Thursday, December 24, 2009

Black women and white men

by Thaddeus
A recent trip to the U.S. really brought home the bi-racial dating issue to me. On our last three voyages to the U.S., Ana and I've noticed quite a few bi-racial couples, but always and without exception white women with black men. On this trip, we had a 24 hour layover in Atlanta and went out to see the city. Returning via MARTA to the airport after a long day, I leaned up against Ana, laying my head on her shoulder and closing my eyes. 10 minutes later, when I opened them again, the entire car was scowling at us.

It freaked Ana out more than me, to be sure. And what really freaked her out was the fact that all the passengers were black: "It was as if I was betraying the race," she said. "And yet I never see those kind of looks directed against black men - white women couples. What, because I'm a woman I can't sleep outside the race? Is that the deal here?"

Ironically enough, I'd just bought a library's worth of books about miscegenation, black women and interracial relationships in the U.S., so I've been reading up on this topic. Furthermore, Ana's recent line of research at USP ("What is it about Brazilian women?") touches on this point as does my on-going work with prostitutes and clients on Copacabana.

To put it simply, many authors have noted that one of the main differences between the Brazilian and American flavors of race relations is that heterochromatic relationships have traditionally encountered more (though far from total) acceptance in Brazil. This has led many Brazilians to conclude that Brazil is "less racist than the U.S". Meanwhile, Americans - and especially Black Americans - often feel that Brazilian tolerance of heterochromatic sex and marriage is, in fact, an expression of deepset and unchallenged white supremacist values. One can easily see these positions illustrated when one looks at both countries' literature, cinema and T.V. programing. Regarding sex between white men and black women, almost every single pop source I've ever seen in the U.S. situates these in a context of rape or extreme sexual exploitation. Meanwhile, Brazilian pop sources generally understand the same thing to be an expression of love which radically transcends the social limitations imposed by racism.

My view of the subject has yet to jell, but I feel I know enough to conclusively reject both the common American and Brazilian views regarding sex between black women/white men to be so much myth-making bullshit. Obviously, unequal power relations in both countries during and after slavery created massive opportunities for sexual exploitation and violence and just as obviously, the history of sexual and affective relations between black women and white men cannot be reduced to an unending sequence of rape and prostitution.

I`ve just finished reading J.W. Cash`s The Mind of the South (1940) and have found his views on the south's "rape complex" to be very illuminating and I can't help but wonder if this doesn't somehow play into current American views on sex between black women and white men. Basically, Cash takes a look at the claims and counterclaims regarding supposed black rape of white women in the south (remember that he was writing in 1940). While basically believing that such rapes were very few in number, Cash artfully sidesteps the whole issue by focusing on another point entirely. According to Cash, though "the actual danger [of black on white rape] was small,  it was nevertheless the most natural thing in the world for the [white] South to see it as very great, to believe in it, fully and in all honesty, as a menace requiring the most desperate measures if it was to be held off". This because, again according to Cash, the idea of virginal, pure, white southern womanhood was central to the notion of southern identity and "with this in view, it is obvious that the assault on the South would be felt as, in some true sense, an assault on her also."

We strike back to the fact that this Southern woman's place in the Southern mind proceeded primarily from the natural tendency of the great basic pattern of pride in superiority of race to center upon her as the perpetuator of that superiority in legitimate line, and attached itself precisely, and before everything else, to her enormous remoteness from the males of the inferior group, to the absolute taboo on any sexual approach to her by the Negro.... If it was given to the black to advance at all, who could say (once more the logic of the doctrine of his inherent inferiority would not hold) that he would not one day advance the whole way and  lay claim to complete equality, including, specifically, the ever crucial right of marriage?
What the Southerners felt, therefore, was that any assertion of any kind on the part of the Negro constituted in a perfectly real manner an attack on the Southern woman. What they saw, more or less consciously, in the condition of Reconstruction was a passage for her as degrading, in their view, as rape itself. And a condition, moreover, which logic or no logic, they infallibly thought of as being as absolutely forced upon her as rape, and hence a condition for which the  term "rape" stood as truly as  for the de facto deed. (Cash, 1940: 116)
Now, what I'm wondering is if something like this isn't what's currently operating in the U.S. today when we turn to black women and white men dating.

I do not wish to claim that Black American notions of peoplehood are simply a rerun (or a photo negative) of Southern White notions of the same: there are obviously many differences. However, it seems to me that there are certain general continuities between the two which might usefully illustrate the topic at hand. First and foremost, Black Americans' notions of identity are generally American concepts and by this I mean that Black Americans have not escaped from belief in  blood, heritage and purity which have traditionally informed American notions of self and Other. More importantly, it seems to me that Black Americans have deeply imbibed from the well of American belief in exceptionalism and manifest destiny.

In short, like their Southern White cousins, Black Americans have a tendency to see themselves as a people marked by an essentially homogenous past and set of experiences which transcend class, region and even history. Furthermore, this sense of "peopleness" is characterized by a belief in the blood transmission of said identity. Finally, like Americans in general, Black Americans tend to believe that, as a people, they have a  special relationship to God or Destiny - that they are a chosen people, in other words.

(I should take a moment here to point out the obvious: I am speaking in generalizing terms here, creating ideal types which might help us to discuss large-scale social phenomena. I am most emphatically not saying that everyone of such and such a type or nationality or whatever behaves in such and sort a way. I'm talking here about patterns and trends, not determinist laws. What I think we can say is that when you see a theme repeated a gazillion times in T.V. sitcoms, paperback romances, or on Oprah, one can say that it's a theme that has a certain impact on a given society, whether or not every single individual within said society agrees with it.)

Given all this, it seems to me that one of the things that makes black women's relationships with white men a relatively taboo subject in the U.S. is this abiding belief in Woman as the Mother of the Race, a belief whose ultimate matrix is precisely that southern enobling of womanhood as the centerpoint of racial identity that Cash talks about. Now, as far as this goes, this isn't such a peculiar thing: many anthropologists, after all, have pointed out that women are understood to be the "womb of the people" the world over. However, it seems to me that what gives this question a particular vehemence in the U.S. is the generalized American belief in themselves as an expansionist people with a particular covenant with God. In this sort of situation, marrying or dating outside of one's race can never be seen as a personal choice, but as an act which materially decreases the possibility that God's People will finally encounter salvation through the creation of heaven on Earth.


  1. I am an American black woman and I really never thought about black female/white male relationships in that way. Thanks for opening my mind to that aspect. I think I've been thinking that way without realizing it.

    I agree with you in your conclusion that dating outside my race is not seen as a personal decision. I've recently been considering doing exactly that, but I always hesitate because I come back to thinking.... "I want black children who will carry on my legacy and be successful." The mean looks and things bother me but they aren't what ultimately prevents me from taking the leap.

    I feel it is my responsibility because I am educated, middle-class that I need to have black children like me to continue on.. almost to lift up my race or something since most of us aren't highly educated and middle-upper class.

    So far I've come to this...find a black guy who can match me and build that legacy, or marry outside my race and adopt some black kids alongside my interracial ones. lol

  2. Thanks for your comments, Michelle.

    Well, given the way American racism works, your kids are going to be black whoever you marry. The key, I would think, is to marry some guy who's cool with that. Unfortunately, not many white guys are.

    Personally, I'm going to tell my kids that they should be careful of ever letting anyone stick them in an identity box and they should be doubly careful when people are doing that to dismiss them as relevant - whatever those peoples' color is.

    But hell, there's no reason why you can't raise black kids with a white partner. I know plenty of people who are doing it.

    What burns me is a situation Ana went through in DC awhile back. She says she's going to be writing about it on the blog next week, so I'll shut up for now and let her speak for herself...


  3. I'm mixed race, black, native american and welsh on my mom's side and german on my dad's and my exhusband was white. The only comment made to me about race when I first started dating my exhusband was by my maternal uncle, something along the lines of you know he's not going to marry you? He'll never be promoted with a black wife.

    Outside of that, we honeymooned in Myrtle Beach and visited his family in South Carolina. No nasty looks or remarks that I can remember. Everyone was great and I really liked the area and people. This was also in 1987 and looking back at that time period I guess it was remarkable that no one said anything or gave nasty looks. I don't know. I do know that when my sister and her then boyfriend went to the same area she told me they had some nasty looks from people in a restaurant they went to. Her boyfriend(now husband) is white also. They got looks from both sides and even a few remarks.

    I always wondered why they would get remarks and looks and we didn't.

    As a funny(and sad) aside, when my grandparents married and moved to the family farm in North Carolina at least once a month for almost a year the white members of the local church would descend on the farm whenever my grandfather was gone and virtually kidnap my grandmother (she was welsh and indian, so looked white)and try to convince her that she should not be with a black man. They were convinced that she was being abused and held against her will and they were rescuing her.


  4. Thaddeus says...

    Wow! Unreal, MArci. What decade was that story of your grandparents?

  5. Believe it or not, this was sometime during the 50's, from what my grandmom has said. I don't remember the name of the town but always thought of it as Lennon's Corner (it is supposed to be aroung Greensville, but since I haven't been back to the area since I was in my late teens I don't remember)as family members says there are the white Lennons and the black Lennons and never the twain shall meet even if they share the same blood somewhere along the line.

    Sorry to use the anonymous tag as I don't have a blog


  6. Definitely not John Lennon's corner...

  7. I agree WHOLEHEARTEDLY with Michelle (the 1st post). I want to stop thinking that way though. I'd like to just love, and not see the colour of their skin as an issue.Its... going to take me time but either way there will be some black children in my

  8. It's interesting that the reactions to this post are about the racial element rather than the American element.

    Reading it reminded me of a heated discussion in Wikipedia regarding some racism-related word (I forget which, sorry!) where, amongst all sorts of people, there was a black American guy who seemed to specialize in flying off the handle and was chastised by an African woman for seeing his experience of being black as standing in for the general experience of life of black people everywhere.

    In other words, he was monopolizing the world-view (with all the attendant socioeconomical connotations of the word…!).

    Like you say, no point lazily generalizing from individual incidents, but it smacked of something familiar.

    I came to live in the UK twenty three years ago. And for some reason it was very noticeable how you only ever saw black guys and white girls but never the reverse.

    Then in the late 90s things changed. My personal subjective sense of why and when it changed was the aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence enquiry where the notion of 'institutional racism' entered the phrase-book, and it seemed to lance the boil of entrenched racial tensions and resentments.

    It might have been a coincidence but the change was very noticeable, at least to the eyes of a stranger in a strange land like myself.

    Of course, the situation in Britain is completely different to the US or Brazil. But it was noteworthy nonetheless.

    At the risk of more stereotyping I'd also throw out the notion that for a guy it's generally easier to enter into a superficial take-or-leave-it relationship than for a woman. So it would usually be easier for a black guy to date a white woman anyway.

  9. Hi there,

    I'm commenting here because I couldn't find an email address and because of the irony of the title of this post. :-)

    Sorry if this sounds weird--did you email me today (Thad, not Ana)? If not, someone is...maybe not sock-puppeting you, but leading me to believe that s/he is you. (Impersonating? I don't know the Internet lingo for that.) I just wanted to let you know.

  10. Thanks, Jasmin!

    No, I did not e-mail you on the third. If you're willing, please post the message sent here. I'd love to see it.

  11. Hello, I'm phoebeprunelle. I post over at Abagond and came to your blog that way.

    My husband and i talk about this all the time. We are a black/black couple, lol, but people in both our respective families are either already in interracial marriages or are currently on their way. Most of these relationships are black man/white woman and only one--my sister in law--is that of a black woman/white man.

    I did notice that when my brother in laws chose their wives--no one batted an eye. My sister-in-law was another story. She received a lot of flack, especially from her three brothers who are married to white women.

    Now, i don't know if this is the reverse thinking of the antebellum south now being projected on to black womanhood. In fact, i seriously doubt it. My observation is that people--including black people--in the U.S. believe that black women are not good enough. So it is quite shocking to see a young black woman partnered up with any man be he white or black! When i am out with my husband, i get stares from ALL kinds of people, and we are not an IR marriage. How dare these black women --the most hideous, unintelligent women-- demand to be respected and cherished by the man she sleeps with. How dare she want a stable committment and to raise children in a traditional way. Although many never articulate it this way, i am one to believe that deep down this is what is felt.