With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I cannot help but dwell on who might be coming to dinner. Last holiday season gave me plenty of food for thought on this all too familiar and often uncomfortable racially-tinged question. One of my male relatives brought home a date for Thanksgiving who could have been Barbie's twin sister. She was blonde, thin, big-bosomed, and even had a Germanic name. She was probably very nice; but I cannot say for sure. She was shy and didn't talk much in what was likely an unfamiliar and perhaps overwhelming African American social setting. Another of my male relatives brought home a woman for Christmas who seemed like a modern-day, socially progressive southern belle. She was blonde, full figured, outgoing, and outspoken with a saucy southern accent and friendly, expressive manner. Two of my younger male relatives have recently been engaged to white women, and one tied the knot last summer. This is a pattern that I have observed in my professional life for years: successful black men pairing up with white women, but now that the practice has come home to roost, so to speak, I cannot help but admit to feeling a bit demoralized.
I wish my male relatives luck and joy in their relationships, but I also feel a pinch when I watch them with their girlfriends. It is the same sharp tug of disappointment that gets me every time I see a black man with a white woman on his arm. Try as I might to suppress the reaction, I experience black men's choice of white women as a personal rejection of the group in which I am a part, of African American women as a whole, who have always been devalued in this society.
Certainly my reaction links back to a few bad apples in my own young dating years. Once I overheard my black boyfriend telling his buddies how he preferred white women; on another occasion (with a different black boyfriend) a guy told me he didn't care that I was breaking up with him because he could go out and get a white woman, which was what he really wanted anyway. For both these men (and to be fair, they were not much older than 20 at the time and thus had plenty of maturing to do), white women were the pinnacle of womanhood -- the prize that they secretly coveted, the emotional weapon that they knew they could wield. But personal moments of rejection are not the driving force behind my resentful feelings about black male-white female relationships now. The driving force is, instead, my awareness of all of the (straight) African American women -- beautiful, smart, good women, some of them my own family and friends -- who might not have a honey to bring home this Thanksgiving holiday because they cannot find a date, even as rising numbers of eligible African American men will be wooing white women.
In a perfect world, love would be blind. Individuals would choose each other for kindness, intelligence, perseverance, courage, and a host of other mysterious reasons that make attraction so magical. Race and the characteristics that have come to represent it -- like skin color, eye color, and hair texture -- would not be factors in matters of the heart. This is the way things would be if our love lives actually mirrored recent scientific findings, which tell us the human family is so genetically close that we share more than 99 percent of our DNA. Genetically speaking, there are no racial categories; race is merely skin deep. Dating and marrying across racial lines should therefore be natural, common and acceptable. But this is not a perfect world. This is the United States, where a deep-seated notion of racial difference has been the rationalization for oppression, the rallying cry for discrimination against people who are not white. Within this racialized landscape in which whiteness has reigned supreme, the line between white and black has been the starkest marker of racial difference, with the white side of the line representing all that is positive, and the black side of the line representing all that is negative. Whiteness has been a privileged and prized identity in the U.S.; our national culture has made it this way. So when black men select white women and de-select black women, they are doing so in a context of charged racial meanings.
This is not a cut and dried issue. It is tangled and difficult. I recognize that many people form loving relationships across the black-white color line. Some of the people I admire and respect most in my professional life are black men married to white women and white women married to black men. These relationships are caring and genuine, and surely bring happiness to the individuals involved in them. I have even dated outside of my racial group, and I married someone who isn't black -- a Native American man (with, I must add, distant French and African ancestry). But this collection of happily ever after stories does not mean that love is blind. Romantic attraction is subject to the larger social forces of racial prestige and stigma that swirl all around us, and in this environment, black women are losing out. Despite the steamy scenes on ABC's hit show, Scandal (and yes, I am a fan), most single black women are not dating white men (and certainly not hunky white men who hold high government offices and are willing to risk all they have achieved for illicit love). Many single black women are instead finding themselves ignored in today's dating scene.
While interracial marriage rates in this country have grown remarkably to 8.4 percent in 2010, Americans still marry within their own racial group the majority of the time. And when people do venture across the color line to date, they do so in ways that continue to affirm a social hierarchy based on race in which whiteness is prized. White men are the most sought after dates by women of all groups (except for African American women, who, researchers speculate, may rule out white men due to the fear of being stereotyped). White men can therefore afford to be the pickiest group in the online dating market; they respond to fewer overtures than other men on dating websites, and they have a strong preference for white women. White women are less willing than white men to date outside of their racial group, but heavier-set white women are more willing to date black men, because, researchers Cynthia Feliciano, Belinda Robnett, and Golnaz Komaie of UC Irvine posit, of "racial-beauty exchange theory" -- the notion that a white woman who is less attractive by the measure of dominant Euro-American beauty standards is willing to "trade down" on the racial hierarchy by dating a black man. By the same token, black men who date white women are "trading up" on the American racial hierarchy.
Most striking to me in recent sociological studies about interracial dating and marriage, is that on every measure, African American women seem to come out at the bottom of the pile. Black people as a whole intermarry with whites less frequently than other people of color do; and black women intermarry far less than black men. This is due in part to the unsettling evidence that many groups of men do not prefer black women. According to data released by the online dating site OkCupid, black women (perhaps due to politeness; perhaps due to the recognition of their less desirable status) respond to more initial overtures than other groups; at the same time, black women's initial contacts are ignored most often. In today's dating market black women are less preferred -- and here is the kicker -- sometimes even by black men. Social science researchers posit that black men's attraction to white women as evidenced by dating behavior and growing intermarriage rates is in part historically rooted. Because white women were taboo for black men for centuries in this country to the extent that black men could be lynched for the appearance of involvement with white women, access to white women may be more alluring for black men now. Sociologists also find that because white Americans as a whole are still the most powerful racial group in this country (politically, economically, and socially), non-whites seek to marry into that group in order to increase their own social status. As UC Berkeley sociologist Gerald Mendelsohn put it in an interview: "One theory is that blacks are acting like other minority populations in the history of this country . . . They are interested in moving up in the power structure, and one way you do that is through intermarriage with the dominant group."
These racial and gender preferences and the reasons behind them may not be conscious to people in the dating world, who, by and large, would probably decry bias against black women. Nevertheless, these preferences have real effects. While more black men date and marry white women than ever before, more black women cannot even get a first "chat" on Internet dating sites. African American women are plagued by persistent, age-old stereotypes that represent them as too strong, argumentative and unfeminine. And as wonderful as they are, African American women can never measure up to the narrowly defined beauty ideals based on Euro-American aesthetics that are so firmly entrenched in this culture. Even after the Black is Beautiful seventies, it is still the case that when African American women are upheld as beautiful in popular media, they usually have lighter skin, longer hair, and thinner body types that adhere more closely to those dominant standards.
First Lady Michelle Obama is a glowing exception to these daunting data and a beacon of beauty in this skewed aesthetic environment. The person who would become one of the most successful black men in the history of the world chose her, and she him. So to all of the African American women out there who feel like your shine is not being recognized, who feel a little pinch of rejection each time you see an accomplished black man with a white woman on his arm: take heart. We may be down in this cultural contest for love and appreciation, but we are not out.