With Interracial Relationships, We’re Down for the Swirl When it’s Good for the Black Girl

Black men are far more likely than black women to marry outside of the race – and more likely to get married period. Is it time for black women to expand their search for love?

interracial relationships

More than a decade ago, I was having dinner with a dear friend who is white. We were talking about our hopes for our eldest children, including dreaming about their perfect mates. “I hope my son finds a nice black girl who really wants something in life and who shares his interests,” I began. But she stopped me.

“Wait a minute. What if he finds the perfect girl, but she’s not black?” I gulped, then gave her my honest opinion. “Of course, I’d accept whoever he chose to marry if they were a good match,” I said. “But all things equal, I rather his mate – male, female, Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist – be black.”

“That’s interesting,” she said, miffed. “I would be honored if my daughter married outside of her race.” I’ve thought about that conversation a million times since. Why was I – a progressive, reasonably tolerant supporter of diversity – balking at the thought of my son (in particular) having an interracial marriage?

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It would be a long time before I got to the bottom of my feelings. The truth was that my white friend never worried about whether her children hated themselves because they were white. But self-hatred has been my constant concern since the day my children were born, and I tried to do everything as a parent to reinforce their racial self-esteem. If my firstborn “married out,” I would always wonder whether, despite our efforts, he still managed to internalize racism against his own.

It’s long been true among people of color in the United States, especially men, that the brass ring was the busty blonde. The examples are legions of black men parading white women on their arms as they “step up” in this nation’s insidious racial and social hierarchy. The same has not been true for black women, who are devalued by white standards and have historically lacked any real opportunities to marry out.

Near the beginning of the last decade, Pew Research Center found that 22% of all black male newlyweds in 2008 married outside their race, compared with just 9% of black female newlyweds. Among Asians, the pattern runs the other way. About 40% of Asian female newlyweds married outside their race in 2008, compared with just 20% of Asian male newlyweds. It’s hard to determine who is at the bottom of the marriage scale, black women or Asian men.

And so, we entered the last decade in a bit of a quandary for the race. If black men were not choosing black women as their mates, and men of other races did not find them attractive, where did that leave black women? In the lurch, that’s where. 

Even as I embraced diversity in all other aspects of life, interracial relationships didn’t seem to further the cause of racial equality. Instead, the one-way direction of interracial marriage – black men marrying white women – reinforced the racial stereotype of the undesirable black female. As a black mother, I worried that my son would marry out, and my daughter would never marry at all.

In her 2018 book, Interracial Relationships Between Black Women and White Men, Northwestern University sociologist Cheryl Y. Judice urges black women to actively consider intermarriage. “I have a message to black women,” she told PBS Chicago last year. “Please do not limit your search to only eligible black men. Be open to dating outside of the race.”

Slowly, it seems that black women are not only willing but able to take her advice. In 2015, Pew Research reported that 24% of recently married black men were intermarried (a quarter of black, male newlyweds!), compared with 12% of newly married black women – a slight uptick for both groups.

But I’m not sure that statistic reflects the seismic change in the new visibility of relationships between black women and white men. Tennis great Serena Williams, popular television characters Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating, even in Buckingham Palace, the ancestral home of white privilege, black women are swirling everywhere.

If my friend and I were having that conversation now, I’m not sure I would have the same response to the question of interracial marriage. As it turns out, both of my children chose black mates, and two of her three children have married out. But my reticence was never about race-mixing; it was about sexual racism.

When swirling only happens in one direction, it reinforces racial and sexual stereotypes instead of breaking them down. The real measure of equality is when black women are also free to marry whoever they please. Maybe, at last, that day has come. 

Desiree Cooper is the author of Know the Mother.

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