“No problem,” he reassured me with a kind nod.
This encounter was nothing unusual; I frequently have similar encounters with strangers at the grocery store. However, as I strolled past this man’s cart full of baby wipes, pullup diapers, fresh fruit and his own box of Rice Krispies, I felt an immense amount of guilt.
I am a black woman who has never dated a black man, and most days I don’t think twice about that. But sometimes, like when I encounter a well-dressed family man with a mutual love for certain breakfast cereals, I wonder if I am failing my people.
After all, 50 years ago in many states it was still illegal for us to marry anyone who was not also black. The gravity of that is not lost on me. Although race relations are still far from perfect, I acknowledge the steps toward inclusion that we’ve made. Nevertheless, I still feel that, by not dating black men, I’m neglecting the shared history, solidarity and future prosperity of my fellow people.
As a young girl and even throughout college, I was frequently annoyed when my peers would suggest that I would magically find a partner if I exclusively pursued black men. White guys will never love you like black guys, they would say. I resented those comments, believing that my love should not be bound to the color of my skin or anyone else’s.
Even when I have expressed romantic interest in black guys, it has always been a futile effort. That was perhaps the most frustrating aspect of my well-meaning friends’ advice. My experiences date back as early as middle school, when I was infatuated with a black classmate for three years. That all came to a screeching halt when he, fully aware of my crush on him, teased me in front of my friends at my 13th birthday party.
I was 19 the first time a man of color actually expressed halfhearted interest in me; he was a biracial friend who repeatedly asked me out and then repeatedly forced me to pay for these dates. Meanwhile, throughout high school and college, the few black men I knew found my blackness as subpar to theirs. I was criticized for my preppy wardrobe and my music tastes, and on more than one occasion I was accused of wanting to be white.
As time passed, I realized that being black didn’t mean I had to look or act a certain way. I could love my skin and also love Britney Spears and country music. Blackness isn’t homogeneous, but it took me a while to see that.
As a black woman, I wanted to be seen as attractive to more than just black men. This wasn’t simply because I’ve always believed in inclusivity, but also because I grew up surrounded by white people. If I waited for a black guy who liked me to apparate out of thin air, I would have waited a decade. But even if my options for black men were limitless, I’ve never viewed attraction as black or white.
Black guys have more easily understood my gripes about my hair or institutional injustice. But I’ve long known that there is no such thing as a perfect partner. I’ve simply focused on finding a great man. Along the way, I’ve dated white guys who wanted to learn about blackness; white guys who pretended my blackness didn’t exist; a Jewish guy who was well-meaning but politically infuriating; and a Honduran man who promptly ditched me for my best friend. None of them have been the right fit for me, but that wasn’t because they weren’t black.
My best match so far has been a blue-eyed engineer with perfect teeth. More important than his looks are his kind heart and gentle spirit. I’ve gladly shared my version of black love with him. For us, that means learning about each other’s cultures. He teaches me about German beer and soccer chants; I familiarize him with my Caribbean culture and Jamaican cuisine. Together, we like to listen to Lauryn Hill’s music and watch soul-stirring documentaries on incarceration. But the aspect of our love that I’m most grateful for is that I’m finally loved because of my Afro-Caribbean heritage, not in spite of it.
Still, at times I feel ashamed for dating outside my race. I am an ally to my people, but I have not connected with them in the deepest way possible — romantic love. How can I support the advancement of black people if I have never let down my walls for a black man myself?
It’s not that I am not happy in my current relationship. I am. Rather, I am torn between the progressiveness I naturally pursue and the regressive nature of a society that still makes me feel “less black” for dating a white man.
That day in the grocery store, I stood in the checkout line behind that handsome black man with the Rice Krispies. He was now joined by a small toddler and a very pregnant wife. He embraced his wife and child lovingly as she brought a pint of Ben & Jerry’s to the cart at the last minute.
His wife and I caught eyes, and I flashed her a smile.
I am not dating a black man, and I feel less guilty about it each day. Sometimes the smallest of encounters remind me that love should not be bound by rules, and definitely not by race.