I never thought about it before. As I sat across the lunch table in the cafeteria at one of the biggest Law firms in Philadelphia, my lunch buddy asked me a thought-provoking question.
Why have you always dated outside of your race?
“I don’t know, just what I’m attracted to, I guess,” was the short answer I gave her to stop a conversation I felt uncomfortable having. It had always been my preference, but I never stopped to give it much thought as to why. Now, as I sit in my house in the suburbs with my white husband and multiracial children, I can’t help but wonder how I got here. Was it just how love worked out, or was it more strategic and intentional?
As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been around more White people than Black. My first crush was on one of my brother’s White friends. However, the first boy in my class that I ever thought was cute was Black. But he never gave me the time of day. He was friendly enough. He was friends with everyone but to him and all his friends, I was a nerd who acted white. Out of the handful of Black students at my private school, I was ostracized from joining the group because of it.
Fourth through eighth grades were a struggle for me. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. I was too dark-skinned to be accepted by the White kids and acted too white for the Black kids. I even went so far as to ask my cousin to teach me how to be Black. She responded with, “How can I teach you to be what you already are?” But she tried anyway.
She started with my musical tastes and introduced me to Soul, Jazz, R&B, and Rap. I listened to most of the hair bands of the ’80s, bubble gum pop like New Kids On The Block, and a little bit of Country. But knowing all the lyrics to New Edition’s Candy Girl didn’t help me. They ridiculed me more for trying too hard. I knew that I couldn’t be myself and be accepted by them, so I stopped trying.
I started to believe and internalize the biases that pervade our culture. I used them as an explanation as to why I was never excepted by my peers, no matter how hard I tried to be. I didn’t act ghetto. I wasn’t loud. I didn’t dress the way the other Black girls my age did, and my mother would never allow me to braid my hair. I didn’t look the part or act it, so no wonder they didn’t see me as one of their own.
As an adult, I can look back and see the fallacy in my thinking. It had nothing to do with my perceived lack of blackness and everything to do with the fact that kids are just mean.
My mother often told me that when I got college, I would fit in. I would find people more like me, and she was right, but they weren’t Black either. By then, the seed had already been planted. It didn’t matter if I joined the Black Student Union on my college campus or how many parties at Howard I went to, I always felt like an outsider looking in. I became perfectly okay with being the only Black person in a room of all White people.
But as I finished my lunch with my only Black friend at work, I couldn’t help but feel like my preference in dating was a little bit racist.
Sexual racism is a thing. Wikipedia defines it as “an inclination towards or against potential romantic partners based on perceived racial identity.” As I look back over the short amount of time I spent dating in college and my twenties, I realized that I had acted on that perceived bias many times.
There was a young man in college whose name I can’t recall these twenty years later, but he used to always hang out at my residence hall. We met because I used to sit out on the benches in front of the building when the weather was warm and read for class.
Upon first glance, and it was only a glance, he looked like the complete definition of a player. He usually dressed in a white tank top with low and hanging pants or baggy jeans. And he always wore a thick gold chain. When he sat down next to me and said something to the extent of, “Hey shorty,” I knew I wasn’t interested. I was pleasant, we chatted, but I knew that nothing would come of it.
For the rest of that semester, he hung out around my building, saying hello and trying to strike up a conversation with me. He had tried to get to know me, but I would never let him get past the pleasantries of polite conversation. It wasn’t that I didn’t think he was attractive, I just knew that once he got to know me, I wouldn’t be black enough for him. I was tired of being rejected, so I assumed the worst about him based on perceived stereotypes and stayed away. By then, I had a clearly defined “type,” and he wasn’t it.
I didn’t date much in college. If a White guy I was interested in said he didn’t date Black women, it didn’t feel racist, it felt like just a preference. It didn’t sting as badly as being rejected by your people for how you are or are perceived to be.
That’s the thing about perceptions. You only see what you want to see because there’s no way of knowing the real story.
The first time I was out with a White boyfriend, a Black man came up to me and said, “I guess Black men ain’t good enough for you.”
I kept on walking and didn’t say anything back, but in my mind, I wanted to say, “No, I’m not good enough for ya’ll.” Because at the time, that’s how I felt. But this stranger’s perception of me wasn’t far off the mark.
Rene Flores studied racial stereotypes when it comes to dating and his results were published in the American Sociological Association’s journal on Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.
In the study, when Black men were asked what they thought about Black women who date White men, their perceptions were all the same. They saw Black women as social climbers. They viewed them to be the most attractive and most educated. Black men also viewed those women as believing they were better than their counterparts. In contrast, White men saw Black women who only date White men as being more “Americanized,” which is to have subscribed to the White culture and having attitudes more aligned with their own.
As I read through Flores’ study, it challenged my thinking and made me wonder. I never believed that I was too good for Black men, but did I project that? Did I carry myself in such a way, in my dating years, that may have made my counterparts perceive me in that way?
The quick and easy answer is no. I’d like to cling to my belief that I only felt that way because I felt like I would never be accepted, so I never tried to be. But I think that’s too easy and a cop-out. If I’m to hold myself to the same level of honesty to which I hold everyone else to, I’d have to say probably.
I’m sure that there was a point in time where I went from believing that I would never be accepted, so why try to believing the stereotypes about Black men and saying that’s not the lifestyle I want to lead. But where in time that mind shift occurred, I don’t know.
Would knowing all of this in my twenties have changed the outcome of my life? No, or at least I would hope not because I’m married to the perfect partner. Even though he’s White, my family often makes the joke that he’s blacker than me. He was raised around many different cultures and can fit in anywhere. He challenges me to call things by their proper name even if it means admitting to things about myself that aren’t that pretty.
No one wants to believe that they can be racist or harbor perceptions that can be construed in that way. But I can not escape the fact that my perceptions and my dating habits in my twenties were fueled by ideas that were racist and way off base. Not all Black men are players, and the idea of being one is not something that is tied explicitly to Black culture even though it’s presented as such.
I often tell my children, now that you know, do better.
Acquiring knowledge about a situation that needs rectifying is pointless unless you put that knowledge into action. Now that I know, I need to do better. I can’t go back in time and change the past. And I’m certainly not going to divorce my husband. But I can make sure that my children don’t harbor the same biases.
You can’t help who you’re attracted to, but you can give everyone a chance. You don’t have to gravitate towards one type of person because that’s what society thinks you should do. You should get to know them and not rely on stereotypes to tell you who they are.
Fall in love with their mind, connect to their soul and take the time to get the know the person behind the façade. That’s the knowledge that I can pass on into the future. Because now that I know, I plan to do better.
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