The first time I went on a date with an attractive guy from one of my new classes, one of the first statements he made to me was “To be honest, I don’t usually go out with black girls, but…,” followed by an earnest and lengthy explanation of what made me different and what had caused him to overcome his formerly less diverse dating experiences to give “this” a chance.
Afterwards, I found myself wondering if by this he was referring more to the actual date with me, or just towards my blackness in general.
Unfortunately, while his opening disclaimer was a little troubling and pretty unnecessary in my opinion (Since when did grabbing coffee with someone become a remarkably significant act of tearing down racial barriers anyway—especially in this day and age?), such comments have been in no way atypical of my friends’ or my own brief experiences with interracial dating on this campus. Most times the prevalent assumption—within and outside of black communities—is that if you’re a black woman dating a white man there must be something about you that is exceptional; either you are exceptionally pretty, exceptionally quirky, exceptionally intelligent, or possibly even exceptionally affluent or “well spoken”—anything to suggest that you’re not just “regular” black, because otherwise why would he be with you instead of a normal (read: white) girl?
Growing up in suburban Texas, I was familiar with the phrase “pretty for a black girl” being used occasionally to describe myself and girls of similar complexions by teachers, classmates, crushes, and friends alike. While students on this campus believe themselves to be far too sophisticated to make such obviously crass observations, it doesn’t stop me from hearing echoes of the same sentiment in every presumably well intentioned remark upon my “eloquence,” or how “put together” I look, from both my peers and professors nearly every year I’ve attended this school.
Let’s be honest: The fact that I did the assigned reading and managed to use the same rhetoric as the author in order to succesfully describe my thoughts shows that I am both literate and capable of coherently presenting my ideas—characteristics that are not so remarkable when considering that they are mere prerequisites for every student at this University in the first place. Again, my “eloquence” is exceptional not in the context of my being a student on this campus, but my being a black woman.
The same goes for my appearance—do I look so “put-together” or “pretty’”—for a black girl—because you truly value the things that make me stand out—or is it because my particular socioeconomic status as a semi-affluent student affords me the luxury of presenting myself in ways that are more aligned with mainstream (again, read: white) society’s expectations of Women—in ways that other, possibly less privileged, black bodies you are significantly less attracted to may not be capable of? Gym memberships, regular hair & nail appointments, and easy access to various clothing stores don’t automatically make someone more attractive, but they can certainly help.
These expressions of awe or wonder towards my so-called exceptions—the way I conduct myself, the type of music I listen to, or my appearance—are grounded in the deeper and more problematic assumption that certain groups are inherently less capable or deserving of possessing certain interests and attributes overall.
Saying that you “usually” don’t date people of my skin tone mirrors the people in my hometown who said, “Wow, you were one of only 4 percent [the percentage of black students who were admitted into the University of Chicago my incoming year]? You must be so proud!” In fact, when I stop to really examine what is being said, neither make me feel even the slightest bit comforted or proud in any way. Ultimately, to say you don’t (usually) date black girls is problematic because black women (and black people) come in all different shapes, sizes, shades, and other types. Thus what you’re really rejecting is the very attribute of blackness itself. So even when you appear to be glorifying me as an individual, your statements and position are inherently racist—not simply indicative of a preference. No matter how you try to spin it, the sentiment is fundamentally racist, and that is exactly how it comes across to me. The fact that I still feel pressured to sit back and smile gratefully at you all the while only adds insult to injury. How gracious of you to compliment me. How progressive that even though you don’t usually date black girls you’re willing to bend the rules this one time, for this one girl! And how diverse our school is for having an entire 4 percent of its student body be black.
Such statements result in the altering of certain achievements--making it into a traditionally elitist academic institution, winning the sustained affection of a “down” white man, being one of maybe four black girls in your majority-white sorority, or being the only black class rep for your particular graduating class—from the accomplishments they would be for all other “normal” (yup, read: white) individuals: becoming well educated, successfully maintaining healthy relationships, or remaining socially active on campus. Instead they become horrifically distorted and politicized, because you accomplished those things not as a person, but as a black person, when usually we don’t expect that to happen.
Regardless of race, we all perpetuate these harmful ideas of exceptionalism among bodies of color. These ideas are harmful because they can only exist within the continued context of systematically propagated inequities. They are even more harmful because they change the tone of the discussion to a misleadingly positive one centered on the value of individual pride and accomplishment, so that no one has to seriously confront the more challenging emotions of collective guilt and shame that lie just beneath these often sincerely constructed messages of praise.
We, as a campus so obsessed with our ability to think about matters critically, need to be much better about examining the things we say regarding race in both professional and casual contexts, as well as the “harmless” opinions we hold that are ultimately firmly rooted in less innocuous origins of prejudice and white supremacy.
For now I’ll stick to enjoying my coffee the way I “usually” prefer to:
Nina Katemauswa is a third-year in the College majoring in philosophy and political science. This column is a collaboration between Viewpoints and Blacklight, UChicago’s premier literary publication for students of color and minorities. If you would like to contribute, e-mail BlacklightUChicago@gmail.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.