I first suspected that my friend “Michelle” didn’t like being black a few years ago when she was telling me about her cousins. I can’t remember the particulars of the story she was telling me about them. They lived out-of-town, and she planned to visit them or vice versa. They’re younger than she is, she said. And they’re white. Got it? White.
She lingered on the last word, awaiting my reaction. Her face fell when I offered her none. I was turned off that she’d disclosed her cousins’ race with the same pride some of the black kids I grew up with boasted, “I got Indian in me.” The daughter of a Nigerian father and an African-American mother, I never tried to link myself to any non-black racial group. I was pretty sure that a DNA test would reveal that my roots were overwhelmingly West African. To boot my mother came of age during the “Black is Beautiful” era and taught me not to buy into the myth that having non-black “blood” made one better, so I don’t subscribe to the theory that having white or Native American heritage gives a black person bragging rights.
My friend Michelle evidently does, though, and looked confused that name-dropping her “white cousins” failed to pique my interest. But why should it? I know that she’s black and her parents and grandparents are too. If some other relative married into a white family at some point, giving her the white cousins in question, what’s the big deal? The big deal is that she’d thought she score points with me through her association with whiteness, and she didn’t.
Michelle’s boast about her white cousins was far from the only time she made a racial crack that led me to give her the side-eye. There was the time a friend of mine, who’s actually white, invited us to a reggae club. When I told her what kind of club it was, Michelle balked. “I don’t go to black clubs,” she said. “But you’re black,” I snapped. “What are you talking about?” Eventually, she relented and tagged along to the club with me, but I was stunned that she initially declared the club off-limits because blacks frequented the place. Why wasn’t she ashamed to say this out loud, and why didn’t she think I’d be offended?
This is where my husband comes into play. He’s a white guy, and some people assume that because I married interracially I have the same racial hang-ups that they do. This is why Michelle reasoned that I should have babies so she could have some “curly-headed children” to play with. The comment reminded me of Toni Childs on the TV sitcom Girlfriends saying that her biracial baby would be her mother’s only grandchild with “good hair.” While open to dating both black and white men, Toni once rejected a potential suitor for being “too dark.” Viewers later found out that Toni had been teased for having dark skin growing up and didn’t want her child to endure the same.
I don’t know all of Michelle’s back-story. She grew up in a racially diverse area outside of Los Angeles and has never mentioned being teased because of her skin color. But let’s say she had been teased. Would that explain why she once confessed to posting an online dating ad specifically seeking white men? My jaws dropped when she admitted that. “You did what?” I asked. Michelle didn’t miss a beat. “Yes I did,” she said.
I expressed concern about the sort of white men who’d respond to such an ad. I told her that they’d probably have racial fetishes. Was she sure she’d want to go out with that type? And what about her? Why just white guys? While my husband is white, most of the men I’ve dated have not been. Frankly, I consider it a red flag when someone enters an interracial romance seeking out a particular ethnic group. It indicates that the person is more attracted to what she believes a certain race symbolizes than to an individual who happens to belong to that race.
Michelle didn’t have much to say about why she placed a personals ad exclusively looking for white men. She feels that it’s her prerogative and it is, of course. But the decisions we make about race don’t exist in a vacuum. I’ve no doubt that living in a white supremacist society has influenced Michelle to name-drop her white cousins, avoid black clubs, and seek out white dating partners. Still, I’m not quite sure how to respond to Michelle. She’s a grown woman. She can live her life how she sees fit. But more than three decades after the “Black is Beautiful” movement launched, it’s painful to see someone buy into the exact opposite theory. I don’t want to dismiss Michelle as a sellout. I want to let her know that she’s all right as is. She doesn’t have to link herself to whiteness to be valuable.
*Not her real name