The Work Factor

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In all the hysteria around the dating lives of single black women, there's always this discussion of whether white men, and to some extent black men, actually find black women attractive. Many factors, stretching across races and political ideology, are at work here. There is history--the corollary to the white supremacist notion of lazy and stupid black men, has always been overly masculine, coarse, unattractive black women. There is a peculiar, but human, reaction to demographics: interracial marriage has grown exponentially since the '60s, but  black men marrying non-black women is still a relatively rare event. But we'd rather obsess over the motives of  the eight percent of married black men who have non-black spouses, and pretend that those fictional motives say something about the remaining 92 percent do not. 


This is the black version of the kind of hysteria that that tends to crop up in women's magazines ("13 reasons why you're inadequate"). And there's more--the lower marriage rate of black women, old angst between both genders, and the broader sense that the black experience is somehow different and perverted. But with all of that said, I think it's worth remembering that a relationship is work between two individuals, and that many of us have a bias toward minimizing that work.

I once had a white co-worker who in a candid moment, talked about a black woman who he dated for few months. He liked her quite a bit, but ultimately ended the relationship because he could not cotton to the idea of raising biracial kids--and thus black kids--in this country. It was work that, when he looked into his heart, he realized he just wasn't willing to do.


Though we came at it from different places, I instantly related to his story. As I said in comments last week, I like to think that if I were single, I would seriously date whoever. In fact, when seriously imagine myself dating interracially, the further I move away from black, the more work I imagine. To be crude, the scale runs roughly from Puerto-Ricans in East Harlem (a minimal amount of labor) to a blonde from Texas (Herculean). You think about the work of an ordinary relationship, and you pile on to it, the looks on the street, the awkward explaining to family, the extra weight of failure, and you just say "Why bother?"

I think, though I don't know, that for a number of white men looking at black women, there must be a similar thought process. The black-white chasm is unlike anything else in this country, hence comparing dating between whites and Latinos or whites and Asians doesn't do it justice. None of those relationships bring to bear the crushing weight of the legacy of white supremacy in the manner that black-white relationships do. It's intimidating to bring that with you into a relationship, and I suspect, while all the factors I listed are at work, equally at work is the "Why bother?" impulse.

Again, this is the kind of post that explains but does not excuse. In point of fact, all relationships are work. It's not clear that, say, getting past race will be any harder than getting past the fact that your spouse doesn't like to drink or drinks too much, or that he or she goes to church every week and you haven't been in five years. I tend to think that after a few months race likely recedes into the background and you move to the mundane work of building a life

But that said, I think women should remember that men--all men--are often fucking scared and intimidated. I know a lot of women are offended by lad magazines, but their subscription base says a lot about precisely how scared men are.  And not "scared of a commitment" or "intimated by your success," but literally scared of women. No one likes rejection. No man walks into the bar and says "You know what will be awesome? If I strike out repeatedly tonight." Very often, men--no matter the race--don't approach the woman they're most attracted to--they approach the woman who they think they have the best shot at. 

For the record, I think that's generally a mistake, but it's an understandable one. When we look at all these factors, and try to suss out what's actually going on, I think it's worth turning down the temperature a little and remembering that you're talking about human beings. 

*The picture is of the French politician Rama Yade, who serves in Sarkozy's government.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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