A few weeks ago, on my lunchbreak at work, I posted up on a vacant stool at the dollar slice place down the street from my office and began munching on a garlic and red peppersprinkled cheese slice. A few bites in, I heard a voice next to me say, ‘you work at that publishing office right?’ I pivoted slightly on my stool, recognizing the guy speaking to me as a subtenant in one the rental spaces my office leases out. I was a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t recognized him sitting right next to me, but we chatted briefly as we finished up our pizza. Oddly, our short conversation centered on southern fundamentalist evangelism, despite neither of us (presumably) subscribing to that particular brand of belief. Still, it was a pleasant and humorous exchange, after which we casually departed and I headed back to work.
Since then, I’ve bumped into this same guy around the office a couple of times and it has seemed like he’s been locking me in these awkwardly prolonged conversations. At first I dismissed it as that sort of uncomfortably extended small talk in which so many people inexplicably feel obliged to engage. Now, however, I’m beginning to think this may be something else… dare I say it, flirting.
I’m a 22-year-old woman, so the concept isn’t exactly foreign to me. What is foreign to me however is the skin color of my partner in these flirtations – he’s a white guy. In order to put the peculiarity of that detail in context, I must confess that I am Black.
As a Black woman, not only have I never dated a white guy but, admittedly, I tend to have a rather entrenched policy against dating them. That decision has a lot to do with how I understand my identity as a Black woman. For one, I am not one of those Black people who ever selfidentifies as one who just happens to be Black. That’s a thoughtless description tossed around a lot, which implicitly translates to ‘I’m Black by happenstance. I distance myself from what is conventionally (read, negatively) understood as Black. Everything I do, I do not as a Black person, but as an individual. I can and do happily blend in with the norm.’ Now we all know that whiteness predominates what defines the norm in our society. So when people elect to describe themselves as folks who ‘just happen to be black,’ it’s a deliberate signal to society that they are Black only to the extent that the have to be (visibly). They are saying that their Blackness is not the sort that rocks the boat — that in fact, their identity could be readily swiped with any other random (read white) person’s in the world. In so doing, these folks, however unintentionally, are diminishing the value of their Blackness.
To be clear, I am not one of those people.
My Black identity is affirmative and willful, and traces, if not big ass messy footprints of my Black identity can be found in just about everything I say and do.
This pro-Black lifestyle, as my mother calls it (a gross oversimplification to be sure), is really just my embrace of, and clear reckoning with, the reality that the life I’ve lived has been one colored with experience based on the color of my skin and the kinkiness of my hair. But this rather obvious fact tends to be off-putting to many white people, and tends not to be particularly alluring to white men interested in stepping outside of the color box when it comes to dating. Rather irrationally I would judge, it’s perceived as a confrontation when most white people I encounter are reminded of racial difference between themselves and others. They get really defensive. I would imagine the defensiveness and resentment to be especially acute in a space as intimate as dating, wherein people ideally expect to be able to strip themselves of all identity tags and simply exist as souls in love. But I believe that no one at any time in their life is ever not who they are. And the choice to ignore a difference as obvious and magnificently unique as one’s racial/ethnic background constitutes an investment in the blindness that privilege conditions in white people.
My policy against dating white men exists in part because I’m not in the business of coddling privilege. Rather, I’m in the business of unsettling privilege – of waking it up in the middle of the night by dumping a bucket of water on it, and telling it to run five miles before dawn. That business also entails checking my own privileges. In my mind, that means that the hypothetical relationship I imagine between myself and a white man wouldn’t go very far. I would be compelled to hold this man accountable to recognizing his white male privilege, while he would likely resist the discomfort of learning that his actions and words reinforce pernicious systems of oppression which oppress masses of people everywhere. So I err towards circumventing the tension by writing the possibility of dating white men out of the realm of possibility altogether.
Personally, I have also had trouble imagining intimate relationships with white men. This is because the history of oppression, exploitation, and dehumanization of Black women’s bodies by white men is searingly painful and enraging for me. Too often, vestiges of that uneven historical relationship are present in my mind and invariably color my observations of contemporary black woman/white man interactions. I don’t necessarily feel that Black women in these situations are disempowered to the extent that say, an enslaved woman was, but I do imagine that their white partner’s unconsciously conditioned expectations of privilege compromises their own free exercise of will on some level in their relationship. And that’s not fair. Beyond simply not being fair, curbing someone’s exercise of human agency, whether intentional or not, is in my book is a small form of violence. Challenging that unfairness and that violence is hard as the person affected by it. It is made a thousand times more difficult and unfair when one is burdened with the charge to challenge their partner – a partner obliviously exacting that restraint as a result of their privilege. I don’t pretend that on the whole, racialized inequality in relationships goes uncontested by the black women affected, but I know that a thorough understanding of privilege evades more people than it should, so I can assume that inequality in relationships persists more often than it is addressed. Because I’d rather spare myself the complicated confusion of loving someone who oppresses me, (an oppression compounded by race and gender inequality) and the headache induced by hitting fortified walls of privilege when attempting to challenge that oppression, I steer clear of white men as romantic partners.
My outlook may not be particularly fair to individuals. For the subtenant guy from my office, it may suck a little bit that I’m not particularly responsive to his woos. He’s a conventionally attractive white man who seems cool, and I think hanging out with him platonically would be fun. However, I’m more interested in protecting myself, and preserving the integrity of my personal politics than I am in indulging this man in his arbitrarily piqued interest in me. My singular rejection of this guy is just one loss for him in the arsenal of many wins afforded him at birth for no reason other than the fact that he was born a white guy. His expectation of universal access to all colors of women is just another of his privileges that I, in this instance, am disrupting. And it doesn’t bother me that I am the one doling out that one minor upset.
Written by Kristen Maye