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Farai Chideya Headshot

How Does It Feel to Be a Black, Female, Single Problem?

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It's open season on black womanhood. Nightline became the latest media outlet to tackle the issue of why black women aren't married. The problem is not the topic, but the approach. Like a recent series of articles, books, and television segments (and one Nightline did last year), the show's focus was on the purportedly low value of black women in the dating marketplace and the wisdom of black women's choice to stay single versus marrying men who don't fit their criteria.

Let's get real for a minute here. Yes, black women are sometimes taken for granted by black men, and men of other races. (I'm thinking here of musician John Mayer saying he had a "David Duke c**k," because it only responded to white women. Black womens' response, for the most part: awesome, dude! Less dysfunction for us!) Black women also get oddly, back-handedly criticized for being too functional -- for being the majority of black college graduates and growing old alone. In reality, black women with college degrees are more likely to have married by age 40 than those with high school degrees (70 to 60 percent). For white women, high school educated women are slightly more likely to have married than college-educated ones (88 to 86 percent).

There is some serious head-tripping going on here, and I have a feeling it doesn't just have to do with black women. It has to do with a deep re-appraisal of relative social value during this time of economic insecurity. Women have been able to hold onto their jobs in this economy better than men have. On a racial level, sociologist William Julius Wilson noted during a recent speech at Harvard's Black Policy Conference that for the first time in more than a decade, the relative black unemployment rate is less than a 2-to-1 ratio to the white rate. The white unemployment rate is still far lower, but the relative income insecurity of white workers is rising faster.

We see that anxiety over lost status manifesting publicly in political rallies. And some people are looking for comfort in the perceived misfortune of others. (Is that hard-wired? A 2007 brain scan study from the University of Bonn that showed that relative wealth seems to tickle our pleasure centers more than absolute wealth. In other words, we want to be better-than even more than we want to be better off.) Right now, it's the black woman's turn to play the black sheep. Or as one person who wrote into my blog put it, "The `sad lonely career woman' is the `welfare queen' of the 2000s."

The black women I know -- married, unmarried, intra- or inter-racially partnered, gay and straight -- tend to have thought this situation out a little bit. I'm not talking just about the marriage situation, but the scapegoat situation. If you go into African-American communities, you'll find black women trying to save men, children, and family members... sometimes to the detriment of our own finances and health. That may be stupid, but it's a loving kind of stupid more than a selfish kind of stupid. (And yes, there are black women of the selfish-stupid kind, and they seem to take all the spots on the reality shows!)

Women of other races are also working on figuring out how to live, love, work, and parent. Yet we don't ask the same critical questions about all demographics. Southern white Christian women (and men) are far more likely to marry than African-Americans. But what is sometimes called the "Bible Belt" also has a divorce rate far higher than the national average, and double that of some states. And speaking of divorce -- a lot of these marriage statistics ask if women have been married by the age of 40, not if the marriage is sustained.

All that said, there is an unfulfilled longing on the part of too many black women for partnership and marriage. So what do we do? Hopefully, we love. We risk. We fail. We try again. Our love has to start with ourselves and radiate out to others. Maybe we black women are figuring some stuff out, like how to drop the baggage and not bring it forward into the next generation. Learning to love yourself and others takes time. (By the way, sisters, if you graduate from college, you're twice as likely to get married after the age of forty than if you don't.)

At moments of frustration with the narrative imposed on black women, I turn to the wisdom of multiply Grammy-nominated singer Ledisi. She sings, "Get outta my kitchen, telling me how to cook. It ain't none of your business. Ain't no need to look." I would turn that a bit and say, at the very least, if America is looking for a problem, there's plenty of folks whose kitchens we might want to take a look at.