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Coupling

Race and Romance

As a proud black man, what does it say about me if I date a white woman?

(Illustration by Kim Rosen)
By Joseph Williams
December 14, 2008
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When I recently became single again after a long marriage, thinking about reentering the dating world reminded me of a movie cliche, the one where explorers find a Japanese soldier who'd been holed up in a desert-island cave since World War II -- and he's stunned to learn the fight is over.

In 1995, on the summer day my bachelorhood ended, neither online dating nor Sex and the City existed. "Friends with benefits" meant a couple of buddies with a truck who'd help you move. Yet what's most made me feel as though I've stumbled from a cave, blinking in the sunlight, is the discovery that interracial dating has lost its stigma. And as a proud, conscious African-American man now free to choose a new partner, I'm encountering a lot of conflicting complex feelings that I kept inside me all those years in the dark. Call it the racial politics of dating.

Having grown up in the burbs and attended nearly all-white schools in Tennessee and Virginia, I've been with white females more than once in my modest dating history. Those relationships, however, didn't usually last long, haunted by the ghosts of the nation's bitter racial past. After all, my parents graduated from a segregated high school; in 1967, when I was 5, there were 16 states that still had anti-miscegenation laws, before the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional.

There's no doubt, however, that times have changed drastically. Our next president unabashedly describes himself as the product of a union between a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya. Flirtations between the white character played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the black one Blair Underwood portrays on the hit sitcom The New Adventures of Old Christine blossomed into a romance, with on-screen kissing and allusions to sex. Judging by the interracial couples I see strolling around Washington, D.C., where I now live, many people believe what I do: If someone makes you happy, race should be irrelevant. As a young man I did just that, dating across the race line before marrying a black woman and starting a family. Yet now divorced, I struggle to practice what I preach.

A few months ago, I attended a speed-dating event, where I noticed I was the only black person in the room. I ignored the discomfort, kept an open mind, and flirted with gusto, making a couple of matches. Afterward, in an online survey, I asked the organizers why there weren't black women there. Their innocuous response stung: We've got plenty of women at our events geared toward African-Americans, but we've had to cancel several because we didn't have enough African-American men. The response seemed to confirm an uncomfortable stereotype, something I'd heard from nearly every lonely African-American woman I know. It's harder than ever to find the love they want, the lament goes, because black men with options -- men like me -- would rather date white women.

Race and romance have preoccupied me since then. Questions linger: Is an attraction to a white woman a form of racial self-hatred? If I flirt with her, does it mean I've rejected my African-American sisters?

For now, I've decided I shouldn't deny myself a partner just to be on the "right" side. Romance, I've concluded, is less about race and more about having something in common with the object of your affection.

I've dated a white woman, the single mother of a biracial teenager, who loves hip-hop music and dancing. I'm smitten with an African-American woman who is a passionate member of the Washington National Opera and shares my love of rock music. At bars and at parties, white women have slipped me their phone numbers and black women have gunned down my clumsy advances. On the subway, I find myself checking out women of all races.

But, honestly, I may never eliminate the not-so-subtle pangs of guilt that surface when I date outside my race. The echoes of history are impossible for me to ignore.

Joseph Williams is the deputy chief of the Globe's Washington bureau. Send comments to coupling@globe.com.

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