Black, white and seeing red all over.
The brotha is dreadlocked, brown and beautiful. The woman is attractive, shapely and sporting a geelee head wrap. I have seen black men with white women in my neighborhood so often recently that I no longer have to have that embarrassing internal conversation with myself: the one that says I am being racist, petty and insecure when I become upset over a brotha's choice to be with a white woman. I am struggling to be more accepting of each person's right to choose whom they love. I am trying to not take personally any brotha's decision to sleep with, date or marry a white woman, so I keep walking, and I force myself not to throw any glances that may be interpreted as disrespectful. But then, as we pass each other, the woman's eyes meet mine, and in hers I believe I see a look of defiance, boastfulness almost. The brotha shifts his head so that he can avoid our making eye contact. Suddenly I am angry. There are no words, no internal dialogue that can quell my feeling of betrayal.
I do not want to be diagnosed with Angry Black Woman Syndrome, so I check and question myself. Is it my own fear of ending up alone, without a mate who truly appreciates and understands me? Is my own sense of worth and beauty threaten by the thought that black men who date white women have opted for a physicality that is impossible for me to realize, and, in doing so, have rejected me at my core, my very essence? Do I simply need something to blame for the fact that I haven't been in a serious relationship for some years now? I vacillate between answering "yes" and "no" to each, check to see which response feels more like the truth and gets me closer to understanding. But I only find more questions. Now I ask, why are my ill feelings specific to black men with white women? I am not faced with the same uneasiness when I see brothas with Latinas, Asian, or East Indian women. Then again, the history between our people is different. My ancestors were systematically stolen and enslaved by white forefathers and foremothers--a legacy that, no matter how much we want to disregard it, is still reaping a stunted harvest. But I'm determined not to be a slave to this history, so I tell myself this hostility I have towards black men dating white women is irrational.
The truth is every important man in my life, from my father to my oldest brother to both of my deceased grandfathers, has devoted his life to building a strong, enduring, supportive relationship with the black woman who is or was his wife. I develop a list of affirmations for whenever I fall prey to the ugly, hurtful belief that black women have been abandoned. My invocations go something like this:
** I will not let someone else's choice define how I feel about myself.
** I will judge people based on their actions not their appearances.
** White women are not my enemy; oppression, racism, sexism and classism are.
** There are good brothas, kind brothas, culturally aware brothas, loving brothas in abundance, all around me everyday, who cherish and value black women, and could never imagine their lives without us by their sides.
Coveting the Other
My cousin Jamie is the closet thing I have to a sister and she knows ever secret about me that I would ever draw breath to repeat.
Jamie has her father's face and beautiful singing voice but got her straight, light-brown hair, fair skin and hazel-green eyes from her mother, who is white. When we were little, people never believed Jamie and I were related. "Are y'all jus' play cousins?" or "How come y'all don't look nothin' alike?" were the questions newly acquainted friends and even their parents felt compelled to ask us. As teenagers, Jamie was easy-going and popular while I was sharp-tongued and more aloof. New acquaintances, men in particular, always gravitated more readily towards Jamie. A large part of their attraction had to do with her personality; she is one of the most endearing people I have ever known. But there was another reason: an unspoken reason we didn't know how to name as children or teenagers. There was a high value placed on Jamie's long hair, fair skin and light eyes, and there were people who wanted to be close to her for no other reason. Still, there were others who disliked her for no other reason.
Being close to my cousin often gives me an uncomfortable view of racial dynamics that most folks only speak of in the abstract. But it would take years for me to realize that our friendship and kinship was the genesis of my internal battle against black folks' coveting of "the Other."
That realization comes one year when Jamie visits New York to celebrate New Year's. One evening during her stay we are visiting Charles*, a man I've been dating. Tony, a mutual friend of ours, is also there. We are having a wonderful time listening to music and drinking wine when Charles starts teasing me about a guy who at a club the night before planted himself in a seat at our table when Charles went to the bathroom and all but refused to get up when he came back.
I remind him of another time. "Remember when we were at that club and that white woman came and stood in front of our table? She started dancing by herself and throwing kisses at you. She saw me sitting right there; she saw me looking at her like she was crazy, but she just kept on going."
We all laugh and shake our heads in disbelief. But I am not content to just compare notes with Charles about whose admirer was craziest. I begin making blanketed commentary about white women. "They are a trip," I continue. "Why are they so blatantly sleazy when they're going after men?"
I do not notice at first, but Jamie has become quiet. I go on to make some other less-than-complimentary remarks. When my cousin can no longer bear my comments she angrily snaps, "Shawn, stop dogging white women! You know, my mother just happens to be white."
My eyes fall upon her face, and despite her venomous tone I see only hurt. "Sorry," I say, knowing my apology is inadequate. I realize I have hurt my cousin in a way that I would not have intended at my angriest moment.
At home later, I remember an essay Lisa Jones, daughter of Amiri Baraka, wrote in Bullet Proof Diva, her book of personal and political essays on race and culture in America. Jones, whose mother is also white, tells of her own less-than-stellar feelings about brothas who pass over sistas in favor of white women. But she also writes that she fiercely loves her own white, Jewish mother, and that if one particular black man had not lain down with one particular white woman she herself would never have been born. I think long and hard on that statement, and I realize it rings true in the case of my own cousin and best friend--someone I could never imagine not having in my life.
It is July 1999 and I am preparing to move to New Orleans. The unyielding pace and expense of New York City, coupled with a severe case of writer's block and restlessness are causing me to flee southward. While packing, I browse through some photos and I come across some of me on vacation with a former boyfriend. Usually these pictures fill me with a small sense of regret and longing, but this day it dawns on me that my fear of being perpetually single had subsided. Though I still want a partner, a husband, a man with whom to raise a family, I no longer wondered what I will do if this scenario does not become manifest. I know I will build a fulfilling existence. I find peace in this awareness.
I keep looking through the pictures and come across one of Jamie at her graduation dinner. She is tipsy, her eyes narrowed into small slits. It is a telltale trait of inebriation we both inherited from our fathers. I think about how often Jamie and I have visited each other in L.A. and New York, and I realize a chapter in my life is closing. I have grown at least a little. I rarely have a visceral reaction when I see black men with white women, and that is something for which I can thank my cousin. I am not sure when this particular union stopped feeling so threatening, but now I can actually say "people need to be with the folks who make them happiest," and not strain under the weight of my own politically correct assertion. I can truly believe it ... most of the time. But I also know, even though I no longer feel like marriage is the ultimate prize, I want to be someplace where I can possibly meet a brotha with whom I can build a life.
As fate would have it my first week in New Orleans I meet Franklin*. We are both writers, both new to the city, and we each have eclectic taste in music. Neither one of us is anxious to acknowledge an interest beyond friendship, however. He is a bit cautious, and I sense it is probably because there is someone in his life. My suspicions are confirmed when I meet his girlfriend, who is visiting from out of town. I am somewhat surprised to discover she is white, but I am relieved when my feelings do not linger past our initial introduction.
Over the next few weeks Franklin and I meet for coffee, go to poetry readings, play pool, and take in movies. We talk late into the night, sharing our struggles to find our voices as writers. I tell him about the challenges of being a single, 30-something woman. He divulges that having made the choice to date a white woman there have been uneasy moments when people's judgments have intruded upon the sanctity and peace of their relationship; moments when he has felt the stress of their obvious cultural differences. But he says he long ago learned not to let other people's expectations dictate his choices.
Over drinks one night, it becomes obvious neither Franklin nor I really want to remain strictly platonic. "Long distance monogamy is just not very realistic," he tells me in a confessional tone.
"Yeah, I hear you, but I don't want to be the thing you do until the real thing gets here," I admit. What I don't say is that more than being concerned with whether I might be entering a relationship with a man who eventually will have to choose between me and another woman, I am concerned that this other woman is white.
I silently ask myself if he is dating a white woman because he has issues with black women or because he just happens to be attracted to this particular woman. But I feel it is impossible to respectfully ask a man with whom I ultimately wish to be intimate whether he has racial identity issues. I also am clear that few folks struggling with these identity issues are able or willing to give voice to that fact, so I bite my tongue.
I decide to observe his actions instead, reasoning they will provide a more accurate answer. Franklin and I begin dating and we agree to see where it takes us, but several weeks into our involvement he tells me the guilt of juggling two relationships is becoming overwhelming and complicated.
"I didn't expect to develop such strong feelings for you so quickly, and I can't let myself go there because I already have someone in my life."
I am disappointed and upset. While I shoulder much of the blame for getting involved with a man who is already in a relationship I can't help but feel betrayed. I am angry he has chosen a white woman instead of me, but I never speak this out loud. How can I reveal such an ugly, antiquated insecurity?
A Song of Love, Taboo and Stereotypes
Back when I was a child, "Brother Louie," a tune about an interracial love affair, was one of my favorite songs. I appreciated the defiant image it painted of two people refusing to let a societal taboo regulate their capacity to love, nurture and claim one another. I remember seeing hope in that powerfully subversive image. Why do I no longer embrace such feelings whenever I come across a black man who has chosen to break the taboo, I ask myself? I wish I could be that little girl again: the one who saw hope in the type of relationship I now struggle not to resent. But I cannot be her again. My feelings about black men dating white women are forever colored by the existence of a racial and sexual caste system that views black women as ball-breakers who are less-than-feminine, while white women are seen accommodating and physically desirable.
I wisely know women, black or white, cannot be reduced to such derogatory stereotypes. But I also know these stereotypes hold power, and they have been bantered about so often people embrace them as truths. Some have used them as easy excuses for their complex choices, while others, like me, have felt rejected and sometimes find themselves questioning their own worth.
This epiphany strikes me at my core. Despite a healthy ego, part of my self-worth is inextricably linked to a desire to be loved, needed and cherished by black men. It is an innate want that I feel as strongly as instinct. But I am not an animal mating for the sole purpose of procreation. I am a woman--a black woman--who must separate the individual from the stereotype, the truth from the assumed, and I must find myself amid these contradictions. I must be willing to ask myself the hard question: by what am I motivated, fear or love?
I do not know if I will ever be totally free of this demon. I only know I wish to be free enough to love who I love, and secure enough to accept someone else's choice if they decide not to love me.
* Name has been changed.
Shawn E. Rhea is a health journalist and creative writer. Other versions of this essay have appeared in Sometimes Rhythm, Sometimes Blues (Seal Press) and When Race Becomes Real (Chicago Review Press).
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|Author:||Rhea, Shawn E.|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2004|
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