In the African American community today, a conversation is taking place about the idea of beauty and acceptance of black women by black men. Much has been made of African American male celebrities dating non-African American women, specifically white women.
On May 7, Childish Gambino—a.k.a Donald Glover, actor/producer/director—debuted a song and music video entitled “This is America.” Going platinum in less than a month, and breaking the record for first-week views on YouTube (85.3 million), the song/video graphically portrayed police brutality and social issues faced by African Americans.
For his ability to dramatize critical matters, Glover has been celebrated. And with the spotlight comes exposure. Not just on the man’s work, but on the man himself. As the father of two children with his Caucasian girlfriend, Glover is now getting some backlash from people who accuse him of being a hypocrite, talking about black issues but choosing a Caucasian partner. I personally have no problem with him being with a Caucasian woman. But it made me think about my upbringing in a predominantly white community and how much that influenced the types of females I was attracted to and dated when I was younger.
I have followed Childish Gambino over the years. I remember watching an interview on The Breakfast Club Power 105.1, in which he asserted he would never marry a Caucasian woman. His argument was that, in order to empower and celebrate black women, he needed to stay within the black culture. I am curious about what happened in four years that changed his perspective.
I also could not help but think about Kanye West, someone who has been in the news frequently for his rants and undesirable behaviors. He provokes people on all sides. His Twitter rants supporting President Trump and saying they are both made from the same dragon blood has enraged many fans and critics. He equates his tweets to being a free thinker. He claims that many people are imprisoned by the ideology of right and wrong and what the culture accepts at any given time, and that people should be able to think freely. As I read his Twitter rants and about the backlash they created, I also began to notice how much Kanye celebrates Caucasian females. He also married Kim Kardashian, one of the most polarizing Caucasian female reality stars who became famous as the result of a sex tape. I have never seen Kanye celebrate African American female beauty. However, I did not need him to celebrate it in order to influence how I feel about African American females. Furthermore, unlike Kanye and Glover, who chose black then white, I took the opposite path. I wondered why.
Growing up in New Hampshire, a predominantly white state, influenced my perspective on beauty and my definition of what was beautiful. No one told me one ethnicity was more beautiful than the other but the preferences of my white community influenced my views. When I moved to America, I was nine and a half and not quite ready to enter puberty. There were very few African girls or African American girls in my elementary school classes. By the time I got to my 99.9% white middle school, there were only two black girls in the entire school. By that point I did not think much about African girls or African American girls; I thought very much like my male white friends. They only spoke about white girls who were attractive to them. And that naturally influenced me to consider only white girls to date as well. I grew up in a household of all boys, with my mother as the only female. I did not have sisters to reinforce my desire to be attractive to black girls. I did find black girls attractive but I was not searching for them. I did not think of them as girls I had crushes on. This was very different than when I was growing up in Africa. All I knew of beauty when I was in the Congo was the Congolese girls I had crushes on, but I was way too young for it to mean anything.
Middle School Love
By 7th grade I had my first official girlfriend, who was biracial—half white and half Latina. She was a student in my homeroom. We were too young for the relationship to be anything. I barely spoke to her. She was just my girlfriend by title. I would talk to her on the phone sometimes and went to several school dances with her. I am not sure what she thought of me. I never spoke to her about ethnicity or race. I met her family, including her mother, older sister and younger brother. She and her family seemed to accept me. I dated her for a few months before we broke up. After that brief interracial relationship, I dated only Caucasian female classmates between 7th grade and 8th grade. In 8th grade, one of my good friends, an African from Congo, told me she liked me. I could not even think of her as someone I could date. I am sure it was partially because, at that point, I did not see myself dating an African girl or African American girl. It was a shame because she was pretty and a very good person. I chose Caucasian girls to date even when I was a little unsure of them, but when it came to a black girl, I could not give her a chance. At the time I was not aware of how much society and my environment influenced my perspective on beauty and acceptance. I was yearning for the approval of my classmates and dating a “hot white girl” seemed a right way to get it. The community in middle school accepted me and I was a pretty popular kid, so I thought with that going for me, dating “hot white girls” would come next.
High School Relationships
I attended a public high school that was very large and had a little more diversity. But still I found myself gravitating even more towards Caucasian girls. I had a substantial number of Latina and black girls as friends but never viewed them as people I could date. My experience in middle school laid the foundation for me. I also felt that, if I dated Caucasian girls, I was “in” and able to cross cultures in a school that felt very segregated.
In most of my classes, I was the only African American male. Because I spoke up a lot in class and danced at school assemblies, some Caucasian girls were aware of me. Some of my minority friends had hard time “spitting game” to white girls (communicating with Caucasian girls), but I had had much more experience in middle school. However, I was very cautious about having a girlfriend in high school. I did not want to be distracted from my schoolwork and my dancing, and felt that most girls were just playing games. I dated some girls but those dates never turned into a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. One of the first times I experienced racial/ethnic differences was during my sophomore year while I explored dating a Caucasian girl. I was talking to her on the phone one time and she said, “My father and mother asked me, ‘If you and Deo got married and had a family, how would you feel if people gave you funny looks or said mean things to you or to your kids?’” I was shocked that her parents would speak that way to her, to discourage her from dating me. First of all, I was not planning to marry this girl, so her parents raising that issue convinced me not to associate myself with her. I cut it off with her quickly.
That experience hit me hard, and brought me to reality. I never thought that the white community I interacted with was blinded by my blackness. I thought I was “in” and fully accepted. I had gotten too comfortable and had immediately dismissed any thought that some of my friends’ parents might have had problems with me dating or being friends with their daughters. But after this incident, I thought about it for weeks. I started to look at people a little differently. I wondered how many times the families of the Caucasian girls I dated in the past had had conversations like that without me knowing. I decided to lie low for a while, until my junior year when I met a girl who was biracial, half black and half white, Lakisha. That girl is the one I ended up marrying, and eleven years later we have three amazing kids.
I was lost within my cultural identity and my definition of beauty and attractiveness, entirely influenced by my environment. I learned a lot by dating my wife back in high school. She was tough but very sweet. She did not mess around. She could defend herself if she needed to. She was raised by her strong, white mother in a very multicultural neighborhood. Her friends included African Americans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and of course white too. Her neighborhood was not the worst neighborhood, nor was it the safest. Something about her personality drew me to her. We were very good friends first before we eventually started dating. I was a little hesitant to date her at first but I was definitely attracted to her. Even with a biracial girlfriend, I still felt like I played it safe because of her mixed features, which made her look more Latina or Indian/Pakistani. Her heart and experiences definitely made her relatable for me.
The Realization of My Perspective
It was not until college that I started to confront my views of African and African American women. During my freshman year, I worked for an after-school program that served inner city students from 4th through 12th grade. The program, called BRINGIT, helped students who were new immigrants, African Americans and Latinos. I saw much insecurity in our female students. I started to better understand their challenges and how they viewed beauty by listening to their concerns and seeing the ways in which they presented themselves. I also saw it with some of the boys. The African males who were in our program were active in sports and were becoming more Americanized, gravitating more towards white girls. In observing them, I became uncomfortable about my own past positioning and decided to start celebrating my kind. I would make sure that any female student engaging in negative self-talk would also be able to find something about herself to celebrate. I played African music so the girls in my dance class could celebrate where they came from. I would compliment the traditional garments they wore from their home country and any cool braids or cornrows in their hair.
When we are the minority in our particular community, we cannot allow the definition of beauty to lie in the hands of those who are a different ethnicity. We have to be able to celebrate our own ethnic beauty. We all have our own perspective of what’s beautiful and what we’re attracted to. It is important to reflect on and evaluate the influence of that if you find yourself bashing and minimizing the beauty of your own ethnicity. It is particularly important if you find yourself discouraged about losing status if you marry someone from your own ethnicity. There are many things that influence our definition of beauty, but we must be careful not to let status seeking, worldly success and external affirmation influence whom we choose to pursue. I believe many different things influence attraction, but we cannot be governed by a definition of beauty that emanates from the majority culture.
I have come a long way in realizing where I went wrong in my definition of beauty and who I was attracted to when I was younger. My environment heavily influenced my pursuit of white girls. It kept me from appreciating and celebrating those with whom I shared the same skin color. I am appreciative that my experience with BRINGIT helped me realize the challenges black girls face with how our society defines beauty.
I am not saying people should date or marry only within their own ethnicity. I’m simply saying it is important to celebrate the beauty of girls and women of your own ethnicity—especially when they are the minority. In this case, I’m speaking mainly of my African and African American sisters who have to live in a society that does not fully embrace their beauty.