Black-White Interracial Relationships
One of the many reasons that I love staying in hotels is that I get to watch cable TV. And although I have had cable for about a year—as a side-attraction to the best telephone deal we could find--I only have the 5,000 or so basic channels. So on my recent hotel stay, I was rather excited to have access to HBO. I salivated when I saw an advertisement for comedian Chris Rock's "Kill the Messenger" special on that channel. And this treat was the impetus for getting back to the hotel by 9:30 one evening. One joke has stayed with me since then. Without giving it away, Rock tries to answer the following question: Why are more black men romantically paired with white women than black women are with white men?
It was not until the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia , that interracial marriages became legal in the U.S. There are many aspects of this case that are striking, but in the context of this post, it is remarkable that this landmark case was of a black woman and white man. This combination of race and gender is noteworthy because, although interracial marriages are relatively rare overall, those of black women to white men are rarer still. (The most recent census data put these unions at about 7% of all U.S. marriages. Although this is a marked increase from 40 years ago, it is still a very low percentage.)
In the last 27 years, despite enormous social shifts in American society, there is nothing approaching equality in terms of the ratios of black men and women who choose white spouses. Looking at the graph below, you will see that the black female/white male pairings of today are about what they were 30 years ago for black male/white female dyads. (The blue line represents black husband/white wife). In other words, today, white men and black women marry at about the same rate that black men and white women married about three decades ago.
Even when we look at interracial cohabitation, black men are far more likely than black women to be living with a white partner of the opposite sex. In fact, 82% of blacks cohabiting with whites are male. Why is this so?
As I contemplate this question, I can’t help but reflect on my own experiences in the world of dating. When I attended USC—which had, and still has, a majority white student body—I felt invisible to white men—completely and totally invisible. It was like I didn’t exist to them, not as a person, let alone as a woman. Of course, there were exceptions. My professors recognized me and knew my name. And a fellow first year graduate student once gave me a lift home on his motorcycle. This time at USC was notable for me because my experience there was in great contrast to some of my experiences when I lived among large populations of blacks; from an early age, I was used to men and boys noticing and admiring me. Any feminist worth her sensible shoes will disavow whistles, but it was an odd, if not unwelcome experience for me to be so ignored. How typical or not was my experience?
If it is typical, it would begin to explain why there are fewer black female/white male romances. If men are still mostly the initiators of relationships, one explanation may be that men—regardless of their own race—have been exposed to a similar beauty standard. And that beauty standard is white. Tall, thin, straight- haired white women is the image most of are bombarded with as being beautiful. All men seeking that image would be seeking white women. (This is not to suggest that these relationships remain at a superficial level.) Given this standard, who would be attracted to me? This is a question that I considered as a single woman in Los Angeles. I chose to wear my hair in braids, before cutting it to little more than peach fuzz. Neither of these hairstyles created a look reminiscent of “the average girl from the video” or those on magazine covers. Perhaps, these looks underscore why I was invisible to white males at USC.
Many sociologists have used social exchange theory to explain interracial marriage. Maybe this seems cold, especially in relation to romantic relationships, but this theory asks us to think about the costs and benefits of relationships. It posits that we keep relationships in which their benefits out weigh their costs. Unfortunately it does not provide an explanation for why there are more white female-black male pairs than the other way around? (Can you guess what social exchange theory has to say about the characteristics of whites and blacks that do intermarry?)