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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I'm just sayin': On Jill Scott and a big can of worms

So, some of you know that Jill Scott opened a big ol' can of worms wrote an opinion piece for Essence magazine in which she said that interracial dating - especially Black men who marry White women - carries with it a "sting" for Black women, having to do with the shared historical experience of African Americans. Here's her full (short) piece. Take a look at it, because my summary is a clumsy one.

Not surprisingly, there's been a lot of discussion of it, a lot of it heated.

I first heard about Scott's article at a social event, a monthly(ish) brunch I attend. I call it the Black Folks Brunch, which is pretty much what it sounds like. It's a small but open self-selecting group: black men and women who live in this area, joined by a web of social and professional connections, who had brunch together one day and remarked that it was an awful lot of fun - and not terribly common - to sit in a room full of other black folks and just have a meal and talk about things (whatever comes up). We are not all the same (different ages, regional origins, professional paths, personal histories, worldviews, etc), but we have many common points of reference, and that was enough to make it feel different than sitting in a similarly diverse room full of people who do not have those common references. This time, we talked about John Mayer not finding Black women attractive (and, in general, saying a bunch of things that ranged from "typical dumb shit" to "patently offensive"). We talked about San Francisco weather, about some of our professional lives, about our friends and their personal lives, about music and how good the food was. And we talked about Jill Scott's article, and about responses to it - more the latter than the former, actually.

As it happens, a couple of blogs that my far more socially conscious roommate has recently gotten me into were also talking about it. Over at The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about the problem, as he sees it, with Scott's piece. Coates objected to the
Collectivist approach toward something as individual and private as marriage. [...] Relationships are not (anymore, at least) a collectivist act. They really come down to two individuals doing business in ways that we will never be privy to.
Coates ' response focuses on the problem of speaking in general abstract terms about individual choices and person-to-person relationships. While I agree with many of Coates' points, I think he sidesteps the issue Scott raises by belittling her article as another example of why we, "as black people...have to stop the process of bemoaning what the world thinks of us, and start asserting that which we think of ourselves." Scott is, in fact, asserting what she thinks, both on an individual level, and of us "as a people." She thinks that the historical fetishization of white women, which, implicit in her argument, still holds sway, is the reason for the "wince" she describes. She thinks that there are dynamics in the shared histories of black men and women that make the personal choices of contemporary black men and women resonate on a larger scale. Neither in that article, nor in subsequent comments on CNN does Scott imply that the inner workings of a relationship are a matter of public debate.

So I think that Coates' arguments, while valid and, in places, compelling, are not completely relevant here. Scott does make a public comment on her personal feelings about the larger social issue that this particular relationship brought up for her, but in conflating Scott's point with a general societal tendency to indulge in "petty gossip masquerading as social commentary," he sidesteps the matter at hand and misses the point of Scott's piece.

Now, not surprisingly, I have my own opinions on the matter at hand. Not surprisingly, they are complex. Simply stated, though, I do think Scott raises a valid issue. I don't think anyone will ever convince me that it's not at all problematic that so many Black men who achieve a certain status - be it celebrity or a more quotidian notion of success - decide that White women are the most suitable partners. No, I don't think that every black man who dates white women is self-loathing and brainwashed by the media. Nor do I think that every black woman who dates white men is betraying the black man by devaluing his struggles. But I think the numbers - from my totally unscientific observation - look awfully skewed, and I wonder why men still seem more likely to make this choice than women. And I wonder why it doesn't just seem to be that women of all ethnicities have become equally desirable, but that men of all ethnicities have agreed that white women are prettier, that straight hair is better, that blond hair is best, that narrow noses are most appealing.

After Scott's appearance on CNN, Coates posted that he heard where she was coming from, found it familiar, still disagreed, but admired her restating, but not backing down. In the meantime, Tami at Racialicious wrote a piece in support of Scott and expanding on the issues. The main point of her article seems to be the following:
Yes, the days of slavery are long past, but this view of black women as less desirable, less beautiful, less feminine and less valuable than white women persists. It is illustrated by the women who are featured on mainstream magazine covers…and those who are not (Vanity Fair anyone?). It is confirmed by the missing and exploited women that are covered 24/7 on cable news…and those who are not. It is underscored by statistics that reveal who is likely to marry…and who is not.

Black men are not immune to the message that black women are “less than.” Black women know this. We know this because we live it.
Coates' "last word" on the subject references Tami's article.
Again, I want to be cognizant of...history when I tackle this sort of thing and not come off with a 'Get over it.'
That said, the celebrity aspect of this really bugs me as a black dude. One of the wages of racism is that you are somehow implicated in the thinking of people who you do not know. And so whatever your professed feelings about black women, it's assumed that the actual truth lies in the vaunted of wisdom of R. Kelley, Keenan Thompson, Eddie and Tyler Perry. These are individuals who, with due respect, have staked their financial lives on entertaining the country--not on probing the intricacies and nuances of the black male psyche.

I am, admittedly, at a standstill in my thinking. I acknowledge the presence of a collective--of a black people, with a relatively common experience and history. But to me, the greatest illustration of that collective has always been in watching millions of different lives, respond in millions of different ways to the same experience. The ongoing crime of racism, to me, was always the erasure of those difference--the notion that we are some kind of borg. We see that today in this sense that black people are simply the sum of all their oppression, all their pathologies.
Where to start? Well, first of all, let's not confuse successful vs. celebrity. At no point does Scott say that celebrities are the only ones worth wincing over, or that she is, primarily, wincing over the fact that so many black male celebrities marry white women. Her piece was prompted by response to a cover photo. Not surprisingly, this was a photo of a celebrity. But, she is talking about a widespread phenomenon - at least according to experiential observation. This phenomenon is most visible among celebrities, because celebrities are highly visible. Furthermore, I think it is important that she begins by speaking personally, about her new friend, who happens to be a "seemingly wealthy" athlete. Are we shocked that Jill Scott - seemingly wealthy actress and Grammy-winning musician - has celebrity friends?

Now, she *is* also speaking more generally, but the collective she speaks of is not "celebrities speaking for the race." "Fine, accomplished brother" (Essence's copy) does not mean "the vaunted of wisdom of R. Kelley, Keenan Thompson, Eddie and Tyler Perry," as Coates implies. Nor does "seemingly together brother" (Scott's words). Contrast a "seemingly together brother" with men who have left black women "to raise...sons and daughters to appreciate themselves and respect others,...with no fathers or like representatives, limited financial support (often court-enforced) and, on top of everything else, an empty bed." Celebrity seems to have nothing to do with either of these categories, though success surely overlaps. But success and celebrity are not the same, nor does Scott suggest that a man's level of celebrity has anything to do with this latter set of issues.

But Coates' main objection seems to be that Scott is speaking generally at all, because it boils down to love and the realities of person-to-person relationships. That seems completely true, but also seems to miss the point. I'm not ready to hitch my opinion-wagon to "the black experience" because I think the world is more complicated than that. But I'm also not willing to completely disregard the experience of groups that I, as an individual, am a part of: women, African Americans, African American women. In claiming that those groups exist, and that the varied experiences of those groups are both shaped by and reflected in my individual experiences, I do not claim that the groups are univocal, but I believe that the collection of voices does, in fact, carry some collective weight.

Individual relationships are private, they are often opaque to those outside of them, and they are lived by the people who participate in them. But people do not exist in a social vacuum. It seems perfectly valid (I might argue necessary) to ask why the likelihood of this particular form of person to person relationship seems to be devalued, especially as the men in question grow more successful - i.e. gain more social capital, to borrow Tami's language. And it seems reasonable to wonder if it might not be due to some devaluation of the potential partners in question, i.e. black women, having to do with a perceived lack of social capital in that population. We are social creatures, and our person-to-person relationships - romantic and otherwise - come wrapped in and laden with entire networks of issues that extend beyond us. Claiming that there has been a shared history does not erase the individuals, but it does acknowledge that the actions of individuals take place inside of larger groups, whether we like it or not, and whether we or not we intend those actions as statements to those larger groups.

Now, I can't finish this without tackling a couple of things that came up in the comments to Coates' posts. The first, which is a familiar one to me, is that some in the comments were up in arms about the emphasis on success. The question *is* usually why successful black men so often seem to prefer white women. But, who's doing the asking? How many undereducated, underprivileged, unsuccessful people of any race have the platform from which to publicly question their racial dating dynamic? More importantly, in my opinion, why is it odd that well educated black women would like it if more well educated black men seemed interested in them, or at least in women who looked like them, in a general sense? Why is it strange if successful women would prefer to be able to find successful partners? Success need not be a rigid, narrowly defined category, and its adjectival form need not be taken as a value judgment. But, on a basic compatibility level, I have more in common with people who have placed a premium on education, critical thinking, and various other intangible bits of my worldview than I do with people who have not. Why would adding the race factor negate the importance of my other values, aspirations, commitments, etc?

And let's not forget what a limited resource Scott and other, like-minded African American women are talking about. If any of the statistics about the imbalance between black men and women in terms of education, employment and other markers of socio-economic success are true, then it seems that there is a marked imbalance in sample sizes. Add to this not just an individual choice, but also a tendency on the part of one group - the smaller one - to select from a different sample. Again, it seems completely normal that that would seem like a problematic shrinking of your pool of potential partners, one worth discussing: while I don't think successful black men are the only way to go, it would be nice if more of them showed an interest - both in me, in particular, and in my diversely manifested successful black female counterparts. I don't have anything against interracial dating, but it would be great if we lived in a world where dating *didn't* feel like battle for limited resources. We don't live in that world, so regardless of whether or not I agree with Jill Scott's opinion on why, I think she raises valid points, and sparks a conversation that we need to be having.

Which brings us to the most annoying strand of comments about this. The "Why are we talking about this, isn't this issue done?" strand, and especially the idea that young people don't think this way (by "this" I mean that race might be a factor in dating), so it's not worth talking about. On the one hand, that's just not true - while there have certainly been huge shifts, many young people (defined by commenters as under 30) do think that race is still an important category, both in general and in dating. So we can't simply say that they don't. More importantly, I'd guess that many are still talking about it because it still hurts, and because the cultural patterns that feed the pain still very much exist. We are no more post black women being devalued (both implicitly and explicitly) on a large cultural scale than we are post racial, post heteronormative, or post xenophobic. All of these issues still exist, despite the fact that, in many cases, many younger people do seem to be less invested in defining themselves and others along these lines. Some still are, so it's still an issue. They are not the sum total of the world's population, so it's still an issue. That's why we talk about it.



  1. Wow, that's a lot to chew on. I certainly agree that this merits discussion-- even light-hearted discussion would be nice. For me, the fact that people are attatracted to people of various physical types (including race) is normal. However, what I find abnormal and a sure sign of abnormal, self-hating neurosis is when a person exclusively chooses a person of another race. This is especially disturbing (to use the professional black male example) when you see a person dating below their socio-economic-educational level just to date inside a particular racial category.

  2. It is a lot to chew on. The back and forth about the issue kind of caught my attention much more than just Scott's opinion piece would have. It got me thinking, but I haven't been able to unswirl them yet - thus the rambling post. I'd already spent the better part of a day trying to organize the word-puke, and decided it would have to just get expressed in its present state :)

    The thing that's really bugging me about this debate is that I haven't been able to articulate what bothers me about Coates' dismissal of Scott's piece. Now, you know that I'm not about to come out swinging for the all black, all the time league - I'm not really equal opportunity, but I'm not making any blanket racial disqualifications. And, leaving aside my tendency to be both nosy and bossy, I do believe that only the two people in a relationship can really know what that relationship is like. But he basically chalks her and the Racialicious article up to sticking one's nose in other people's business and generalizing. I really think there's more to it than that, but haven't really been able to put into words what.

    Maybe part of it is that I just don't buy the idea that I shouldn't ever have an opinion on the behavior of other people. This doesn't mean I have right to tell you what to do (or, in this case, who to date), but I do have the right to think about how your actions seem to fit larger patterns that I've observed, right? I mean, I'm allowed to consider who seems to get dated and who doesn't, and how all of that affects me. Or something? And if you and your partner trigger some part of those thoughts, I can, at least sometimes, acknowledge that without it being an accusation, right?

    It's funny you bring up the idea of lowering a set of standards to give primacy to a racial category. A sticky subject, and often brought up in relation to another variant of this conversation, the "Professional Black Women Should Stop Being So Picky" variant. I like to think that's just something people in movies argue about, but I recently sat and eavesdropped (shut up) on a group of young black women haveing just that conversation. To be honest, I think it's probably just a special subset of the more general "Women Who Have Standards Like 'Comparable Life Goals' Are Too Picky."