A fan found an article written in Essence magazine in 1999, exploring black women’s attitudes about interracial dating. You have to read. Then shake your head and laugh (then cry) at how we shot ourselves in the feet and share some responsibility for our current skinny relationship prospects. Thanks, Mom and Grandma, Dad and Grandpa, for scaring the hell out of all of us.
Dating White: When Sisters Go There – African American women dating white men
One sister examines our complicated responses to a long-held cultural taboo’ Black women’s dating–and marrying–White men
I CATCH THEIR EYES, the way they stare at me. If I smile back, I see surprise, joy swirling around their irises. And if I flirt, well, it’s as if I’ve given away a state secret. But mostly they just stare. “Gorgeous,” whispers a White man in a slick trench coat over an expensive blue suit as he walks by. Sometimes it’s sweet, these things they do; sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes it’s just sad. “Hey, chocolate, can you spare a dime?” asks a White Seventh Avenue bum, the stink of his cigarette, of him, curling around us as he gets in my face. “Go away,” I spit back.
“Aw, chocolate…. ”
I’ve been raised with the idea that they are no damn good, that all a Black woman ever got from a White man was trouble. But I spent a lot of years sitting next to them in class, bumping into them on the street, ordering Chinese takeout as we both shed our jackets and settled in for a long night in the computer’s glare. Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Sometimes when they catch my eye, it’s because I was staring first.
“Every White man has two women in his life,” author and social critic bell hooks tells me. “The White woman he’s married to and the Black woman of his dreams.” hooks defines it as another version of that tired classic, the Madonna-whore divide. With White women locked behind gates of virtue, Black women, the other, became everything sexual, wild, secret. Who do voodoo like she do? With motivations like that, it’s no wonder Black women ignored and distrusted White men. “White men have always pursued us,” says hooks. “But we, when given the option to choose, haven’t responded.”
Indeed, White male-Black female marriages have traditionally had one of the lowest incidences of all possible interracial combinations, being almost nonexistent as recently as the 1970’s, when they represented less than one percent of U.S. marriages. Even today, the highest opposition to being involved in interracial liaisons appears to be among Black women. According to U.S. Census data for the 25-to-34 age range, Asian, Latina and Native American women marry White at a rate of 30 percent or higher, and one in 12 married Black men have White wives. Among married sisters, however, only one in 25 has a White husband.
But those numbers have begun to turn around. While the number of Black men married to White women is still larger, the rate of Black women marrying White men is increasing. And on the dating and longing-look scene, many folks are touching the third rail. Social psychologists M. Belinda Tucker and Pamela L. Taylor and anthropologist Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, researchers at UCLA, studied 21 cities across the United States and found that especially among younger women, the increasing willingness to date and marry interracially was evident everywhere, not just in metropolises like Los Angeles and New York. The research also showed this is not something that only upwardly mobile Black women are doing; working-class sisters are just as likely to be in these relationships. And from Savannah to San Francisco, I see more White men giggling and holding hands with sisters. Girlfriends who swore “Never that” have called up talking about “Are you sitting down?” Laughs Douglas Besharov, the American Enterprise Institute scholar whose study noted the increase in Black women marrying White men: “Not everyone is waiting to exhale.”
But all this begs the question of what’s happening. Why are White men more openly chasing Black women, and why are more of us willing to give them the business?
When’s the last time you think White people saw a Black woman? No, I mean looked closely, really saw her? Black women have pioneered the art of living around White people but still being invisible. Caricatures of us can be found on TV networks or shaking ass in the latest rap video. But that’s just the most recent cartoon, and underneath that celluloid surface, serious shifts have occurred. The Black middle and upper classes have grown. A generation of Black kids have come of age full of expectations and intolerant, if not unaware, of sit-here-but-not-there limitations. In droves, the granddaughters of women whose only career choice was to be a domestic have gotten their top-drawer education, the first of their line not to feel mortally hemmed in by being Black and female.
But it’s just now that darkness and all its possibilities are being made visible. Until recently, Madeleine was one of the few Black editors in the world of high-fashion magazines. On any given night she and anywhere from two to ten of her girlfriends-twenty- and thirty-something lawyers, music-business executives and writers–can be found at the bar of a Manhattan hot spot, their muscled coffee-colored thighs flashing as they cross their legs under their Prada skirts, surrounded as much by glamour as a well-appointed glow. “And there are always White people, especially White men, staring at us. They just want to know who we are,” she says. “Just the other night a White couple were at the bar and they stared forever. Finally the woman came over and asked, `Who are you girls?'”
She’s not the only one who is curious. We sit next to White men in spinning class at the gym, split the check at lunch and commiserate about the boss. We meet them through friends at parties and in bars. And so a familiar dance with a strange new step begins. As a friend of mine points out, everyone is on her or his best behavior until the sex. Some of us wonder what they look like naked, all milky skin and sleek hair. “Not bad for a White boy,” a girlfriend nods as an attractive blond walks by our table. Others just think pale. “He took his clothes off. It was so … pink, no, red. I just couldn’t,” says Michelle, a congressional aide, of why she developed a headache.
And what, we ask ourselves, if they’re transfixed by what the comic Paul Mooney calls that Makumba-love, bangi-ass fantasy? “We used to call it a master complex at Yale,” says Saida, a civil-rights lawyer who remembers dismissing one White boyfriend after he called her his African Princess one time too many. Madeleine says that as she stands out on Seventh Avenue hailing a cab, she often notices White men looking at her. “But I feel so invaded. I just always think, You could never know me,” she says. Recently she had her first date with a White man. She met David at the bar of a trendy restaurant. He was cute and funny. They had a good time. At the end of the night, he went to kiss her and she stopped him. “You fear that you are arousing this sexual desire, that it’s just about wanting to know what a Black woman looks like naked. Is it just that you want to see my nipples, to see what dark nipples look like?” she says.
Kara Young, a model, was once married to a White photographer and has stepped out occasionally with billionaire Donald Trump. “Yeah, there’s going to be the guy that wants to know if you’re going to suck his d— a little differently,” she shrugs. “But you sniff that out; it doesn’t last any longer than two weeks.” But that’s two weeks and a head trip that gets old quick. “I used to be an equal-opportunity f—,” says writer Itabari Njeri, who covered cross-cultural marriages and children for the St. Petersburg Times and Los Angeles Times. She also watched her share of men, whom she thought were dealing with her as a person, reveal that they were more caught up in fetish and fantasies about the exotic. “At first I thought they found me cute, intelligent, talented. Then I realized they were just trying to get some Black p—-.”
And back-channel information about what gets said among men isn’t heartening. “How do men bond?” asks Matt, a Black professor. “It’s either, `The old lady is giving me trouble’ or `I got a good piece of ass last night.’ “And in our post-civil-rights world, in an effort to bond, there are now White men leaning over a Black man’s desk to talk Black conquest. “‘Ooh, man, I had a Black girl last night. We were f—ing like bunnies,'” a Black-male friend quotes from one such conversation with a White colleague. “He said `like bunnies.’ I wanted to kill him and smack her.”
Yet if there ever was an area defined by hope over experience, this is it, almost to the point of schizophrenia. A few minutes after promising that she’s through with White men, when I ask about Whoopi Goldberg and Frank Langella, Njeri exclaims, “I have always had a thing for Mr. Frank Langella. Now there is one fine White man. I will take some Mr. Frank Langella.” When I laugh, it’s because I hear echoes of the same “Never again … just this last one” conversations I have with girlfriends in bars and over branch. And then it strikes me: In all the conversations I have with Black women, the strongest feeling they seem to conjure up about White men isn’t love or hate. It’s ambivalence.
Why the game of Twister? Let’s start with the battlefield that is a Black woman’s head. Twenty years ago bell hooks wrote that society was invested in making White men with Black wives taboo. Otherwise the whole power structure–White as the standard of beauty, Black-female submission, the whole BS hierarchical system as we know it–would take a tumble. According to hooks, it could be a powerful act of defiance for Black women to choose to be with White men and vice versa. But how can I get over the truth of the deviant, not defiant, behavior of the past? If my foremothers were forced to fend off White men, what does it mean if I choose to be with one? How can I look at my own honey-colored skin and not see slave rape? When Catherine, a lawyer, was at Stanford law school a couple of years ago, all 14 of the Black women there were dating White men. Discomfited, they read books and spent hours in cafes going over the same questions: What does this mean? What is the attraction? Is this a self-hatred thing? Do I hate who I am?
Ask a Black woman why she has dated White men. She’ll tell you about the prison population. She’ll tell you about the education disparity, with nearly twice the number of Black women as men in college. “No disrespect to my brothers who are plumbers or electricians,” says Saida. “But if you have a Ph.D., you’re trying to be with someone with a Ph.D.” Some will say Black men pass over their dark skin and short hair for light- skinned, long-tressed sisters. She will swear she’s holding out for a Black husband. She will never admit she’s attracted to White men, that maybe she had some fantasies of her own, that she does it simply because she can.
And then ask a Black woman why she has broken up with White men. She’ll tell you a lot of things, but it’ll usually come down to fatigue. She got tired of dealing with race, that just as she got comfortable and got over the hostile stares, in came the friendly fire as a lover said or did something insensitive. “I call it the creep-up factor,” says Evelyn, a diplomat. “Something happens and the national dialogue on race creeps into what was
otherwise a warm and loving relationship.”
White men are not unaware of the push-pull that goes on within us. They see us grimace the first time they hit the dance floor, but soon they start to figure out our world. “He was ignorant of Black culture before he met me,” Kara Young says of Trump.
He would look at her quizzically when she did things like prompt him at the U.S. Open to cheer for the Black tennis star Venus Williams. Gotta support the people, explained Young. “Then he was like `Now I get it!’ “All the time, “Now I get it!” she laughs. Another thing they start to get is the hair, that they need to know the difference between weaves, roller sets, twists, locks, perms. And that they need to let the water alone. Grant, a White physicist married to a Black motivational speaker, has heard the cries of White men who don’t understand why playfully shoving a Black woman into the pool can get them cursed out. “I’m starting a hair club for White men with Black women,” he sighs.
But it’s not always so cute or so easy. White men have the luxury of thinking about race when they want to; for many of them, being with a Black woman is the first time they ever have to think about how they say what they say or understand what it’s like to be the minority in the room. “Sometimes I just stay quiet,” says Jon, a lawyer.
And while we deal with ambivalence, White men say they deal with fear: Will their family, their friends, their boss be cool? An ex of mine went through an elaborate production to tell his best friend, clearly fearing the worst. “You’re such an idiot,” the friend barked back, offended that he’d been given so little credit. Then he revealed a Black ex-girlfriend of his own. But it’s usually stickier with those who don’t love you unconditionally. Jon, the lawyer, recalls taking his girlfriend to a firm function. People asked them repeatedly how they met, in a way that seemed strange. “We stopped answering,” he says. “We realized that what they really wanted to know was why was I with her.” And he found he didn’t have the heart to let the chips fall where they might. Instead he warily told his boss beforehand that his girlfriend was Black “so he wouldn’t be shocked.”
Of course, every Black female-White male encounter is not a case of jungle fever; people of different races do sometimes fall in love. The parents may mumble phrases like “a phase” or “in therapy.” But sometimes it can get funky. Diane, a writer, says her future father-in-law, a wealthy businessman, would find ways not to talk to her while she and her husband, Daniel, were dating. Things briefly got worse when Daniel announced they were getting married. His father protested–what about the children?–and the conversation ended badly. “I just remember getting into bed and crying all night, thinking that was it, no more contact with my family,” Daniel says. But as Diane points out, things can change: “People often right relationships they think they can stave off, but once things become really serious, they open themselves up to getting to know you.” She and Daniel concentrate now on happier things, like their marriage, their two kids–and her warm relationship with her in-laws. “For a while, his sister was dating a Black man and his parents were fine with it,” she says.
And then there are the brothers. Ask any White man what troubles him most about dating a Black woman, and the answer is the reaction of Black men. “But they mostly ignored me,” Joel, a writer, says of his relationship with an old girlfriend. “They always said stuff to her.” Indeed, I hear of people being threatened, shoved and cursed out, and it’s usually, directed at the woman. Teddy, a handsome Black stockbroker, tells me how he and his friends feel when they see a pretty Black woman with a White man; he tells me about the three serious lovers in his life, all of whom had dated White men. “It really bothers me,” he burns, the planes of his face shifting in anger. “They can’t find a Black man? Get the f— out of here.”
And I squirm, hearing my father’s voice meld with his. Black people are in a state of siege, he would say when I was growing up. You can’t love the people and the enemy too. And there was a time when I thought it was his anger I feared. But as I get older, I realize that’s the surface wound. What’s deeper–and harder to handle–would be his disappointment.
Many are the moments when I think back on one particular flame. We met overseas, students run amok at Oxford. One night I noticed him standing in the backyard and staring at me through a window. We had one brief conversation. But one night at a party, I looked at him and he looked at me. He crossed the dance floor and kissed me. We were inseparable.
I carried roses when I went to meet him at bus stops. We made scenes in London bars. Often we just sat giggling as I brushed back his blond hair and kissed the corners of his aquamarine eyes. He was the first to say “I love you.” Once when I was sick, he sat at his desk reading, one hand behind him, holding mine as I lay on his bed. I woke up an hour later. He had fallen asleep at the desk, his face pressed into his book. He was still holding my hand. I said “I love you” back.
But when we returned to the States, he told his mother about me. “Her name’s Rachel,” he said over dinner. “Like my friend in church,” she snickered. Inside joke: Rachel at church was Asian, and it was impossible that her son was dating an Asian woman. “No, she’s Black,” he said. His mother laughed; she thought he had gone her one better. “No, she’s really Black,” he said. He nearly had to move out.
Soon we broke up. Perhaps it had nothing to do with race. Perhaps one day I’ll believe that. Perhaps one day I’ll forget watching him cross campus
with his mother, not acknowledging me, looking into my eyes and looking away.
Maybe those days in Britain are why I flirt back with them. Maybe those days after Britain are why I never let them too close. But for now I just try not to think too hard about it, about truth, about lies. Or about how there’s a mix of both when my friend Sela leans in to me at an East Village bar and tells me about her latest plaything, a White man. “Last White man,” she giggles. “I promise.”
Writer Rachel Blakely lives in New York.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Essence Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group