that is responsive to the needs of our spouse and the needs of the relationship.
Yeah, just what you need to hear, that in addition to everything else that goes on in your life you've go to work to fight for your marriage. But hold on. We're not trying to make things harder for you; not at all. Just the opposite in fact. The goal of this book is to try to help African Americans create a style of interacting with their spouses that promotes an easier life, not a harder one.
In this chapter, we briefly preview all the special issues and concerns that confront African American marriages: protecting our children, racism, stereotyped views of black women and men, money, accommodating different backgrounds, attitudes about color, in-laws and kin, the church, and interracial relationships. We also discuss how the chapters that follow offer skills to address these issues with your spouse.
Marvin Gaye was one of the most influential musical poets of our time. His famous song "What's Goin' On" was aprophetic anthem, embodying the turbulent times of the seventies as well as the eighties, nineties, and even into the new millennium. He talked about the hate, which has produced a racial divide and affected our personal experience, our relationships, and our marriages every day of our lives. Although not every African American experiences racism in the same way or to the same extent, our recognition and acknowledgment of racism creates stress in our lives.
Racism is an important and often underestimated factor in the stress that can occur in relationships among African Americans. The very nature of this form of bigotry ranges from ignorance to unjust treatment to acts of violence against people of color, but this intolerance produces anger, hostility, and frustration in those who are on the receiving end of it. The stress of racism does not always take an obvious or insidious form. It can be much more subtle and, like water over a rock, wear away at your personhood. It can also leave you distrustful of the world and others—or worse, even distrustful of yourself.
How can all this happen? Because racism is not necessarily about someone calling you the N word. It can be subtle, it can be disguised, and it can be maddeningly hard to realize at times. Hence, you can examine interactions with people and wonder if it is a question of being black. How do you really know? The problem is that you often don't. You are left to wonder and assume based on previous experience.
The stress of racism can be exotic or mundane. An example of exotic stress is redlining. A couple looking for a house are "directed" by some real estate agents to certain communities, or presented with apparently insurmountable problems with getting a home loan. Mundane stress includes a situation like being followed around in a department store because they think you're going to steal something. Or racial profiling on the highway because you fit the supposed description of people who traffic in drugs or commit crimes (that is, you are black).
Another form of stress that can arise for African Americans is gender-based racism. Sometimes employers offer more opportunities for black women than men. Why? There are many theories. Three common ones are, first, fear of physical harm that whites sometimes feel toward all African American men. The second is the preconceived notion that black men do not work hard and are always late. A third is the belief that regardless of qualifications, if a man is to get the job he should be white.
Knowing that unfounded notions of this type exist in the workplace can be a painful challenge for African American men as they seek employment. It's natural that many black men develop feelings of hopelessness, anger, and frustration. When it's harder to get a job or to keep one because of some form of racism, this can have a profound effect on the person directly affected and his or her partner. For example, some black men may feel that they can't fulfill their responsibilities. They may also feel jealous and resentful that their wives can get a job but they can't. This can further damage self-esteem, and at times, the esteem of one's mate.
We know how tough it can get. We understand the doubts that can arise in one's mind. If you don't get that job that you are qualified for, is it because of a skill or quality that another applicant has, or is it because of the color of your skin? We can try to be objective and eliminate all other explanations, and sometimes all that is left to explain not getting the job is the color of your skin. If that's the reason, what do you do? Do you go to the EEO officer and submit a complaint? What backlash could arise?
All of these subtle or obvious situations build to produce frustration and uncertainty about the world around us. We carry this yoke about our shoulders, and then we go home. Home to our spouse and perhaps a family—both requiring time, patience, understanding, and love. But the world has just spit in your face; "I don't think that I can really feel love right now!"
Consider an example of how racism can influence a relationship. Levon and Shantee have been married for two years. Both work, Levon as an engineer and Shantee as a school teacher. Both started new jobs in the last month.
Shantee: Hey, babe, how was your day?
Levon: The day was fine. I guess. My boss asked me why I was late getting back from lunch. He didn't seem to realize that I left thirty minutes late to lunch so that I could get a project done. He never questions others when they come in, but he always seems to have his eye on me.
Shantee: Is there some office policy on when you are supposed to take lunch?
Levon: The point is that I'm the only black engineer for that company and I am being singled out. They're probably trying to find something to use to fire me.
Shantee: Do you do anything else they question? Do they say anything else?
Levon: What else do they need to say for you to get the point? You know what it's like out there. (walking off) Never mind. You just ain't gettin' it.
Levon feels that not only his boss is questioning his motivation; his wife is too. That hurts. That leads to distance. Levon feels that Shantee's questions shouldn't be directed toward him, but rather about condemning his boss for his actions. In the absence of statements like that, he feels she isn't supporting him. Meanwhile, Shantee is left feeling that she doesn't understand why Levon doesn't think that she gets the point. Of course she knows what it's like; she's experienced it herself many times. But sometimes, in our effort to analyze things, we don't get what the other person really wants from us: that we need to be comforted and assured that our assumptions about the world may have grounding in reality. If this doesn't happen, the stress from the world comes right into the space between the marriage partners. In this book, we try to suggest how a couple can use the power of marriage to work as a team to fight against the stress of racism.
As African Americans, our strength as a people has always been driven through our families. Black men and women working together have always been a strength, no matter how the greater society has tried to pull us apart. In relationships, we need the strength to put the racist acts of the world into perspective. We have to take the attitude that no racist statements or actions are more important than our spouse is. We also must develop the ability to take our partner's perspective. This permits us to "be there" for our spouse. When both members of a couple can take the other's perspective, it's a powerful tool, one that makes us strong and able to fight the good fight, as teammates, against ignorance, unfairness, injustice, and stress!
Take a look at your marriage and ask whether racism affects it. Are either or both of you deeply affected by racism daily? What stress does this lead to between the two of you? How do you handle the stress?
Among the tools and techniques for enhancing and preserving African American marriages that we offer in this book are skills for being there for your spouse. Being there is the ability to have a sense of where he or she is and, without speaking a word, make your spouse feel supported. My wife and I (coauthor Keith E. Whitfield, or KEW) do this when we are at our best. When all is clicking, we're even able to finish each other's sentences. This kind of closeness has developed over the years in our marriage and comes from knowing each other deeply—often from talks between us that touch the depths of our souls. This is not to say we can do it all the time. But we both try because we know how important it is, for us and our family.
Here is another discussion between Levon and Shantee, one that goes quite a bit better because the hurting one feels the care of the other.
Levon: So how was your day?
Shantee: Nothing really happened.
Shantee: Not much.
Levon: What happened to that teaching assistant that you said wouldn't follow your lesson plans?
Shantee: Oh, I spoke to the principal and she was fired. Now some of her friends are talkin' to the principal about how I conduct my class.
Levon: Fired! That sounds serious. I thought you said nothing happened? It sounds like the same kind of stuff I'm putting up with.
Shantee: Yeah, it bothers me, but I didn't want to trouble you with it.
Levon: I'm very glad you did, though. That kind of thing can hurt a lot, and I want to know when you're going through things like that. Want to tell me more about it, and how you're dealing with it?
This also doesn't happen all the time. It happens when we step outside of our own worries and try to see the world through the other person's eyes. To do this, you have to put your feelings on hold. You have to know that the other person will do the same for you when you need it. In other words, it has to go both ways. It is an incredible pleasure to see the comfort that you can give when the other person knows that you understand and "have his/her back," that you are not someone out there in the world. This other person is part of another world that is safe, fair, just, and loving. A colleague of ours in the field of marital research has noted the importance of what couples do to repair the damage or distance when a conversation doesn't go very well. Of course, we all have conflicts; it's how we deal with them that counts. That's what fighting for your marriage is all about.
Here is more of Levon and Shantee later in the evening. This is a perfect example of great repair:
Shantee: I'm sorry I didn't understand how you felt about your boss. I've seen him. I know he has higher standards for you than for his other employees.
Levon: I guess I look to you to make me realize that I'm not crazy.
Shantee: You're not crazy. We knew when you took that job that it would be tough being the only black engineer, and that they were going to take some time to get used to.
Levon: I just don't want you to think that the issues I may have are more important than what you have to deal with.
Shantee: Well, if you have any more trouble, I may have to go down there and straighten him out, and that ain't what they want! Anyway, they'd be lost without you.
Levon: That definitely ain't what they want! Thanks, baby!
Having good communication skills allows you to say what you really think and feel while helping your spouse understand where you are coming from. Developing good communication is the cornerstone for a good marriage; it helps to create sort of an inner world between the two of you. Without it, racism can make those who are alone feel lonely even if they are married. A relationship takes two, and the effort of keeping it healthy has to be shared.
Stereotypical Views of Black Women and Men
We live in a culture that holds negatively defined ideas about African American men and women. Too often, these stereotypes infiltrate how we see our mates and influence how we interpret what they do and mean to do. On this point, it can be argued that black men may be portrayed in the most negative light of all, not just in the media (movies, TV shows, and popular fiction) but as well in the conventional wisdom of the society at large (with black women coming in a close second). Therefore, one of the greatest battles to be fought in creating a good marriage is to see your mate for who she or he is—not for what the latest situation comedy, rap video, or book by a racist white man or woman (or frustrated black man or woman) might say. Although we all tend to think we don't let these stereotypes affect our perception of African American loved ones, that's often not the case. Such is the culture we live in, and we have to watch out for how we can be affected. Therefore, look within yourself for stereotypes of what African American women or men will or won't do, and how they will or won't behave. Do you apply these notions to your spouse? Some very deep conflicts can start there.
Here is a conversation between Constance and Arron. Both are hard-working supervisors, Constance for a telephone company and Arron at a retail store. They were married at twenty-one, and five years later they still enjoy going out to clubs and keeping up with the latest music. But they do sometimes differ on what they see as appropriate attire.
Arron: Aren't we suppose to go out tonight?
Constance: Yeah, we are, and look at the outfit I just picked up. Isn't it the bomb?
Arron: Where did you get that from?
Constance: I picked it up from that new store on the east side.
Arron: You need to take it back with a quickness. I can see through it, and those blue sequins don't hide anything.
Constance: I like it; I think it's funky.
Arron: More like freaky. That looks like something Lil' Kim or one of those hoochies on MTV Raps would wear.
Constance: I like it, and I'm gonna wear it.
Arron: You can wear it around the house, but not in public.
Constance: So, now you're my fashion warden? I don't think so. I'll wear what I please.
We have struggled for equality since being brought to this country in chains. We see many icons, myths, and characterizations that reflect poor ideas of African American men and women—for example, that all black men run out on their responsibilities if a woman gets pregnant, or that black women are hard on black men. The fact of the matter is that there are men who are involved in child care and black women who are supportive of their mates. These and similar stereotypes are views of black men and women that destroy oneness within relationships. Black men are admonished in the news as criminals, but in fact many black men have long been involved in their families as caregivers. The involvement of black men in the lives of their children needs to be celebrated by black women.
So in the case of Constance and Arron, it is not unreasonable that he might react to what he sees as her provocative dress. But we have to seek a balance in how we see the world and how it sees us. Perhaps more important, we must not let icons in the media allow us to change who we are or what we wear to appease others. At the same time, we should take our spouse's views into consideration. Perhaps Arron could ask Constance if she thinks the dress is provocative and then share, less domineeringly, that he has concerns about the dress.
Another popular stereotype is that in African American relationships the burden of upkeep in the relationship is on the woman, and that she has to make her man do this or that. If black women and men buy into this conventional misunderstanding, the resulting dynamic can lead to something far more like a parent-child relationship than a healthy marriage.
In Chapter Seven, we focus on helping you identify your beliefs and expectations for your marriage. There we help you attend to the impact of societal stereotypes of black women and men, and other beliefs that affect your marriage, so that you can decide how you want to handle things better. The bottom line: we want to help you think and act like a team. To do this, you must both have the same play book. One of the biggest daily issues or plays that a couple has to negotiate is money. In the next section, we discuss one of the biggest challenges for African American couples: spending money.
Excerpted from Fighting for Your African American Marriage by Keith E. Whitfield Howard J. Markman Scott M. Stanley Susan L. Blumberg. Copyright © 2001 by PREP Educational Products, Inc. and Keith E. Whitfield. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1.||What Makes Our World Go 'Round||1|
|2.||Four Key Patterns That Destroy Oneness||27|
|3.||Communicating Safely and Clearly: The Speaker-Listener Technique||49|
|4.||Handlin' Business: Problem Solving||73|
|5.||Ground Rules for Handling Conflict||99|
|6.||Timing Is Everything: Issues and Events||117|
|7.||Unmet Expectations and What to Do About Them||137|
|8.||Stickin' Together: Commitment||155|
|9.||Core Belief Systems: Religious, Spiritual, and Otherwise||175|
|10.||Forgiving, Forgetting, and Intimacy||199|
|11.||Preserving and Protecting Friendship||219|
|12.||Marriage and Fun: They Go Together!||231|
|14.||Keeping It Together||255|
|Selected Research and Resources||269|
|More Information on the PREP Approach||277|
|Finding a Counselor When You Need One||279|
|Some Thoughts on Domestic Violence||283|
|About the Authors||285|