To say the last few weeks have been difficult for the Tyler family of Chicago would be an understatement. The protests against police brutality that have erupted across America in the wake of the death of 46-year-old George Floyd last month have shaken the Tyler household.
“I have been psychologically triggered by past traumas that have resurfaced and have been trying to process everything,” said James Tyler, who is Black and owns a photography company with his wife, Christy, who’s white.
Christy told HuffPost she’s felt two things most acutely: concern over how her husband is faring and a strange mix of relief and disbelief that other white people are just starting to understand how callously Black Americans are treated.
“I’ve been processing all of that in my own way ― I’ve been crying a lot ― but mostly I’ve been really worried about what he needs and also generally just worried for his safety, as I always do, when he leaves the house,” she said.
“Every new murder of a Black person magnifies and multiplies my anxieties and worries about James going out to interact in the world,” she added.
Though Christy tries not to overwhelm James with these concerns, they’ve never shied away from talking about their personal fears about racism.
“I feel like we are partners, and part of being a partnership is knowing we can be open and vulnerable with each other, and that goes beyond who the white partner and who the Black partner is,” James said. “The only way to make any partnership work is through truth, and we have always talked through everything, especially regarding race, so this time is not new for us.”
What’s playing out in the Tyler home is happening across the country and across the world as interracial families reflect extra hard on a host of issues: their differing experiences with racism, white privilege and many of their white relatives’ indifference to these issues. (For those who are parents, they also must relay what’s happening in the country to their children.)
Privilege ― who has it in America, who doesn’t ― was at the center of a viral TikTok video shared recently by dancers Allison Holker and Stephen ‘tWitch’ Boss. In the video, the couple take the “check your privilege challenge” while their 4-year-old son sits on tWitch’s lap.
“Put a finger down if you have been called a racial slur,” the voice in the clip says. “Put a finger down if you’ve been followed in a store unnecessarily. ... Put a finger down if you have had fear in your heart when stopped by the police.”
Twelve racially charged scenarios commonly experienced in the Black community are stated. tWitch eventually runs out of fingers. All of Holker’s fingers stay up until the voice says, “Put a finger down if you have ever had to teach your child how not to get killed by the police.” Holker, a mom of biracial children, finally lowers a finger.
Michael Hoyle and his wife, Frilancy, the owners of a clothing store in Seattle, also participated in the “Check Your Privilege” challenge. They had similarly disheartening results. (Michael put down one finger; Frilancy put down the majority of hers.)
In an interview with HuffPost, Michael said these challenging conversations are nothing new to him and his wife, who’s from Zambia. He said it’s often hard to square the ease of his day-to-day life with the microaggressions and racism experienced by his wife, who came to the United States at the age of 9.
“As a white man, I try to empathize with her as much as I can,” he said. “Frilancy’s very resilient.”
Hoyle said he’s constantly trying to educate and inform white peers online about how unfair it is for Black people in America and around the world. It’s often an uphill battle.
“Some really do not care or think that I am overexaggerating things,” he said. “There’s always a smart comment or reply to anything deeply concerning injustice. The entitlement is overwhelming sometimes.”
When Seattle erupted in protests days after Floyd had been killed in Minneapolis, Michael was quick to join.
The first day he went out, May 30, was rough. Peaceful protests in the city turned chaotic as the evening wore on ― several cars were set on fire, including police and transit vehicles. At one point, Michael said, a tear gas grenade deployed by the Seattle Police Department went off only a few feet from him.
When he talked to some of his white family members and friends later, many hardly mentioned the protests.
“We know people who are completely detached from this reality,” he said. “They call or text things that are so day-to-day; they’re completely unbothered by anything that is impacting our world. There’s almost an avoidance or a carefree mindset because it doesn’t impact their white-ness.”
If they were to ask him about why he’s protesting, he has a simple explanation: “Racism is so embedded into the American way of life that, when people protest it, they think you’re protesting America.”
For white spouses, advocating for anti-racism efforts and educating family and friends on injustices ― something white allies in the Black Lives Matter movement are often urged to do ― comes with the territory.
Given how often police violence has been in the news the last few years, they’ve also learned how to monitor their own emotional reactions to jarring events like Floyd’s death, if only for their spouse’s well-being.
Mark Harrison, a school administrator in New Jersey, said he’s hyper-vigilant to not to put the burden on his wife to minister to his own emotions ― especially his guilt over many Americans’ inaction up until this point ― when she’s processing her own heavier feelings and trauma.
Watching the Floyd video, Mark was aghast. His wife, Tawana Lewis-Harrison, a financial manager who works in higher education, had a more frightening thought. “George Floyd could have been my brother.”
Mark tries to take on the role of a sounding board instead. Tawana said he’s good at just letting her vent.
“Plus, he understands and encourages my need to connect with other Black people, Black culture and other people of color without feeling threatened by it,” she said.
“He is supportive when I vent my frustrations about how often many Blacks in this country are only respected or valued within certain fields (e.g., sports, entertainment, etc.) and specific microaggressions I experience ― sometimes in his presence.”
While Mark doesn’t put the onus entirely on his wife to educate him on Black issues, the conversations they have in their kitchen sometimes do have the feeling of an on-the-fly civics lesson.
“We have conversations about macro-events and micro-interactions,” Mark said. “One theme that sticks with us is that slavery and oppression of Black people is a 400-year American debt. A portion of our people have been trying to pay off the principal of this debt for 40 to 60 years, with limited systemic impact.”
He’s referencing what’s been called “white debt”: the idea that the American economy as we know it was built on slavery. As The New York Times’ stunning “1619” podcast broke it down last year, Black bodies were actually used as full or partial collateral for land by slave owners. Thomas Jefferson mortgaged 150 of his enslaved workers to build Monticello.
As writer Eula Biss has explained, “the state of white life is that we’re living in a house we believe we own but that we’ve never paid off.”
In large part because of his talks with his wife, Mark is comfortable confronting all of this. The interest on that debt continues to grow, he explained, while Black people are paid less, are put in prison more and are denied the same opportunities to break the cycle.
“It will take a 400-year counter-investment to get to a level playing field, and even then, we will still be dealing with the hard work of running a democracy,” he said.
Tawana’s most important teachings come from simply relaying her experiences growing up. Mark grew up in New England, while she grew up in the Southeast.
“There are less Blacks in New England, so racism becomes more of a thought exercise than a life exercise,” she said. “Put differently, New England does not have public schools named after overtly racist Civil War generals or Ku Klux Klan founders ― the Southeast did and still does.”
The legacy of slavery feels ingrained in the soil, she said. Public schools often end their Black History Month curriculum with Rosa Parks boldly sitting in the front of the bus and Martin Luther King Jr. giving his impassioned “I have a dream” speech, insinuating that everything was fine after the fact. But Black Americans, especially in the South, know that’s not the reality.
“My father’s father was a sharecropper,” Tawana said. “He was part of a system designed to keep Black people down and never accumulate wealth. Redlining, the outright denial of housing loans, and predatory lending had the same intentions.”
“If more people were aware of the widespread nature of these horrible systems, practices, and really knew how oppressive America is to Black people, I think we might have a democracy that worked for more people,” she said.
The Harrisons have a 9-month-old daughter. They have a few years before they have to explore the topic of systematic racism with her. For mixed-race couples with slightly older children, though, the conversations are happening now.
“One of our sons asked me, ‘Why did they kill George?' I asked him, ‘Do you know why?’ And his response was, “Because they don’t want any Black people on the Earth’ ― even though we’ve never said that to him.”
In families with younger kids, the talks may not be deep dives into how American capitalism has its roots in the oppression of people of color, but they’re hard conversations nonetheless.
They’re ongoing conversations, too. The Tylers’ kids, all younger than 5, are used to their parents speaking frankly with them about things like this.
“We name body parts for what they are, and so we name racism for what it is, too,” Christy said.
Even if that weren’t the case, though, given how casually the video of Floyd’s fatal police restraint was looped on television, the parents were forced to walk their 4-year-old sons through what they’d seen.
“They see the videos and images on the news, so I explain to them about racism and race,” she said. “That Mommy is white and Daddy is Black and there are people who think that when you are Black you are not equal, not deserving, not human.”
When the boys heard about Floyd and the police officer who pinned him to the ground with his knee, they wondered out loud why it had happened.
“They know enough that one of our sons asked me, ‘Why did they kill George?’” Christy said. “I asked him, ‘Do you know why?’ And his response was, ‘Because they don’t want any Black people on the Earth’ ― even though we’ve never said that to him.”
For parents of Black children, these candid, transparent conversations are hard but necessary, even at age 4, James said.
“I take my role as a father extremely seriously, and that is to prepare and protect my children from all that they will face in this world,” he said. “This includes racism and how race affects the way people see you ― even if the way they see you is incorrect.”