Men of Color and White Women:
Recently, in our group of five women of color (WOC, Asian/Middle Eastern/African/African American/South American with some mixing) we stumbled upon a topic I personally ignored for a very long time: men of color and their apparent obsession with white women. I admit that, in my very large family which is mixed-race and ethnicity, I have noticed this for many years without thinking about it in detail.
Several months ago, the African-American member of our group read a book by Thomas Chatterton Williams called Self-Portrait in Black and White. She returned to our next group meeting feeling angry and betrayed, and explained that she felt Williams expressed what a lot of black men do both in her family and her group of friends: privilege whiteness and pick white women for being white, even though the man is himself partly black. His mother, wife (French, blonde, apparently from an elite French family), and his two white-appearing daughters are mentioned throughout the book. Our friend stated that she feels Williams is ‘PW’ due to choosing a white wife, and she didn’t mean ‘Publisher’s Weekly.’ I mention this as illustrative of her anger since she typically doesn’t use these kinds of references.
In the wake of this point of view, the rest of us in the group read the book. I found it discomfiting though more complex than our friend’s assessment, but I am not an African-American woman, so without the actual history of slavery in my background, I don’t feel qualified to comment on this aspect.
Williams presents an interesting argument: let’s act like race is over, because it is so damaging. During the course of his book, he frequently writes about his white mother, his white wife (he lives in her native France), and his two daughters, both of whom he tells the reader ‘look white.’ After reading a portion of it, I noticed a theme rise to the surface: he wants to believe race is over because if it still exists, he will have to deal with the fact that society will separate him from the white people he loves. His writing is heartfelt and true to him, but his desperation to believe that race no longer matters — that we can simply pretend it’s over, regardless of the multitude of institutionalized evidence that it is still very active — does seem to come from a need to connect with the white women who surround him rather than any sort of realistic or objective assessment of our racial circumstances.
I wish Williams were right, and I sympathize with this aspect of his stance. As the mother of two daughters — one who is perceived as white and the other as nonwhite — I cannot agree. Even if I didn’t deal with racism and ethnocentrism myself — which I do — I am forced to admit the concept of race is still active because our larger society elevates one of my daughters at the expense of the other, if for no other reason (and there are plenty of other reasons.) I have heard and hear about this regularly due to the fact that white supremacy still exists. No amount of telling them that race is a lie and doesn’t exist for real, or that they are still sisters regardless of how people in our society view them, changes the constant battery of racism to which they are subjected. They are subject to this sort of behavior regardless; I can only provide some emotional protection (which I wouldn’t have to if equality was a reality). Race still damages people of color, period.
The most thought-provoking part of this was our friend’s focus on the fact that he seems obsessed with white women. I found myself reflecting back on my large family and admitting that, yes, I’ve noticed this repeatedly: men of color tend to choose white women.
Here are some examples:
1. Middle Eastern male (second cousin); looks white but has ME name. Changes his name to a patently WASP one (‘Chatterton’ looks good!), marries a white (blonde) woman, and has two blonde daughters. At a family reunion, he approaches his sister and her three daughters, one of which is darker, and tells her to her face in front of the daughter that she has one dark-haired, ugly daughter and two pretty blonde ones. Admittedly, a more extreme and overt example.
Why does he think white/blonde women are better? What makes him feel he can say this out loud, even though he isn’t white himself?
2. Partly Chinese/partly ME male: looks ‘ethnic,’ not black. Very liberal based on expressed opinions. Only ever shows up to reunions with white women, now for over two decades. When asked why by another family member, becomes embarrassed. Finally admits that his ME mother and Chinese father will accept: ME and Chinese partners. Or, alternatively, any white ones. Anyone from one’s own background. Or, white. He listens to his parents (a dysfunction I won’t explore here), yet only ever shows up with white women. Blushes when pressed for answers. Finally admits that he prefers blondes. But he’s not sure why. (Now reconsidering his ‘liberal’ stance.)
3. Two Mixed-Race Males married to non-white women. These women report that their husbands consistently tell them they look good when they lighten or straighten their hair, and when it is natural, call it ‘messy’ or something similar. These non-white men have married non-white women but continue to remind them it’s better to look ‘white.’ This makes these nonwhite women feel that their husbands feel they are a consolation prize obtained only because a white woman couldn’t be. (I can’t answer why these women stay with these men.)
I also spoke with mixed women of color in the family who are married to white men. But instead of the above types of responses, these women (of color) say that they work with their white husbands in order to help them understand racism rather than expressing a strong need to acculturate. They admit that the children are, and will likely continue to be, affected by racism. One of the men stated that he knew it was his responsibility, as a white person, to work to understand these issues. None of these women are participating in erasure of the subordinated parts of themselves, and certainly not by pretending racism is over. As one said, ‘racism is in my face every day, if not at work, then in the comments my kids hear at school.’ These are children with a white father.
My situation is obviously anecdotal: one set of friends and one family (albeit large and mixed), which doesn’t constitute a true study sample. However, I find Williams’ book very thought-provoking, not because it questions that race still exists BUT because it is a first-hand, memoir-type account which shows how the logic of love progresses. Williams obviously loves his mother, wife, and children, and upon finishing the book, my main take-away was the lengths to which the human mind will participate in denial when love is at stake.
Regardless, the conclusions Williams makes undoubtedly entertain a high degree of denial, and for this reason, it is our friend’s opinion which should be taken more seriously in any arena outside of the personal. Williams strikes me as a memoir writer, NOT a cultural critic, because his opinion is so obviously colored (no pun intended) by love for the women with whom he is intimate.
If I am honest with myself, I just don’t want to believe it. I’ll say it out loud: I don’t want to believe that men of my own background think of me as inferior to white women. Yet, observation (and listening to other WOCs) has forced it on me as a matter of reality.
I welcome any observations in this arena: how often does it seem like men of color choose white women? Is it true that these marriages end up creating systems of denial such as may be expressed by (Chatterton) Williams’ book?