Jesse Williams isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) Black man to date non-Black women. But that’s also not necessarily the point.
by Cameron Glover
Jesse Williams and the #WokeBae collective: it’s high time that we have a talk.
Of course, Jesse Williams isn’t the first (and won’t be the last) Black man to date non-Black women. But that’s also not necessarily the point. Even in 2017, talking about interracial dating — even within the Black community — is still a charged and difficult conversation. And it gets even more complicated when we try to connect interracial dating to the social justice work that many of us are involved in.
So let’s put this question on the table: does it really matter that “woke” Black men have non-Black romantic partners?’
On an individual basis, the question is undoubtedly “no.” But this isn’t about what we individually feel — it’s about a society that’s so enraptured with white supremacy and anti-Black racism that we’re unable to have a community call-in about what these things mean for us. It’s unfair to frame the question simply to a “do Black folks need to revoke their wokeness when they date non-Black folks?” when, instead, we should be examining how we can do better at unpacking decolonization and white supremacy in our love lives.
Of course, we need to look at how race and dating has unfolded historically. Interracial marriage was completely illegal in this country until 1967, with the Loving v. Virginia case.
But before that, Black love was disregarded and invalidated. Slaves found their own ways to uphold love and marriage traditions — most people are probably familiar with “jumping the broom,” which was a way for slaves to recognize their marriages to each other when they didn’t have the power to be officially recognized anywhere else.
Similar to hair, interracial dating is still used as a way to police the way that Black women and femmes move through the world. Misogyny and misogynoir make it clear that even if Black men date interracially, they are not critiqued, belittled and subjected to gendered violence at the same rate as Black women and femmes are. When straight, cis Black men date interracially, it is regarded as a symbol of status; dating a white woman is a marker that you have reached peak success as a Black man. It is a public symbol of your desirability and masculinity. For Black women who date men, dating interracially can lead you to be heralded everything from a race traitor to becoming an even visible target for misogynoir.
Interracial dating becomes even more loaded for Black folks who are LGBTQ+. White supremacy and colonization are so entrenched in every facet of our lives that those who most closely resemble this projected ideal (that is: cis, white, conventionally attractive, thin, able-bodied and neurotypical) are the ones that are seen and upheld as the most desirable. The politics are ingrained subconsciously into all of us, and even when we move to not participate in that hierarchy, we can still subconsciously uphold these standards. Often, this is where things become messy — POC and white folks alike can move to dodge accountability and say that this is simply a “preference,” which discounts and trivializes the very real effects of white supremacy and colonization in the lives of Black and other people of color.
Not to mention that anti-Blackness is so embedded in our society that Black women are constantly deemed the “least attractive and desirable” of all women. From scientific studies to informal polls conducted on dating sites, Black women are bombarded with the illusion that our Blackness makes us undesirable. This is misogynoir, and it hurts to see Black men participate so willingly in it, intentionally or not.
So let me be clear: Upholding white supremacy in our love lives is a separate thing from dating interracially. There are plenty of Black folks who have non-Black partners who are committed, loving, pro-Black individuals. And that’s great. But just as it’s not fair to demonize anyone who has a non-Black spouse, it’s a disservice to say that interracial dating should be upheld over having partners from the same community as you.
If you’re Black, you’re not automatically better or worse than the rest of the community if you chose to date interracially. It’s when we absolve ourselves from being held responsible for upholding white supremacy in our love lives, or we use interracial dating as a way to expose anti-Blackness, that it becomes toxic.
Hoteps and well-meaning-but-ultimately-missing-the-point Black men often overemphasize the interest that Black women have in the fact that they date interracially, unfairly chalking it up to misogynoir-based stereotypes (“Black women are too angry,” “Black women are too independent”). In the words of Robin Stokes of Waiting to Exhale, “a white woman can have your sorry ass.”
There are Black men who are committed to doing the work of absolving the oppression that rages through our community, and that’s commendable. But being a public social justice figure does not automatically absolve Black men of being decent people outside of that work. Many men — Black and non-Black alike — use social justice circles to further perpetuate their misogyny and abuse. How do we hold these men accountable to upholding white supremacy and oppression in their love lives?
Who we date, marry, or are romantically involved with are not immune to the effects of white supremacy and oppression. There’s no simple answer to whether or not we should date outside of our race — it’s an individual decision that we are all entitled to make on our own. The conversation of interracial dating in the Black community has been going on for decades, and will no doubt continue. But it’s important that we make space to discuss the ways that colonization, desirability, misogynoir, and anti-Black racism work to oppress those within the Black community.
Woke or not, we need to understand the history and impact that interracial dating has on our community — and use that to guide us in having more nuanced, respectful, and evolving conversations around it.