Growing up Black on the South Side of Chicago, Suzanne Bengtson always viewed the police with suspicion. Her husband, William Bengtson, never feared law enforcement growing up white in Hopkins.
So it hurt Suzanne, in a way, that William needed a series of videos to grasp how cops can kill unarmed Black people. How much footage do white people need to watch, she wondered, to believe what goes on? But she came to understand.
“We do live in two completely different worlds,” Suzanne said. “I think when you haven’t had race at the center of your life, you just don’t have that frame of reference.”
Black-white couples have increased from 7.1% to 8.1% of all marriages since 2000, and the Bengtsons’ six years of married life have coincided with the rise of Black Lives Matter and a surge of attention to inequality. Long before the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis cop forced the nation to confront racism, being an interracial couple has pushed the Bengtsons to undergo their own private reckoning with white and Black realities.
“Suzanne challenged me on what I think about race in America,” said William, “but I also challenged Suzanne.”
Suzanne was born in 1967, as the country reeled from racial strife and Black citizens rioted over high unemployment, police brutality and racial injustice. It was also the year the Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage in the Loving v. Virginia case.
Yet Suzanne, now 52, never saw herself marrying a man who wasn’t Black. She grew up in an all-Black neighborhood in one of the nation’s most segregated cities — with an entrenched legacy of redlining and housing exclusion — raised by “pro-Black” parents who read Malcolm X.
“In order to build Black communities, in order to build and restore and heal, we need to be with people who look like us, and a lot of people believe that, and I believed that,” she said.
Suzanne moved to Minneapolis in 1989 as a young single mother of three, hoping to forge a better life. She went to night school and worked an assortment of jobs at a bakery, airline ticket counter and elementary school before moving into workforce development. Suzanne relied on food stamps and Section 8 housing to make it in the early days, struggling to find a landlord who was not wary of another poor Black mom from Chicago.
Gradually, her life steadied. She went on to marry a Black man and have two more children. After a difficult divorce, Suzanne signed up for match.com in 2011. William, a divorced father of two, was the first man to write to her. He thought she was beautiful and that her profile sounded like something he’d write.
They met for sushi at Saji-Ya in St. Paul. Suzanne wondered if William, now 60, was too suburban and corporate. Would he understand who she was, her struggles?
Suzanne soon found that William did not fit her stereotypes of a white Minnesotan. He was more layered than she had assumed — a business consultant for Fortune 500 companies who also had a meditation mat and books about Hinduism, Buddhism and African American history on his shelf. She thought at first that his optimistic personality came from having a privileged life, but she came to see that he had chosen that view in the face of his own trials and disappointments, and he was corny and funny and smart and authentic.
William had no qualms about dating outside of his race; being in the dominant culture, he never felt the same pressure to preserve it. William sensed that he and Suzanne were meant for each other. He didn’t care that some acquaintances said the differences of a Black-white relationship would be too much. One friend, a Middle Eastern immigrant, “said he couldn’t understand why I would date a Black woman because now I’m choosing to be in that lower class. That’s not how I think.”
Nor did it bother him to learn that Suzanne had to overcome her own reservations about being with a white man.
“I just thought it was something that was going to take a while for us to work through, and I think we did,” William said. “It probably took a couple years at least. And we’re probably still going through that.”
It bothered him, too, that Suzanne sometimes wanted to go without him to events that were only for people of color — places where Black people could be themselves and not have to “code switch,” or translate and filter their words for white people.
For the first time, William began walking into rooms where he was one of the only white people. At a Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast and a Black church service, a few Black men pointedly ignored him while talking to Suzanne. William felt as though he were being interviewed when he met distant relatives of Suzanne’s; he sensed their distrust.
In her job at Twin Cities RISE!, Suzanne worked on employment training largely with African Americans in north Minneapolis. Their hardships often stayed with her, and she and William had heated discussions about race, which were possible because they love and respect each other deeply. The dynamics of their relationship inspired them to write a play about an interracial couple, “The Viking and the Gazelle,” that ran in 2019 at the Mixed Blood Theatre.
William saw the historical traumas in the African American community as unique, but he still believed “a lot of white people have problems too; a lot of Asian Americans have problems. A lot of all races have issues and things. The world is just unfair.”
“Kind of like, ‘All lives matter,’ ” Suzanne said.
Yet sometimes he saw racism in episodes that Suzanne viewed as unremarkable. One Saturday night in Chicago, a restaurant turned them and Suzanne’s Black relatives away, saying the venue was full. William saw plenty of open tables. Suzanne didn’t think much of it because it’s happened before.
She felt nervous when William began inviting her to a family cabin Up North, where the population is almost entirely white. The lessons of her segregated upbringing lingered: She often heard from elders growing up, some of whom had left the Jim Crow South, that something bad could happen to a Black person who was not where she was supposed to be.
They also found that they viewed the police very differently. Suzanne once called her husband in a panic after a cop pulled her over for going 10 mph over the speed limit. “The officer is right there,” William said to reassure her. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
Afterward, they realized that when William asks an officer why he was pulled over, the officer is usually almost apologetic. Suzanne can’t imagine questioning a cop so casually.
By the time the Bengtsons wed in 2014, Black Lives Matter dominated the news. Protests erupted over police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York. But it was the police shooting of Philando Castile two years later that devastated the couple’s household.
“Just the fear and the trauma and the pain that was now in my house and now in my family,” said William. “You could feel it, you could hear it, you could see it, and that’s an experience I’d never had before.”
Suzanne kept calling her children to check on them, though they were mostly grown. Her daughter at Macalester College was distraught. William was surprised at how calm Castile’s girlfriend seemed while filming part of the incident.
“Suzanne’s comment was, ‘Well, that’s because it’s not anything new,’ ” said William.
They also had to worry about Suzanne’s son Ty, who is now 20 and has autism. Several years ago, Suzanne was terrified when Ty got on a different bus and there was a mixup at his school about where he was. With limited cognitive abilities, he could not follow orders or communicate clearly if he encountered the police. Cops could make disparaging assumptions, Suzanne noted, given the number of people on the streets in their downtown Minneapolis neighborhood who had addictions and mental illnesses.
Her husband thought he’d have to come home from work to help before they learned Ty was safe.
“Whereas maybe six or seven years ago I would have said, ‘We’ll find him, don’t worry about it,’ I realized that this could go really bad,” said William.
As outrage exploded in May over the death of Floyd, Suzanne could not bring herself to view the full video, even as William did. Now he knows to change the channel when another clip of police brutality flashes on the screen.
“I know she doesn’t want to see it,” he said, “and as a result of that, it’s become hard for me to watch also.”
As the pandemic forced the couple to work from home, their downtown apartment began to feel too small. The Bengtsons began looking for a house spacious enough for their large blended family. They drove through north Minneapolis but decided against buying a home there over fears of rising violence.
The dearth of middle-class Black neighborhoods here bothered Suzanne. The Bengtsons ultimately settled on Maple Grove, which is 84% white and 5% Black. After the Bengtsons moved in last month, they talked about going to the police department to show officers a picture of Ty and explain his condition.
Suzanne wants to tell them, “Don’t kill him, don’t shoot him. Treat him with a level of humanity.” She knows she’d make the same disclosure to the police without William there, but “I think I would feel less comfortable doing it.”