We could probably all add a verse to "Brotha," Angie Stone's musical valentine to Black men from all walks of life. Yet many of us find ourselves without one. Some of us wait around till our hair turns gray, while others—often with heavy hearts—look for love beyond the color line.
"Black women first and foremost want to be affirmed by our own men," says New York City writer and real-estate broker Audrey Edwards, who has dated outside the race. "There's a sense with many of us that a White man or a man of another hue is your default guy." Another sister I know is more blunt: "Black men aren't always attracted to Black women," she says. "What I and my friends who've dated outside the race find is that it's the White guys who are flirting with us."
Even so, when Mahisha Vernon met John Dellinger in the cafeteria at her Sacramento, California, computer-processing company two years ago, she wasn't particularly feeling White or Asian men. John is a mix of both. His mother is Korean, and his father is White. But John was a little different from what she expected. He wore Timberlands and Sean John gear and he listened to hip-hop. "Growing up in Washington, D.C., he had been exposed to Black people," she explains. "I instantly picked up on the flavor." Six months after they met, John, now 27, moved from D.C. to be with Mahisha, now 29.
Eventually the two clashed—not over race, but over religion. He was raised Baptist; she is Pentecostal. For a while they seemed destined to go different ways. But then he discovered he liked her church and recently joined it. John may not be the man Mahisha thought she'd end up with, but she says she believes that when they marry later this year, she'll be starting her new life with Mr. Right.
"If you choose to go into an interracial relationship, you're deciding to do something you know will be difficult," says Eleta Greene, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist living in Atlanta. "That's why you need to establish an open dialogue," with each of you expressing your fears and anxieties up front, she advises. You might confess, for example, "I'm afraid we're going to get into an argument and you're going to call me 'nigger.' " Or he might admit, "I'm afraid you're going to say I have a small penis." You both have to agree that there are some places where—even in the heat of battle—you will not go.
How you manage the clash of cultures is another story. That's what almost killed Brenda Lane Richardson's relationship with her husband, Mark, a Swedish American, nearly 20 years ago, when both were living in northern California. She remembers a party she gave back then. She had told people it would start at ten, which of course meant folks started rolling in around midnight. But Mark, not yet clued in to Colored People's Time, kept asking, "Why aren't people here yet?" When they did show and the joint was finally jumping, Mark stood in a corner having a cool intellectual exchange with another scholar, unaware that his stock was falling rapidly.
"After the party was over, my lip was stuck out," Brenda, a public speaker and author of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner: Celebrating Interethnic, Interfaith and Interracial Relationships (Wildcat Canyon Press), remembers. "The next day friends came over, and we were out in the yard talking about how much fun the party was. They sensed that Mark was in the doghouse. All of a sudden, we hear loud African music, the back door to the house bursts open, and out comes my future husband with my son on his shoulders, both of their heads tied up in colorful African cloth, doing a tribal dance." It was clear to Brenda that this bit of whimsy was Mark's way of letting her know that he could hang.
Brenda, who had been praying for a man who walked in faith and could help her raise her son from a previous marriage, knew in that instant that Mark was the one. An Episcopal priest, he had committed his life to God, but that spontaneous dance proved to her that he could also love her, her son and her culture. Brenda and Mark have been married 18 years now and have two more children who are now teenagers.
As little girls, watching our parents and other Black couples around us, many of us begin to assume that love will come in a brown package. "We think we won't care as much for a man from another group because he's not like Daddy," explains Greene. "But sometimes we become wedded to supposedly 'safe' guys and repeat personal pathologies even with them." Which is why exploring the unfamiliar can sometimes work to your benefit. "With an interracial partnership, you may not carry your daddy baggage into that relationship to the same extent," says Greene, "and for some women that's a plus."
Hyacinth Camillieri is one of those women. She sensed early on that she would end up with someone of another race. She grew up in Trinidad, where men commonly had "outside" women. "They strayed from their marriages, causing strife and broken homes and having children all over the place," Hyacinth says. "I knew I didn't want that." Eventually she married a college chum, Giovanni Camillieri, who is of Italian-Mexican heritage. "We were friends for so long," she remembers. "We hung out, laughed, talked about each other's love interests. Called each other for romantic advice." And then one day they realized that what they really wanted was to be with each other. They've been happily married for two years.
Sometimes, however, the pressures on an interracial relationship can be just too much to bear. Alison Barrows, an artist who asked me not to use her real name, says that when she married Paul, her first husband, at 21, she had no clue that his upbringing in Italy and hers in northern New Jersey would prove such a difficult bridge to span. Financially, he pampered her, paid for her to go to grad school, gave her everything she wanted. But he never understood what it took to support her emotionally. "If somebody called me 'nigger,' he'd be outraged, but I could tell him seven cabs had passed me by, and he would tell me I was wrong when I said that was racism, too," she explains.
Alison, now 35, grew up in an open-minded family that, like Martin Luther King, preached that it was not about the color of your skin but the content of your character. Five years of marriage to Paul helped Alison realize that, in too many ways, America is about the color of your skin. So now she's back to basic Black—a brother from Brooklyn. Yet she says of Paul, "he's a wonderful man and still one of my closest friends."
Alison's experience aside, when it comes to love, Hyacinth encourages Black women to consider going global. "Don't limit yourself," she says. "Sometimes amazing surprises are waiting for you."
This article was reprinted from the July issue of ESSENCE magazine