Essence Magazine Accidentally Steps Into an Intra/Interracial Dating Minefield

by Latoya Peterson

We got a request from reader Nafis to cover the Essence magazine controversy that is heating up the black blogosphere.  But the comments included with the tip made me laugh a bit.  Nafis writes:

i know it might go against parts of the racialicious agenda, but i feel like you should talk about the ”cycle of ignorance” that leads to racism. The comments that the author highlights are very derogatory, and it speaks a lot about the situation within the black female community.

Our agenda is to fairly clear – to provide an anti-racist perspective on pop culture.  And regular readers know that we are a feminist-minded site, and generally work to incorporate other anti-oppression principles into what we do.  So talking about “the situation within the black female community” isn’t really what we do since most of those perceptions are based in stereotypes about black women.  However, what is compelling about the whole situation is how conversations about interracial dating play upon stereotypes and deeply held convictions, that tend to drown out any other type of commentary.

The Situation

BET’s entertainment blog gives a good summary of what is going on:

When Essence editors chose to put Reggie Bush on the cover of their February 2010 “Black Men, Love & Relationships” issue, I’m sure they thought they were just giving their readers a little dose of sexual chocolate eye candy (those abs!), but instead all hell broke loose!

The Essence.com boards are flooded with seething comments from people who can’t understand why a magazine geared towards Black women would make the NFL player who is dating a non-Black woman, Kim Kardashian, the cover choice for an issue that celebrates Black love.

A lot of hateful comments were posted to the Essence boards, some even saying that Bush was a “white supremacist” and anger that a magazine dedicated to celebrating black women would put a man dating a non-black woman on the cover.

The vitriol on this one is fierce – but what is really the issue here?

The “Dating Out” Controversy

A large factor in the controversy revolves around the idea of black men dating outside of their race – but not in the way it seems to be interpreted. A lot of the existing analysis looks at black women and their issues with men who date interracially. But most of the comments on the Essence site are not objecting to Reggie Bush dating Kim Kardashian – they are protesting him being on the cover of an issue about “black men, love, and relationships” targeted to black women. Now, there were quite a few comments on either side of the pole, either saying the Bush cover isn’t a big deal because interracial love is a part of our landscape, or saying that Bush is a sell out – but the vast majority of the comments seemed less concerned with who Bush is dating and more concerned with the message Essence is sending to its readership about who desires black women. Many of the readers felt that Bush’s selection for the cover (over black men who are involved with black women) reinforces the idea that black men are generally uninterested in dating black women once they hit the big time, and many commenters vocalized the desire to highlight some of the other men in the issue who have been seen publicly with black women. (Interestingly, a few people on the Essence site and elsewhere said they would have preferred covers with Robin Thicke or Robert DeNiro, since they were in interracial relationships with black women.)

Very Smart Brothas
posted a response to the controversy looking at one of the major underlying assumptions – that successful black men are flocking to nonblack women in droves, and that is why the Bush cover feels like a slap in the face.

the friend thought that this was just another example of how often high-profile african-american men choose to be with non-black women (nttawwt). (half)jokingly she remarked “i won’t say that half of ya’ll run out and get white chicks, but at least 49 percent of ya’ll do”

when i replied that her perception was way off, she cited the study that was bouncing around the web last year about black men being almost three times more likely to marry outside of their race than black women as proof.

i then showed her the actual numbers from that study (3.7% of married black american women and 8.4% of married black american men had a non-Black spouse), proof that while it’s technically true that african-american men are more likely to marry outside of their race than african-american women, the difference between 91.6% and 96.3% is hardly worthy of any “all ya’ll n*ggas is playing in the snow” hysteria.

The Champ goes on to detail people in the spotlight, noting his shoddy research, but ultimately concluding that there is more scrutiny on interracial relationships which makes them appear more prevalent, particularly among celebrities.

The Kardashians and Our Current Black/White Binary

The most interesting aspect of this whole controversy is how Kim Kardashian has been framed. Some people have called her non-black – others have called her white. (And many just pointed to the sex tape.) Kim Kardashian is actually Armenian, Scottish, and Dutch. Our current limitations on the entire concept of “race” make it hard to come up with a term that would accurately describe the Kardashian sisters, but there are two things that stand out. One, all of Kim Kardashian’s publicized relationships have been with black men. Her first marriage was to Damon Thomas, a record producer, her relationship with Ray-J went into infamy, and she is currently with Reggie Bush. So it doesn’t appear that her sole motivation is to chase fame, as is often alleged.

Two, I am not sure if the Kardashian sisters themselves identify as white. One of my close friends is an avid watcher of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, and she asked me my opinion on the racial content of a recent episode, which we think is from season 4, episode 4. (YouTube has pulled everything but the E! authorized clips.) This one didn’t involve Kim, but rather Kourtney Kardashian and her sister Khloé Kardashian Odom (who recently married Lamar Odom of the LA Lakers). The clip has been removed from YouTube, but on this particular show, Kourtney and Khloé went to a breast feeding class, while Khloé’s slacker ass boyfriend Scott Disick (who appears to be white – not much information is known about him) decided he wanted to chill by the pool. When Kourtney arrives at the breastfeeding class, she turns her nose up at the white cabbage patch kid in front of her. “I don’t like this baby,” she says. Khloé, asks her if she prefers “her black baby” and offers to switch dolls. Kourtney agrees, happily.

I have no idea what to make of this reverse doll test, but it does make me think that the Kardashian’s relationship to race is a little more complicated than people assume.

The “Black Women Hate Interracial Relationships” Meme

This article hasn’t hit the mainstream quite yet – it is still only a topic of conversation in the black blogosphere. And to me, that’s a benefit, because what will be taken from this conversation (black women hate interracial dating!) isn’t what we are actually reading. The number of opinions within the black online community are immeasurable, especially as each of the four or five articles I’ve read about the controversy received more than 50 comments (and an excess of 300 on the VSB and Essence sites). So what are people saying?

  • Some are using the controversy to reinforce stereotypes about black people, in general. (“While I did have a best friend thats black we mostly hung out with 2520s.  [Note: 2520s means "whitey"]. And you know what?…We had FUN! There wasnt someone always clocking what you wore, who you were dating, or what car you drove…”)
  • Some use it to reinforce stereotypes about overly picky black women (“Every guy on here, myself included, knows at least one single, eligible brother that is looking for love, from a black woman. But he’ll get zero play …”)
  • Some use it to reinforce stereotypes about evil black women (“The truth is black women are spoiled beyond belief.”)
  • Some say it’s not about the relationships, but standards of beauty that shortchange black women (“I don’t think anyone really cares about the race of Joe NBA Blow’s wife, but rather “is anyone attracted to me? will I ever fit into the conventional & more popular standard of beauty? and will this definition ever be broad enough to include my image?””)
  • Some discussed flawed expectations of racial solidarity (“Black women have NO obligation to support Reggie Bush b/c he is a “brother”. You know, the same way he’s not obligated to date a black woman b/c she is a sista.”)
  • Others mention it’s about the elevated hoops black women have to jump through to be considered on-par with her white counterparts (“I’ve known men who had impossible standards for the Black women they dated, only to settle for the most marginal of women when they were of another race.”)
  • Some brought up that it wasn’t Kardashian’s race, but her exploits that caused the controversy (“for the black men that are dating white strippers and hoes, if they are willing to go that route, do you think you would really want to be with them anyway.”)
  • Some say the fact that Kardashian isn’t racially identified is a bonus (“Kim Kardashian may not be black,and shes not white either.At least he didnt go get a waifer thin white girl like many of them do.Shes beautiful and thick!”)
  • Quite a few people said they expected this of Essence (“WHAT are you mad about? Requiring Essence to be anything more than superficial or topical would be like standing over a glass bowl expecting a gold fish to articulate the Theory of Relativity.”)
  • Some think it’s just celebrity drama (“Reggie Bush is a mediocre football player and Kim’s famous for no viable reason. They seem like each other’s equals to me.”)
  • Some want to give Bush the benefit of the doubt (“how many people have ever heard Reggie Bush speak about how he feels about black women? Or examined his dating past? Just wondering. Maybe he wanted to try something new.”)
  • Some say the cover is just eye candy (“He was chosen for the cover for his sex appeal, not his cultural relevance to Black women”)
  • Many are indifferent (“In conclusion, was Reggie Bush the best choice for the Essence cover? No, probably not. But should we freak out or get mad about it ? No. Why get your blood pressure up?”)

Clearly, there is not one, unified opinion from black men and women, but rather a reflection of where each individual begins to approach the issue.

Here’s to hoping that the mainstream continues to miss this story.