Unmarried black women: “We’re here, we’re fierce, get used to it.”

A guest post from Dani McClain, a writer living in Oakland. She is on the campaigns team at ColorOfChange.org.

Aside from a few online clips, I didn’t watch last week’s ABC Nightline special titled “Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?” But I’ve been following enough of the recent media frenzy around straight, unmarried black women to make an educated guess about the analysis and diagnosis that emerged from the show. The takeaways were likely as follows:

Professional black women aren’t getting married because we’re unlovable, inflexible and have an inflated sense of ourselves and the lives we deserve. Our character flaws are compounded by the fact that black men are too busy chasing white women or serving time for non-violent drug offenses to look in our direction. Let’s be honest: Men of all races run screaming because they find us ugly, mannish and overbearing. We should be thankful for self-proclaimed Black Woman Expert Steve Harvey, because even when he demeans and talks down to us, his intentions are pure.

There’s so much to unpack from the recent trend of corporate media excursions into black women’s presumed desire for marriage, and I’m thankful that women like Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Gina McCauley and Farai Chideya have been deconstructing the madness. What interests me most about the trend are what I see as its parallel underlying purposes:

1) To shame, ridicule and pathologize unmarried black women so that we become the cautionary tale, lest more women of other races start questioning whether marriage will actually contribute to their happiness, and

2) To distract us from raising hell over all the legal and social benefits that aren’t available to us that would be if we were married.

So, why are my conspiracy theory wheels turning over some bad television and magazine articles?

Nothing about the tone of or approach to these stories tells me they’re actually for me or other unmarried black women. Just as I can’t imagine 19th century black women flocking to catch a glimpse of the Hottentot Venus, I don’t imagine that I’m the target audience for these contemporary public humiliations. So for whom are these stories being produced? What’s causing editors to green-light the inane pitches that develop into these media train wrecks? The executives who assume their audiences have an appetite for these portrayals of black dysfunction sense a bubbling panic coming from somewhere in the American political and cultural landscape. That panic is rooted in the sense that too many professional women (of any race) not getting married means too many people pushing back on sex-based pay disparities in the workplace. It means too many people questioning the logic of tying health care benefits, property rights, hospital visitation rights, etc. to marriage. To me, these articles and “news” programs are being published and broadcast in an effort to stem this coming tide. And those of us black women who feel offended and mischaracterized by the media onslaught should take this as our cue to claim our rights and our rightful place as trailblazers in the 21st century reconfiguration of family and adulthood.

Rather than take the bait and feel terrible about ourselves when some media outlet tells us we’re both cause and victim of an “epidemic” or “crisis” in the black community, let’s assert that we are grown-ass human beings, and thus deserving of the same social, economic, civil and political rights that married people can access.

A vocal segment of the LGBTQ activist community has been making this argument for a while now. People like Kenyon Farrow, Jasmyne Cannick and Yasmin Nair have long been arguing that rather than making marriage the be all end all, we should be supporting each other in creating custom-made families that work for us. They’ve pointed out the folly of fighting to mimic and reproduce the patriarchal, nuclear families that continue to be held up as the only legitimate model in this country. These writers argue – and straight, unmarried black women would be smart to join the chorus — that rather than focusing on getting more people married, we should be de-linking human rights from marriage and creating space for a broader acceptance of the cobbled together, nontraditional families that many of us came up in. I know I’m not the only one who was raised by a thoroughly capable single parent and the family members she kept close to make sure I was surrounded by love and good care at all times. My family has never been illegitimate.

So where have we been while this segment of the LGBT community has been crafting the arguments we need to be firing off to Essence every time they let Steve Harvey ruminate on how much we should hate ourselves? While segments of the gay community are planning for a time when non-sexual domestic partner benefits are available nationwide, why aren’t those of us who still don’t quite get how marriage would enrich our lives spiritually, romantically or materially supporting that fight? Even if we do think we might want to marry some day, why not join forces now with people like Farrow and Cannick as they argue for the kind of movement that would benefit us just as much as it would benefit them?

Sadly, we’ve been too caught up posting our gag reflex responses on Facebook every time there’s some new show about us but not for us. Or we’ve been taking advantage of this weird media moment to wage a class war on black men. Or we’ve been perfecting our bootstraps narrative and telling ourselves and anyone who’ll listen that we don’t need a man because we can do it all ourselves thank you very much.

Well, yes, I’m sure we can. But the idea is there’s no reason why we should have to. Let’s claim the way we’re living our lives as a political identity and demand that we’re not sitting at the kiddie table of human rights any more. It’s time, sisters. Come out, come out, wherever you are.

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11 Comments

  1. HL Chilly
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    GREAT article! Well-written, concise, and strong. I agree that it is easy for communities targeted by the media to not look beyond themselves to answer it. It would be easy for most people to take offense but not take the next step: unlinking human rights from marriage. What the author does is think wider and invite those adrift people into a larger cause, gives them choices and options for ACTION. Again, great article. I hope it makes a difference.

  2. Comrade Kevin
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t argue that single parent households aren’t sufficiently stable to raise a child. Rather, I would argue that the needs of every child are very different as are the needs of every parent.
    Hillary Clinton drew a lot of flack from the Right for stating that it takes a village to raise a child. I think rather that the village raises the child, whether one wants it to or nor, and I’d argue that we ought to strive to make our own metaphorical village stable, secure, and sufficient for everyone.

  3. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    In all the months this “single professional Black woman” fake crisis has been in the headlines, this is the first article that I’ve read on the topic that actually makes some God damned sense!
    Ms McClain didn’t make the usual errors; oversharing about the writer’s personal dating woes, Black man bashing/Black woman bashing (depending on the gender of the author) or Steve Harvey-style glorification of patriarchal 1950′s style marriages.
    It’s also good to see that Ms McClain puts forth the bold alternative that not everybody has to be married – and the even more revolutionary idea that just because a woman is not married does NOT mean that she’s a failure as a woman
    Hands down this is the best article on Black marriage that I’ve read so far.
    Thank you Dani McClain!!!!!!!

  4. cattrack2
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    From where I sit the demise of the black family is inextricably linked to the demise of the black community. Its sad but true: The single greatest predictor of poverty & juvenile misbehavior is parental marriage status.
    Yet many of us dismiss the benefits of marriage out of hand. I’m not talking about abusive or domineering marriages, but loving and cooperative ones. This tendency of ours to denigrate traditional families by way of validating our own non-traditional families seems odd to me. There’s no single parent who’s ever raised a family alone who will say it was easy. Nor would their children. We can validate the strength & selflessness of single parents without tearing down the significant virtues of two parent families.

  5. supremepizza
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    “So, why are my conspiracy theory wheels turning over some bad television and magazine articles?”
    There’s no conspiracy here. The media is talking about this because lots of black, highly educated, professional women are (and have been) frustrated because they’re not married when in fact they’d like to be. Over 600 people showed up in that Nightline audience & hundreds more had to be turned away. This is a real issue for lots of black women. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be married. I’m just happy to see that they’re not talking about black women in the same breath that they’re talking about crack heads.
    The difficulty for successful black women to find equally successful black men? In the words of Biggie, “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” But as we used to say back in the day, those are good problems.

  6. s mandisa
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Cattrack2:
    so, are we assuming that the black community is synonymous with black hetero-marriage? because its not. for starters, during slavery, we were not even allowed to marry (though some of us still did). but more importantly, we still made and had the families and communities that we needed.
    i think its a farse that the black community is synonymous with black marriage b/c we’ve had community and support even when we’ve been denied the actual institution of marriage.
    which leads me to my 2nd point: marriage is just that, an institution. its about property, and often has nothing to do with love. of course, people marry for love and thats great, but that was not the historical reasons for marriage.
    3rd: any time mainstream media suddenly talks about black women, as a black woman, im IMMEDIATELY concerned.
    Supreme Pizza: it is refreshing not to see us talked about as crack heads or welfare queens, BUT that does not mean I applaud being blamed for why I havent been able to fully access a system that was never even invented for me to thrive in. YES, thats what i think is happening. lets remember that marginalized people, particularly black women, are often scapegoated for problems that they didnt event (like how welfare reform is often synonymous with a failing economy).
    Gregory:
    I agree about your assertions about Steve Harvey. it pains me to see him lauded as a worthy voice for black women to listen to because he enforces notions of patriarchy that are detrimental to all of black America.
    Lastly: I would like to CALL OUT these hetero-normative assumptions about traditional versus non-traditional families. Its another way in which familes that arent made up of 2 middle class hetero-sexuals are marginalized and invisibilized. As i mentioned earlier, thats just not how many families operated (black families sometimes were bigger and based on locale and community, not simply on biology, b/c we were often sold to different plantations so had to come together beyond blood relations for survival, support, and resistance). So, lets expose and debunk this myth of traditional families, which is just that, a myth. black families, like families of other races, have ALWAYS come in different sizes with different types of parents.

  7. cattrack2
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    “so, are we assuming that the black community is synonymous with black hetero-marriage? because its not.”
    Hi, S Mandisa. I support gay marriage & civil union rights. I don’t care if Timmy has two daddies. My point is that as surely as it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes more than one parent generally speaking. The time & money of a single parent is severely finite.
    While slavery may have prevented a nuclear family prior to the Civil War, black people moved quickly to nuclear families as soon as they could. And undeniably it worked effectively in raising children & stable communities. I recognize that it can be abusive and/or patriarchal as well, though, which is why I talk of loving & cooperative marriages. I’m not saying that everyone should get married, but I do believe that marriage should be normative (even tho I myself will probably never get married :-)
    The argument that marriage is merely an economic & property arrangement is a classist argument. For the black sharecroppers that were my grandparents it certainly was about love not property. Skip back 500 yrs or so & similarly for English peasants marriage was also not about property. That argument may fly when you’re talking about the British Royal Family, but it runs aground when you talk about work-a-day people.

  8. supremepizza
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think anyone’s blaming us per se. I’m not looking to settle down right now myself but when my friends & sisters ask the question, “Why is it so hard for me to find a (black) man?” there are two responses. One locates the cause in the dearth of *eligible* black men, the other locates the cause in the *high* standards of a black women. Well, I think, both are right. From a raw #s perspective there’s not a highly educated black man for every highly educated black woman. Thems just the numbers. Some black women who wish to marry black men are going to have to marry someone with less education than themselves.
    But many times the problem isn’t that women aren’t willing to marry *down* its that men hate, gripe & fuss about marrying *up*. So, conversely, black men are going to have to get comfortable with the idea that their wife may very well be more educated & earn more than them. They might view this as an attack on their masculinity but thems the facts. I don’t see a problem with it. My mother always made more money than my father & he seemed just fine that way.
    So I don’t see this discussion assigning blame as much as it is just navigating a frustrating situation for all involved & as individuals being emotionally mature enough to be sensitive to one another’s feelings.

  9. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Let’s keep it real; mass unemployment, deindustrialization, union busting, “Welfare Reform”, Section 8 cutbacks and mass incarceration of young Black men are the causes of our race’s problems not the marital status of Black women
    Every single Black woman in America could get into a traditional marriage tomorrow, and we’d still face the same crisis that we do today.
    Marital status shaming of single African American women is NOT the solution to our race’s problems!
    As for those statistics you cite – all I can say is Statistics 101: correlation does not equal causation.

  10. GREGORYABUTLER10031
    Posted April 29, 2010 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Do you honestly think that the mainstream media in this country, who have been racist against us for generations, suddenly have developed a sense of concern for African American women?
    Considering the history, isn’t it far more likely that they are using this as yet another attempt to insult and humiliate our race?
    Remember, many White Americans are still upset about having to call a Black man “Mr President” – and having a Black woman as their “First Lady” is all the more galling to them.
    And not just the latter day KKK at the Tea Parties are upset – there are folks in positions of power in the media who are not at all happy about members of our race holding those highly esteemed posts.
    What better way to get back at us then to manufacture this imaginary “Black marriage crisis” – to make our women look unlovable and our men look lazy and shiftless.
    Frankly, I don’t think this whole “marriage crisis” even exists in the real world.
    Black people are still forming loving relationships, of all types (men with men, women with women, men with women ect) – some are getting married (when the law lets them – we still only have marriage equality in 5 states) others are technically single but still very committed to each other.
    Every type of family is valid – and you don’t need a pastor’s blessing or a marriage license to build a life together!
    Marriage rates are in decline among America’s other races too – the process is just further along among African Americans.
    In other words, it’s not a “marriage crisis” – instead, our race are trendsetters in new ways to live and love.
    What’s so bad about that?
    Also, why does the discussion always have to be framed in terms of the marriage prospects of “Black highly educated professional women”????
    I’m sorry, but that’s really classist!
    I guess the relationship issues of secretaries, factory workers, bank tellers and full time single moms just don’t matter as much as the concerns of doctors, lawyers and professors!
    The bottom line is, this whole “Black marriage crisis” meme that White corporate media is pushing is nothing more than a high tech lynching, meant to belittle, ridicule and debase our race in front of the other American races.
    Don’t believe the hype!

  11. Moxie
    Posted May 1, 2010 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Danielle Belton who pens the blog the Black Snob has frequently commented on this faux crisis. One troubling aspect of this media panic is the implied notion that the black women are the problem.
    http://blacksnob.com/snob_blog/2009/6/19/everybody-panic-why-worrying-about-the-marriage-crisis-wont.html

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