This article critically reviews the literature on racism (White and internalized Black) in the heterosexual relationships of Black women. In addition, it assesses the relevance of this literature to Canadian Black women, identifies the research gaps on the subject, and maps out an empirical agenda for research on Black Canadian heterosexual relationships, premised on an integrated feminist, antiracist, and class-based analytical perspective.
Author’s Note: The author acknowledges the contribution of Dr. Edite Noivo to the original conception of this project, earlier versions of which were jointly presented in the fall of 1997 and summer 1998. The project was further developed and researched by this author with support from a Saint Mary’s University Senate research grant in 1998-2000.
In Canada as elsewhere, ethnic and racial minority women (hereafter “racialized women”) encounter structural, institutional, and systemic racism, at work and in the media, as producers, consumers, and individuals with unequal access to social services and political representation. But racialized women also experience racism at one of the most personal and intimate levels–heterosexual relationships. That such relationships “are still governed by the politics of color and race” is more disturbing than surprising (Russell, Wilson, & Hall, 1993). The White male-Black female intermarriage rate of less than 1% in theUnited States in 1993 (Porter & Bronzaft 1995), the finding that in 75% of interracial marriages in the U.S. the man is Black and the woman White (Roseblatt, Karris, and Powell, 1995), and the percentage of students declaring their willingness to marry a “Negro (Black)” person (29%) in Driedger and Mezoff’s earlier (1981) Canadian study indicate that love may not be color-blind. Researchers consider such negative “preferential treatment” a form of racism (Driedger 1996; Omi & Winant 1986). This article reviews the main questions and findings of research on racism in Black heterosexual relationships. It also identifies the gaps and biases in such research and maps out an agenda for empirical research on Black Canadian heterosexual relationships, premised on an integrated feminist, antiracist, and class-based analytical perspective and from the standpoint of women.
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
In the past 10 years, studies of racism in heterosexual relationships in the United States and United Kingdom (R. Hall, 1997; Kalmijn, 1993; Mirza, 1992; Rosenblatt, Karris, & Powell, 1995; Russell et al., 1993) have raised questions concerning Black women’s unequal opportunities in choosing husbands and “racism in mating.” They first identified a phenomenon known as the Black male shortage and contended that racism and sexism converge (R. Hall, 1997) and result in “the feud over Black men.” Collins (1990:79-80) succinctly identified the issue of racism in intimate relationships in the United States: Judging White women by their physical appearance and attractiveness to men objectifies them. But their white skin and straight hair privilege them in a system in which part of the basic
definition of whiteness is its superiority to blackness. Black men’s blackness penalizes them. . . .
But their self-definitions are not as heavily dependent on their physical attractiveness as those of women.
Although Black men may also encounter racism in intimate relationships, their gender status grants them greater powers in issues pertaining to dating and relationships than is granted to Black women (Lee See, 1989). It is Black women who are unquestionably penalized by their gender and racial status confronting and attempting to live up to the standards set by White women, White men, Black men, and one another. How such socially defined physical markers restrict Black women’s opportunities for relationships and keep them oppressed merits further research. Similarly, how these racist and sexist standards affect not only the relationships of Black women with Black and White men, but those between Black women, White women, and lighter-skinned women needs to be further investigated.
Racism in intimate relationships is specifically explained in the U.S. academic literature by the devaluation of Black womanhood owing to the legacy of slavery in North America. Black women in slavery were constructed as degraded sexual objects by White men, White women (who considered them morally deprived for sleeping with “their” men and did not hesitate to maim them to render them unattractive, thus totally objectifying Black women slaves), and by Black men who internalized White racist- sexist conceptions of Black women, though one should be careful with generalizations (hooks, 1992). Even in the Black community, the fair-skinned Black woman who most nearly resembled White women was seen as the lady and placed on a pedestal, whereas darker-skinned Black women were viewed as bitches and whores (Collins, 1990; Dill, 1995; hooks, 1981; Hurtado, 1989, 1996; Staples, 1990-91; Wallace, 1991).
This area of research, racism and colorism in the politics of relationships, is not yet developed in Canada, and since both the specific history and the context of racism differ considerably from those in the United States, few parallels can be drawn from the latter. Although there have been some excellent theoretical writings and empirical analyses of intersecting racial, class, and gender relations mostly in the socalled public sphere in Canada (Calliste, 1989, 1996a; Stasiulis, 1990), significantly less is known about Black Canadian women than about African American women.
Yet, Canadian research shows that racism in Canada is rampant (Arat-Koc, 1992; Battershill, 1992; Bolaria, 1992; Bolaria & Li, 1988; Boyd, 1992; Calliste & Dei, 1996; Creese, 1992; Henry, 1994; Henry, Tator, Mattis, & Rees, 1995; Li, 1992; Megyrey, 1991; Wong & Netting, 1992). Canadian research has even traced the effects of racism–intersecting with class discrimination and sexism–on Black families (Calliste, 1996b) and minority women’s experiences in ethnic families (Ralston, 1988). What seems to be particularly overlooked in Canadian empirical research is how racism tempered by class discrimination and interwoven with patriarchy, penetrates the perceptions and social relationships of non-Whites, dictates their dating lives, their selection of marital partners and male and female friends, and even governs conjugal relations. I contend that there is a need to study empirically how racism, sexism, and class discrimination may strike Black Canadian women in one of the most private areas of their lives– intimate heterosexual relationships with Black men as well as White men. To be able to conduct such a study, the cherished assumption that racism in Canada can only be White racism has to be brought into question. In addition, how White racist ways of thinking have been internalized and racist practices adopted by racialized groups (Noivo, 1998) in inter- and intraracial relationships need to be investigated.
WHO ARE THE SUBJECTS?
TOWARD A PERSPECTIVE
It is sometimes said that research on racial matters feeds racism, in that naming the problem reifies the categories. I argue that it is not naming the problem–a conspiracy of silence and overlooking the fundamental evil that racism represents–that must be condemned. Rather, in line with Nain (1991), I take the term Black to refer not to an essentialized category based on skin color but to a political selfidentification of a group of racialized women in Canada, those who are perhaps more negatively affected by the Canadian society’s color complex. Moreover, with respect to Canadian Black women, I want to draw attention to their wide range of experiences and identities, which are multiple and more diverse than the U.S. ones. Blacks represent 2% of the Canadian population according to the 1996 census, compared to an estimated 11%-12% of the U.S. population, based on the 2000 U.S. census. In the United States, African Americans are the largest nonwhite group, whereas in Canada, it is the Asians, according to the 1996 census.
Furthermore, the large majority of Canada’s Black population is of comparatively recent origin. Thus, about 60% could be considered foreign born, with a much higher percentage among adults, compared to an estimated 2.6% who are foreign born for the African American population based on the 2000 U.S. census. There are real differences “among a Vancouver Rastafarian, an Anjou Senegalese and a ‘Scotian’ African Baptist” (Clarke, 1997, pp. 27-28 ) and unique regional agendas for the various Canadian Black communities based on their different historical experiences. Roughly two-thirds of Canadian Blacks live in
Toronto and Montreal, yet large communities can be found in other cities and regions, especially in Nova Scotia, where the Black presence dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Francophone Blacks, primarily from Haiti, tend to congregate in Montreal (Christensen & Weifeld, 1993). As a consequence of such diversity in the Black community in Canada (Torczyner, 1997), any methodologically sound research agenda would have to define clearly which “Black” Canadian women are being studied.
Finally, a feminist methodology necessitates that Canadian Black women be placed at the center of inquiry and be treated as neither an abstract category nor objects but as subjects or participants (Smith, 1987). Any inquiry that starts with the experiences of Black Canadian women (however specifically defined) must also explain how such experiences are “knitted into the extended social relations” of contemporary Canadian capitalist economy and society, including its particular forms of present and past racist and patriarchal “relations of ruling” (Smith, 1987, pp. 69-100, 141). If the women are immigrants or of immigrant parentage, the relations of ruling of their countries of origin need to be taken into account as well. We should also keep in mind that the experiences of our subjects are historical, dynamic, and ever changing, as are the social relationships from which their daily lives are inseparable.
In addition, I would like to stress the importance of an integrated gender, racial, and class perspective to the analysis of the oppression that Black women suffer in intimate heterosexual relationships. Although the significance of gender may be obvious, class assists one in treating Black Canadian women as a nonhomogeneous group. Gender, race, and class are certainly not the only important forms of oppression, but they are definitely central in the oppression of Black women. Theoretical analyses of race, class, and gender have tended to try to determine which evil–racial oppression, class exploitation, or gender inequality–and thus which analytical category–race, class, or gender–is primary. A major breakthrough in theoretical and epistemological paradigms came with the recognition of the “ampersand problem in feminist thought” (Spelman, 1988) that one cannot add up oppressions or racial, class, and gender identities, but that these identities intersect and define unique experiences for the people who occupy particular social locations. As a result, we cannot undo any single form of oppression in isolation from the other forms of domination-subordination. Subordination is the other side of privilege, thus making it impossible to eliminate subordination from our lives without yielding our privileges, too (Razack, 1996). In an integrated feminism or “integrative antiracism” (see Calliste, Dei, & Belkhir 1995; Dei 1995), race (or gender) is only an analytical point of entry in understanding the complex of oppressions, while the purpose of analysis is to help end relations of domination.
EXPRESSIONS OF RACISM IN PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
The Social Construction of Racialized Woman
As the U.S. academic literature indicates, there are various expressions of racism in personal relationships. One such expression is the contemporary social construction of Black women. Such a construction is framed by the following four controlling images of African American women, attributed to the legacy of slavery (Collins, 1990): (1) the mammy, the “faithful, obedient domestic servant”; (2) the matriarch, (3) the welfare mother, and (4) the Jezebel or sexually aggressive woman (see also White, 1985). hooks (1992) eloquently argued that Black female sexuality (including that of the sexually aggressive stereotype) is portrayed (and distorted) through the white patriarchal gaze. Of all the images, only the mammy image is “positive” in that the Black mammy is portrayed as hardworking and as rendering useful services to the white household economy, but otherwise as overweight and dark, a desexed individual unsuitable to mate with White men.
The race and sex of the mammy in this instance are the mechanisms by which she is inserted in capitalist relations of production (S. Hall, 1980; Ng, 1988; Satzewich, 1990). The others images, Collins (1990) contended, are linked to their sexuality and fertility. All these images are racist and sexist and have clear class overtones as well. As Warburton (1992) argued in the case of Chinese women in turn-of-the-20th-century British Columbia, race and gender are the mechanisms by which Black women in North America are inserted not only in relations of production, but in relations in the spheres of sexuality and reproduction. African-heritage women in North America have been socially constructed in negative terms as that which White women are not (Brand 1993; Razack 1996; Sharpley- Whiting, 1995). Even the nondesexed images do not represent desirable marital partners (Hurtado, 1989, 1996) and have historically been rejected as such by White men (with class position clearly affecting the probability of such rejection). With the stereotypes and practices of white racism permeating the entire social structure (Collins, 1990; Staples, 1990-91), it is no surprise that many Black men have reacted in a similar way toward Black women and have assimilated society’s “color complex” and developed a “bleaching syndrome” (R. Hall, 1997), the outcome being mediated by social-class differences (Lee See, 1989). The disproportionate number of Black celebrities in the United States who have married out (of the African American community) and the large proportion (71% or 75% in some studies; see Roseblatt et al., 1995) of all marriages between Blacks and Whites being between Black men and White women attest to the color complex. In addition to adopting the racist cultural standards of beauty, Black men have a further instrumentally political (but no less racist) motive for marrying out. As studies have indicated, marrying out is perceived as conveying social status (Lee See, 1989; Russell et al., 1993; Wallace, 1991), which clearly illustrates how truly intersecting racism, sexism, and class discrimination are.
Despite the different historical specificities of capitalist development in the United States and Canada, there are many similarities in terms of the controlling images that frame contemporary Black Canadian womanhood and speak to the overwhelming effect of slavery. In Canada, in addition to the legacy of slavery (Thornhill, 1989), one cannot (and should not) overlook how institutionalized racism, intersecting with sexism and class inequality, has continuously shaped the private lives of Black Canadian women and families (Calliste, 1996b). A well-documented case is Caribbean domestics in Canada (Arat-Koc, 1992; Calliste, 1989, 1993-94; Jakubowski, 1997). Caribbean women have always been constructed in Canadian immigration legislation as fit only for domestic work, unfit or less desirable for citizenship than other immigrants, less deserving of parenthood and reproductive freedom than other women, promiscuous and therefore morally questionable, and so forth. Racist, sexist, and class-based stereotypes have become institutionalized into law and have greatly affected the public perceptions and labor force and private experiences of this group of Black Canadian women. Any research that starts from the standpoint of women has to take into account the specific Canadian institutional context of racism, sexism, and class discrimination and to link real, individual women’s experiences of race in their private lives with such a context. Important questions for research on Black Canadian women’s relationships are how these women experience race in their private lives and personal relationships, whether race is an issue in their relationships with Black (or White) partners, and what the differences are in the experiences of Black women of different social classes.
The Double Standard in Interracial Relationships
Furthermore, Black men seem to believe in Black women’s moral, emotional, and cultural strength in maintaining family and group cohesion–the “matriarch image” (Collins, 1990, p. 71), a sexist and racist stereotype in itself. As ethnic women, Black women are delegated the role of cultural transmission and assigned the responsibility of maintaining their ethnic cultures by socializing the next generations (Ralston, 1992; Taboada-Leonetti, 1983; Tastsoglou, 1997; Yuval-Davis, 1993). But whereas this role expectation restricts all ethnic women to adopt mainstream cultures, Black women seem particularly more affected because their refusal of a racial identity and possible sexual alliances with non-Black men have greater consequences. When Black men enter relationships with non-Black women, the collectivity perceives it as crossing the racial borders, but when Black women do it, it is considered a double crossing, sometimes felt as a betrayal, a sellout of the race, and they may be vilified (Collins, 1990; Kelly, 1998). A sexist and racist double standard allows interracial dating for Black men but not for Black women.
There have been reports of Black male students threatening or otherwise castigating Black female students for dating interracially (Kelly, 1998; Staples, 1978). In Kelly’s (1998, p. 111) study of young Black Canadians in Edmonton, Alberta, the female participants reported that some young men justified their interracial dating by arguing it was the fault of Black women that Black men went out with White women–the Black women had “too much attitude.” Several of these young men stated, however, that when it came to marrying, they would choose among Black women for the sake of their children, who would have a rough time as “half-castes” in the society. Further research is needed to test such findings among Canadian-born Blacks in other provinces and regions of Canada.
The “Clear Pecking Order”
Another expression of internalized racism in intimate heterosexual relationships is what Collins (1990, p. 80) called the “clear pecking order” among African Americans on the basis of “one’s closeness to whiteness.” The consequence of such an order is that women are forced to compete against one another. Collins, like other authors, noted that the deepest pain inflicted on Black women sometimes comes from other Black women. Some Black women compete on the scale of altering their features (like straightening their hair) or pressure one another to “act white,” and mothers often exert fierce pressure on their darkskinned daughters to marry lighter men “for the sake of the children” (Golden, 1983; Harris, 1995). Because of the sexual image of Black women, the most “beautiful” of them are more likely to be harassed by White men, meaning that beauty becomes a curse for these women. But Black women’s frustration is often directed at other, usually lighter-skinned women, for possessing the traits that others value so much. Thus, what angers these women is that some of them receive better treatment than others. This situation clearly shows how the dominant society interferes with the intimate relationships among Black women, between Black men and Black women, and between Black and lighter-skinned or White women. Another consequence of the racist and sexist clear pecking order is the resentment that Black women feel about the privileged position that White women occupy when it comes to selecting partners (Frankenberg, 1993; Lee See, 1989; Rosenblatt et al., 1995; Tizard & Phoenix, 1993) and of White women’s racist ignorance or relative indifference to Black women’s predicament. Since beauty is defined as having White characteristics, Black women experience Black men’s preference for White women as a rejection of Black women’s physical traits (Anthias, 1990; Collins, 1990; Harris, 1995; hooks, 1981), which also further corrodes the fragile relationship between Black women and Black men. Black women know that “white women are penalized by their gender but privileged by their race” (Collins, 1990, p. 225). White women are known to feel preferred and to perceive Black women as less threatening (e.g., when White women hire Black housekeepers, thinking that doing so minimizes the probability of their husbands’ adultery). Thus, as several feminist scholars have noted, White women commonly do not recognize their own racism. It can be presumed that Black women are filled with anger and bitterness, as well as highly critical of White women’s disregard for Black women’s situation (Collins, 1990; Lee See, 1989).
After all, White women benefit from White men’s position as well as by Black women’s household labor.
The clear pecking order has implications for friendship, trust, and sisterhood among Black and White women. Evidence in the U.S. literature (Lee See, 1989) suggests that the chances of understanding between them are greatly diminished because their different social locations pit them against each other with respect to access to all kinds of resources, including access to partners and families. What are the prospects for an integrated feminist theory and practice, given the zero-sum game in which one woman’s (unacknowledged) gain appears to be another woman’s loss? What would fighting against all forms of subordination as a route to a solution to oppression specifically mean when it comes to intimate heterosexual relationships (Razack, 1996)? Where can one begin to recognize, let alone denounce, privilege in intimate relationships? Important research questions in this regard would be whether Black Canadian women think it is possible to fight against racism in intimate relationships together with their White sisters and under what conditions.
CONSEQUENCES OF RACISM IN PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS.
The pernicious consequences of racism in intimate heterosexual relationships extend further. Black women are placed in an impossible position as victims of racism and sexism, compounded by class exploitation. On the one hand, they are sexually objectified and exploited by White men (hooks, 1981; Staples, 1990-91), while being rejected by them as marital partners (Hurtado, 1989, 1996). On the other, they are faced with Black men’s similar sexist-racist stereotypes and a second rejection by them (i.e., the shortage of eligible Black men). Finally, Black women are being penalized for marrying out. Their responses to such pressures are as many and varied as are their resistances.
Black women, as U.S. studies have found (Porter & Bronzaft, 1995), prefer Black dating and marital partners; that is, they prefer endogamy. For example, 85% of the college women in Porter and Bronzaft’s study stated that their most rewarding and fulfilling experiences in dating had been with Black men (whom are generally perceived as more supportive and culturally in tune), and 64% did not date men from other ethnic groups. But is Black women’s preference a racial preference (i.e., an expression of racism) under the circumstances and thus no different from other groups’ (e.g., Whites’) racial preferences? To comprehend this phenomenon, one needs to draw a distinction between racial preference (racism) and ethnic-racial identity. I contend that the desire for endogamy is circumscribed by the awareness of racism in society and the inner tensions and conflict of split racial identification and, as a consequence, the wish to preserve ethnocultural identity. It is for this reason that I mention endogamy under the circumstances as one of the pernicious consequences of racism. It is racism that forces people to “love small,” to need “permission for desire” (Morrison, 1987).
As the literature indicates, Black women’s refusal to enter relationships with White partners is often an individual, family, or collective decision (e.g., not wanting marry the oppressor, wanting to protect or maintain their minority cultures, and worrying about their children’s racial categorization and racial and ethnic identities). To some extent, their decisions are similar to those of members of White ethnic groups who favor endogamy for ethnocultural continuity. Social pressures and family and personal politics that foster marriage to in-group members are common (Barbara, 1991; Noivo, 1997; Rosenblatt et al., 1995). Yet Black women’s predicament is greater and deeper because of color politics and racism. For many, it is not just a matter of crossing ethnic boundaries, and some allude to intermarriage among Caribbean and African or Canadian and Caribbean Blacks in this regard. It is rather the crossing of color lines that seems to be the problem. It can thus be presumed that women’s concerns about their children’s lives as mixed colored in a racist society and on the children’s racial location in a racialized social order may determine their choice.
Important research questions in this regard pertain to Black Canadian women’s attitudes and practices with respect to Black and White male partners and experiences with such relationships. In addition, how do these women raise or intend to raise their mixed-race children? Have they been pressured by their families or friends to make certain choices with respect to partners?
Lack of Trust
As the U.S. literature indicates, there is a lack of trust by Black women in their relationships with White men. Because Black women are aware of the status diminution that such relationships have meant for White men historically (Porter & Bronzaft, 1995), there are indications that Black women often suspect that all that White men want from relationships with them is sex. As Staples had shown in a relatively older study (1978), in more than 50% of the cases, Black women refused to have sex with their White dating partners. By contrast, interracial dating without sex was reported by only 9% of Black men. At the same time as Black women prefer endogamy and are even willing to compete fiercely for it, they are highly skeptical of the likelihood of achieving it in view of the circumstances they are familiar with. In Porter and Bronzaft’s (1995) study, one fifth of the college women believed they might marry White men, 63% expected to be married career women with children (representing a drop from 83% in a previous study cited by the two authors) 15% did not expect to marry at all, and 4% expected to have children and careers but not husbands. Porter and Bronzaft interpreted these findings as indicating that these college students–the participants of the study–knew of the scarcity of eligible Black men as partners for them, given Black men’s preferences for White women and demographic factors (such as sex ratios among Blacks and Whites). In addition, 40% of the female Black college students had doubts about the trustworthiness (reliability) of Black men as marital partners–that is, Black men’s inability to support their families on the basis of their labor as male breadwinners, which is a historical fact of the male Black experience in North America and a legacy of slavery. Important research questions in this regard concern Black Canadian women’s beliefs and expectations of marriage and of their husbands’ racial identity.
As a consequence of the shortage of eligible Black men and of their historical experiences in North America with the legacy of slavery, Black women are often not only willing to “marry down” or remain single (Porter & Bronzaft, 1995), but are overprotective of Black men. Black men are aware of these attitudes and such awareness accounts for the liberties they take with Black women’s lives (Brand, 1993) or, as Collins (1990) put it, there is a “love and trouble” tradition in Black women’s relationships with Black men or “blues relationships.” In the Canadian context, this reality is written about in the literature (Sarsfield, 1997). The Black liberation movement has been sexist, equating Black liberation with recovering Black manhood, defined in white phallocentric terms (hooks, 1992). White women have often accused Black women of being overprotective and not acknowledging Black patriarchy and violence (Collins, 1990; Lee See, 1989). In agreement with Lorde (1979), Lees (1986), Calliste (1996b), and others, I argue that criticism of Black sexism should not be suppressed because it is Black. Important research questions in this regard are whether and how Black Canadian women have experienced racism and sexism (including violent behavior) from their Black partners, how they have responded to racism and sexism, and whether they discuss such problems with other women, friends, or family members.
Black women’s reduced access to Black men is a form of racial exclusion, made possible by the systemic character of racist, sexist, and class-based stereotypes and practices of our society. Such stereotypes and practices are well internalized by most people, both minority and majority group members. Although the contemporary problem appears to be racism and colorism in relationships and private lives, the major historical and contemporary institutionalized power relations that have kept it in place have been the legacy of slavery and contemporary migration schemes. Among the various expressions or dimensions of the problem are, the racialized construction of Black women, the “clear pecking order,” and the double standard in interracial relationships.The consequences of racism in personal relationships (inter- and intraracial) are pernicious. Friendship and sisterhood among Black women and White women are jeopardized and the possibility for an integrated feminist movement and praxis becomes a greater challenge.
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A correction to this article.
The article states: ““the finding that in 75% of interracial marriages in the U.S. the man is Black and the woman White (Roseblatt, Karris, and Powell, 1995)” is not substantiated by U.S. Census reports.For the UNITED STATES MORE Asian/Native American/Latino(a )s marry out than blacks.The report mistates the stats by incorrectly indicating that OVERWHELMINGLY the predominant IRs in America are BM/WW who marry each other (”the finding that in 75% of interracial marriages in the U.S. the man is Black and the woman White”), which does not hold up to research/census stats at the time of this article.
What the author meant is that in black-white marriages in America, 75% are between BM/WW.
ALL other IR race/ethnic groups (Asian/Native American/Latino[a]) practice exogamy more than blacks who are more likely to practice endogamy.
ON THE ISSUES: AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
(Hattip to Stephanie of Stepahine’s Journal)