Monday, October 29, 2007

The "Rules" Redux

In visiting the comments sections of number of blogs, I can't help noticing a certain pessimism among a number of the commentators who have shared their experiences in the dating scene. Some women have had bad experiences, and many have concluded that the bloggers are much too "optimistic" in their assessment of the availability of non-black dates to BW. Many sisters in particular have noted with disappointed that they have visited personals sites and noticed that many of the men whose profiles they have perused seem to make a specific point that they are interested in anything but a BW.

As an initial point, I would like to note that I have been careful not to suggest that any specific percentage of the non-BM population are interested in BW. Considering America's racial politics, I recognize that there is still a stigma attached to IRRs, and a stigma attached to dating BW in particular. As a result, I think there is still a social barrier to non-BM either seeing BW as viable dates/mates, or approaching them socially, so even when the attraction is there, it is not as likely to be acted on as other, more socially acceptable attractions.

However, I also believe, that considering the overall demographics of the U.S., that there are still more non-BM interested in BW than there are BW period, let alone BW interested in non-BM. So I still think focusing on the men who aren't interested probably isn't very constructive. As BW we should do everything in our power to defend our beauty and reputations so that our attractiveness as everything from employees to mates is improved--but if 1 woman has a pool of 100 men to choose from instead of 500 men, it isn't as if the odds are seriously against her even as things stand today.

Thus, reading these comments has made think back on my own adventures in the world of online dating and in the dating world in general. Many women, who like me, are happy, unashamed womanists who would never want a relationship based on game-playing or manipulation, will find the advice that I have culled (successfully) from tomes like "the Rules" and what sounds like the similar "He's Just Not That Into You" (which I haven't read) to be somewhat disheartening. If you find a man attractive, why not just approach him? If you want to call him, why not just call him? If you like him, why not just ask him out? Male friends and potential dates will almost always assure you that this is a wise path to take, and make it clear that they find it incredibly flattering when women do the pursuing, the calling and the asking, and take some of the undeniable burden off of their shoulders.

My only response to any of this is to note that I agree with it 100%--theoretically. I don't see any reason, on a philosophical basis, why a self-supporting adult can't ask a man out and pay for his dinner, or send him a first "wink" on a dating site. On a practical, experiential and real-world observational level, however, I can only acknowledge what I have repeatedly found to be true--when women approach and pursue men, it rarely leads to a happy relationship. Even typing these words is hard for me, because I wish they I had not found them to be true, but the reality is that I have found them to be true--again and again.

When I see sisters noting all the men on dating sites whose profiles exclude BW, I can't help but think "why do you even know what their profiles show"? I think the tried and true method for using such sites still stands: you put up a profile with a great, recent photo(s) of yourself, describe who you are and what you want in detail, and then choose your dates from the men who respond. I know many women will argue that this is passive, as if you are sitting in a tower waiting to be rescued by Prince Charming. I disagree. It is making it clear that you are available to Prince Charming, and then lets Prince Charming reveal his charm in order to win your favor. It's called courting. The question is would you rather choose from a pool of men who you find attractive, or from a pool of men who you find attractive and who also find you attractive?

That's the same reason why I've never been a big advocate of the initiating eye contact game. To me flirting starts with going out into the world looking your best with a friendly, happy demeanor. If a guy catches YOUR eye, and you're interested, you can hold his glance for an extra moment so he knows his approach wouldn't be entirely unwelcome; but searching out the cute guys at the library or museum just seems like asking for trouble. Sometimes women forget, but men can be cruel and predatory when it comes to the sexual pursuit of women.

Even the "nicest" guys can interpret even the mildest aggressive interest as desperation, which they will cheerfully exploit. Job #1 is always taking care of yourself, and that means letting him come to you, a process most men enjoy anyway. The same man who will sweet-talk the girl who does all the calling and goes dutch on dates only to dump her after the first time they have sex, will happily send flowers and pick up every check for the woman who makes it clear she likes him, but remains slightly elusive. This might smack of your grandmother's retrograde "buy the cow, milk for free" advice, but all people--male and female--tend to value what they have to work a little bit harder for.

In the end, all of us have to do what feels right for us and our personalities. A loud, blooming orchid can't be a shrinking violet, and some ladies will find this whole discussion ridiculously inapplicable to them. I always say, do it your way. But my whole purpose here is to share the benefit of my experience, both my own and what I have observed. I hope it can be of use.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Love and Marriage?

As everyone here knows, I am a recent newlywed and a strong advocate of healthy, happy marriages and relationships. Married people generally live longer, healthier, wealthier lives than their single counterparts, and societies and communities with large married populations tend to share the same characteristics of greater relative stability and affluence. As social animals, human beings need each other, not merely to thrive, but to survive.

Therefore, I understand the perfectly natural desire to seek out companionship and love. It is sad that so many young black women are actually encouraged to view this wholly natural and healthy desire as suspect and greedy, as if wanting a loving relationship with a decent man is somehow pathological. But the inspiration for my last post about “taking stock” was conversations that I have witnessed, on and off the blogosphere, in which young women have expressed a desire for relationships that struck me as somewhat premature.

I say this because while healthy relationships are an incredibly constructive force in the lives of both individuals and communities, unhealthy relationships exert an equally destructive force in the lives of those who live them and live around them. There any number of reasons why relationships go wrong, but I have always been a strong believer that most relationships that fail do so ultimately at conception—the parties enter into them for the wrong reasons, at the wrong point in their lives, with the wrong partners, or without the emotional wherewithal to sustain coupledom over the long-term. And the main motivation for making and sticking with these wrong choices, even after we realize their wrongfulness, is loneliness and the fear of being alone.

More than once when I was single, I went on a second date or gave a guy a third chance because I was able to convince myself that I was being “open” and flexible. In reality, I just didn’t want to be alone. That is normal; but we have to recognize such longing for what it is, and ensure that it doesn’t entrap us in a situation that we will eventually grow to regret. There’s nothing wrong with being “just friends,” as long as you both know that’s what it is.

I also think it is crucial to make peace with yourself, so that the goal of marriage or a long-term relationship doesn’t become all-consuming. I think because of the diminishing role of marriage in the black community, some of us have adopted a focus on marriage which borders on the obsessive. As positive as marriage can be, I have never been a believer that marriage, in and of itself, can make an unhappy person happy. Nor do I think it wise to put so much of the responsibility for your own well-being and fulfillment in the hands of another, which is necessarily the case if you feel that you must be married to be complete. Plenty of single people lead joyful, productive lives, and plenty of married people are miserable drags on society. A bad marriage doesn’t do anyone any good, and bad marriages too often result from desperation.

None of this is said to discourage black women from seeking serious relationships and marriage with worthy men. I adamantly reject the message that discourages black women from aspiring to marriage, that encourages them to settle for “man-sharing” and “babymamahood,” or to accept decades of celibacy rather than exploring every available option for finding the partners we want and deserve. I just think that it is important to recognize that you cannot have a good relationship with a man if you are not content within yourself. Do you like what you see when you look in the mirror? Do you enjoy what you spend your days doing? Do you have a plan for your life beyond finding a husband? Our marital choices are crucial, but so are the choices we make about our careers, in caring for our health, in maintaining our relationships with our families, etc. Always--always--empower yourself, by making your life as full and complete as you can. To gain a man but lose yourself is truly a hollow "victory."

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

First, Take Stock

As my fellow webophiles know, IRRs are a perennial favorite topic of conversation at most black message boards and blogs, despite the fact that most posters at such boards regularly express their indifference and disdain towards such relationships. One popular response to the latest breaking newsflash on the sellout of the day is to insist that said black person is “ugly” and the poster “wouldn’t want them anyway,” and that their white partner is “ugly,” “desperate,” a “loser,” etc.

This of course, is an interesting response on many levels, particularly from people who consider themselves so “pro-black,” that they would never “sellout” by dating a white person. They clearly view any black person who dates a white person to be “selling out,” i.e., somehow elevating themselves vis-à-vis other blacks by dating a white person, any white person--otherwise, how else could they be characterized as “selling out,” i.e., compromising their “racial integrity” in exchange for some kind of gain?

By the same token, they equally believe that any white person who dates a black person, any black person—no matter how beautiful, talented, successful, or accomplished--has somehow degraded themselves, reflected in the commonly stated belief that only “bottom of the barrel” whites date blacks, and the extreme aspersions generally cast on the characters and appearances of the white partners of black mates. Despite the overt professions of black pride that often accompany these complaints, such responses betray a clear belief that for black people, dating white is dating up, and that for white people, dating black is dating down. This is not how I define pride.

What often intrigues me more, however, is how common it is for the posters making such harsh judgments about the physical appeal of the couples at issue to include photographs of themselves that make it clear that they are inferior in physical appearance, not only to the couples they are critiquing, but probably to most people in general. This disconnect is particularly striking when the same posters make constant assertions about their “fineness” and desirability to the opposite sex.

We live in a society that has generally elevated “high self-esteem” above all other character traits as a value to be respected and admired. We inculcate it into our children from infancy, and both pity and despise those who do not think sufficiently well of themselves. “You have low self-esteem,” we hiss derisively at those we wish to cut to the quick. Yet, all too rarely do we ask, high self esteem based on what? Why do most people think so well of themselves? Should a stupid person think themselves intelligent? An ignorant person think themselves knowledgeable? An ugly person think themselves lovely? A cruel person think themselves kind? Increasingly, this is exactly the result we are getting, especially among our young, whose “self-esteem” we have so carefully nurtured to be “high,” rather than accurate.

One result is reflected in my last post, about disgruntled lawyers and law students who are embittered that they are failing to earn the $160,000-per year incomes post-law school that they had come to expect. While many of their complaints about the costs of legal education vs. the opportunities for legal employment are valid, the sense of thwarted entitlement that underlies so much of their complaining reflects the inevitable crash that afflicts the high self-esteem generation when they encounter one of life’s unavoidable pitfalls. They experience tremendous outrage, bitterness, and frustration, but they haven’t the slightest bit of initiative to make change or actually improve their lot. This is because their self-esteem is high, but not accurate—they think very well of themselves, but they’re actually quite average, and their lack of genuine specialness is revealed as soon as they have need of it—and realize it isn’t there.

In the same way, many of the women snickering at Venus Williams’ and Halle Berry’s dates have a seriously delusional view of their own relative appeal as women. Certainly, a woman is more than her face and body; but when both your outer and inner package are sour and negative, it may be time to forget about maintaining “self-esteem,” and think about taking stock. This is especially true for a woman who is seeking a relationship.

For black women, who face constant criticism from without, taking such an inventory from within is often fraught with pitfalls. The flipside of the constant hectoring to have “high self-esteem” in our society is the equally constant diminishment of the value and worth of everyone who deviates from rigid ideals of beauty and accomplishment. Typically, claims of “high self esteem” are simply a façade for deeper layers of self-loathing. That is why so many of the same Mammy/Mule types who are quick to crow about their “thickness,” and to laugh at Mike Nilon and Gabriel Aubry, are equally quick to lap it up when chastised for being “WTE/ABW” who are responsible for their own aloneness. They eagerly smile at black man in the street, and always give a brother a chance, even if he's “getting back on his feet,” after a stint in the penitentiary or a long period of idleness. They save their bile for black male sellouts and other black women.

Yet, despite their “high self-esteem” and “racial pride,” their relationships often fail, and they end up feeling like damaged goods—but they have no language for examining themselves critically that will actually be honest and constructive, no process that starts with the premise that they can have value as women, and have relationships that work. All of the criticism aimed their way is designed not to help them improve, but to render them even more vulnerable to exploitation. And since they believe it’s essential rationale—that to be black and a woman is to be worthless—they can never actually be better than they are. They stay stuck in a place where they remain prey, beasts of burden carrying everybody else’s weight and trying to keep other sisters in the same place. Their single “joy” is in the false pride of not having “sold out” because they just have too much “self-respect” for that.

It is so important for all of us who want the most out of our lives to first take stock of ourselves—not based on the destructive messages that so many of us have been programmed with since childhood, but based on the hard-won values and understandings that we have gained through developing real self-esteem and insight into ourselves and our goals. There’s no point in pursuing a relationship with another person without first understanding ourselves, and being prepared to bring the same maturity and stability to the table that we must demand of our partners. Don’t be like too many sisters who stay stuck, stay vulnerable, and hide their pain behind false bravado.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Be Prepared

This post may seem off-topic at first, but if you bear with me, I think it’s relevance will become clear. A recent front page article in the Wall Street Journal discussing one of the dirty little secrets of the American legal profession made me start thinking long and hard about the tremendous shifts which our society is undergoing, and the affect those shifts will inevitably have on personal relationships.

Entitled Hard Case: Job Market Wanes for U.S. Lawyers: Growth of Legal Sector Lags Broader Economy; Law Schools Proliferate, the front page article published in Monday’s Journal set-off something like shockwaves in the legal blogosphere because it formally unmasked one of it’s bitterest, most high-profile “celebrities”: Scott Bullock, who is better know at sites like JDJive and JDUnderground as “Law is for Losers” or “L4L.” Mr. Bullock is a 2005 graduate of Newark’s Seton Hall University School of Law, a school ranked in the “second tier” of all accredited American law schools by the all-knowing U.S. News and World Report. In the article, Mr. Bullock candidly acknowledges having accrued more than $118,000 in law school debt which he is forced to support on an income of $50,000 a year as a personal injury attorney in Manhattan, despite having graduated in the top 1/3 of his law school class. Mr. Bullock, who asserts that high school friends employed as electricians and plumbers earn considerably more than he does, deems his law degree a “waste.”

The article includes a number of other similar tales of six-figure debt, unemployment, temporary work for $20-$30 an hour, and entry-level positions offering $33,000 per year with no benefits. Though few people outside the profession seem to recognize this fact, most lawyers know that while the number of positions available for attorneys and the average salaries achieved by most attorneys has stagnated or shrunk, the number of law schools and law school graduates, and the cost of paying for a legal education, have all exploded.

This state of affairs has produced incredible bitterness among many law students and lawyers, who are typically people who have spent their entire pre-law lives succeeding and being rewarded for their success. They have always gotten the best grades, and the highest scores on standardized tests, and thus they have usually grown to believe quite fervently in the legitimacy of these measures of quality and merit—after all, it is easy to believe that a system that says you are the best is judging properly. They have always done the “right thing” as the system has defined it, and now the system has made it clear that they are failures. They are sure that the problem is the law schools have misled them by encouraging them with false reports about the rates of employment and earnings of their graduates to overinvest in a worthless degree.

What most of those people complaining can’t (or won’t) recognize is that what we're undergoing here is a shift in the structure of our economy, not simply in the structure of the legal profession. As the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman loves to point out, globalization has created an economic system where there is a tiny elite of “winners” and their elite class of servitors (doctors, lawyers, bankers, etc.) and a huge population of “losers.”

Of course, Friedman likes to pretend that the sorting process is controlled by “merit”--but the reality is that this is the way the world has worked through most of human history--small elites control most of the power and resources, while the masses who actually do the producing own nothing. The reality is that now, middle and upper middle class white Americans, who at least on a global scale thought that they were part of the elite, are realizing (or should be) that they are actually part of the mass--and they don’t like it.

They want to pretend the problem is that they were sold a bill of goods by dishonest law schools, without acknowledging that they really had no meaningful alternative to going to law school to achieve what the ultimately were after--an elite lifestyle. The problem isn’t that the schools lied to them (though they did)--the problem is the schools couldn’t deliver what they promised, whether they admitted it or not, because the system can no longer deliver--the sham of “upward mobility” is itself being exposed as a fraud. And while more people are recognizing the fraud, most can't face it's true nature--that it’s not about choosing the “right” educational program or buying a house in the “right” market with the “right” kind of loan, any more than it was about choosing the “right” internet stock in 1999. It’s about a system that's breaking down, irretrievably, a way of life that's over: a world in which white middle-class American children who can always expect to do better than their parents.

What does all this have to do with personal relationships? As Evia often points out, the choice of a partner is crucial, and I think it is more so now than ever before. I’ve always been loathe here to give advice about what to look for in a man, since I think who a woman is attracted to and why she is attracted to him is so individual, and rightly so; nor do I consider myself an “expert” on picking a man for anyone other than myself. But I have been reading some handwriting on the wall that I think some other people may be missing, and it is relevant to the issue of choosing a partner.

There are some qualities that I think are consistently important across time: WHAT WAS HIS RELATIONSHIP LIKE WITH HIS MOTHER? Loving, respectful, affectionate—but not tethered? WHAT WAS/IS HIS FATHER'S RELATIONSHIP LIKE WITH HIS MOTHER? I remember my husband telling me not long after we met that his father truly adored his mother. When a man grows up in a home where he sees his mother being adored, he learns how to adore. DOES HE LIKE WOMEN? No, not is he heterosexual (though this will come in handy too). Does he genuinely like women as people, not just as potential sexual targets? Many people, men and women, don’t really like women, and such people will usually end up treating you as a woman quite shabbily. DOES HE THINK YOU'RE BEAUTIFUL? Do you want anything less?

HOW DOES HE DESCRIBE HIS DISPUTES WITH OTHERS? Is anything ever his fault? Does he ever play a role in the problems he experiences in life? Or is he a perpetual victim, constantly being abused and taken advantage of by the maliciousness of others? Please believe—one day YOU will be one of the malicious “others” who is out to get him if you get involved with a man like this.

In terms of a partner who will help you thrive as our society undergoes tremendous change, WHAT IS HIS WORK ETHIC? IS HE PERSISTENT? IS HE FLEXIBLE? Is he easily defeated in the face of adversity? Does he expect everything to go his way, and fall apart when it doesn’t? The New York Times recently did a story on the number of American men who have simply dropped out of the job market, and usually the marriage market as well, who have essentially given up on doing anything more than subsisting in the face of struggle. A man’s work ethic and persistence are not just about the income he earns—they’re about his unwillingness to give up when the going gets tough. The going is getting tougher—are you prepared? Is he?

HOW DOES HE HANDLE HIS RESOURCES? Is he thrifty? Efficient? Does he understand the value of investing for the future? Is he overly concerned with impressing other people or enjoying transitory material pleasures? IS HE GOAL ORIENTED? Is there some significant achievement in his life that he can point to that he undertook to accomplish and then went on to actually attain—a degree, a job, a triathlon, anything?

These are some the values that I have found key in making a man a potentially attractive long-term mate. We all have our own individual list of qualities that we find appealing, but as our world changes, we have to be aware of how those changes can affect our lives, and how we can prepare to meet the challenges they present. One of the most important ways to prepare is to make sure that the man by your side has as complete an understanding as you do of what you’re up against.