On June 12, 1967, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Loving family in a case that had taken years to resolve. Richard Loving, a white man, and his wife Mildred, a black woman, had been in exile from their home state of Virginia after being arrested and imprisoned under the state’s law against miscegenation (interracial marriage). On that day, “love won” and the Lovings walked away a lawfully wedded couple.
On June 12, 1993, 26 years later to the day, my parents, Jill and Paul Whittaker, walked out of St. Jude’s Church a lawfully wedded couple. My mother was born and raised outside of Washington D.C., to an Italian father and Irish-German mother. My father was born in Jamaica, the descendant of former slaves. They love each other very much.
And now, another 26 years later, dancing to the thrum of synthetic bass and backlit by rainbow discos, I look at the white boy who’s looking back at me from across the room. I wonder what to do. And I feel guilty.
From my childhood, I was trained to whitewash my happily ever after. It’s no wonder that the man I dreamed of was always brunette or blonde, not when films, books, and art all fed me an image of beauty that ran the spectrum from Al Pacino in “The Godfather” (somewhat white) to Matthew Macfayden in “Pride and Prejudice” (VERY white). I was led to believe that the only romantic future possible lay in white bodies.
This isn’t an isolated phenomenon. Cultural imperialism is the idea that society “tak[es] the culture of the ruling class and establish[es] it as the norm.” In other words, we live in a white supremacist world, where power and capital is disproportionately concentrated in the hands of white communities and individuals. This power and capital then moves beyond the material; our society’s norms―how we define everything, including beauty―are all white-centric. To be white is to be beautiful. And thus to be not white―to be black―is to be ugly.
The danger of white beauty standards is not just that white people and the culture at large see black people as undesirable. Black people are so socialized, so caught in the trap of cultural imperialism, that we ourselves become convinced that they’re right. Bleaching one’s own skin (which is a world-wide epidemic) is only the extreme. We become convinced that white people truly are beautiful, and we are not. By being taught to hate ourselves, we learn to hate others who look like us.
Love, then, is political and powerful. What we as the devalued do matters. Too often, the black community abandons itself, refusing to acknowledge its own beauty, seeking for love elsewhere. Too often, we buy into the lies, and suffer for it. At its core, black love for black bodies is a defense mechanism, a survival tactic; for a black body to love another black body is to love oneself. Black love is beautiful because it is a rejection of the lies. It embraces our glory as living, breathing beings that are worth loving.
All this is well and good. But I am a light-skinned black man with a white mother. And that brings with it a whole host of complications.
I believe that I have a responsibility to validate blackness and its beauty. And yet I struggle to detach myself from the lies this culture teaches us. I know that an attraction to white bodies is the result of centuries of devaluation of black bodies. But, as guilty and ashamed as it makes me, I know that brainwashing of that scale and strength cannot be thrown off easily. As a light-skinned black man specifically, I benefit from centuries of exotification and fetishization of light-skinned people of color. I may be black, but I’m not too black. I can have a seat at the master’s table, if I want. I get to choose; too many black people, too many other black queer men don’t get that choice. Colorism is real; it’s the same fiction that tied Uncle Toms to their masters. At the end of the day, we all want to belong to that which excludes us. So when I am given that opportunity, it takes work to shrug it off.
And all the while, I’m thinking of my parents. 53 years ago, I could only have been a dream, because 53 years ago the state would have been fully within its rights to arrest my parents for loving each other. My parents have never had it easy. The world has worked against them since they first fell in love. I could never judge them. As much as I wish to trust only black love, I cannot deny the meaning of my parents’ struggle. To ignore them ―is to ignore reality. Nor can I separate myself from that part of who I am. I am a product of struggle, in more ways than one. I am a product of my black ancestors’ struggle to love themselves and each other. But I am also the product of my parents’ struggle to be with each other.This is Dating While Black: constantly conflicted, knees buckling under the weight of contradictory responsibilities passed on by those who’ve come before. As I stand there on that dance floor, I look at that white boy and I know that what I do next brings with it centuries of baggage. And I feel guilty, no matter what I choose.
Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19 is a Philosophy concentrator living in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.