Monday, March 24, 2008

"White Men Don't Want You!"

While many black women cope with psychological or social hurdles in their path to dating interracially, one of the most potent barriers is the claim that black woman are unattractive, to non-black men and/or to men generally. This claim is generally hurled along two dimensions: (1) that black African characteristics such as kinky hair, dark skin, full lips and broad noses are simply unattractive on women and/or (2) that black women are more prone to obesity and less likely to properly care for themselves physically, and that it is this "self-neglect" that makes black women less attractive than other women.

Historically, the first level of prejudice was most likely to be openly displayed: black women were generally invisible in mainstream culture unless relegated to sexless mammy roles, but when they did appear as in anyway attractive, they were invariably light skinned, with narrower facial features and straighter hair than other black women, a phenomenon that continues to this day, though it is rarely explicitly acknowledged. Within the black community, black people also openly embraced the European standard of beauty, with elite black men almost invariably marrying light-skinned women, and all black women utilizing whatever tools they could find, from lye to skin bleach, to emulate the appearance of those women who were clearly most preferred.
In a post-"black is beautiful"/paper-bag test world, it is considered unacceptable to state openly that one considers blackness ugly. White people fear that making such statements publicly would result in them being called racist, and black people fear that making such claims would result in them being viewed as self-loathing. Unfortunately, merely because people stop saying things aloud does not mean that they have stopped believing them. Thus, a consistent riposte aimed at black women who express an interest in interracial relationships is the threat that non-black men will not find them attractive. The potency of this threat can be measured not only by the absence of black women from most mainstream images of feminine beauty, but even more so by the limited experience that many black women have had with being approached with the same assertiveness by non-black men that they have experienced with black men.

Obviously, the fact that I and many black women like me have happily dated, partnered, and married non-black men makes it clear that there ARE non-black men who find black women attractive, and the fact that so many mixed race people, most of whom are the offspring of black mothers, have existed throughout history is a testimony to the fact that there always have been. Nevertheless, I have been hesitant to write about this issue, even though I have seen it repeatedly come up in posts here and at other blogs. This is primarily because, in many ways I fit neatly within our society's parameters of "conventional beauty": I'm fairly tall, a size 6, with biggish breasts, a small waist, and curvy hips, with smallish, even facial features. Probably more importantly, I went to private, highly desegregated schools for most of my life, and my parents made a point of exposing me to a variety of people and cultures. This has given me a certain "social ease" with a variety of people that may not come naturally to those who have been socialized in more segregated environments, even if they don't have segregated attractions. The result has been that I haven't had a particularly hard time meeting men of different races--picking up on social signals, displaying interests in recognizable ways, shared interests in music and popular culture, etc. What I want from this post is for other sisters to share their own experience on this topic, especially the sisters who have also managed to date men from across the racial spectrum, and believe they have some tips to share with sisters who have the inclination, but aren't sure they know exactly HOW to actually meet the interesting, worthwhile men that they're interested in. Please share!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Race and Gender, Part II

I did it! I don't get my results until May, but just finishing the NY Bar Exam itself feels like a huge load off of my shoulders. I returned to a ton of work at the office, but at least I have a bit of breathing room, and a bit of time to devote to the blog!

In any case, like most Americans, much of my non-Bar related attention has been focused recently on the presidential race, and more specifically, on the Democratic primaries. I should state from the outset that I don't consider myself a Democrat or a fan of either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama; but the contest between them has fascinated me for a reason I'm sure many of you could guess (though, of course, it has been rarely addressed in the mainstream media): the echoes of earlier conflicts between black men and white women, and the complete invisibility of black women as a part of the political discourse on the issue.

As we know, much of the white suffragist leadership after the Civil War actively opposed the grant of the vote to the black freedmen under the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in crudely racist terms, appealing to white men's sense of race loyalty and white supremacy in an effort to win the vote for themselves instead of the recently freed black man. As Susan B. Anthony wrote about the issue:

While the dominant party have with one hand lifted up TWO MILLION BLACK MEN and crowned them with the honor and dignity of citizenship with the other they have
dethroned FIFTEEN MILLION WHITE WOMEN - their own mothers and sisters, their own wives and daughters - and cast them under the heel of the lowest orders of

Elizabeth Cady Stanton warned white men that giving black men the vote instead of "their own mothers and sisters, wives and daughters," would "culminate in fearful outrages on [white] womanhood, especially in the southern states."

Though both Anthony and Stanton had been ardent abolitionists, their opposition to slavery had less to do with a belief in the equality of the races than in the idea that the inhumanity of slavery was not only cruel to blacks, but debasing to otherwise superior whites (just as many "liberal" whites today support affirmative action only to the degree which it provides "diverse" experiences for white students and workers--the primary wrong redressed must always be the threat imposed to the interests of whites). While they did not believe blacks should be slaves, though also did not believe that blacks should have the same rights and social status as whites--which is why, unlike black feminists like Frances Ellen Harper, they did not advocate suffrage for all (including all male and female citizens), but rather, suffrage for white women instead of black men.

Today, Gloria Steinam complains of a similar perceived relative advantaging of black men at the expense of white women as reflected in the Clinton vs. Obama race, asserting in a recent New York Times op-ed:

Black men were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were
allowed to mark a ballot, and generally have ascended to positions of power,
from the military to the boardroom, before any women (with the possible
exception of obedient family members in the latter).

While many black men seem certain that it is black women who are their traitorous enemies, they are strangely forgiving of white women, who have a long and continuing history of appealing to white men's basest instincts in an effort to maintain a relative advantage over black men--even if it means remaining in an inferior position to white men. In a similar fashion, many black men who seem perfectly comfortable seeing white male and white female CEOs and millionaires grumble incessently about Oprah, and reject any positive claim about black female achievement--while seemingly comfortable with material and social inferiority to any and all whites, they are outraged by black women's attempts to achieve greater wealth, education, and power, seeing any upward movement on our part as somehow being at their expense.

What the two groups share, as always, is their comfort with the invisibility of black women as anything other than as props or as silent, mulish support for their interests. We are not presumed to have interests of our own, separate and distinct from either group's, and our proper role appears to be simply laboring silently on behalf of the "struggles" of whoever chooses to claim us when convenient. If either Hilary or Barack has considered crafting a special message to appeal to black women in order to win our votes, I have yet to hear it--both seem to assume that we "belong" to them, and are only roused from their black woman-induced slumber if it appears there is a revolt in the ranks--in which case they are properly outraged by our "betrayal."

Well guess what: I am a black woman. I believe in equality for all, but I unapologetically advocate for the interests of myself and my sisters first and foremost: I don't "owe" black men or white women my support. I want to see more black women in the professions, in higher education, in positions of political power and business influence. I am concerned about our physical and mental health, and about the special challenges we face as mothers. I am outraged by our exclusion from public visibility, from the political theater to the beauty industry. And nobody gets my support for free. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum sisters, make sure that your support comes with a price. We must properly value ourselves before we expect the same from others--even our supposed "natural allies."