After Ernest Baker's essay about interracial relationships, "The Reality of Dating White Women When You're Black," ran on Gawker earlier this month we received hundreds of comments and emails objecting to, agreeing with, or otherwise responding to Baker. This week, we're publishing some of those responses as part of a conversation about race and relationships.
There's almost no overlap in the series of blunders that constitute my romantic history. I've dated men my age, older men, athletes and politicians and writers, plus two guys who ended up serving time. Athiests, Christians, one devout Muslim, and one closet Republican. If you're looking for commonalities among my ex-boyfriends, you'll really only find one—they're all black.
It's not that I haven't dated white men. I have. A few I've dated enjoyably, even exclusively. But when it was time to talk titles or define the parameters, something usually held me back.
I've been disassembling my relationship history over the past few weeks as I thought about Ernest's article. I disagreed with the major crux of his argument, and most of the minor ones, too. But zeroing in on why requires reckoning with the demographics of my personal life. Discussing them requires me to be either disingenuous or hypocritical.
For what it's worth, I choose the latter.
One of our species' more tragic limitations is that we're better at understanding mass privilege than we are at imagining widespread struggle. Everyone can imagine what its like to be white in America, to have both institutional power and majority in numbers. (There are, of course, other social factors—class, gender, sexuality, nationality—that shape and narrow people's daily experience. I mean white as an isolated characteristic.) Scour the corners of the country to find the most historically and systematically disadvantaged person, and they can imagine pretty accurately what it's like to be white.
It's America's neutral. It's like what Toni Morrison said, "In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate."
The thing is, part of the white privilege package is the freedom to do the opposite—the freedom to not have to understand the minority experience. And there's an inverse relationship at work here—the less white America en masse thinks critically about the historical and systematic obstacles facing black America, the more thinking black America has to do. It's a piece of DuBois' double consciousness. "[Blacks] must perpetually discuss the 'Negro Problem,'—must live, move, and have their being in it, and interpret all else in its light or darkness." Depending on who you talk to, the "Negro Problem" is a blessing or a burden, and for many—I'd include myself in this—it's both. It's complicated.
I know that many white people also grapple with the Negro Problem, and have an acute understanding of the myriad ways that being black affects people's lived experiences. But there's a tangibility divide between sympathy and empathy. This matters to me in some parts of my life and not in others. For some reason, it matters to me in dating.
I date black men in part because I'd like for my partner to understand the perpetual contradiction of the black experience. The older I get the more important this is to me, as my children, once nebulous balls of brain fuzz, inch closer to reality. I want my children to have the experience of being black in America, and because of my skin color, their chances diminish significantly if I don't marry someone black.
I think this is the main reason I date who I date, but I also don't think it's the only one. I don't pretend to be that in touch with my subconscious. What activates my attraction and what engages my love are probably influenced by a combination of things—my history and the histories of my family, static memory, insecurities, various cultural influences.
Is dating black an absolute? I'd say no. It's a preference. Like Ernest, I'm willing to say that I'm open to anyone. The world's big and so is Brooklyn. I can imagine myself married and happy to a man with blond hair and blue eyes.
Unlike Ernest, I'll admit that it's unlikely. Engage in a pattern for long enough, and "preference" seems like an inoffensive synonym for prerequisite.
On it's face, Ernest's article shouldn't have bothered me. He and I aren't that different. I grew up around plenty of white people. I thought Nick Carter was cuter than Usher. In middle school the black boys didn't want me either. Preferences, prerequisites: We both have them.
It's not the conclusion of his article that I find so irritating, though. It's the premises. The idea that he and his white girlfriends are innocent defendants in the fiery court of public opinion. I'm loath to engage with it since doing so seems to give it unnecessary credence, but one line deserves particular shame. "It's nothing to walk past a random black woman on the street and get a death glare and maybe even overhear something like, 'They're taking all of our men.'"
"It's nothing." Does Ernest keeps running into the same woman? If not, I can't help but believe this is borderline delusional, a mix of hyperbole and paranoia. The sentence would be funny if it weren't so dangerous. It reinforces the stereotype of black women as not only bitter and uncouth but aggressive.
Look, about 12 percent of black males marry white women. That's just not a conspiracy. It's not a takeover. In all the thousands of conversations about dating that I've had with my single friends, no one has ever blamed their relationship status on the seductive prowess of white women.
Black women are fed a scarcity narrative almost constantly, dubious blog posts about how there aren't enough black men because they're all incarcerated thug dropouts, or professional black women can't find love because they're too intimidating, or we're lonely because black men want white women.
But the numbers say otherwise. We get married. We're also fine alone. I don't deny that black women face some unique challenges. But the idea that we're in such a lonely and loveless state that we regularly harass random black men and their white girlfriends—I'm not falling for it. That death stare isn't about your relationship, which neither upsets nor excites me. People just stare like that in New York. We're fine. Black men date us. We promise.
I don't doubt that Ernest has experienced some pretty terrible reactions from people because he's dated white women. I'm sure people of all races and genders have contributed. The story of the woman in Williamsburg is bizarre and terrible.
But something about the article stinks of an objectivist complex. It's the world that's wrong, that "made it complicated." He's just simple, forthright and fair. In an effort to sooth black women's burned egos, he assures us that he's attracted to us too. He's not like those other black men, he's not a sell-out.
I don't think he's a sell-out. I don't care who he dates or if he's attracted to me. I bet the overwhelming majority of black women don't care, either. What I don't like is his unwillingness to ask uncomfortable questions.
Like, is dating white women still considered a "natural response" to one's "environment" even if he now lives in one of the most diverse cities in the world?
How many white girls can one "fall in love with indiscriminately" until one admits that maybe he's not as indiscriminate as he thought?
Does anyone ever really fall in love indiscriminately? Does anyone ever have "no agenda"? And in the end, is it so bad for society to force you to think about these things?
It's hard to quiet your reflexes and poke around your internal contradictions. Why am I more comfortable having a white boss than a white boyfriend? My closest friend is white, and it barely registers on my radar. Why does that same divide seem impossible to broach in dating? I care about racial equality, so what does it mean that I'm not so equal opportunity in my personal life?
I can't explain all of those, but I can wrestle with them. I can admit that talking about this stuff is difficult, that racial preference in any arena is complicated.
The Muslim man I dated is now married to a non-black Muslim girl. My devout Christian ex-boyfriend is now dating a white Christian woman. I'm seeing a man who dated a white woman before me. None of these realities upset me. I don't think any of them are sell-outs. If it's interesting, it's interesting sociologically. And briefly.
By all means, date who you want. That's your choice and your business. But you don't get to indict black women because you don't want to think critically about what influences you.
Within these borders, race matters. For all people, experience, perception, and values matter. There is no indiscriminate and there is no neutral. We love who we love, but that love isn't blind.
Choosing white women exclusively doesn't mean you don't have racial hang-ups. It just means you have different hang-ups than I do. The personal is always political.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]