Saturday, June 8, 2013

My Reaction to "Is Marriage for White People?"


I'm super late, I know, but I finally picked up a (Kindle) copy of Is Marriage for White People? by Ralph Richard Banks and read essentially over a couple of OB shifts on my latest rotation. It was an enthralling read that enraged me at once and consoled me in other moments. I felt vulnerable as every single insecurity I've had about having a European SO came to the forefront in other women's narratives. For all of the scholarly research that went into the making of the book, I felt that the solution (wish it had been plural) proposed by Banks were incomplete, but I appreciated someone actually spending time with black women and telling the very unique stories of our struggles finding a mate.

I could talk on and on about the things that made me angry. I think the thing that made me angriest is that essentially the high rates of STIs and HIV among black women more than any other group in the US is secondary to something Banks calls "man sharing," which to me sounded like man whoredom. Essentially, black men are more likely than any other race of men to engage in "long-term concurrent relationships." Infidelity is the term I'm comfortable with, but I understand the diplomacy of vocabulary of a liberal discourse. Black women do not have more sexual partners than the general population, but black men, the men they almost exclusively relate to, do.

Also, the fact that abortion rates are highest amongst black women not because they have higher rates of unplanned pregnancies when they are single, it's just that that many black women in a population are single...was also telling.

I could also talk about what was consoling. That those various Okcupid and other online dating site studies that show that black women are the least sought after of any race or gender, even amongst black men, are not the whole story, was consoling. I don't have to be considered among the most beautiful group of women in the world...but it does do something to your spirit when you have studies showing you are the least desired.

What I felt was incomplete about Banks' book is that his solution to the critical shortage of marriageable men for black women was for more black women to "marry out." I don't actually take issue to that and I feel like if everyone were more comfortable marrying outside of the bounds of race, we would be a happier people. But it's not that easy. In fact, it's hard as hell.

And Banks does acknowledge this by doing lip service to the years of trauma of slavery and the sometimes comparable institutionalized racism that infected our country thereafter and what impact that had on black women and the implications of dating and marrying, specifically, white men, and not ending up with black men. Lip service because someone could write their doctoral thesis on black women and the way we relate to men based on slavery and institutionalized racism, not just a few paragraphs. And I don't really take issue to that, either. He acknowledges it while illustrating with a few vignettes happy interracial couples that are happy not because they don't struggle sometimes with issues of race, but happy because they've found a way to relate to each other in spite of it.

My problem, then, and what I find incomplete is that he says that in order to strengthen black relationships and bring black marriage back, some black women are just going to have to "marry out" so the rest can pursue their passion for black men.

And then the book ended, and I was left like, what?

Really, Richard Banks, really?

I mean, I appreciated the pages and pages of data, the relation of all of these vignettes of real women and their experience as black women in the dating and marriage market. The fact that so much resonated with me rang true. I guess that in the book was really more a gathering of data than a proposition of multiple solutions.

His thought was...the more (specifically middle class) black women open themselves up to non-black men and pursue these relationships, the less black women there will be in the pool for (middle-class, high achieving) black men to mess over (essentially). Reducing the pool of black women for these men to choose from would mean that there would be more competition for the black women left in the pool that did not seek interracial relationships, and then black men would treat the women better in this relationships because they were competing more for their affections. More black women seeking interracial relationships would therefore even the marriage gap in the middle-class, meaning more middle-class, high achieving black men would seek to marry comparable black women, less of these women would "marry down" and less would seek working-class black men as they are now (in statistically unsuccessful marriages and relationships), and more of those men would be available for their lower class black women, and...

I'm not sure how this is really benefiting lower class black women. Most of his focus and all of his interviews are focused on middle class black women, and lower class black women are left to victim status. I feel like he represents them as past the point of rescue, showing statistically that marriage has ceased to exist for poor blacks.

His treatment of this lower class is at times other in a way that his defense sometimes feels patronizing. In this narrative, I feel like they are, again, the invisible victims that the likes of Bill Cosby, a now disconnected, old-school middle class black, and Barack Obama (where do you begin?) cannot understand when they call on black fathers to take more responsibility for the children they begot.

Even though he expresses shock that black women bear so much of the burden internally on trying to keep the race together, essentially--they are concerned with preserving blackness in their children, both culturally and phenotypically (a thought process I can identify with), preserving the community by supporting "our" men, all sentiments that are not shared so readily by our male counterparts--the best solution he has after all that data, so it seems, is that some black women take it for the team and marry out.

I say this all the while being the type of black woman that, in spite of feeling a strong sense of duty towards the black community, has never limited herself conceptually to black men. The first man I ever loved, the man I loved the hardest, was South Asian. Nor have I completely tuned out black men. I am not only attracted to black men. But there are ways in which it is easier and more automatic for me to be attracted to people of color, I must admit.

So I can understand how a black woman would be uniquely attracted to black men, as many of the women in the book expressed.

In the face of how many black women prefer black men, suggesting (middle class) black women to marry out does feel like taking one for the team.

It's all back in the hands of black women. Black men, with their propensity for "man sharing" and all other foolishness, their lack of sense of duty of racial preservation (not all, but enough that the surplus of interracial relationships with black men ending up with non-black women contributes to the partner shortage for black women), are no active player in the solution at all. They are just passive actors, persuaded to actually commit to intelligent, accomplished black women only after they see that non-black men are sweeping them up and there's less of them to come by.

I certainly thing that more people should consider interracial relationships. That will help break down barriers and gradually make it easier, as it already is easier for those of us than it was just decades ago. But placing the fate of relationships and marriage in women's hands is irresponsible. There are certainly other solutions that involve men being better people.

The name of the book, in fact, comes from a group of young black boys asking how to be better fathers, and presented with the idea of meeting with married couples to explore that. The boy who asked the question said he wasn't interested in hearing about marriage, and his friend said, "Marriage is for white people." Telling, that this is the origin of the book, young black boys not feeling a connection to marriage, and yet, the solution lies in mature black women.

How about addressing those concerns of those young black boys, getting to the bottom of why they think marriage is for white people, and helping them to find a paradigm where marriage, or if not marriage, long-term committed relationships, could be for them, too? Little black boys, some of them who will grow up to be working class, some middle class, who will inherit attitudes about women and relationships from the very men who are leaving so many black women single.

I don't think it lies only in the boys, but I think we need to pay more attention to our boys. That's where my focus lies. I don't see our men as past the point of rescue but, for my own mental health, I don't see myself as the one who will be doing the rescuing. I see for myself, now more than ever, the greatest likelihood of happiness in a long-term relationship with a non-black man. I don't exclude the possibility of such a relationship with a black man, but it has not been my experience that black men are interested in that kind of relationship with me.

On the eve of possibly ending up with a white man at that, I have not given up on the cause. I still feel duty to my community. I am the only black physician in a clinic that serves a large black population. My patients remind me of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. They remind me of the girls and boys I went to school with who are now men and women. These are my people, regardless of who I marry, if God so wills that I marry. My focus is on the children, making sure they have the tools to be, if they so choose, responsible and loving adults.

And I believe that is the more apt solution to bolstering the black community and preventing our ruin. I'm not concerned about the phenotype of my potential children or how much they'll identify as black, per se, as I am the plight of the black children that exist now and will continue to exist in a world where they are marginalized.

I wish, for all of those statistics and his mention of his own sons, that Banks had thought more about mentorship.

Because what if those little black boys that thought that marriage was for white people and their cohort resoundingly grow up to graduate high school and not enter prison, unlike the current fate of so many of our boys?

Even after this very specific, pointed criticism, I must say that I overall appreciated the experience of reading this book. While I am critical of the only proposed solution to the very complicated issue of the black marriage decline (and the marriage decline in general), I would not go as far as this Jezebel blogger who does not appear to be black who defends black women's right to love whoever they want in an incomplete assessment of Bank's argument.

I knew I wouldn't like the article from the picture. The woman in the picture harkens back to the time that the black women represented in media were all fair and mixed-looking. And the picture looks like that of a woman who regrets having fallen into the hands of leering generic white man.

Then the article simplifies the argument in implying that Banks is saying white men will be black women's savior.

Umm...yes, only if white men are the only non-black men that black women could marry.

And when we are talking about heterosexual women who desire marriage and children, yes, actually, a man is necessarily part of the solution.

In the end, I can relate to what many of the women said. When I imagined myself marrying and starting a family, I imagined myself doing it younger. I imagined it being with someone my parents approved of and who fit into my extended family easily, like many of my cousins' husbands, to the point that I would call them cousin. Grossly, a man of African descent would best fit this. But I am more complicated than my blackness, as all of us are.

Such a man who would fit into my nuclear and extended family would have to be Christian to appease my father, understanding if not a big-brother figure to my brother, attractive enough for my mother to approve of him entering the family, and able to brush off the bull slung around by my uncles and cousins.

So actually, I was never going to have that. If just by the assumption that a Christian man would not be content with my being Muslim.

In the course of this year I discovered that I have to be somewhat of a pioneer in my family in order to not end up alone, or else I will continue to watch my non-black friends marry and I will be, year after year, single.

1 comment:

  1. yeah, this marry out debate... sigh... I was thinking about that today, I heard a piece on NPR that said that educated black women are actually more likely to be married than we think (a ray of hope!).

    I think I agree with the author though, not necessarily for the same reasons... but perhaps what sucks more are the circuitous arguments... black women are the last desired, black women can't get married, black women are too loyal to the idea of the strong black man.

    It's really a case of every woman for herself. As you intimated, race is not the only factor that will come into play. I hope I will not be among that number of single women.. but for now I must focus on other things.

    You are right, we all envision married life differently. Five years ago, I thought I would certainly be married by now... oh well.

    At the end of the day, stats are there. But I AM NOT A STATISTIC! ha, ha...