The bar in my home town where my friends and I cut our teeth is unconventional. An antiquated building, the Tram & Social was our place to cavort with men who thought that we were older than we actually were, armed with fake names, low-cut tops and bottles of ‘shit mix’ for the queue.
One night when I was 19, I spotted a guy on the dance floor, who had amassed a crowd around him. Tall, dark hair, blue eyes, tattoos, white – at the time, he was just my type. I went home with someone else that night, but a twist of fate a few months later meant our paths cross again.
Scrolling through Twitter one evening, the anonymous dancer popped up in my suggested follow list. Known for always ’shooting my shot’, I slid into his DMs. After a couple of days of exchanging messages, he asked me out on a date. Within two weeks, we’d slept together, I’d met his family and he’d asked me to be his girlfriend. A month later, as I left to take the train back up to university, he told me he loved me — words that would ignite happiness in 20-year-old me, but should’ve really served as a major red flag.
Over the course of our three-year relationship, the person who was supposed to love and support me instead worked diligently to crush my sense of self-worth. As is usually the case with emotional abuse, it was pernicious and covert — the balance between niceness and nastiness would tip sharply and without warning, and I’d be unjustly blamed for tampering with the scale.
“He’d ask exes for nude photos, and simultaneously tell me how me dressing provocatively embarrassed him”
The time we spent together was fraught with infidelity, vilification and manipulation on his part. He’d ask exes for nude photos, and simultaneously tell me how me dressing provocatively embarrassed him. He once didn’t speak to me for a good few days because I dared to side with his mum in a family argument. He called me a “cunt” and a “selfish bitch” for wanting to spend New Year’s Eve with my best friend. This is typical toxic behaviour from an abuser – but an extra malicious layer developed when the colour of my skin comes into the equation.
As a woman of mixed heritage, I am used to people remarking on my ’exotic’ features. I’m lucky to have thick afro curls sprouting from my head, but it’s been a long journey of self-acceptance to feel comfortable enough to wear my hair naturally. Initially, my ex-boyfriend always made it known how beautiful he thought my blackness was – that is, until he weaponised my ’otherness’ against me. Throwaway remarks about having a “caramel” baby I felt sceptical about, but I thought they were coming from a place of innocence over ignorance.
However, the rest of our time together proved otherwise. To him, the prospect of meeting my dad wasn’t nerve-wracking in the same way others are apprehensive about meeting their partner’s parent. To my ex it was because he was, in his own words, a “big scary black man” – a tired trope that people of colour are all too familiar with.
Similarly, after claiming he had cheated on me because he’d never been introduced to my family (he conveniently forgot his resistance to meet them), I invited him to my grandma’s house for Easter. On the day we were due to go round for dinner, he cancelled. “I don’t want to go, there will be black people there,” he plainly said to me. After I texted him later to say it had hurt me and I was disappointed, he responded with mockery, then silence. It was as if he saw my black family as beneath him – whereas I consistently made an effort to see his family, meeting mine was a prospect to be balked at. I told my grandmother a white lie; there was no way I could tell her the truth. I felt embarrassed, let down and defeated – I kept offering to open up my life to someone who was so ready to treat me and those I care about with disdain. I routinely had to make excuses for his poor behaviour to those closest to me; I was wilfully living a lie because he had manipulated me so much that I was losing my agency.
Of course, it wasn’t just my family’s blackness that he found so intrinsically repulsive — he detested that aspect of my being, too. I could cope when he said my breasts were too small or when he ridiculed the blue vein that’s so prominent underneath my left eye, but the comments that were tied to my ethnicity cut deeper. As we lay in bed one evening watching Guess Who – ironically, a film about a mixed couple struggling with acceptance – my ex noticed Zoe Saldana, of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, and pointedly asked: “Why is your hair not neat and straight like hers?” Unlike most teenage girls, I was lucky to grow up without feeling insecure about my looks — now, in my 20s, this man’s constant criticism had undermined everything I had once thought of myself. Features that used to make me feel attractive suddenly became sources of shame; he had distorted my own self-perception to the point that I felt unsettled in my own skin.
“Abuse can take many forms within relationships, but it is essential to recognise when racism rears its ugly head”
Co-workers plunging their fingers into our hair or strangers trying to fetishise us over dating apps are sadly commonplace experiences for black women. While we navigate a world rife with micro-aggressions, misogynoir and self-hate within our own community, it is especially damaging when the person you come home to is actively working to undermine you. Abuse can take many forms within relationships, but it is essential to recognise when racism rears its ugly head. Subtle jibes aren’t playful and tender if their intent is to make you feel lesser — you should never have to apologise for who you are or where you come from.
It took years for me to break free, but it began by seeing his comments as a reflection of his own self-hatred rather than anything to do with me. To begin to disentangle yourself from someone else’s toxicity is at once painful yet healing – it is a process of mourning the aspects of yourself that you have lost, but recognising that you have the freedom and self-love within you to grow beyond who you once were.
Being black is an essential part of my identity, and a person who truly loves me will respect and cherish that. I hope that if any other women are reading this and feel that they’re in a similar predicament, that they behave as I did: acknowledge your own black girl magic and do a disappearing act.
Lakeisha Goedluck is a freelance journalist living in Denmark
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If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:
- The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership by Women’s Aid and Refuge): 0808 2000 247
- In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
- In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
- In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
- National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
- Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
- Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321