Relationship Education: Listening to and Supporting the Well-Being of Black Teens

As a sexual education teacher, I talk to a lot of teenagers about their relationships. An important part of these discussions is the many ways our social and political identities intersect with and impact our sexuality and relationships. Teens spend the majority of their social time at school, and their relationship experiences impact their overall well-being as members of our school communities.
When the Black Lives Matter movement gained global momentum, I thought about how I could help bring forward Black teen voices in the spirit of listening and learning—the same spirit that those of us who wish to be allies, especially in schools, should bring to the movement for racial justice and equality.
We need to hear the experiences of Black students. To do that, I spoke with 10 young people who self-identify as Black. Through these conversations—which explored their identity, their relationships with white teens, and current events—they reported being hyperaware of implicit and explicit messages about interracial dating. As educators, we must get these insights and learn strategies for how to create opportunities for Black students to feel seen and heard.

Listening to Students’ Stories

When I asked students, “How does race factor into dating?”, three of the girls and two of the boys immediately responded, “In your mind, the first question you ask yourself is, 'Are they into Black girls?' or ‘Are they into Black guys?’ ” For many teens of color, race is always top of mind in the charged choreography of romance. For Mikayla Woods, a 17-year-old girl from San Francisco, the issue of race can trigger both insecurities and attractions. “If someone isn’t ever down to date, it’s always in the back of my mind that it might be because I’m Black. If that’s what it is, I know I wouldn’t want to be with him anyway, but it still makes me feel insecure.” At the same time, “Current events around social justice can be the catalyst for others to show their political views. Someone who is anti-racist is hugely attractive.”
All of the teens found that interracial dating could be exhausting. Jameson Ford, an 18-year-old man from Philadelphia, says the looks he and his partner gets communicate, “what’s that Black guy doing with a white girl?” An 18-year-old woman from San Francisco discussed the experience of walking up to her white boyfriend’s front door in his white community, and feeling, "the neighbors staring me down. I don’t address the eyes but see them.” There have been many times, she says, when people have taken pictures of them without their consent.
All the boys I talked to expressed the intense pressure they feel when meeting their white partner's family members. When Mac Buckham-White, an 18-year-old man from Atlanta, goes to meet the parents of a white girl he is dating, he is always at attention trying to be as polite as possible. He feels like he needs to compensate for stereotypes. And all of the students talked about how interracial dating made them quickly realize the added time and energy that’s necessary to maintain a healthy relationship, especially when it comes to communication.
Latte Hutchinson, a 19-year-old, multiracial Black woman from Oakland and a first-year college student, was seeing a first-year boy who was white. While at dinner with friends, he casually dropped the N-word. There was an awkward silence, but no one at the table said anything. Hutchinson waited to have a private conversation; she wanted to know why he thought it was OK to use that word. He told her that his Black friends back home gave him permission. She expressed her discomfort, and told him there could be millions of other Black people who would not be comfortable either. The conversation went well, and she felt good about it, but she reported the experience was both exhausting and empowering. 
The students want to see more representations of interracial love in the media. They pointed out that there aren't many role models for how to be in relationships and have conversations across differences.

How to Support Students 

When I asked each of the young people, “What do you want allies to say and do?”, all of them said they wished others to be open and accepting. An ally, they agreed, has a genuine interest in what it’s like to be Black in America. They emphasized the value of a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them through conversation and shared experiences. Black youth also need helpful adults in their lives. How can we support Black youth in their relationships to increase self-awareness and encourage authentic connection—important skills that contribute to mental health and well-being?
All of the teens believed that sexuality and relationship education could serve as a positive resource for young people to acquire information and talk with each other about interpersonal dynamics and how social identities play a role. When we encourage students to be experts of their own experiences by holding safe spaces and prompting meaningful dialogue through exploratory questions, we affirm their value with our attention, understanding, and willingness to listen. We empower them with self-awareness and the agency to make choices that serve them well.
Ashanti Branch of Ever Forward, a nonprofit that addresses masculinity and character in young men, particularly young brown and Black men in schools, says it’s about asking 1,000 questions—not an interrogation but a dialogue with our students in the spirit of genuine curiosity. This leads to self-discovery and awareness that helps kids connect with others and engage in school. The key is to suspend judgement and create space for exploration. He advises adults to listen twice as much as they talk and to ask simple questions about how they’re doing, and deeper questions about dating and relationships (“Do you feel like your partner understands how you feel? What about their parents—do they treat you well?”).
“Kids don’t want to be seen as different,” Branch says. “Some feel they have to pretend they are something they’re not. Even if their intellectual self knows they’re pretending, they feel a need to fit in.” This may be especially true for young Black men in predominantly white communities. Branch invites his students to ask themselves, “Do I have power and permission to be my true self? Do I have enough power with independent thinking?” And if it’s about interracial dating, “How much of who I choose to date is connected to my friends? Where does that come from, and how does it serve me?”
Mohammed Bilal, associate dean and director, Office of Inclusion, Belonging and Intergroup Dialogue at Stanford University, promotes self-awareness as well. He encourages “processing on paper about identity and how stereotypes may be showing up.” We can validate the added layer of risk and vulnerability that a Black student may experience if they are dating someone who is white. As educators, we must embrace the idea of affirming value. If we ask a student how they would communicate with their partner and what that relationship means to them, believe them and emphasize that effective communication and the willingness to talk openly is what can keep people safe. Recognize the importance of equitable dignity and belonging in a relationship.
Debbie Samake, who teaches at the Urban School of San Francisco, has run student of color and Black student union affinity groups for years, encourages schools to allocate resources toward diversifying their communities to maintain, enrich, and elevate affinity spaces for youth—because “the numbers matter.” Empower adults and students of color to attend conferences where students of color may connect with each other and experience a sense of solidarity. Samake also recognizes the value of student involvement in communities outside of school. When in the minority at their schools, students of color can feel lonely. Provide families with resources so that they may involve their children in community organizations that affirm Black identities.
The honesty and integrity with which these young people spoke to me was humbling. Each was eager, earnest, and inspired to tell their story so that others may have a deeper understanding of how race affects relationships. I realized that they gave the responses they did because I simply asked and was genuine in my interest and willingness to listen. Ultimately, as educators, this is how we can make a difference in all of our students’ lives. That’s what we all long for—an authentic connection within which we experience a sense of belonging and acceptance.
Shafia Zaloom
Shafia Zaloom

Shafia Zaloom is a health educator. She specializes in healthy sexuality and relationship education, and is the author of Sex, Teens, and Everything in Between.


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