Dating While Black and Female. It’s a real thing, people.
(Of all the things going on in the world, who would have predicted that this is what I’d finally get agitated enough to post about? I’m not sure what that says about me; I don’t think it’s something good.)
We’ve been steeped in contrasting pairs of hashtags lately: #BlackLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter, #NotAllMen, #YesAllWomen, #LivingWhileBlack, #CrimingWhileWhite. The #CrimingWhileWhite was a supportive contrasting tag to highlight racial disparities and injustices; but in the other pairs, #AllLivesMatter and #NotAllMen have been attempts to diminish or negate real concerns about the difficulties and differing realities experienced by women and black people in our society. Now, my dating struggles do not rise to the level of a societal injustice. 🙂 Nonetheless, I experience echoes of similar frustration when I get #DatingWhileHuman’d after I try to explain why dating while me is unusually difficult and frustrating.
The fullness of my unique personality is tolerable only for a select subset of the population; likewise, no one is attractive to everyone (Idris Elba being the obvious exception). So, having realized and moved away from the bizarro pathologies of my previous attitudes toward sex and relationships, I don’t expect all – or even the vast majority – of men I meet in person or online to find me viable as a dating partner. On the other hand, I also did not expect the number of people (random men on the street excluded) interested in actually going on a date with me to be exactly two since 2009. So what’s the deal?
It’s possible I’m just a horrible person to date, and my exes are vigorously spreading the word. Assuming, however that a) I am not exceptionally more terrible than most other humans in the dating pool and b) my exes aren’t villains intent on ruining my social life, it seems there must be a more plausible explanation. Despite the fact that I frequently voice frustration with the whole dating enterprise, I have regularly attempted the modern version of hanging out my dating shingle: online dating sites. I’ve actually been using dating sites since well before it was something you’d openly admit, so I’ve got a good 15 years of working in the medium. And up until six years ago, I’d been at least passably successful in finding both dates and relationships.
But online dating has changed, and I have changed. My favorite, dearly departed site was Yahoo! Personals, back before it became a pay site. The freewheeling, people-secretly-trying-to-find-love-on-here atmosphere came with its full share of creepies and crazies; I went on a date with at least one. But it also tended to come with less pre-judging: there were no compatibility profiles, no match questions, and just some basic demographic facts. Race was one of those facts, absolutely; but back in the age where no one felt entitled to their “perfect” match, people were a little more willing to chance meeting a new person who might be outside of their preconceived notions of a mate.
Even back in the day, sites like Match.com, with their more “sophisticated” matching systems, yielded me worse experiences; I rarely got initial contacts or responses, and those that I did get never translated into dates. So by the time I was back on the dating market after 3 years, online dating had become a much less appealing prospect, as the advent of Match and eHarmony made folks a lot more picky – and not in the good way. And suddenly, I began to experience the true aggravation of DWBF online, as few contacts shifted to almost no contacts in short order.
My last successful foray into online was born of a period of spiritual as well as sexual frustration, where I finally said, “Screw it” – literally. Very few people who’ve ever been on AdultFriendFinder will admit to such, but you probably know someone who has. (And now you definitely do.) My thinking was pretty simple: perhaps if I start with people who are already willing to have sex with me, I’ll be able to find someone who is both willing to have sex with me and a nice person I want to spend time with out of bed.
AFF wasn’t my proudest dating moment for a number of reasons. (Sidebar: nonetheless, I’m quite thankful that the Lord, despite my active rebellion, led me on the site to the best dating relationship I’ve had, and eventually through that process back into my relationship with Him. God is good, all the time!) But beyond the moral rebellion, it also was the result of a growing frustration: the sense that, no matter what the site, no matter how I tried to present myself in my profile, being a black woman always meant my chances of even getting a first date were slim to none. (Let’s not even talk about being a black woman who’s not a virgin on a Christian site … that deserves its own rant.) And the fact that it worked – that I had to start with the sex to find someone who was willing to get to know me as a person – I don’t even know how to describe that BS.
In the times that I’ve been back online since that last relationship, my experience hasn’t gotten better. I’m still black; and neither aging nor becoming heavier over the years have improved my prospects. While I go back each time hopeful and fully engaged, the silence from the void of whatever site I happened to be on tends to swallow that hope fairly quickly. Contacts are still rare, and it takes an enormous amount of effort for me to generate one or two reasonable responses. Dates are none.
And that’s the thing that distinguishes my online experience from that of my other single friends, all of whom are white or lighter-skinned than I am, regardless of their age or weight: it would be one thing if I just wasn’t finding “THE one.” It’s another thing not to be able to find “ANY one interested in talking for a half hour to see if we might be interested in each other.” Dating can be crappy all around; feeling like you couldn’t date if you tried is a different level. And so, as much as it’s depressing to see it confirmed, this assessment from OK Cupid of the response rates for their users by race was also validating: finally, something that let me know that I haven’t just been making this stuff up for years and years; it’s not “just in my head.”
It’s worth noting at this point in my rant that I operate in a mostly white world, both online and offline. I grew up and went to school in predominantly white suburbs in Massachusetts and Virginia; I studied at predominantly white schools and went to work in the dismally white architecture and design field. It wasn’t until I went to grad school for public administration that I was in classes where I couldn’t count the number of black people in class on one hand (a welcome surprise!). When I went back to work in nonprofits, I enjoyed seeing more people of color in my workplaces – but they were almost all women. And I lived almost all my adult life in the white areas of the strongly racially segregated Boston metro region. Most of my friends come from work, school and volunteering in my community – which meant being the “only one in the room” more often than not; and even when I wasn’t, rarely being in the room with an available man of color.
And yes, that matters. I’m not friends with people who are overtly racist, because I don’t need that in my life. But that doesn’t mean that social and cultural manifestations of white supremacy and anti-blackness don’t shape how we view each other and what we’re attracted to. I haven’t seriously dated someone I met socially since the ’90s; a major motivator in going online in the first place was my recognition that I was not considered dateable in my social circle. No, no one came out and said to me at that time, “You can’t date any of these folks because you’re black” (although, yes, for the record, I’ve had the joy of having a white friend tell me it “just wouldn’t look right” if I dated a white boy we both knew). But you begin to notice who is tagged as a desirable dating partner within a community, and you sure as heck notice when it isn’t anyone like you. Your social circle is the #1 way to find a dating partner, and online dating has now become #2. For me, it turns out both are a bust.
This is where my frustration comes in. More than one person reading this is going to think, “She keeps saying that the problem is race, but maybe it’s just her, y’know? She’s kind of bitter and more than a little desperate and just might not be that attractive.” Even some of you who know me are probably thinking some portion of that. And it makes me want to scream, having people try to comfort me or advise me or admonish me by saying that this thing I’ve been dealing with in one form or another my whole life isn’t real and isn’t really affecting me. So I have to try and dig up some professionals who’ve written an article or done a study to prove that I’m not talking out of my ass, and that maybe dating really is different for black people in general and black women in particular.
No matter what, though, some people will think it’s just me and my attitude, and if I were only happier and more content and stopped “playing the race card” and also stopped caring about finding a partner the right person would magically appear. Even the main “expert” quoted in that article suggests at the end that black millenials should stay positive and “reject the heightened sense of racial sensitivity” that they may be experiencing. My response to that tends to be something unprintable. Racialized preferences in dating are not anywhere near the level of issues like police brutality, mass incarceration, or economic injustice in terms of their effect on black communities and the urgency of addressing them. But that doesn’t mean I have to pretend that my dating world is colorblind or that the effects of our society’s dating culture aren’t real and painful for me and others like me.
BTW, those two guys who’ve sought to date me since 2009? Both of them were black, and I didn’t meet either of them online. One I went on a date with, the other I didn’t; in neither case did I feel attracted to them. (If people want to argue that I’m then being too picky, I’d ask them to reconsider the underlying assumption that I’d better enter into a relationship with anyone who offers, because I’m a beggar and I can’t be a chooser. That’s also BS.) I’m hoping that living in an area with more black professional men will make it more possible for me to find dating partners, whether in person or online. That said, the apparent reality that I need to restrict myself to solely dating “within my race” – or offer sex up front to overcome racial preferences – remains one of those nagging personal reminders that “post-racial” and “colorblind” are figments of our societal imagination.