by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse
I am 26 years old, have a college degree, and middle class. I am typically well-dressed and well-groomed. I have never been called ugly, quite the opposite, and I speak several languages. I am nice, courteous, and well-spoken. My big “flaw”? I’m black, female, and single.
At least according to the world of Helena Andrews, whose classist, heteronormative, and strikingly self-defeatist attempt at explaining the “Big Marriage Gap” (from now on referred to as the “BMG”) for black women in comparison to their non-black female peers in their 20s and 30s, is not only oversimplified, but a typical regurgitation of anecdotes about black female dating (or lack thereof) we see in the news every few months. While Nadra pointed out most of the flaws in Andrews’ reasoning in her piece “Successful, Black and Lonely,” the first of several Racialicious pieces on Andrews’ original article for the Washington Post, I plan to venture away from criticism and more into the territory of uncovering the elusive “why” Andrews so poorly investigates.
While many articles have focused on the statistics of black women being on the low end of the national statistics for women rushing to the alter, the nation’s marriage rates seem to have been on a steady decline for quite some time, particularly as rights were afforded to those who cohabitated, as the increasing pressure for costly weddings were met with not-so-sufficient bank accounts and pocketbooks, and the meaning of family shifted to include single parents, same-sex couples with adopted children, divorced couples, and so on. Marriage was no longer viewed through the same cultural lens as it was in years past. It became less obligatory in American culture and more of a privileged option for those who fell within the scope of eligibility and who had the financial resources to afford it (or the time to head over to Vegas for a drive-thru ceremony).
But aside from changing views of marriage, views of women and their societal roles, as a whole, had shifted. Women were increasingly gaining more roles as leaders, planners, and players in higher levels of companies. They were becoming financially independent, self-sufficient beyond the bounds of their families, fathers, and other male counterparts. So why is it that as black women embraced these norms (though many had been participating in some of these practices well in advance of more formal, white-led movements as a result of economic factors and the shifted familial dynamics resulting from slavery), they were chastised for doing so?
Sure, some of these practices, as I mention above, were not embraced by choice. Not every woman wants to be the breadwinner or the unexpected head of the household, particularly as some of her more privileged peers find comfort in the security of marriage and other sources of financial support. But in a racist and sexist twist, many of these same elements of “modern womanhood” that white women were applauded for taking up were devalued and even demonized when black women fulfilled the same roles. When coupled with pre-existing stereotypes, one of them being that black women are already naturally inclined to be overly assertive, the roles were not seen in a positive light. A white woman with a high-level, well-paying corporate gig was “making something of herself” and “engaging in an empowering grasp at grappling with patriarchy.” A black woman was simply acting out on her “natural” skill of being bossy (ahem, a boss?) and assertive, so there was no surprise. As white women continue to be portrayed as delicate flowers and black women the angry worker bees, these roles only seemed natural, leaving black female ascension in the workplace to be considered with far less surprise, awe, and admiration. That is not to say that white women in the workplace are not assumed to be bad attitude-laden, overly assertive, or power hungry, but such behavioral assumptions, as a result of white privilege, are associated with their being female as opposed to being both female AND white. Take the example of single motherhood and you end up with the same results.The expected behavior is not considered the result of some racial and gendered stereotype that follows them around at every turn on the page or click of the remote button.
It’s easy to get mad at Andrews and say that she is falling into the typical media trap here, but part of what she says in based in truth, and I don’t think that should be ignored. It’s just that people are generally lazy and state a problem, but never follow through with an explanation or a more guided understanding of what causes the problem and how it can be fixed. Usual answers about how to fix the BMG is simply for black women to be less selective about their mates, once again, a sexist and racist request. As some of our commenters mentioned, they found their mates in unlikely places and in terms of class, education level, or even interests, shared little with them. However, to make “lowering standards” a universal request for black women is problematic because a) it’s assuming that said woman is somehow not worthy of or should not be reaching for the best of the dating pool, b) that equals for said black women are clearly looking to date someone non-black, and c) because it seems to rarely be advice given to men, who are somehow left out of the whole wedding scramble to begin with and left to pursue marriage and relationships, if at all, at their own pace.
It’s also hard to ignore Andrews’ thoughts on stereotypes. The title of her upcoming novel speaks volumes on its own. Bitch Is the New Black is a telling statement. Could the real solution to the BMG and problem of black females being generally undesirable mates (if statistics alone are analyzed, without bearing in mind people who choose to remain unmarried and/or non-heterosexual couplings) boil down to squashing some of the stereotypes that have yet to un-stick? Self-fulfilling prophecy based on statistics, all the countless articles on black women and the BMG, the terrible media images of black women, and the lack of regard for and appreciation of black female beauty by American (and arguably just about every other) society do terrible things to one’s self-esteem. I leave my house every morning knowing that no matter how nice I look that day, how intelligent I am, how well I do my job, or even how polite I am, someone out there is going to see me and think black and female equate to bitch.
I was having a discussion with a friend of mine recently about relationships, and he (a black man) noted that he is hardly ever inclined to date black women because they are “too bitchy” and cause “too much drama.” I was quick to note that I was neither bitchy nor a drama queen, unless somehow provoked by drastic actions like infidelity or lying, and that I know women of multiple races who have equally as troublesome behavioral traits that are not regularly associated to their group simply because they are not black. My friend responded that I may be somehow different because I am southern, and that in his experience, black women meant trouble. Given, however, that I don’t wear a Rebel Flag t-shirt around proclaiming some ironic sense of southern pride, people who see me won’t know the difference. Beyond my statehood, I suppose I also have my light skin to thank for whatever favorable assumptions are made in terms of my appearance when positive. Ever notice that when two or more black women are characters in a film or tv show, the darker (and oftentimes largest) of them is often the loudest, meanest, or most dramatic? The lighter skinned black woman is often made to seem the most physically attractive or appealing based on personality.
Could it be that people were buying into these stereotypes, treating black women differently, and then the women hold their anger based on said treatment until the point of explosion, and thus the recycling of the stereotype? I often feel the need to actually behave more passively or politely than normal in some circumstances, particularly around people whom I do not know well, simply to avoid adding to the stereotype, censoring myself in situations when my innate “black bitchiness” (read: normal level of assertiveness) might actually do me some good. Are these articles simply adding to the cycle? Black women are not wanted, so they internalize that and put up a wall, behaving as if no one wants them, and thus failing to attract proper mates?
Beyond these questions, I also wonder if blaming black women is necessarily the path anyone should take when discussing this topic. Women should be viewed as individuals, and as Nadra mentions, many other women have the same hang ups and gripes as they search for men. Even though many more of my non-black female peers are in serious relationships, engaged, or married, that is not to say that the BMG rests as a fear solely for black women. Women of all races are raised to believe that relationships and ultimately marriage are the best way of achieving self-satisfaction and success thanks to being inundated by bridal imagery and tales early on. But black women are hit over the head with additional images that would give even the strongest person a complex including, but not limited to, criticism of typical physical attributes associated with women of African descent (hair, body types, skin color) and constant comparison to their non-black female peers in terms of behavior (general personality, sexual openness, intelligence, values and judgment). As physical beauty is often viewed as one of the key factors in snagging a male partner, it’s not surprising that black women like Helena Andrews find themselves not only second guessing their physical appearance, but also taking their reflection further when even the perfect “outside” doesn’t welcome men to get to know the matching “inside.”
So while I find Andrews’ piece problematic on many levels, I wonder if that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Is there a way that we can address this issue without turning into a game of black male slandering or black female blaming? Could a shift in the ways we think about relationships and marriage be at the root of the BMG, or is there some greater cultural task we need to tackle, particularly when it comes to images of black women in the media?