(Part 3 of 3)
I remember the first time I heard about Michele Wallace and her book Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman. It amazed me how Wallace simultaneously managed to thrill and enrage so many people with her words. Wallace published “Black Macho” when she was 27. At the time, she was brilliant, gorgeous, unapologetically black, and dumbfounded by the state of feminist and racial politics in America. Among a host of other topics, Wallace discussed the hypervisibility of black male/white female relationships in her hometown of Harlem. Wallace questioned this phenomenon, particularly as it occurred at the height of the black power movement in 1967.
“That same fall [after the 1967 Detroit riots] the streets of New York witnessed the grand coming-out of black male/white female couples. Frankly, I found this confusing. I was enough of a slave to white liberal fashions to believe that two people who wanted each other had a right to each other, but what was this all about? It all seemed strangely inappropriate, poorly timed. In ‘67, black was angry, anywhere from vaguely to militantly anti-white; black was sexy and had unlimited potential. What did the black man want with a white woman now?
In 2016, we’re witnessing a similar dynamic. We are on the precipice of a social revolution in the United States. Black folks are fed up, rallying the call of #BlackLivesMatter at protests all over this nation. However, I can’t walk down the streets of Madison, the self-proclaimed liberal haven of the Midwest, without tripping over black male/white female couples.
I feel compelled to give the disclaimer that I am not opposed to interracial dating. My friends in high school and college would poke fun at me often for my ability to “taste the rainbow.” I’ve dated and been in relationships with several folks from a myriad of backgrounds. However, similar to Wallace, I raise an eyebrow when certain justifications, fundamentally rooted in racism, are given to justify a preference for one race over another.
“The thing that convinced me that this situation had a broader meaning was the amazing way people were taking it. Some white women were quite blunt: They wanted [black men sexually].” Wallace continued, “Black men often could not separate their interest in white women from their hostility toward black women. ‘I can’t stand that black b*tch,’ was the way it was usually put. Other black men argued that white women gave them money, didn’t put them down, made them feel like men.”
Michele, I feel you. And a lot of my sistas in Madison still feel you, too.
The Black women that I spoke with give evidence that Wallace’s analysis is still valid. Black women in Madison exhibit an unrelenting loyalty to Black men in dating and relationships; even though that devotion is not always reciprocated. April Kumapayi grew up in Sun Prairie and had her fair share of options for non-Black men in that community, but she did not develop any authentic connections with them.
“I’ve tried [interracial dating], but I don’t tend to find other races attractive enough to want to date them. I’m open to it, but they are just not interesting enough for me.”
Sabrina Madison, a champion for Black love and relationships, also has love for the brothers. “When I see brothers, I see all this goodness, all this potential, and we connect.”
There are a few Black women, like Kira Stewart, who are open to dating non-Black men. During our conversation, she lightheartedly added, “I like men who like me. The United Nations has come in and out of my private life. I have dated Spanish men, Europeans. I don’t have a preference.”
However, Stewart takes a more serious tone when it comes to the motivations men of other races may have when pursuing Black women. “I am wary of the intention. Are you genuinely interested in me or do you have jungle fever? Am I exotic? Is it something for you to check off? That’s happened to me, I’ve been that person. And you can’t be in a relationship or a partnership with somebody if you are suspicious.”
For the Black women that I spoke with, it is imperative that non-Black men have a degree of social consciousness in relationships. One participant added, “I feel like I’m neurotic when I’m dating, especially white men because I need to know the stuff. Within the first or second date, I ask, ‘have you taken the implicit association test?’”
Given what Black women endure by nature of existing in this country, it is perfectly reasonable for us to want our partners to provide respite from it all. Angela Fitzgerald sums up the sentiment. “Bottom line: [my non-Black partner would have to] understand the day to day of what it feels like to be a black woman in this country. I would hate to have to deal with the world then come home and further have to explain why something feels taxing for me or draining for me.”
Black women in Madison know that Black men date non-Black women. We get it. Interracial dating in and of itself is not the issue for most of the women I interviewed. However, when brothers use their relationships with non-Black women to demean or shame Black women, conflict arises. Kumapayi finds it frustrating when brothers gloat about their relationships with non-Black women. “You can like whoever you want, but don’t brag about dating someone of a different race. What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to fight with someone of a different race over you to get you? I’m not going to do that.”
Shannon Hintz, 19, a Madison native and the youngest woman I spoke to, noticed some of her Black male peers exclusively seek out a specific type of woman. She believes the dynamics of relationships in the city itself, as well as mainstream media stereotypes, play a role in who these men value for their dating options. “Men who grew up here go to school or were raised in communities that are predominantly white. Maybe they see [interracial dating] on TV or maybe they grow up with a white mom and a Black dad, and they don’t see anything else, and they don’t tend to date their own race. Maybe they don’t feel as connected.”
After a few years of dating in Madison, some Black women begin to feel undesired. The mainstream media and the hypervisibility of relationships between Black men and non-Black women in Madison compound these feelings. One participant added, “When I go out with my white girlfriends, they are hit on all the time. Maybe I have my guard up, but it’s just different.” Eventually, consistently feeling less than starts to wear on your spirit and makes it difficult for some Black women to allow for trust and vulnerability in new relationships. Another participant bravely shared, “My challenge is that I fundamentally believe that I am not desirable, and that is messed up…society tells us we are not beautiful enough if we are not this skinny, blonde, tall person. We are too loud, we are too much, so we try to contain ourselves. So when someone says that they actually like me I’m like ‘let me sit for a moment because I don’t really know what that means.’”
To my sistas, I leave you with a few words from another Michelle, First Lady Mrs. Obama, from her 2015 commencement speech at Tuskegee. In the speech, Obama addressed the racist caricatures and remarks hurled at her before and during President Obama’s tenure. Initially, she fretted, but eventually, she found the answer to dealing with her haters. “I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out.”
We are, and always have been, enough.