In one of my first “real” relationships, my then high school boyfriend– a popular jock– cheated on me with a White girl. Then he broke up with me to make things official with her. I began to see them everywhere, walking the halls together hand-in-hand. She was average, in my opinion. As I scanned her from head to toe, I couldn’t find what made her so much more desirable than I was. She was no prettier, no smarter than I. So why was he so quick to ditch me for her?
It would be almost a decade until I found the answer to that question in a book called Is Marriage For White People. The book detailed, chapter by chapter, the unfair dating and marriage reality that Black women face in America. Not only are we burdened by racism that makes us the most “undesirable women” in the dating market (even to many Black men), but discriminatory practices have landed plenty of men behind bars or saddled them with felony records and Black women have quickly outpaced their male counterparts in education and employment attainment creating a strain in the relationship between black women and men. While the books illuminated the statistics that helped me to better understand these issues on a macro, societal issue, I was long acquainted with the limited dating and marriage options black women have through personal experience. The stats were stacked up against me and I always knew it.
That first real relationship would be one of many where my black womanhood became a liability. Where it meant I was somehow not worthy of love or commitment. Or even respect.
“I can’t really date a black girl seriously,” a Jewish guy I went out on a date with during college explained over drinks, “My family definitely wants me to marry a nice Jewish girl, but I’m open to having some fun.”
He was one of the many non-Black men I tried to date while in college in New York City, after having a hard time finding available young black men to date on my college campus, since black women have far outpaced Black men in college enrollment by a ratio of 2:1. Though branded a liberal and open-minded city, coming into adulthood in a space rife with hook-up culture meant that this open-mindedness merely translated into sexual curiosity for my Black body, not respect of it.
“I’d love to be with a Black girl; I never have before,” another white male suitor proclaimed with a grin.
While I was able to forge a couple of relationships with men that were both fulfilling and mutually respectful, many of those “dating” interactions had a huge impact, even taking a significant toll on my self-esteem. I understood my place. I didn’t push conversations about looking for a relationship too hard, because I didn’t want to seem needy or pushy.
“What are you looking for?” dates would inquire.
“I’m open to anything”, I would reply meekly.
I also accepted that, perhaps I would have to “settle” for a partner: You know, find a fixer upper as many Black women around me had begun to do. Some of my closest Black girl friends were having kids with men who had other “baby mommas”, few job prospects and always felt like their manhood was being threatened by their partner’s success. I envisioned the same for myself– a miserable dating life and a future with few prospects for marriage or finding a committed, loving partner with whom I could build a family.
Then I started to travel.
In Trinidad and Tobago, I noticed an immediate change in my desirability. As a college-educated woman in her twenties, with a budding career and no children, from one of the most economically powerful countries in the world, my position in the majority Black/Indian twin nation drastically improved from what it was back in the States.
“I’d like to get married and have kids in a few years,” my date established, as we chatted during dinner at a restaurant overlooking the ocean.
I was taken aback by his willingness to discuss commitment, marriage and family. The three things that most men back in America consistently avoided. This wasn’t an anomaly either. Many men I encountered while in Trinidad were not hesitant to talk about their relationships or a desire for one. And all of a sudden, I became a woman with options. Immediately, my expectations shifted. Why the heck should I settle for anything but the best? I questioned myself. Thoughts that I should settle somehow became alien in the 5 months I spent in Trinidad. That was because my position in the dating ladder had changed and, of course, I was happy to take full advantage of that change, transforming my sense of self-worth and in the course rebuilding my self-confidence.
These experiences were not restricted to Trinidad and Tobago either. While travelling through South East Asia, men displayed the same interest in actually getting to know me. I went on dates, for change and none felt it appropriate to ask me if I wanted to “Netflix and chill” when I barely knew them. Though the beautiful islands of Hawai’i are a part of America, even dating there proved to be more successful than whatever excuse for dating I had previously endured back on the East Coast. I planned a trip to several countries in Africa in 2017 to further test my international dating luck. However, only time will tell that tale.
This is not to say that I expect men from anywhere in the world to be perfect: No matter where Black women go, they will encounter sexism and disrespectful men. However, the crushing burden of America’s systemic racism that claimed the freedom of far too many Black men and labelled Black women “undesirable”, proves to exacerbate circumstances that are already difficult to navigate all on their own. Travel may not lead every Black woman to the love of their lives, but it can help teach us how to love ourselves, once more.
I recently returned to the East Coast to run a tennis camp during the summer and decided that despite my inclination to run away from NYC dating, I would give it a try again. Now a few years older and more confident in knowing that I do have choices– opportunities to find happiness with a partner elsewhere– I won’t capitulate to the false premise that I should settle.
“What are you looking for?” potential dates typically ask before our dates, as they did before.
“A man who can inspire me, support me, respect me and nothing less,” I state confidently. In my travels, I found the confidence to refuse to settle for anything else.