I remember the moment I discovered my lover was a racist. I was madly, deeply in love with a rich man 16 years my senior. We were about a month into our affair, sweet-talking each other on the phone late one night, when I mentioned I had long admired the comedian Dave Chappelle. My lover drew in his breath, and his tone ran to ice. “You’re not a mud shark are you?”
I had never heard the term “mud shark,” but I guessed its ugly meaning (a white woman who only dates black men), and I was nearly speechless with horror. I grew up in an ultra-liberal family, and I had never encountered such blatant racism before. It knocked the wind out of me. I sputtered, objected and reasoned with him. What I did not do that night was leave him.
Over the past week, we’ve heard a lot about Donald Sterling’s racism. But what strikes me when I listen to that now-famous conversation between Sterling and his mistress V. Stiviano is his manipulation. He insults her. He treats her as his property. He threatens to abandon her. (“If my girl can’t do what I want I don’t want the girl. I’ll find a girl that will do what I want.”) These are all familiar tactics of psychological control to me. For four years, I lived with them.
I wonder if V. Stiviano went through the same twisted moral negotiations I did as I continued in my relationship. Encountering my boyfriend’s bigotry was like wading into a dark, murky pond. It was cold and unfamiliar, and the bottom was icky and scary. But I convinced myself if I kicked hard enough I could swim above it and never touch the muck. The thing that buoyed me was my own sense of loyalty. I may be in love with a racist, I told myself, but I was also standing by my man. It was my sacred mission to bring him over to love and acceptance. I would change him. But secretly I wondered if, in fact, he was changing me. Did loving a racist make me a racist as well?
But there were too many things in the plus column for me to walk away. I had never been with a man this brilliant, this tender, this accomplished, connected, devoted, and yes, this rich. My guy was no Don Sterling billionaire, but he made money and he liked to spend it. We traveled and dined out, stayed in swank hotels. This was less for my benefit than for his; luxurious environs made him feel safe and calm. Squalor, the kind he came from, made him jumpy. He insisted on the Beverly Hills Hotel, not me. But I’d never known material perks the likes of these, and I will admit, I enjoyed them. I was no gold digger, and I wasn’t looking to score a Bentley. I was looking for evidence that I was worth it.
As women we often measure our self-worth in terms of what we give to others. We think we can love our bad boys into goodness and by doing so, we will redeem ourselves from the notion that we are not enough on our own. So we strive to patiently teach our man-boys how to grow up to be people of character. That’s what I wanted more than anything – to save this bad man from the trauma that had wounded him and made him a racist. If I could do that, then my life would have meaning and impact. But of course, my lover, like Don Sterling, was no child; it was way too late for significant change.
Listening to that nine-minute tape of Sterling brought the whole sordid mess back. I cringe when I hear Stiviano call him “baby” and “honey,” all those words meant to calm an angry authority figure. When Stiviano tries to placate Sterling by saying, “Honey, if it makes you happy I will remove all of the black people from my Instagram,” she is not only conceding important moral territory, but she’s using a strategy that won’t work, because men like this will find something else to focus on. Just like Ms. Stiviano, I used a number of what I thought were persuasive rhetorical strategies to win my point: I reasoned, I presented facts, I used flattery and ultimatums – but none of it was any match for the abject fear that ran through his bigotry like a third rail, giving it voltage, causing it to arc at any moment into an ugly fight. Those fights were like a game of dirty pool that simply couldn’t be won with reason and love.
My man was jealous not just of black men, but any man who came into my orbit. So I began to limit my sphere, avoiding behaviors and encounters that might trigger him. He thought dancing was sex, and forbade me to so much as tap my toe to a beat. So I danced alone in my apartment when no one was looking. I stopped painting my nails, because he said it was cheap and horrifying, and I made sure to turn off my devil music before he came to my house. He insisted on either perfect silence or Beethoven. In these many small ways I erased myself in order to keep the peace.
The real kryptonite was the threat of abandonment. Just like Sterling, my man would tell me our relationship was going to break apart. As a person who suffered abandonment as a child, I found his leaving a failure too painful to concede, so I played along, sacrificing my values, beliefs, identity and agency – just to make him stay.
I really thought I was nothing without him. How I got there, how any woman gets into that position is a long story that often begins with emotional abuse or abandonment in childhood. Maybe our mothers taught us to do this, or maybe our culture did. But we will do almost anything to be loved and we are willing to barter ourselves in increments, if it means being important to an important man.
I realize Stiviano isn’t winning much sympathy these days. Now that we’ve gotten our pound of flesh from Sterling the racist, and he’s been banned for life from the NBA for saying things in private we weren’t supposed to hear, the public seems to be turning its ire toward the calculating, self-serving mistress who probably sold the recording to the press in the first place (though her lawyer denies this). In a story for Time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leads the backlash, calling her “a sexy nanny playing ‘pin the fried chicken on the Sambo.’ She blindfolded him and spun him around until he was just blathering all sorts of incoherent racist sound bites that had the news media peeing themselves with glee.”
It’s a bizarro meta moment. In a story about the evils of prejudice, Abdul-Jabbar trots out his own stereotype: That this woman is a temptress using her sexual power to bewitch and castrate a man. Not every woman involved with a rich older man is a gold digger, and saying so is a slur, pure and simple, because it allows us to dismiss a human being without further investigation. Maybe when Abdul-Jabbar looks at Stiviano, he sees his own troubled history with women. But when I look at her, I see a woman trapped in an abusive relationship.
Let me be clear: If Stiviano is the one who sold that tape, I don’t condone her underhanded tactics. But maybe she reclaimed her power the only way she knew how. There were times when I, too, wanted to record my fights with my racist boyfriend, because the stuff coming out of his mouth was almost surreal. Nobody would have believed it.
I certainly don’t know the contents of Stiviano’s heart. And prior to my relationship, I would have looked at a woman like her and thought: That could never be me. I wasn’t that kind of girl, a girl who could be bought by a man. I fancied myself a strong, principled person, a feminist who had read her Steinem and Friedan at some of the finest, most progressive liberal arts schools in the country. But none of it could stand up to my overwhelming need to be seen and loved by this powerful, brilliant, complicated man.
I’d like to say I finally got wise, that I stood up for myself and walked out on my racist lover. I’d like to be the Norma Rae of codependent, put-down women everywhere. But in the end, he finally said, “I don’t want to change. This is who I am and I refuse to be inconvenienced by you any longer. It’s over.” By then I was an exhausted, heartbroken, demoralized shadow of my former self. And yet I still loved him. In fact, a small, broken piece of me yearns for him even now, and I cannot shake the feeling that I somehow failed him, even though I know, intellectually, that I only failed myself.