On Being Black, ‘Woke,’ And Dating White People
Once upon a time, Barack Obama dated a white girl. But he didn’t just date her ― he wanted to marry her, and proposed to her, twice, before her disapproving parents reportedly put an end to the relationship.
When details of this story came out last week, some outlets reported it with the thinly-veiled implication that Obama, so beloved for having married an exceptional black woman like Michelle Obama, had some kind of dirty secret. He hadn’t always been Michelle’s ride-or-die.
Indeed, according to the biography Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama written by David Garrow, Obama let go of his white woman (who was actually a half Dutch and half Japanese woman named Sheila Miyoshi Jager) for a calculated reason ― he knew that in order to become president one day, to be credibly black, he had to be married to a black woman.
That Obama, the first black president of the United States, allegedly felt that a non-black partner would be a liability to his political career says a lot about the way we view black leaders, activists, public figures and those who they choose to date.
It’s a huge plot point in “Dear White People,” where black student activist Sam faces scrutiny, shock, and disappointment from her friends when it comes out that her boyfriend is a white guy named Gabe. But does dating a white person really make someone less black? Less down? Less woke?
Comedian, activist and host of MTV’s “Decoded” series, Franchesca Ramsey, has faced her fair share of scrutiny over her “wokeness.” She’s made a career out of calling out racism and sexism but also happens to be married to a white man.
“I’m somewhat weary of being called ‘woke’ because it feels absolute in a way that I don’t think is realistic,” Ramsey told HuffPost.
“My consciousness is a process and that includes my relationship with my husband. His being white doesn’t make me any less black or invested in black issues, the same way him being a man doesn’t make me any less of a feminist.”
The scrutiny is often not just about how socially engaged you are with black issues, either. Sometimes, it’s about blackness, period.
While straight black men definitely get their share of criticism, there’s something especially terrible about the way visible black women like Ramsey, Serena Williams and Halle Berry are scrutinized for their white partners. When news came out in December that Williams was engaged to Reddit founder, Alexis Ohanian, she faced reactions like this:
Yes, there are black people who fetishize their white partners, who use their white partners to put down other black people and cement their own internalized racism, but this is not a rule. There’s something incredibly reductive and hetereonormative about basing a black woman’s worth on what kind of man she chooses to sleep with, as if a woman’s blackness or her dedication to black issues can only validated by a “black king” (or vice versa).
“I’ve had my blackness challenged because I’m in a relationship with a white man, and it’s hurtful and erasing of the work I do to combat white supremacy,” says Ashley Reese, a black culture and sex writer who has extensively explored the politics of her own interracial relationship.
“There are black people in black romantic relationships who aren’t concerned about domestic violence against black women, who don’t care about the murders of black trans women, who believe gay black people are inferior, who don’t give a damn about any other marginalized black folk,” Reese told HuffPost, adding, “But we’re going to act like they’re more dedicated to black causes because of their black bedfellows? Give me a break.”
Wokeness is an imaginary construct. It’s a term that, since crossing over to the mainstream, has lost any real meaning. Wokeness has become a barometer with which to judge how socially aware a person it is, but it leaves little room for nuance, and when it comes to human relationships, to romance and love and sex, nuance is everything. After all, one person’s “woke bae” is another person’s hotep. And thus, who you sleep with seems like a pretty arbitrary way to gauge just how engaged in black issues you really are.
A white partner doesn’t stand in the way of one’s ability to be passionate about black issues. A white partner doesn’t change one’s lived experiences as a black person in the past, present, or future. And no, a white partner doesn’t automatically make you less conscious, less engaged with your own blackness. That’s up to you.