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Who Black women can love: judgments of others affect relationships with white men

Alan Flurry

New research from the University of Georgia describes how Black women in interracial relationships with white men perceive experiencing varying treatment due to expectations of who Black women should date and marry. Despite examples of high-profile, interracial relationships, perceived reactions to people with double minority status (Black women) and a double majority status partner (white men), can lead the former to have the validity of their relationships questioned.

In a subset of one-on-one interviews with 82 Black women from across the United States, one-quarter of interviewees described experiencing social sanctions for being in a relationship with a white man.

The study, authored by Vanessa Gonlin, assistant professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of sociology, suggests that perceived judgment from Black men leads many Black women to feel shame, frustration, and that race x gender power differentials are at play in these responses. Judgment from white women leads Black women to believe the validity of their relationships is discredited. 

“With this part of the sample, I wanted to delve deeper into the question of, if you believe that someone of same race different gender, or same gender different race, doesn’t want you to be with a white man, how does that impact your interactions with those groups?” Gonlin said.  “How does that impact your dynamic within the relationship?”

The study is focused on that specific dynamic, an unexpected theme in the findings, which describes one out of four women in the sample.

While societal norms in the United States historically dictated that people of different racial backgrounds should not date or marry and anti-miscegenation laws are no longer on the books, people in interracial relationships continue to be perceived by some as transgressing societal expectations. Yet there is resistance; individuals challenge outdated notions and see a growth in interracial relationships. Given the intertwined racist sexist social structure, the experiences of an individual in an interracial relationship are tied to their social identities, according to the study.

To contextualize the social interactions that led to their interracial relationships, respondents provided details about how they met and where, which often revealed a shared educational and or socio-economic background with their partners.

“Deeper questions of identity and whether they grew up in a predominantly white setting, with their Black family members noting their ‘white behaviors,’ having a white boyfriend, husband, or partner can support a perception that the relationship pushes you further away from Blackness, that you’re less connected,” Gonlin said. Black women in this study were often frustrated by the perception that dating or marrying a white man disconnects them from the Black community.

Respondents also revealed a strain of double-standard regarding judgment from Black men about Black women’s relationships with white men, even when the Black men maybe in relationships with white women. According to the study, one might suppose that an individual in an interracial relationship might be supportive of all kinds of race x gender relationships, but the double standard leads many Black women to believe that dating a white person it is different for Black women than Black men.

Black women interviewees also noted that the Black men who expressed discontent for their relationships were often strangers, whereas the white women who challenged their relationship were often the ex-girlfriends, ex-wives, or the mothers of the white male partner. Thus, white women were able to use their connection to the white male partner to influence the interracial relationship.

How ideas of who Black women are ‘supposed’ to love and have access to dictate how they are treated, according to the study.

“These social mores are apparent in the judgment Black women experience. Black women who date and marry white men do not always believe they face judgment for this action, but when they do, they often perceive it as coming from Black men or white women. Thus, people who share one trait with them (race or gender) perhaps feel they have a say about this relationship dynamic,” Gonlin said.

For many Black women, these perceptions help determine the health and longevity of the relationship in terms of connections to your community, how they fit in with the friends and family, their support within the relationship, and how couples discuss race in the context of these conversations.

The full study, “Come back home, sista!”: Reactions to Black women in interracial relationships with white men,” was published in one of the top journals in this area, Ethnic and Racial Studies.

Image via Wikimedia commons



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