Julian Humes, a black man from Durham, North Carolina, was in sixth grade when he first thought about the implications of being involved with someone of another race. That was when Julian, now 22, told his father that a white classmate had a crush on him.
“The first thing he said was, ‘That’s nice and all, but not everyone’s parents have the same views about who their kids associate with,’” Julian said.
Now, Julian is dating Devon Murphy-Anderson, a 23-year-old white woman from Maine, which she said is “the whitest state in America.” The two started going out in 2016.
“It isn’t the easiest thing, but it’s been worth it for us,” said Julian. “Getting looks from people becomes a commonality and feeling unwelcome becomes normal. The struggles of being different from one another and from the majority of couples around only makes your relationship stronger. I think it’s opened my mind to different cultures.”
For Julian, being black is an important and positive part of his identity. At the same time, being black in the US can also pose risks that white people do not have to deal with in their day-to-day lives. Black Americans make up about 38 percent of the prison population at federal institutions and the same number at state prisons, which means that black people are more than five times as likely to be incarcerated in the US as white people, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
Though the US makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, we house 25 percent its prisoners. In 11 states, black people represent more than half the prison population. The American Civil Liberties Union reported that one in three black boys and one in six Latinos can expect to spend time in prison in their lives. The number is one in 17 for white boys. Often, these are for low-level drug offenses, even though black and white Americans use drugs at approximately the same rate.
In 2014, Mic reported that there were more black prisoners in the US prison system by percent than there were during apartheid in South Africa, and the number has only grown. They also noted that one in every 28 US American children grows up with a parent behind bars. The majority of them are black and brown, since that is who makes up the prison population.
“Because of my upbringing as a black male, as I’ve grown up, I’ve come to understand race with a negative connotation,” said Julian. “That’s because a lot of things that have happened to myself and people I love have been solely because of race.”
Black people are also more likely to be targeted by the police than white people, even though blacks make up less than 13 percent of the total US population. Of the 987 people killed by police officers in the US in 2017, 20 percent were black, according to the Washington Post database. Other sources, such as The Root and Salon, estimate the number of people killed by police is closer to 1,129.
According to the 2010 census, Durham is approximately 42 percent white and 40 percent black. Brunswick, Maine, where Devon grew up, is approximately 93 percent white and less than 1 percent black. Julian and Devon agree that this affected their backgrounds and initial understanding of race.
“I think sometimes we have a hard time understanding where the other one is coming from because we’ve had such vastly different childhoods and experiences,” said Devon, who had moved to New York to work for Liuba Grechen Shirley, a Democratic congressional candidate in the second congressional district of Long Island, New York.
Devon’s district is made up of mostly Suffolk County, which is 75 percent non-Hispanic white and 7 percent black, and a small part of Nassau County, which is 66 percent non-Hispanic white and 11 percent black. On November 6, 2018, Shirley lost to Republican incumbent Peter King, who has been accused of racism in the past for using an anti-Asian slur on television in 2016 and for a history of Islamophobic comments.
“I think we’ve realized in our relationship that those different experiences are somehow related to race,” Devon said of her relationship with Julian. “We have to talk about everyday things more than most couples, I think. But I also think that can be an advantage because it forces us to communicate.”
Much of their conversations about race come about from day-to-day interactions with other people, according to Devon. “Usually, it’s older white people in restaurants,” she said. “I think I’ve realized that as a white person dating a black person, that people approach me about it more than they approach him.”
She added, “Sometimes it pisses me off because I feel like the only thing that matters about our relationship is that Julian’s black. That makes me upset for so many reasons, but mostly because we have an incredible relationship that deserves to be recognized for many other reasons.”
Although they are young, they have already started thinking about what it will be like to have mixed-race children. While Julian hopes overall views on race will have changed in the US from when he was growing up, Devon is struggling with these ideas for the first time.
“Hopefully, I won’t have to speak to my children in the same capacity as I was spoken to about race when I was young,” said Julian. “That’s not because they may not be as brown as me, but because hopefully societal views of race will continue to change for the better. But yes, I think that because my children will be mixed race that I will still have to point out the advantages and disadvantages of being non-white.”
“Race is so complicated, especially in America,” Devon added. “I think a great place to start those conversations is with history, because it provides a context. But as a parent I think I’ll also be very aware of the timing of those conversations. Children are taught racial identities, stereotypes, and boundaries. It’s not something we are born knowing. So, I wouldn’t want to force my children to have that awareness before it was necessary.”
In spite of the difficulties, the couple said that the good outweighs the bad.
“It isn’t the easiest thing but it’s been worth it for us,” said Julian. “Getting looks from people and feeling unwelcome becomes normal. But the struggles of being different from one another and from the majority of couples around you only makes your relationship stronger.”
“We have an incredible relationship that deserves to be recognized for many other reasons,” Devon added. “I mean, I really love him. And he happens to be black. So, the best part is completely unrelated to race. It’s that I get to love him and be with him.”
Nicole Zelniker is an editorial researcher at The Conversation US. A creative writer as well as a journalist, she has had several pieces of poetry and two short stories published. This essay is an excerpt from Zelniker’s book, “Mixed,” which is about race and mixed-race families.