It’s been so long, I can’t even remember what the column was about or how I’d drawn the ire of the reader who mailed me in response.
She was — like me — black, middle-aged and middle-class, and she disagreed vehemently with whatever I’d said that week.
She threw down the gauntlet with her closing remark: “I can tell; you’re one of those women with a white boyfriend.”
I was pleased to be able to rally back: “My boyfriend is black.” Take that.
But I was also grateful that her challenge hadn’t come the year before. Then I would have been guilty as charged, of being one of those women with a white boyfriend.
She’d meant it as an insult, and I recognized that. I recall feeling vaguely ashamed at being so blatantly called out; and relieved that I had reclaimed my place in the sisterhood by landing an acceptable mate.
It wasn’t until years later — when that relationship was done and I was surveying the pool of eligible men — that I had to ask myself, what does “one of those women” mean?
And how is it that my romantic choices somehow publicly brand me?
I’ve been thinking about those questions a lot this week, as I accompanied my brother, Stanford professor Rick Banks, talking about a book he’s written, “Is Marriage for White People?” to a series of Los Angeles audiences.
The book mixes scholarly studies and women’s stories to explain how a national decline in marriage has hit middle-class black women especially hard, leaving us alone and segregated in an increasingly integrated romantic world.
His book raises complicated issues that can’t be reduced to shorthand here and has prompted spirited public discussion with its suggestion that black women — the most un-partnered group in America — consider relationships with nonblack men.
What intrigues me is that today, when the stigma of interracial marriage has faded, we are still wrestling so emotionally with this issue — “we” being smart, strong, accomplished black women, who are wary of “crossing over” but tired of going through life alone.
Black women seem to feel bound less by societal strictures now and more by a sense of pain over the heartbreaking circumstances of black men.
But those same circumstances are what help keep middle-class black women single. Among African Americans, two women graduate from college for every man. Black men are twice as likely to marry a woman of another race.
Our first stop this week was an elegant home on a palm-lined street in Baldwin Hills, where a book club meeting was hosted by a woman who had just returned from a 15-day sailing trip through the Greek Isles, on her own. Her guests that night — lawyers, writers, teachers, business owners — were mostly single women with satisfying careers, close friends and more than a passing acquaintance with loneliness.
I heard those women reliving old choices: The white guy in college rebuffed because you didn’t trust his motives. The white co-worker who invited you to the symphony and dinner, and you thought he was just being friendly.
When one women recalled a romance with a white law school classmate that ended when he wanted to get serious and she was afraid of what might come next, her book group friends ribbed her. “I didn’t know you did that vanilla thing.”
The next night at a conference hosted by the USC Center for Law, History and Culture, the conversation was considerably different. A multi-racial audience of students considered such issues as, does marriage subjugate women?
Resistance to interracial dating wasn’t on their young radar screen.
It was standing room only on Thursday night at Eso Won Books, the literary heart of black Los Angeles.
I could sense the need to look beyond dispiriting stats and find an antidote to the isolation of black women rooted in faith, not betrayal, of beleaguered black men.
And I could hear a philosophical divide that was not racial, but generational:
The old folks blaming “spiritual disconnected-ness,” “European cultural domination,” or the “devastating impact of slavery.” The young bridling at the mention of slavery, vibrating in their seats and waving their hands to speak.
“At some point,” one woman in her twenties shouted, gesturing toward the man with the ‘slavery” comment. “You have to take responsibility for yourself and your actions.”
Slavery wasn’t the problem, another said: “In high school, they told all of us to go to college. The girls went to college. The boys went to parties.”
And now, through a cruel twist of market forces, these young black women see themselves on the sidelines while black men call the relationship shots.
I’m still wondering what pricked me so deeply about that long-ago reader’s comment. I tried to gauge from all I heard this week, what kind of black woman has a white boyfriend? Open-minded or desperate; a champion of her gender or traitor to her race; someone who is culturally secure or trying to look away from her own black face?
What kind of woman, by refusing to look beyond skin color, cheats herself in service of a painful history? Who loses when we put conditions on an open heart?
It’s hard enough to find someone you love without making romance a test of racial solidarity.