Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Gendering the Discourse About Interracial Relationships

"More Black Women Consider 'Dating Out'"

This little Associated Press story has been popping up quite a lot this week. Latoya Peterson over at Racialicious first brought it to my attention via e-mail (and has subsequently written an article about it) and I noticed its heavy presence last night on my Google News page. Why? What about black/white female/male relationships still made them "something new"? Was the presence of interracial relationships involving a black female so limited that it had to be presented as a phenomenon?

Given, it's less frequent coupling than black male/white female relationships, and black men are more likely to marry a partner of a different race than black women. Yet as a community, blacks in America (this includes the black immigrant population as well) in general tend to marry "outside" of their race less than whites, Asian-Americans, and people who identify as Latino/a. Oddly enough, I see relatively NO coverage regarding people who identify as of Arab descent or even South Asian descent (as Asian-American in the United States often refers to people of East Asian heritage), but that's another article.

Going back to my original question, why now? Why so much attention from the media because black women are dating white men?

I think it's all about good timing.

For one thing, we have a white woman and a black man as presidential hopefuls. Their and their spouses positioning on the gender and racial grid is incredibly significant. Barack Obama symbolizes the multi-ethnic/multi-racial future and leadership our country once feared and is living proof that men of African descent can make highly efficient leaders, despite what statistics say. Hillary Clinton is the poster-child for feminism and the emerging power of women in the United States as she debunks of the stereotype of white women being impotent (i.e. less likely to be employed, less financially successful) in comparison to their partners. Michelle Obama is seen as the ultimate black woman, balancing parenting, spousal support, and at one point a full-time career. Bill Clinton is seen as America's first black president. All four, at some point or another, have been seen as a threat for going against cultural and gender-based norms associated with the group to which they respectively belong.

What better a time to write an article about the coupling of blacks and whites when we see it at play on the political stage? In particular, an article about a coupling that is often ignored in media representations of interracial relationships?

Secondly, it seems like media backpedaling to diffuse some of the negative attention often geared toward black male/white female interracial relationships. The last stories I heard about such relationships involved Jessie Marie Davis, a white woman in a relationship with a black man who is presently a suspect in her murder, and black Boise State football player Ian Johnson and his white fiance, both of whom received threats because they are an interracial couple.

Not exactly the best-case-scenarios for black male/white female IRs.

So maybe the press is attempting to overcompensate for these somewhat disheartening portrayals with something a little lighter?

But at the core, I see this article, whether intentional or not, as adding a very interesting spark to the discussion surrounding such relationships: gender.

We often discuss interracial relationships in terms of race, but rarely via the multiple gender dynamics at play, at least not explicitly. I have heard people say on countless occasions that black men date/marry white women as a means of advancing their social mobility. White women are viewed (unfairly, in my opinion) as a simple trophy, a status symbol, a notch in the belt of a black man who has "made it." White women, in turn, are portrayed as weak, one of the prime motivating factors for black men to date them, in order to feel powerful in a society that continuously puts them down. Yet in creating these stereotypes about black male/white female interracial relationships, those who believe could be buying into stereotypes about the other end of the spectrum as well, one that reinforces black women's positions as eternally strong and completely immutable.

Such coverage allows journalists to re-emphasize these stereotypes about black women, black men, and black families, for example, by constantly harping on how black women have a reluctant attitude toward change (we apparently REFUSE, en masse, to date non-black men), how black families prohibit black women from dating non-black men (ahem, how many times have we heard the argument "well, white men raped black women on the plantations, so black families are protective of black women and critical of interracial relationships involving black women"?), and that black women are dating "outside" their race because they have no other choice (black men are at the bottom of the barrel, right?). Mind you, these all have a kernel of truth, but for the most part, their meaning is distorted and blown far beyond reasonable proportion, resulting in a polarization of the opinions of their readers.

Gender plays a huge role in the coverage of black female/white male interracial relationships because the assumptions many of the articles make highlight perceived sexism within the black community. By limiting black women's sexual and romantic partners by way of sheltering them from racist fetishization and a re-living of antebellum gender-based oppression, black families and black society as a whole is portrayed as sexist and regressive, especially in light of the fact that black women are constantly shown as the model minority in comparison to black men. By making a spectacle of black female/white male relationships, the press is ultimately bolstering this stereotype. See black men? Black women have outgrown you. They can do better, and better means getting a white partner.

Imagine if articles were written in the same way about black male/white female relationships. While the message in relation to these relationships is more implicit, an explicit articulation of such an argument would cause outrage. Yet as associating with whiteness and relationships with whites are still seen as an opportunity to elevate one's status, I wonder if discussing black female/white male IRs in the popular media will allow for a more complete discussion of stereotypes about black women and why we are not considered desirable partners in terms of beauty norms and even behavioral expectations. Will the fact that the press realizes that some white men like us change the way we are portrayed? Will it soften us? Is that even so important, and why are white men the enabler of such a change (at least, for the press)?

It's a complicated situation for which I am not offering any answers. I myself am in favor of people dating whoever treats them well, no matter the person's race/ethnic background/gender, etc. It's a personal decision that we should be allowed to make on as individuals, not facing external pressure or disapproval solely because of one aspect of our partner's identity. But I can't help but be suspicious of the media's treatment of relationship types that fall a bit outside the margins. They make them appear as oddities in a sea of normalcy, a fad if you wish, and I don't think that's going in the right direction.

- Wendi Muse

1 comment:

The Kaiserist said...

Good post. The media always has a biased or an agenda to push. (knowledge is power and the media has a monopoly on knowledge, information, and will use it for their own gain). As for interracial relationships, I am neither for it nor against it, I am for people deciding on their own (seams like many now in days make this choice for the wrong reasons).

Unfortunately the media will mess things up as usual, some will few this as putting down the blacks of America, while some will say that they are trying to destroy white people by mixing them with non-whites. I would think the media would have better things to cover then who is dating who. But then again they give more air time to Paris Hilton and all the other role models, than to the wars and our soldiers fighting and dieing.