Most of the time it seems we prefer to ignore American history, but if you’re a black man, occasionally it will show up in your bedroom and surprise you. Imagine being haunted by a poltergeist Wario: Boo! It’s-a me, American History! I’m-a here to ruin-a your sex tonight. It sounds ridiculous to imagine our country’s legacy as a mustachioed poltergeist with a comical Italian accent, but really that’s not much stranger than being suddenly struck by the unexpected feeling that you cannot have sex with a white woman because her great-great-grandpa may have owned yours.
It’s-a me, slavery!
Slavery’s inhumanity is why white women and black men still exist at opposite ends of America’s race-based social hierarchy. Slavery is why it still matters when a black man and white woman date, have sex and choose to love another. No matter how much America may prefer to ignore its history, sometimes it’s naked and in bed next to you — and you simply can’t.
Recently for the New York Times, a young brown man of color, Christopher Rivas, wrote an opinion piece about social power and sex. His intent was to honestly wrestle with America’s long history that tells us whiteness matters most of all. He wondered how white supremacy affected his desires and his dating life. Essentially, had America’s racial caste system confused his dick? After some rather shallow soul-searching, Rivas announces that he no longer wants to date white women:
“Am I the problem or is everyone else? Do white women find me attractive or do they see me as some exotic idea they should find attractive? Do I find white women attractive or do I see them as some exotic idea I should find attractive? Do I even know whom I’m attracted to or why?”
In his essay, Rivas didn’t call for a boycott of white women as a prescription for all black men and men of color. But since his hot take appeared in the paper of record, it did get framed as a serious, weighty cultural question. In America, white women remain symbolically, socially valuable. For a black man to be with a white woman, can still be read as a status symbol, as Nick Cannon recently argued. It’s also a symbol of social fear for white men.
Some theorize that’s what King Kong was really about. Film scholars often link “the image of King Kong rampaging through the streets of Manhattan with a defenseless white woman clutched to his body to the increasing economic emasculation of white men in the Depression years and the growing fear that black migration from the South had reduced the number of jobs available to working-class whites.” The combined fear a black man would fuck his wife and fuck him out of a job, fused together, was represented by a giant ape.
Equally though, throughout American history, black men have been darkly, sexually valuable to white women. During slavery, despite all her social freedoms, a white woman would’ve had to sneak away to be with a black lover, since the illicit act threatened the entire social order. In Colonial and later antebellum America, white women and black slaves could both, essentially, be legally considered property.
Under early English and later American laws, a white woman and black man could both belong to her husband (or her father), while her purity was held as a show of the white man’s virtue. As historian Catherine Clinton explains, “If plantation mistresses could live above reproach, their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers could boast of the superiority of their civilization. … The sullying influence of slavery must not touch the women of the upper class lest the entire structure crumble.” (And by touch, she means fuck.)
The fact that black men and white women were such forbidden fruit to each other created a super-charged historic fetish and a cadre of taboos that still remain today. Big Black Dick! That’s what our stereotypes shout is the real reason white women are interested in dating black men — not for their intelligence, humor, sensitivity or attractiveness. Nope, it’s that black magic stick. While common myths about the size of black dicks do seem to be real, at least according to science, the outsized fear-obsession that causes White America to focus so much on it is a product of slavery (and that’s to say nothing of the complexes it gives black dudes, too).
A confession: My mother is white, and my father is black. As their son, I heard the snickering comments white people said about my mother; I knew what a “nigger-lover” was long before any kid should. As a boy, against my will, I memorized what people said about by father, too: how he got himself a white woman to prove he’d made it, to show that he was a big man. To this day, America’s whispered racism and historic “one drop rule” determine that my father’s blackness entirely erases my mother’s whiteness; I am black like an endless solar eclipse. Yet, America’s social hierarchy still insists that my mother’s whiteness matters most of all. As Anais Nin once said, “You live out the confusions until they become clear.”
So who are the men, like me, who have spent their lives living out the confusions? To answer that, I spoke with five black men in a multi-generational conversation, one colored with barbershop candor and humorous honesty. We chopped it up, reflected on what others told us, what we expected, what we discovered, and ultimately, what we were surprised to think and feel.
And to make it extra real, I asked my pops to join the conversation.
- Fred, 31, analyst, raised in Summit, New Jersey
- Michael, 33, designer, raised in Northern California
- Ernest, 40, video producer, raised in Houston, Texas
- Langston, 45, attorney, raised in Southern California
- Zaron Jr., aka Pop, 68, writer, raised in Trenton, New Jersey
And the questions…
How old were you the first time you dated a white woman?
Langston: 16. But high school dating wasn’t really dating. It’s, like, “you’re my regular hookup.” You know what I’m saying?
Michael: I guess 17 or 18.
Fred: I would’ve been a sophomore in high school, so whatever that age is. 15? 16?
Ernest: The first time I dated a white girl I think I was 22. Yeah, 21 or 22.
Pop: The first that was an actual date, I was 16. Well, it was on my 17th birthday.
What do you remember about how it felt to date her?
Pop: We were high school classmates, and we were in the drama club. We were in plays together. We went skiing together. She was a hippie, and we talked about all sorts of things. This was 1968. We would cut school and take a train, go to New York and go to see a play. We had a really, really, really great relationship.
Langston: I thought very highly of our time together. It was a very tender, very honest, very sincere… I’ve thought about it recently, actually, because I’ve been sorta in touch with that person. We had a real connection and definite attraction. She was one of the hottest girls on the drill team.
Fred: The thing that I remember most is how hilariously immature she was. Not the type of immature where you can’t take anything seriously, but the kind where she just knew nothing about anything not directly related to her.
Ernest: I’m from Houston. So, the idea of dating outside your race was very heavy. It was a real decision. ‘Cause none of my friends had ever done that. You could date a Hispanic girl and that’s fine, whatever. But if you dated a white girl it was like, “Oh bro, you doin’ that now?” Like, I remember purposely not going out on my side of town a lot. We’d go places where I felt like none of my friends would be there. She and I were friends ‘cause we worked together, and that was fine. But once we moved into dating, it definitely was a lot for me to deal with. My friends used to make fun of me, like, “Ernest don’t even like black girls no more.” Or, “You always seemed like the type,æ whatever that means. They definitely made fun of me about it.
Michael: Secrecy. She was the daughter of someone very high up in the bureaucracy of the school that I went to. And I was stepping-out on someone that I was in a long distance relationship with.
Who was… not white?
Michael: Who was… not white.
We can’t leave this bit of drama aside. How did all that play out?
Michael: I’m the king of compartmentalization. So nobody at school knew my girl back home, and nobody from home knew about my girl at school. I suppose since the girl back home was my first girlfriend and that made this my first chance to step out on someone, there’s that. I think the white girl’s proximity to power was a turn-on for me, but that had less to do with her whiteness. As far as the long distance, when I was ready to leave her, I did. But yeah, the other girl’s whiteness, the one I stepped out with, that came up during my breakup with the long-distance girl. But I kinda tuned that out during our breakup, since it was over the phone. God, I was a cold 18-year-old. [Laughs]
Okay, then back to this sense of secrecy — was that a turn-on?
Michael: It was part of the fun. You know, you’re young, chasing each other around, trying to find places to sneak off, and make out, fuck or whatever. Part of the thrill is having to get away with it.
What had you been told about dating a white girl?
Pop: My uncles, my mother’s brothers, told me when we moved to Trenton, “Look, you’re gonna have a lot of Italian girls in your class. Don’t fuck with them because their dads will kill you. You know, so just leave them alone.” [Laughs] I listened to them until I got to school. Then Anna Persucchio started singing, “The Leader of the Pack” to me. I thought, “Man, my uncles are crazy,” and I never looked back. [Laughs]
Ernest: I’ll never forget that my grandmother told me, “White women are the devil.” [Laughs] Those were her exact words. I was maybe 16 or 17. But she definitely said that to me outright. I clearly remember that. Now granted, she’s my grandmother, so she had to be born like in 1920. But she grew up in rural South Texas. She had those personal experiences. When somebody says something like, “White women are the devil,” you can say, “That’s my grandmother bein’ old,” but you can also say, “She might be right.” ‘Cause, I don’t know. Nobody I know is dating a white woman.
Fred: My mother and father liked to remind me that if I were to ever to touch a woman without consent, there would be horrific repercussions. When it came to white women, they told me to err on the side of caution because they didn’t want to see me charged with a false rape accusation, which is something they both saw in their generation.
Michael: I was told that if a white girl ever had cause to yell rape, that was my ass.
Who told you that?
Micheal: My mother.
How did that conversation go?
Michael: I didn’t think she was being dramatic. I grew up in Davis, California. I could definitely feel the simmering white rage just beneath the surface of that college town. I caught it in context, like, “Say ‘yes sir,’ ‘no sir’ to the police,” “They’ll follow you around in the stores” and “You’ve got to do twice as much to get half as much.” It was part and parcel of, “Hey you’re black, here’s some shit.”
Langston: I’m wondering if I had any preconceived notions about dating white girls. Maybe that they’re freaks — like, “White girls will do anything.” But I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I wasn’t thinking about how sexually freaky or kinky we could get. I was just thinking, “I’m making out with this really cool girl that I’ve been cool with for a while.”
Ernest: When I moved to L.A., I don’t think I had one white friend in my phone. If you told me, “Hey, pull up a white guy.” I’d just be scrolling. [Laughs] But if you did grow up in a multicultural community, if you grew up with Asian people, white people, Hispanic people, black people, then when you get to the idea of dating, maybe you wouldn’t see color in that way. They’re just people at that point. You’re attracted to this person, you’re attracted to that person.
For me, though, it wasn’t like that. I was attracted to black girls. I can’t say I was taught to not date outside of my race, but you could tell that might not be cool. Like, if my mom and I were watching a movie, it’d be stuff like, “See? They get famous, and then they get a white girl.” You’re just sittin’ there lookin’ at it like, “Well, I guess I can’t get famous and get a white girl.”
Did the white girl you dated ever tell you what she’d heard about dating a black guy?
Michael: Oh, like, did she expect me to have a big dick? Yes. [Laughs]
There it is — the elephant in the room. Did you ever feel there was any fetishization in the relationship, or thrill from the social taboo?
Langston: I never felt like she was coming at it from that fetish angle. I think there were girls who may have been curious like that. Those fetish type things develop quick. They happen, like, “Let me try this. I wanna experiment. Boom!” Ours was a drawn-out friendship, and it naturally took its turn into something more intimate.
Ernest: Yeah, she seemed pretty genuine, as far as I know. Which is interesting in and of itself, because where I’m from, life is pretty segregated.
Michael: All my life dating –– with all kinds of women –– it’s been wading through people’s weird expectations and preconceived notions of who I’m supposed to be, and behave like, and whatever else. Sometimes you lean into it because it’s fun. Sometimes you’re like, I don’t have much of a choice in this. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve dated white women, but black women have always told me I look like I date white women, which I always find hilarious. I think it’s because I keep my hairline natural, or sometimes wear beat-up sneakers. [Laughs]
While you dated, how did you two talk about the implications of your different races?
Fred: I may have been a little young for any sort of serious talks about race and relationships. The most “racial” conversation we had was the differences in our hair. I was beginning the process of growing my current set of dreadlocks. I had to explain the process to her. Other than that, normal high school relationship bullshit.
Michael: I mean, I don’t know how much you were having philosophically relevant race conversations with your paramours at 17, but I… [Laughs]
Ernest: Yeah, no, not at that age. I didn’t start doing that ‘til I got older. At that age, I don’t even think I understood how to have real conversations about my feelings, in general. At that point, if she asked me why I liked her, I’d be like, “Oh shit, here we go…”’ So we’re definitely not having a race conversation about, how are you gonna deal with this?
Pop: We were fully conscious of what it was we were doing, against the background in which we were doing it. We were almost like, “Can you believe people actually think whatever it was they just said?” But she was a girl I liked, and I was a boy she liked; the fact that we happened to be of different racial backgrounds had absolutely nothing to do with what we were doing, except for everybody else.
What’s the worst thing that happened to you that was a result of race while you and your first white girlfriend were together?
Ernest: I’m a 6-foot-4 black dude, and I’ve been 6-foot-4 for a while. I weigh like 240; there’s nobody really sayin’ nothin’ to me. [Laughs] Just in general. Everybody gonna look, but nobody’s gonna say anything. At least, that’s never happened.
Fred: The worst thing that ever happened was that she assumed I was into weed due to my race. I told her that was fucked up to assume that, and that I didn’t in fact smoke weed. I told her I didn’t care if she did, but I wouldn’t be hanging out with her while she was doing it. She responded well at first, but ultimately, we ended up breaking up because her friends were into the drug scene and I wasn’t. That said, she definitely didn’t get why it was a problem to assume I did drugs or the implications of what that meant in America.
Michael: I definitely got pulled over by the police with her in the car at some point. That is almost a guarantee if you own a car and date white women, right? It was a campus police officer, and she carried some weight around there. That was interesting to see — white women throwing their weight around with cops. There’s a particular joy, if you find yourself in the company of a white woman and you watch her lay into a police officer, when you couldn’t. It’s like watching someone from a different planet.
Pop: One time I was driving her home, and a car full of white boys pulled alongside us. They were being loud, acting terroristic. I’m from Trenton, so I know the streets. I lost those suckers in six blocks. Then we just went along to where we were going. I know there are people who want to fuck with me — not that I’m defiant — but it doesn’t scare me. Like, I didn’t believe they could out-maneuver me. She was exhilarated that I wasn’t afraid. I’d pushed her down on the seat, so, if they happened to be throwing rocks or firing guns, or anything, she wouldn’t be in the line of fire. I slid down, so I was low enough that I was just looking over the dashboard. I knew exactly where I was. I knew those streets with my eyes closed. They got behind me, I thought, “Y’all won’t catch me here. That’s not gonna happen.” Once she realized we were in no danger, she relaxed. We had a good time. That was actually a great moment in our relationship.
How was it different dating a white woman for the second, third or fourth time?
Fred: I didn’t date a lot of white women after that first girl. But I did end up marrying a white woman last December. The woman I married is someone who gets it and has an empathetic understanding of race and the horrific problems black men face in America.
Pop: What I noticed about all my friends who happened to be dating white girls, they all acted like they were expected to act differently because you were “dating white girls.” I never did, and as a result, there was no difference between me dating a white girl or a black girl — or for that matter, an Indian girl. I didn’t do one single thing different.
Ernest: I don’t notice anything different in the girl stuff. That’s all the same. Girls — if you tell ‘em you love ‘em, they want you to love ‘em. Y’all talking, they wanna know, “Well what does that mean?” All the dating stuff –– boy and girl stuff –– all that’s the same. It’s more of the American life stuff that I’ve noticed is the biggest difference.
Is it different dating a white woman than a woman of another race, who’s also not black?
Fred: Definitely different. I’ve dated a lot of non-black brown women, and the dating differences are glaring. I feel that there’s a certain comradeship that’s natural to anyone who can’t pass for white. Non-black brown women for the most part are quicker to empathize with your racial experience and are less likely to say ignorant shit about your blackness.
Michael: I mean, yeah. Only the white woman can yell at cops. [Laughs] Their intersection with state power is different, even when it comes to dating. Like, cultural power and all that other stuff, that’s a difference. So yeah, it’s different, but I also wouldn’t say it’s different, if that makes sense.
Ernest: In American society, there can be differences, depending on how you grew up. But I find it’s really more about the similarities in how you grew up. ‘Cause I could date a rich white girl and date a rich Hispanic girl, and they’re probably gonna act similar. I dated a white girl who grew up kinda poor. She had a totally different vibe than the other white girls I dated. Like, “Oh shit, this isn’t the ‘white girl’ definition I had in my brain.” So now I can’t just say, “Well, she white, so she gonna act like this.” That’s not fair. There are a lot of different things that go into the “white girl stereotype” that we promote.
That said, there’s definitely that sense of, “Oh, when I make it…,” right? For instance, my ultimate goal is to sell a feature film. Me and my friends have talked like, “Oh yeah, we get a million? We gonna party, gonna have all these white bitches around.” Because that’s what that means: We made it. There still is that idea, “We gonna get a boat. We gonna get these white girls on it. It’s gonna be poppin.” I ain’t never heard that story where you say that and you’d be like, “We gonna get a boat. We gonna get these Mexican bitches.” Ain’t never heard nobody say that. “We gonna get a bunch of Asian bitches.” Ain’t never heard nobody say that either.
Race is a social construct, which means we invented it, and white women are the same as any other women. But in socio-economic and cultural terms, race is very real. Did you always see her in social terms — as a white woman? Or did you ever escape race, and see her in personal terms, as a woman and your partner?
Pop: To me, every single woman had the same set of concerns but made individual, and none of those things were actually defined by their race. I can honestly say I never thought of race as a primary consideration. People who I liked, we worked out whatever we had to work out. As a free person on this earth, the one choice you will have is who you will love. Nobody on earth gets a vote on that. It’s our responsibility to know our truth and act on that truth. If you fall in love with somebody, I don’t give a fuck what somebody else thinks. At all. [Laughs]
Fred: I definitely saw that first girlfriend as a white woman. We may not have spoken about it openly, but it was impossible for me to separate her whiteness from her as a person. Even now that I’m married to a white woman, it’s impossible to separate my wife from her whiteness –– something that she herself admits she cannot be separated from. We both understand that a relationship can’t transcend race, nor should it. A relationship should always acknowledge race and the issues involved with it (discrimination, societal perception, etc.). American society guarantees that it’s impossible to separate race from anything, even love. But how two consenting adults deal with that is a personal negotiation for them and them only.
Langston: Race always finds its way in. Somehow, some little sliver of it. How could it not, right? Now, do I think kids are coming into more awareness, like, “Race is a construct?” Yes. But even socially, politically and economically, there’s still a consequence of dating a person that’s white.
Ernest: My last relationship, I was with her for maybe like seven months. But yeah, she was always white. [Laughs] That was something I always grappled with. She was from New York. Everybody in her life was all different colors. I’d go there, and she had black friends, Mexican friends, white friends, Arab friends. And I was like, “Yeah, when we go to Houston, it’s gonna be nothing but black people. Just as long as you know, the only Houston I know is black. I couldn’t even tell you where the other people eat. Just be prepared for that.” [Laughs] Now, I loved her. That was my girl. I cared about her. But she definitely was always white.
Right now, my girlfriend’s Persian. Which is interesting, because when I told my dad, he seemed more accepting of it. We’re supposed to go to Houston in May, and I think about the differences in how we grew up. How is she gonna intermingle with my friends, that just don’t ever mingle with other races? Not that I think anything crazy’s gonna happen, my friends are well-adjusted human beings. But is she gonna feel slighted in any way? That’s the thing, if I never went home again, I don’t think this would be an issue. But what if we get married and have a wedding? ‘Cause I got some aunts that’s kinda racist. But at some point, we gotta go home. I gotta bring the two worlds together. I’m gonna have to deal with that.
Michael: I always say race is like Tuesday. It’s obviously not real, but the rent is still due. [Laughs] I don’t get to walk around and not be a black man. If you happen to be a white woman, there’s all that shit that comes with that. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? To be able to forget the social reality. Ideally, you two construct a space away from the constant onslaught of bullshit that’s the rest of civilization. Ideally, whoever you’re with in bed is just whoever they are. That’s when you both can put down who you have to be elsewhere, and just be. That’s love.