When Love is Lost in Translation
In the moment, I’d lost my voice. Overpowered by shock, and I could do nothing more than sit up in bed, horrified, by my boyfriend. The charming, smart, challenging, adventurous boyfriend who had flown over 3,000 miles to see me; who had left Paris to spend a month in New York to see if it was a city for him and, thus, a city for us. But I watched him across the room from me, and I was seeing all of our plans fall to pieces.
“Look! I’m a black woman!” he exclaimed, shaking his bare bottom at me and dancing lewdly. He laughed brashly, an enthusiastic child amusing himself without end. Every brown skinned video vixen who had ever made it across the Atlantic to his computer screen was in the room with us, jeering at me, a fellow brown skinned girl, appalled and insulted. I didn’t even know how our conversation had turned to this, it happened so abruptly. Breaking loose of the shock, I found my voice.
“Look! I’m a black woman!” he exclaimed, shaking his bare bottom at me and dancing lewdly.
“What the hell are you doing?” I shouted, turning away from his show. He came over and climbed back into bed. His round earnest face expressing confusion and hurt, “What do you mean?”
I pushed him away and hurled my heated words in his direction, “That is not going to fly here. I don’t know what you do in France with other people but that is not going to fly here or with me.” There. I’d said it. I’d set my boundaries, and he was clearly in the wrong.
“What does that mean ‘it’s not going to fly’?”
My heart sank. Explaining how I felt in this situation to him was going to require starting from the beginning. I explained the American English turn of phrase, and then launched into why I was so insulted by his act. I watched his confusion shift to embarrassment, then defensiveness. Halfway through my explanation he sparred, “Oh look at the Missus getting on her high horse! I’m going to go take a shower.” He catapulted himself from our bed and out of the room, wearing a towel and the downcast look of the victim. And I was, for the second time in about five minutes, appalled.
I am a black woman. A young, vocal black woman with strong opinions. I am impatient. I am driven. I am what would be considered by many to be “well educated” and interested in learning more. I am not interested in having my ethnicity and gender painted on the face of another, especially in my bedroom and especially by my boyfriend.
From my experience living in France and traveling Europe and North Africa, I had learned that political correctness has an entirely different meaning there. Racism is present, but reflected at new angles.
The fact that this insulting show of minstrelsy was not my boyfriend’s intention was even more terrifying than if it had been. Had he been intentionally insulting, I could’ve cut ties immediately, but ignorance was the culprit here. He had not understood why I saw myself reflected in these underdressed and provocative women – did not understand that, to me, our blackness and womanhood bound us and that I was insulted by how he minimized and degraded them, because I could be them. I could not accurately convey, battling my anger and hurt, how racism and the objectification of the black female body were embedded in the history of my young nation and still pervasive in the lives of black women. On top of all of this, when I tried, he wasn’t interested in hearing it.
Though we had met in the United States, he and I had only ever had our relationship living in his culture and context, amongst his friends and family. I took those many months in France to absorb what that world had to offer me, to absorb how it challenged my understanding of my surroundings and informed and shifted my behavior in my own life. From my experience living in France and traveling Europe and North Africa, I had learned that political correctness has an entirely different meaning there. Racism is present, but reflected at new angles. My blackness is interpreted differently, so closely bound to my label as “An American.” I was relieved of certain expectations and encountered new ones.
In my room, my most sacred space, I had been made to feel vulnerable, and to offset this exposure I was guarded and harsh in my response. The challenge I faced was to come to this conflict with understanding and patience, to take into consideration that this situation that was truly “lost in translation.” I could have given my boyfriend the benefit of the doubt instead of retaliating with angry words. Today I can see this opportunity, but those years ago, I saw only Right and Wrong, on which side I stood and how my side was in direct opposition to his.
The hurdles in our relationship were so much more than linguistic. I could have been more patient in this scenario and played my role of educator with more tact. My boyfriend had drastically oversimplified a sore spot in my culture. He had taken how black women are presented in our hyper-sexualized popular music culture and defined them by this representation. He then expressed this, without a second thought, to a young black woman. He did not come to the conversation with tact, compassion or understanding either.
Those years ago, I saw only Right and Wrong, on which side I stood and how my side was in direct opposition to his.
I realized that our relationship could not exist in a romantic French film bubble. I could not eternally play the role of silent observer in his French world, and he could be no less himself in my American one. Our relationship was full of the faults each human brings to any other, and that complexity was compounded by cultural and linguistic challenges.
In the end I decided our differences were too much to work through and I ended it. I strongly believe that cultural differences can enrich and enliven a partnership, educating both individuals within it and broadening their understanding of the world. For this to happen, there must be a mutual level of respect, as well as patience and a willingness from both people to open their minds to the unfamiliar.