My boyfriend was asked this question when we walked into a bar on a recent night out in Harlem. And this scenario, or a version of it, isn't unfamiliar. The query came from a young Black woman whose friend used to date him, I later learned. Despite the fact that he answered "no," this friend-of-his-ex appeared to be fantastically annoyed with the whole thing.
Acutely aware of my inescapable outsider status, and in my mind, only lowering my guy's stock in the ensuing confrontation (after a brief rise, white girl is plummeting!), I sought refuge at the bar and left him to handle the fallout conversation.
I'm a localized minority in Harlem, so being referred to as "white girl" is not unusual, and that's fine -- it's racially accurate (if not exactly flattering). But this was different, because I felt the person I was with was being indicted for having broken some code by bringing me, and was further being called out on my behalf. It seemed like I should be the one answering her.
It reminded me of when I saw "Save The Last Dance" as a kid and had a crush on Sean Patrick Thomas and got angry when Nikki (a Black girl) said to Sara (a white girl): "White girls like you, creeping up, taking our men -- the whole world ain't enough, you've got to conquer ours too." I dismissed her accusation as bitter, bigoted and making a false assumption that there's a finite number of "good" Black men available.
As I've gotten older, that statement has taken on a different gravity. There are statistically fewer men of color than white men. Black men are also statistically more likely to be incarcerated and, according to yet more statistics, less likely to be monogamous. My partner is a Black man who is honest, emotionally and financially secure and monogamous. Certainly, there are plenty of white men who are incarcerated or promiscuous. But now that I'm older, I better understand Nikki's position, and see why white women infringing on that may feel unfair.
Of course, there are institutions keeping a lot of the negative stereotypes about Black men a reality. We can't have a discussion of interracial sexual politics without considering that the history of our racial groups -- or whatever notion we may have of "our racial groups" -- is wrought with slavery, sex and rape. And white privilege affords a lot of us the luxury of being able to ignore our shared history. McUncool over at Jezebel explains the problem of white privilege so concisely:
White people gained dominant status through deception, murder, slavery and a prolonged reign of terror that the world had never seen. We keep it through legislation, intimidation and hostility. Our privilege isn't earned, it's stolen.
I reframe the conversation in these ugly terms, because my anecdote paints me as a bit of a victim, doesn't it? But the young woman at the bar isn't the problem, though her question is a symptom of the problem. For me, the problem manifests itself as sadness: that interracial couples' love is often tainted by the disapproval of those they value most, and sadness that our rigid sense of "our tribe" makes us territorial.
But the thing that makes me the saddest about the politics of interracial dating -- which can be just as functional and happy as dating within your race -- is that it pits us against each other. Who is the "us" here? Women.
In medicine, we diagnose the source of a problem by analyzing the symptoms, so let's start there:
Symptom 1: Objectifying each other
Consider the phrasing of the titular question: As "white girl," I am the object of the question. The objectification points to a society that considers women a commodity. This symptom manifests itself in the trend of white female pop stars using women of color as props. It also manifests itself in well-intentioned but racially tone-deaf efforts at criticizing that trend. The attempted satire is lost in the same cultural appropriation it attempts to criticize. In short, the more we see each other as bodies, as the skin we're in, the less we truly see each other.
Symptom 2: The "come up" myth
Yeezy's line "when you get on, she'll leave your ass for white girl" has long irritated me on behalf of girls of all colors (even though I totally have seen white chicks rap along to it enthusiastically). The idea that a white woman is a signifier of success when positioned on a Black man's arm (or other parts) insults all of us, because it makes us so much less than human -- it's a particularly nasty facet of objectification. This is only perpetuated by "satires" like Nate Hill's Trophy Scarves blog that conveniently lands him under the bodies of young naked white women. Recognizing a trend is not the same thing as subverting it.
Symptom 3: Hypersexualization of interracial encounters
American media dramatizes white-Black interactions with a sense of taboo that is absurd. The idiotic coverage of President Obama and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thoring taking a selfie together is one example. Online, the images were framed by images of Michelle Obama in the background, ostensibly scowling at the spectacle. Andrea Peyser of The New York Post derided the president as "hormone ravaged" and "plotting his next hookup," all but evoking the rape myth. It's a symptom when lazy media outlets would rather fall back on damaging stereotypes than do real work.
Symptom 4: Being threatened by "other" women because of their desirability
Let's be honest: It can be difficult to see men that look like us choose women that don't look like us. There is a sense of approval when men -- whether celebrities or acquaintances -- choose women within our phenotype. Our sometimes seemingly innate hostility has roots in the institutionalized rape of Black women at the hands of white men, and the resultant cuckolding of white women. We've inherited the rape myth and the legacy of rape-based interracial relationships. This fosters a fear-based sense of the desirability of "other" women. Let's recognize it and make a conscious effort to think differently.
5. Promoting the "colorblind" model: We aren't all the same color, and we aren't all the same, and that's a beautiful thing.
Promoting the ideal of being "colorblind" to fix to racism is like promoting illiteracy to fix bad writing. There is a serious schism in feminism, as documented by Mikki Kendall's #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag, holding "mainstream" (white) feminsim accountable for marginalizing women of color in the movement. And her message is legit, though I disagree with her method. #solidarityisforwhitewomen identifies a problem of white women equating their experiences with misogyny to women of color's experiences. Our diverse experiences and problems are far better served by being heard, rather than ignored through naïve rhetoric.
The symptoms of the problem reinforce a pattern -- that in Western society's eyes, women's bodies take precedence over, in the words of Dr. King, "the content of their character." If we take the legacy of oppression and white privilege that informs conversations about race and spark it with the passion, insecurity and jealousy that often fuel romantic relationships, we wind up with a powder keg that can explode in ways far more damaging than a snarky question: "Do you only date white girls now?"
So, how can we approach the problem in terms of navigating how to go to dinner with each other, how to have sex with each other, how to postulate about "Game of Thrones" with each other? How do we find acceptance in each others' mothers, sisters, friends and aunts when we women are so hard on women that don't look like us? The best thing I can figure out is to ask questions and respect the answers. To consider perspective, and approach each woman who cares for a man (who we'd rather she not) with a great measure of generosity and empathy. We better get at it, because as time goes on, our sons and daughters will ignore the boundaries we've set -- of color or otherwise -- whether we like it or not.
Follow Sarah Thomas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SarahTTennessee