The "Bring Me Home a Black Girl" debate

Essence's Audrey Edwards and Salon's Joan Walsh square off on whether it's racism or realism when black mothers say they'd rather their sons not marry white.

Published February 21, 2003 9:11PM (EST)

[Read "Eyes on the Prize: Will the Civil Rights Battle Finally Be Won in Bed, by Joan Walsh."]

Ms. Walsh:

I read with great interest your critique of my article "Bring Me Home a Black Girl," in the November issue of Essence. To begin with, the article never stated, nor have I ever told my son not to "date" white girls. He has always had a number of white friends, male and female alike; he has escorted white girls to proms, and continues to have friendships with whites now that he is in college. I have also dated white men, but married a black man, and want my son to marry a black girl. This to me is normal, natural and what people of all races, tribes, ethnic groups and nationalities have done for eons. To say that "no mainstream magazine today would publish a comparable piece by a Caucasian mom exhorting her son to 'Bring me home a white girl!'" is a bit disingenuous, don't you think? White moms don't have to give such messages to their kids. It's implicit in everything they do -- from the neighborhoods they live in, to the schools and churches they attend, to the social organizations they belong to. Whites still live, for the most part, in a segregated white world, so it's natural that their children will marry other whites. But just watch what happens when they don't! You yourself admitted that most of the hostility to your interracial dating came from other whites, not blacks.

And this gets us to what I think is the real problem in how others have reacted to my piece. First, I don't tell my son to marry a black girl because I think there is something inherently inferior or negative about white girls. I don't tell him to marry black because I think black is superior to white. Yet these are the very arguments whites have historically had against marrying black, which is what makes those arguments racist. Laws against miscegenation were based on the premise that blacks are less than human, so no self-respecting white should marry one. I don't teach my kid such racist crap. I simply want him to affirm his racial identity, which to me includes marrying someone of his race. Since when does affirming who you are mean denying someone else's humanity? Just because that's how Europeans have historically interacted doesn't mean that's where I'm coming from. And, frankly, I resent whites imposing that particular mind-set on me.

As I said in my article, if we were all playing on an equal field, people could be free to love and marry any and everyone, and probably would. But we all know the field remains quite tilted. Young black women complain that too many black men are marrying white girls (I won't even go into how many of them called and wrote to thank me for speaking so straight about an issue they discuss constantly); too many black men are blinded by the light of white just because it's white; and too many whites think that an article talking about affirming blackness means rejecting them. It doesn't. It ain't even about you at all!

Finally, how convenient that Randall Kennedy has my piece as a launching point to push his tome on "interracial intimacies." I must say, though, "intimacies" is another one of those disingenuous terms that denies the real sexual history of blacks and whites in America. There was never much that was "intimate" about the rape and sexual violence that was perpetuated against black women by white men in this country for over three centuries. It is the major reason more black women do not seek the company of white men. (How many Jewish women do you know who seek the company of former Nazis?) Even the portrait Salon used to illustrate your piece -- Ma and Pa Kettle updated for social relevance? -- conveyed a stereotypical sexual image to me. I can't imagine that the black woman pictured would willingly have chosen to be with that old geezer. But, hey, what do I know? I suppose this is someone's idea of what interracial intimacy should look like these days.

The struggle continues.

-- Audrey Edwards

Ms. Edwards:

Please call me Joan.

I'm sorry if I misread your piece to include a prohibition against dating whites, when it only applied to marrying them. But the clarification disturbs me more. Telling your stepson he can "date" somebody white -- I can only assume that's a euphemism for "intimacy," to return to Kennedy's words, which is of course a euphemism for "sex," but maybe you have a way of monitoring his dates to make sure they don't go there -- but not marry her is degrading. I guess that's OK if both people know about it, but there's a smell of sexual exploitation that gives me the creeps. Speaking as the mother of a white girl, I'd say please tell your stepson to lay off the white girls entirely if he can't marry them. Again, if I told my son he could "date" black girls but not marry them, I'd be called out as a bigot, and I'd deserve it.

Just a few observations: Your assumption that white moms don't need to indoctrinate their kids to date white because they live in alabaster suburbs, go to ivory schools and worship in ecru churches makes me wonder where you live. San Francisco, Ms. Edwards, is less than half white, and the city's public schools -- my daughter is in seventh grade -- are only 28 percent white. We don't go to a church -- her dad's Jewish -- but the Catholic parish in my neighborhood, which I go to on the anniversaries of my parents' deaths, is mostly Filipino and Latino. The monochromatic world you assume I live in doesn't exist anymore, at least not for me, and not for most Californians -- or city dwellers in most urban areas. We have to seek out sameness if we want it. If we do, we're loathsome racists. And if we don't -- and I don't -- well, sometimes we're chumps. Boys can date our daughters, but not marry them?

And while I accept your claim that your prohibition against marrying someone white isn't meant to communicate anything "inferior or negative" about whites, I've also gotta say that the reminder of white rape during slavery times would seem to stigmatize a generation of men who are at least 140 years removed from that crime, and link them to something awful, if not "inferior." And comparing black women who date whites to Jews dating Nazis seems a little "negative." But I'm done second-guessing your motives.

I know all this angst mystifies you. Why would white people care about this, when white people have so much? Well, I can only speak for myself, and my problem is, I took the message of the civil rights movement literally. I truly don't believe, in a pluralistic society, that we can have rules that apply to one racial group and not others. I know that race and racism in America are complicated, and simple answers won't always get us where we want to go. But the simple civil rights message - equality and justice, Dr. King's beloved community -- took us miles. The crabbed, angry, separatist message of the post-civil rights movement has set us back. If it's wrong to allow one group to generalize and stereotype on the basis of race and to preach exclusion -- as it was wrong for whites in the bad old days, and it remains wrong for whites today -- it's got to be wrong for all groups.

But I thank you for writing. Indeed, the struggle continues.

-- Joan Walsh

Hey Joan,

My letter to you was more of a rant than the kind of edited piece I would have submitted for publication. I spent some time in Los Angeles with my friend Bebe Moore Campbell, the novelist, and she said exactly what you did: "Audrey, telling your son it's OK to date white girls, but not marry them, is worse than saying don't date them." I truly didn't think about it like that, but now upon reflection, I understand how such a statement could sound.

As for whites living mostly white lives, I stand by that position. Most whites don't live in major metropolitan areas such as San Francisco or New York. They inhabit that vast area in between, and even those in the cities still interact mainly with their own. I know that's the case here in New York where most whites have never been to Harlem and most blacks have never been to the predominantly Italian area of Bensonhurst or the predominantly Russian area of Brighton in Brooklyn. I debated Randall Kennedy on NPR when my piece came out, and even he agreed that the expectations whites have of their children marrying other whites is an implied one based on where they live and with whom they have the most interactions. And while I can't speak for San Francisco's public schools, the public schools here are predominantly black and Hispanic. There are only two white children in the predominately white, middle-class building I live in Brooklyn who go to public school -- the rest are in private, predominantly white schools.

But again, I stress that my position on black men marrying black women is strictly based on the dwindling numbers of "suitable" black men now available to black women and how black men choosing white women affects black women's self-esteem. We still live in a society that exalts the white woman as the female to be desired. If we saw as many advertisements projecting the beauty of black, Asian and Hispanic women as we do white women, then this discussion would be moot, since men would be "programmed" to see that women of all races possess beauty. I can't do anything about how other men and boys are programmed, but I can and will have a say in what my stepson learns to perceive as beautiful and desirable.

A final point, which I made on NPR: In the last episode of the season of "Sex and the City," the character Charlotte had fallen in love with her Jewish lawyer. And he loved her back. However, he told her point-blank: "Charlotte, I have to marry a Jew." She looked confused, so he repeated it. "Charlotte, I have to marry a Jew." End of discussion. As far as I know, there was no outcry or charges of racism sent to HBO over this comment. Charlotte, the nice little WASP girl, was OK to sleep with, but not marry. It's evidently OK for Jews to expect their sons to marry Jewish girls, but not OK for a black mother to expect her son to marry a black girl. Sounds suspiciously like one of those double standards to me.

You're right. This debate could go on forever, but I've got to put a pin in it here, because I have two magazine pieces to get to. But I do thank you for taking the time to listen.

-- Audrey


And I appreciate your grappling with my point of view. Since I think "Sex and the City" depicts the mating behavior of scary, self-destructive neurotics, I didn't see that episode as an endorsement of Jews doing what Charlotte's hairy-backed beau did -- but I agree, Jews tend to get a pass on this. I'm an incorrigible mixer, so I don't think anybody should be preaching against intermarriage -- especially if they're dating outside their race or religion. But I respect your right to think about this and raise your children differently -- and I appreciate your openness to my critique. The struggle continues, but let's put this one behind us.

-- Joan

By Salon Staff

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