As mainstream coverage of black women goes, the last few weeks haven't exactly been a love fest.
First, National Public Radio featured a Los Angeles entrepreneur named Fleace Weaver, who dates men of all races and encourages other successful African-American women to do the same. Weaver says she's seen too many of her friends go through life unhappily single and considers racially indiscriminate dating the best way to fight the odds of ending up alone. "Some of y'all out here have gotten some signals, and y'all blew him off because he wasn't chocolate," she said during a recent dating seminar. "But we've gotta get over that. Unless you want to be home with chocolate cats."
A few days later, I was bombarded with a link to an MSNBC.com story announcing that "Marriage eludes high-achieving black women" -- as if marriage were an animate object that sees us coming and takes off in the other direction. Friends posted it on Facebook, retweeted it on Twitter and sent mass emails, usually highlighting the story's most jaw-dropping statistic: Thirty-eight percent of black women have never been married, almost twice the percentage of white women.
The writer cited research that black women's increasing educational achievements -- we comprise 7 of every 10 black graduate students according to the Council of Graduate Schools -- may cause our "marriage chances" to decline. Since most Americans tend to marry partners with similar educational backgrounds, "you either have to find another group you can marry or you are out of luck," the research study's author is quoted as saying. "You have nowhere to go."
"Wow," I thought. "There's nowhere to go? Perhaps in 20 years I'll be rich and living by myself, sharing tuna with a cocoa version of Garfield."
And then, I remembered that I'm engaged. To a wonderful man who boils TheraFlu when I'm sick and whips up blueberry-stuffed pancakes with one of those cratered pans from Williams-Sonoma. I remembered that all of my best friends are either in serious relationships or happily juggling multiple suitors, and thought of my dozen or so college buddies who have accepted proposals or tied the knot in the past seven months. I thought of my former advisor, who married for the first time at age 37 and could not be happier; my grandmother's friend who wed her high school sweetheart in her 70s; and the husband and wife I saw mulling cilantro at Harris Teeter, holding hands as their sundress-clad daughter toddled at their feet.
Black love is alive and well in my day-to-day life, though I realize that the macro picture isn't as pretty.
There are almost 1.8 million more black women in this country than black men, according to the latest Census Bureau data. In plain terms, that means that even if every black man in America married a black woman tomorrow, one out of every 12 black women would still be left out. So my problem is not with the notion that black women could benefit from racially diversifying our dance cards or that pursuing postgraduate degrees and profitable employment might make dating complicated.
But I do worry that stories like these -- without a counterpoint for context -- can imply that the trends they discuss are unavoidable or, worse, somehow our fault.
Buried towards the end of the MSNBC.com article, with no attribution, is the following paragraph:
A sociological line of inquiry called "exchange theory" suggests that in the piggy bank of goods each of us brings to a possible relationship -- money, smarts, sense of humor, looks, family background, education, gender -- African heritage is devalued compared with European or Asian heritage. African-American females, even with lots of education, do not fetch as much "value" in the marriage market.
Blanket statements like these are troubling. First, the writer's definition of social exchange theory is arguably a bit off. The theory posits that humans have an economic view of social kinships, which means we weigh the quantifiable benefits and costs before entering into new relationships. So, as Judith A. Howard and Jocelyn Hollander write in their book Gendered Situations, Gendered Selves, because social exchange theory is based on the give and take of transferable, external resources, inherent qualities like race and gender become irrelevant.
But let's say for a minute that we accept the author's definition, and that race does count. Forgive the cliché, but this is the age of Michelle Obama. To say that all non-black men will downgrade a highly educated (positive), well-respected (positive), driven (positive) black woman to an overall negative "value" solely because of her African heritage is, well, ludicrous. And I think it insults the judgment of non-black men.
I'm not saying that black women are perfect, or that it's easy for us to find the right person, or that all of us are looking in the right places with the right attitude. But I do think this debate deserves some perspective: Not only do smart, educated, organized, hard-working black women in healthy, loving relationships exist; in my life, they're everywhere.
And in fairness, all of the women I know - white, black, Latina, Asian, Indian, Australian, French, British, Pakistani - have had trouble at one point or another navigating the dating pool. Finding love is one of life's universal odysseys. The chips aren't stacked in anyone's favor, but I'm a firm believer that making yourself the best person you can is an essential part of being ready when the right mate does appear.
No woman should feel that the pursuit of higher education or a high-powered career is going to ruin her chances. I believe it's just the opposite: An innate drive to be better, to sharpen your skills and never settle, is one of the things that make "high-achieving" women attractive. As long as somewhere along the road to success we keep our eyes open to love and make time to embrace it -- wherever and whenever we find it -- we'll all be fine.
And if not, of course, I hear cats make really good pets.