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As I park my car in this too-quiet Bethesda neighborhood, I’m already feeling uncomfortable. Across the street, an elderly white lady is watching her grandchildren frolic on the manicured lawn. I can’t help thinking she’s watching me, too.
Wealthy whitewashed suburbs are nothing new to me, but today I’m more conscious of my “blackness” than usual. I find myself here, walking up to a house nestled in the cul-de-sac, because I’ve agreed to talk about something that isn’t discussed in polite company very often: white women dating black men.
However closed-minded and racist it sounds, I don’t like it. I never have. And although I’m all for hearing other folks’ views, my mind is not waiting to be changed. I have participated in various “sister” groups, where black women voice their impassioned opinions on interracial relationships. Most of us have issues with brothers who favor white women: “What, we aren’t good enough?” or “He’s made it in life, so now he’s gotta have a white woman on his arm as his trophy,” we say. The smugness and disregard provide the thinnest of masks for our rage.
Why be tolerant? White women already have too many things we don’t: privilege, favoritism in the workplace, and too many of our men.
A few weeks ago, I ran into Dunkin’ Donuts and got in line behind a white woman standing with her black man. Instantly, abruptly, she put her arm around him to let me know how things worked. I didn’t even acknowledge her. Meanwhile, the guy was glancing at me, searching for a reaction. I ignored him, too. “Do your thing, bro,” I said to myself.
I had a good friend in high school who was white but always dated black guys. I questioned her because I felt comfortable, and because I could. Her 17-year-old responses were typical: Black guys were cooler, they were better lovers, and they helped her rebel against her conservative father.
I let it go, since I had my own adolescent love life to worry about. But as I got older, the interracial dating scene started eating away at me. I didn’t understand why the brothers were abandoning the sisters, why they thought white girls were so much better. Then again, I always told myself, I wouldn’t want a brother who wanted a white girl in the first place.
The woman who comes to the door to greet me is wide-eyed and cordial. She tells me to take a seat, and I realize I’m the first one here. I want to go home already. She chatters nervously about about the poison ivy she got messing around in the back garden. The others trickle in, but I don’t get any less uncomfortable. Barbara Walker, the facilitator of the group and the woman who invited me, is the only other black person. And she’s blending with these women easily. Feeling as if I truly am the only black person in this room, I find myself checking my speech, trying to forgo my use of slang but having it slip out here and there. I just know I’m gonna be ganged up on if shit gets real heated, and I’m not trying to take on a whole room of white women by myself today.
Soon the chitchat dies down, and Walker sets the ground rules. “Keep it safe,” she warns. “Remember that everyone is feeling emotional. And whatever happens here today, please don’t leave the groupphysically or mentally.”
The first woman to speak says she’s married to a black man and they have children. She wants to better understand and relate to black women, she says, because they are very much a part of her life. Another woman wants to learn to relate to the black women at her job. She says she’s tired of conflict always devolving into a race issue, obscuring the original problem. So far, the voices are calm and adult.
A woman from Baltimore says she finds that city racist and has trouble making black friends there. She is more nervous than the others. She admits that she feels more comfortable discussing these issues with white women like herself. Her face starts turning red and she shoots a nervous glance my way. Then she mentions that her first serious boyfriend was black and that she has dated black men.
The irritated expression on my face is giving away more than I probably need to. It no doubt intensifies when an extremely conservative-looking woman in her 60s offers that she, too, has dated black men in her life and is seeking to better her relationships with black women.
It’s like, damn, has every white woman in the room dated a brother? White women are the first ones to grab their pocketbooks when a brother gets on the elevator or passes them on a dark street, but here they are going on about their black boyfriends. I feel disrespected by what I’m hearing, as if I’ve been slapped in the face, but I have no sisters to back me up.
And then we get to me. I have never felt the spotlight so bright. My hands are getting clammy; my heart starts pounding. I know I can’t get really raw and speak my mind the way I want toI’m supposed to “keep it safe,” right? But I give my truth to them the best I can:
“I’m here because I discuss race issues with my friends time and time again. I have no idea what goes on this side of the world, and I’m thinking it might be beneficial for me to get a different perspective.” I pause.
“And…I’m pretty pissed off about and tired of the whole black men dating white women thing.” I look directly at the gentle-faced woman married to the black man. She is focused on me, her expression intently conveying what I assume to be understanding.
“It’s insulting to me and many other black women. And while I can’t speak for all of them, I’ve never been open to it. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of what I’ve heard so farI’m pretty shocked, actually. And I honestly wish there were more black women here so you could better understand what I’m feeling.”
A dark-haired, intensely blue-eyed woman intervenes and says she also agrees that there really should be more women of color here. Walker is quick to explain that she invited at least one other black woman, but she was unable to make it.
Now I’m on a roll. “I’m attempting to get
the point that maybe some of this is about love and not about our men trying to insult us,” I continue. “Or you all thinking you’re better than black women.”
Then I shut up. There is a brief moment of silence. I look around, surprised to see thoughtful, concerned expressions. Walker is sitting forward in her chair, staring at me intently. “That was good, Deborah, very good,” she says.
Walker asks us to break into smaller groups of two or more during the dinner break so that the dialogue can continue. A couple of women rush to me and ask if I’d like to eat with them. One blondish-gray-haired woman in her late 40s smiles at me and tells me she felt her stomach tighten when I spoke.
“I’ve dated black men, too,” she says. “And I feel bad after what you said. But I didn’t seek him out. It just happened.”
The conservative-looking woman with a fondness for black men informs me that the world should be interracial because interracial children are the most beautiful children in the world. “And then we could all be tea-colored,” she half chuckles.
I wonder if she realizes I’m not biracial even though I might pass whatever paper-bag test she has in her mind’s eye. “I’m not mixed,” I state defiantly, hoping she’ll feel embarrassed. “Oh I know, dear, I know,” she says, as she pats my shoulder in what appears to be mock sympathy.
As the four-hour dinner-dialogue draws to a close, I realize there is no way on God’s green earth I will ever come into a situation like this again by myself. Still, these white women are more willing to look within themselves when talking about race than I would have ever given them credit for. It is uncomfortable as hell, but it’s a start. Once hugs and handshakes are complete, everyone in the group eagerly promises to meet again.
I end up exchanging numbers with the woman closest to me in age. She smiles thoughtfully at the prospect of having a black girlfriend, while I contemplated the alliance of a white sister.
Three months later, we have yet to pick up the phone.CP