It was Saturday night, and I was at a party.
Earlier that week, I'd been talking to one of my friends named Kat* about a boy who had rejected her. "He said he just didn't feel passionately about me," she said, dejected. We shook our heads and commiserated over ice cream, trying to draw our attention away from the incident. Rejection happens, and far more frequently than most would care to admit. It hurts and it's embarrassing, but it's also an unpleasantly common part of dating and relationships. She would get over him.
Both she and the boy were at the party. My friend was sulking over her drink. "I just don't understand," she said. I was frustrated and annoyed. It didn't make any sense. My friend and the boy texted on a regular basis, they went on dates, they confided in each other. By all logic, it seemed as if he liked her.
So I confronted the boy.
"Why don't you like Kat?"
We went back and forth for half an hour. The boy is white and from a very wealthy, mostly-white suburb in Alabama. My friend is black. He explained how he had been raised almost exclusively around white people, and we came to the conclusion that his understanding of who could be considered beautiful or a potential marriage partner had been greatly skewed by his environment. He couldn't view a black woman as being attractive or as his wife because he had never really interacted with them as a child, with the exception of the black women he saw as nannies to his friends, in rap music videos, and on reality TV.
It was late, and we were getting to the difficult part.
"Kat is an incredible girl. If she had had the same résumé and qualifications and had been white, things might have...they might have turned out differently."
The conversation was over. How could I tell Kat what he said? That there wasn't a single thing wrong with her, and the only barrier between her and the boy she liked was the one thing that she fundamentally couldn't change. That would be the hardest concept to articulate: "No, you're really quite wonderful, except for the pesky albatross of your blackness."
I could have viewed Kat's situation as an isolated incident, an unpleasant-but-inevitable side-effect of living below the Mason-Dixon. But as I spoke to my other black female friends, I kept coming across the same handful of disturbingly similar stories: they developed feelings for a white classmate or friend, they started talking, and he would suddenly drop her as soon as things moved toward becoming more serious.
I spoke about this trend to another black female friend named Elizabeth*. "I asked him what he thought of interracial relationships," she said, speaking of a white boy she had liked. "Specifically, I asked him if he had any reservations about dating me because I'm black. He said that he was fine with it. Then I asked him if his family would have an issue with it, and he said they would. Not too long after that, he said that he wasn't ready for a relationship, but I saw on Facebook that he was in a relationship with another white girl less than two months later."
She continued, speaking more generally about what it meant to be a black woman interested in dating a white person. "It doesn't matter how well I do my hair or my makeup or how nicely I dress, all they see is the fact that I'm black."
It wasn't as if I was in any way unaware of these situations, nor could I say that I had not experienced any of them myself. White men had always told me either indirectly or explicitly that they could not enter into a serious or public relationship with me because of my race. They couldn't bear to disappoint, anger, or betray their white families by being the one who brought the black woman to Thanksgiving dinner.
I did not receive the same upbringing. My parents told me to date and marry people who made me happy and treated me with the utmost respect, no matter their color. My mother reacted with just as much excitement when I told her about my feelings for a white engineer as when I told her about liking a black poet. I wanted to date men who weren't just okay with my color; I wanted them to appreciate it and all of the unique benefits that came with it, and I would do the same for them. So I was disappointed and upset when I did not receive the same treatment in return.
I noticed that the difference in upbringings for my black female friends and their white male love interests created an irreconcilable gulf between the two groups that resulted in seemingly inescapable heartbreak for the former and an obstinate denial of responsibility for the latter. But we never talked about it. We tried to justify our repeated rejections on superficial causes--that we weren't pretty or accomplished enough, or that we had somehow driven the boy away with our personalities or idiosyncrasies. We always blamed ourselves because we did not want to grapple with the morose reality that we could be denied the most fundamental of human experiences--love--because of the color of our skin. But it was true, and I wanted to know why.
It initially seemed illogical to me that color or race could be a major (and sometimes the only) determining factor when deciding whether or not a woman was deserving of public affection and a serious relationship. My friends were all remarkably attractive, intelligent, and witty, and white people often asked them why they were single. "I'm just really busy right now," they would say, averting their eyes. No one wanted to own up to the humiliating experience of being rejected because they were black. But by not talking about it, my friends and I only contributed to centuries of institutionalized dehumanization of black women by American and European society.
I was already aware of the way that the Jezebel and Mammy tropes were constructed to exist as social and aesthetic foils to the antebellum white (usually slaveowning) Southern "lady" of the nineteenth century. The Jezebel was a hypersexualized caricature of a black woman that was designed to justify the systemic rape of enslaved women by white slaveowners. The Mammy was an asexual, jolly, and controlling dark-skinned black woman who was the "safe" alternative to the Jezebel and was therefore allowed to publicly interact with the plantation master and mistress. But I still wondered about white women's role in the divide between my black friends and their white love interests. Why were white women considered to be acceptable partners, but black women were not?
Around the time that the Mammy and Jezebel came into the public consciousness, the "cult of true womanhood" (sometimes referred to as the "cult of white womanhood" and the "cult of domesticity") began to develop during the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain and the United States. The cult of true womanhood emphasized that the ideal woman should be in possession of four fundamental values: domesticity, piety, purity, and submission. Women who were able to emulate these traits were charged with carrying all of the positive values of their society and were therefore praised as respectable partners for marriage.
Additionally, it didn't really matter whether or not women actually adhered to these four principles. Rather, as long as the public mythology of these ideas could be placed onto specific bodies (in this case, white female bodies), all that really mattered was that it appeared that the chosen women carried all of society's positive traits. However, for black women, the public mythology funneled them into being either Mammies or Jezebels (and later, Sapphires, or the "angry black woman"), neither of which were ever connected with ideas of domesticity, piety, purity, and submission.
Of course, this all happened a very long time ago, and most (not all) of the overt ways of identifying black women as Mammies, Jezebels, and Sapphires have gone dormant. However, the old dichotomy of white women being inherently good or more valuable and black women being inherently bad or less valuable still exists in strikingly insidious ways. Examples of this include individuals attempting to justify a black foster child being body-slammed in her desk at Spring Valley High School and condemning black female celebrities for wearing provocative clothing or makeup while praising white female celebrities for doing the exact same thing.
So for all the black girls who have ever pined for a white boy, only to be degraded or denied the opportunity to have a respectful and public relationship, I can say only one thing: it's not your fault. It's never been your fault. You aren't any less of a human being or a woman because you were rejected as a result of your color, and you shouldn't internalize that rejection as a sign of your inferiority. You are enough as you are, and you shouldn't seek external validation from a society that was never meant to accommodate you anyway. And all we can do now is interrogate the ways that black and white people interact with each other in order to understand how implicit biases express themselves as overt racism or prejudice.
*Names have been changed.