by Erika N. Turner
Several days ago, I received a call from my stepfather that left me baffled. As it was my birthday, he greeted me accordingly and moved on to more mundane topics. Usually, our conversations are not very long – so brief, in fact, I can never tell if it’s his preference or mine. This call, however, was different. He seemed keen on holding my attention and, before long, he posed a question I never thought I’d hear from my own kin:
“Say Erika, I was wondering,” he began, “Why don’t you date white girls?”
The question took me off guard because I do date white girls. In fact, if we were to count most of my long-term flirtations and romantic encounters in the last six years, white men and women have far-outnumbered men or women of color. However, my last few serious romantic engagements have been with black women and this, it seems, was his source of confusion.
However, even if I didn’t date white girls, why should I? For what reason should I be particularly disposed toward them? I asked said question and he responded:
“Well, you’re smart, gorgeous, and very talented….”
Oh, I thought. Oh no.
I quickly realized where he was going and it was to a place I never thought I would have to see first-hand. Over the course of the last few years, I have learned a lot about the institutionalized desirability of white women and the misrepresentation of black women as unsuitable romantic partners. It’s something my mother, a black woman, would reference beneath her breath when the subject of my stepmother, a light-skinned Latina who most people read as white, came up. I, however, did not necessarily grow up with these views in my day-to-day life. I was brought up in a predominantly white neighborhood and went to a predominantly white high school. Consequently, my friends were also primarily white or, like myself, conditioned with a culturally white American consciousness. White desirability, then, was never explained explicitly in the context of personal characteristics defined by race but performed as a fact of life.
Thus, while white boys would often tell me I was “pretty for a black girl,” and white teachers and authority figures, in so many words, would say I was “not like those other black kids,” I rarely heard from those who looked like me how I should feel about myself. Except in the cases where other black students accused me of being “an oreo” and “talking and acting like a white girl,” I was not clued into the specifics of internalized racism and how it played out in the world of relationships from the viewpoint and experiences of my skinfolk.
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Two things further exacerbated this issue: first, having grown up with primarily white playmates, I naturally pursued or was pursued by primarily white partners. Second, I had come to terms with my sexuality at a relatively young age. Thus, I rarely had to deal with the feeling that I was being passed over for white women because I dated them myself. In that experience, while I may have felt a lack of desirability in the instances where my affections were not returned, I had never felt that same rejection from people who looked like me and shared my cultural background.
It was only as my stepfather explained how I qualified as a suitor to white women that it became clear that he was speaking to me as he would another black man. Indeed, I thought, this must be how many black men speak to their sons. Fathers, brothers, and male community members often espouse the idea that a white woman is a black man’s trophy for excellence. And if not a white woman, then a light-skinned black woman – someone with “good hair” and clearly mixed heritage. At the same time, so many black women grow up learning that white women are their models for romantic fulfillment. Men and women, alike, are taught that whiteness is privileged and exclusive. Having a white partner allows for access and ascent that may otherwise be denied. While the media and other outside influences spew such ideas, it’s our own communities that uphold them.
While my stepfather continued with his reasoning as if reciting from scripture, I didn’t know whether to be sick, annoyed, or horrified.
“White women are docile and loyal and they’ll take care of you…” he went on.
“Black women will too,” I bit back, bypassing the ridiculousness of referring to a woman as if her great utility were docility and loyalty, the best aspects of a dog. “Black women take care of you too. They’ve taken care of me.”
That he didn’t stop to think that I should be offended by his words is significant to me. Does my sexuality make me less of a woman, in his eyes? If so, then perhaps this all makes sense. Since I have already denied my own black womanhood, why wouldn’t I also dismiss the value and dignity of other black women?
Though our conversation was not an extensive one, I find myself still stewing with fury, deeply wounded and invalidated by a man who helped raise me. A burden that I have never felt outside of theoretical discussions with friends now weighs heavily upon my heart, as I think now about the statement I inadvertently make every day when interacting with, flirting with, or loving black women while also existing as one.
I must admit that I never yearned for black love growing up. I didn’t think of it as distinct from my romantic involvements with white men and women. As I’ve learned and discovered the beauty of black culture through my friendships and community involvement in college, the love I’ve uncovered for myself as a black woman has naturally led me to seek the love and affirmation of other black women. This has happened with little reflection on why or what that should mean.
Thus, even as my consciousness has grown, I have deigned to believe such love and affirmation was some subversive act. The idea, to me, was self-righteous and indulgent. However, as I reflect on my stepfather’s words, I am inclined to change my position. It is not that black love is inherently “better” than, say, interracial love. But in my own world, I am realizing that to love both myself and my sisters primarily, despite having grown up and interacted in white communities and institutions that taught me that we were secondary, is to engage in a quiet and constant revolution.
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Erika Turner is a freelance writer and editor in New York City who identifies as a black femme with a dapper bent. She writes about relationships and identity and spends her free time watching HGTV and wishing she had a fancy apartment with a dog.
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