“Did he really say that?!” That’s a common phrase my friends say when we talk about bad dates. It’s usually followed by an eye roll or a witty comment and some laughs before we change the subject. But as a Black woman, I tell date stories that are followed by shock and awkward silence. It’s no secret that dating is hard for everyone. But my race makes my dating experience harder (like almost everything else!), and unfortunately, my experience is not unique.
“How is it that easy?” I shouted over the music. I was celebrating my friend’s seventeenth birthday. She always threw big parties with lots of friends. Meeting new people, drinking to get drunk and general social interaction was very much on the to-do list. Almost everyone I came with that year showed up with the same mission: find someone, flirt and see where the night takes you.
My best friend had just told me she’d found this guy attractive five minutes prior. Suddenly, she was sitting next to him, and he had his arm around her. Genuinely effortless! Five more of my friends had a new partner within close proximity. Meanwhile, I had been told, “You look interesting, pretty — you know, for someone who looks like you,” twenty minutes into arriving by the same boy who’s arm was around my friend, followed by nods of agreement by his buddies. This wasn’t the first time (or the last, unfortunately), but as I watched my friend and her new lover make out, I felt a mix of envy, hatred for said envy and exhaustion — what was I doing wrong?
According to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, Black women marry less than women of other races. Black women also get the least matches on dating sites compared to women of other ethnic groups. But long before online and app-based dating existed, dark skin has had negative connotations. Women powdered their faces snowy white because of the associations it had with beauty and fertility as well as higher class. The lighter your skin, the lower the likelihood that you’d been slaving outside in the sun all day — literally slaving. When you google “pretty girl” or “attractive woman,” how much scrolling does it take to find a woman of color, let alone a Black woman?
Society has repeatedly delivered the narrative that Black women aren’t attractive or dateable — Black women are masculine, angry, ratchet or ghetto, to be avoided at all costs. This is what I’ve seen and experienced in my personal life. The birthday party incident repeated itself in many forms, and it took my self worth with it.
Most teenage girls struggle with not feeling “pretty enough.” As a Black teen, my insecurities made me feel like my Blackness was something to compensate for, something that dragged down my worth. So I became obsessed with my appearance. I thought that if I made myself “perfect” in every other way, I’d be almost as good as all the other girls — almost, but not quite. I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be beautiful. Eventually, I was diagnosed with anorexia. When my doctor asked me why I was hurting myself so much, I remember saying, “I can’t be Black and fat. The world already hates one part of me, so I should change the other.” I constantly felt like I was the friend people compared themselves to in order to feel better about their situation.
I changed my mentality along with my appearance. I diluted any part of my culture. Any Blackness in me was hidden away. And although I hated every part of this, it worked. I felt prettier. I started dating. People treated me like I was Black enough to be interesting and exotic. My curls were a conversation starter. All the “cool parts” of me were picked out — food, music and culture, and yet I wasn’t considered Black enough to be a threat. And for the first time in my life, I felt feminine, like I was deserving of a fairytale love story because people finally thought I was pretty. Black men would say that while they tended to avoid dating Black women, I was “different” from the rest. I never understood that their criticisms were just reflection of their own self hatred and took it to heart.
Unsurprisingly, I was never satisfied and never ended up dating anyone who was genuinely a good person. And the comments and microagressions I would experience on dates or in relationships irritated me every time. I would be asked if I were mixed race as a compliment. I would be told (again) that I was pretty “for someone of my race.” All of these people liked me, but at what cost? And did they even like me, or did they like the lesser version of me that I’d created to please them? And why was I trying to please them anyway? Racism wouldn’t go away if I achieved validation. I was beyond angry at myself for putting up with all of it.
I almost feel ridiculous complaining about something so trivial. Dating is far from a necessity. Police brutality, incarceration rates, unemployment — there are much more pressing issue that Black people face on a daily basis. But in 2021, we shouldn’t have to face challenges in any part of life simply because we’re Black.
As a bisexual woman, I found that a lot of my self-hated also stemmed from lack of acceptance in the LBGTQ+ community. The LGBTQ+ community has been seen as white-dominated time and time again, which has added to my sense of isolation. I have been very grateful to find Black communities within the LGBTQ+ community where people relate to my experience and celebrate their intersecting identities.
I didn’t have a single moment of clarity where I embraced myself as I am — instead, I slowly taught myself to fall in love with my culture again. I learned how to be proud of the strong-smelling food from the kitchen, the music with stronger beats. My skin color was beautiful to me. Yes, I was different than a lot of my friends, but that wasn’t a bad thing. The gaps in those differences became smaller and the isolation less painful as I diversified my friendship group, and the alienation I felt no longer manifested in such a self-destructive way. And when I started to learn that other people’s opinions didn’t matter as much as I believed they did, I fell in love with someone who is excited to learn about my Blackness. I still struggle with my self-esteem, but now instead of putting up with racism, I teach people, even if I have to be loud enough for them to think I’m a “threat.”