Is there a crisis in black relationships? Despite millions of examples of loving couples, black women and men still have negative perceptions of each other. As a successful black woman in her 30s, marriage is on my mind. So I set out to find out where these perceptions came from—and if they are true.
Donna L. Franklin’s 2001 book, What’s Love Got to Do with It?, shows that 7 out of 10 black mothers give negative messages to their daughters about black men. Did my mom give me negative messages about black men? No, she didn’t have to. I got them from watching my parents’ relationship.
My father was a “player” proving his manhood through multiple families and women as so many West Indian men of a his generation did. My father’s philandering definitely had an impact on how I viewed men in general and black men in particular: They were duplicitous, cheaters, liars who used black women, really all women for their own needs and egos. I would see this again when my brother cheated repeatedly on his wife and then left her for—you guessed it—a white woman. This is probably why I’m still unmarried, that and because I can’t seem to find any black men to date in my social circle.
As a successful black woman in corporate America I had a very hard time finding black men who understood and weren’t intimidated by my busy lifestyle, weren’t already dating or married to white women and who weren’t gay. When I left the corporate world, and moved to black-man-friendly Brooklyn, I had a much easier time finding black men, unfortunately far too many of them were players. I’ll admit though, I’d often choose a “bad boy” over a good prospective partner and have a bad experience, which then created a bad perception. That said, it seemed the odds were often stacked against me: 9 out of 10 times, the good-looking, smart, articulate, cultured black men I met were in multiple relationships, or either had a girlfriend or were married and “forgot” to tell me. In fact, had it not been for the tattoo of his wife’s name on his arm, I might not have known that the last man I was out on a date with was married.
My own experiences aside, harmful media stereotypes of black people don’t help. Negative images of black men, and black families are presented as the norm on an almost daily basis. Often prejudiced and manufactured statistics depicting disproportionate numbers of black men in prisons and numerous single mother or broken homes continue to show blacks in a negative light. Harmful stereotypes of black women by black men as being “aggressive,” “harsh,” and “hard” haven’t helped black relationships either. But when did black men and black women become frenemies? When did splintering off to date outside the race, looking for a successful partner anywhere but within black America and proliferating the myths that black men are “players” and black women are “emasculating” become the norm?
These questions plague me now at the end of my 30s, engaged to a black man I consider my equal in many ways, but with whom I struggle daily to make the relationship work. At 44 he’s dated a number of white women whom he’s found to be more nurturing, softer and a lot more understanding of his struggles as a black man than—wait for it—many black women. Yep, you heard right. I could have asked him why he thinks white women are so much more nurturing–considering so many black women raising their children. Instead, I asked my white girlfriend who has dated a lot of black men if it’s true, that even though we’re both ambitious and outspoken, that she’s so very different than I am.
What she told me was surprising: She’d heard the same thing from a lot of the black guys she’d dated, but it seemed to her that many of these men weren’t interested in working very hard, either in the relationship or in general. It seemed to me that this was something they could get away with, with white women, but most black women just weren’t having it. Subsequently, this made us demanding, hard, and emasculating.
So how can I be strong and independent but still cater to my man’s sense of himself? The answer: find a man with a strong enough sense of himself, so I don’t have to change into who he thinks I should be. What we black women need is for our black men to love us for who we are and not put us down for what we’re not. After all, it was the same strong, independent type of black woman who’d successfully raised many of our black men, and often alone. And what we black women need to do is to be strong enough to be soft and loving first, not to make our black men “earn our trust” but to give it willingly, even if we put ourselves in hurt’s way. We have to lower the barriers we’ve erected because we’ve been hurt by men who’ve abused or used us, or our mothers.
I don’t know if we’ll make it down the altar. Some days it’s hard even to communicate. But I’ve learned that loving means giving, giving up your time, your mistrust, your barriers, your needs and your preconceived notions. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my long and winding road to adulthood is that you often have to give love to get love.
But here’s the thing: Even unsuccessful relationships can turn us into better people. Unless it’s an abusive one, we should be open to all relationships, regardless of our perceptions or even our experiences because they can change us as people. Will black relationships make it? I don’t know. But I take hope in the many successful black relationships and marriages out there that we never hear about because those couples are busy working on them and perhaps, because that’s not the way society wants blacks to be seen. I just hope my fiancé and I can be counted as one of the successful ones.
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