Friday, January 27, 2012

The assumptions behind "the black marriage crisis"

Read my latest at The Guardian:

Twenty years ago, just after college, I attended a birthday party for a friend. In the kitchen, standing round the drinks, a handsome guy chatted me up: 
"So, do you have a boyfriend?" He asked. 
"No," I replied. 
"Oh, what's wrong with you, then?" 
"Sorry?" I said, puzzled. 
"I mean, dudes should be interested in a woman like you. If you don't have a boyfriend, something must be wrong with you. You must be one of those crazy women." 
Over the last decade, America has been playing an increasingly aggressive game of "What's wrong with you, then?" with heterosexual single black women. US marriage rates are dropping, according to a recent Pew Research Center study. But African Americans marry even less often than their white counterparts. According to the 2010 census, just over 26% of white Americans aged 15 and older have never married, compared to 47% of the black population.
We are told that the "black marriage crisis" (pdf) affects none so much as black women. Though black men are equally unmarried, news articles, panel discussions, special reports and books solely lament the fact that black women are half as likely to marry as white women.
There are, of course, many complicated reasons for this gap. Experts cite numbers: there are more American black women than men; higher rates of interracial partnering among black men; bias against black men in the criminal justice system and the legacy of slavery. There is also the achievement gap: black women outnumber black men in higher education more than two to one, and this often creates a wedge of opportunity and class between them. But no reason seems more compelling than the idea that black women need to change who they are and what they want.
In Is Marriage For White People?, Ralph Richard Banks tells black women to date more nonblack men. In an interview with gossip site that exploded around the web, actor and singer Tyrese cautioned black women against being "too independent". Comedian, radio host and now bestselling author Steve Harvey suspects women don't understand how men think. We need to, according to Harvey, meet men on their own terms. In his popular books, Act Like a Lady: Think Like a Man and Straight Talk; No Chaser, Harvey doles out advice on how to be "a girl" and cautions women that wanting a man who is "humble and smart, fun and romantic, sensitive and gentle, and, above all, supportive" is "unrealistic".
Harvey is not alone in thinking black women demand too much of their partners. Even as we are bombarded with advice on how to change to meet the desires of selective partners, single black women are constantly confronted for being "too picky".
And it seems black women are not the only women carrying this burden. In a recent article for the Guardian, Syma Mohammed discussed why older, Muslim British women in the Asian community struggle to find marriage partners. There is a tradition of men from the Indian subcontinent marrying women from their country of origin. Also, men are allowed to marry outside of the Muslim faith, while women are not. And then, there is this:


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