Would most Type A, professional women have dated Barack when he was a broke, big-eared organizer with a funny name?
America has fallen for the Obamas. The history, the high glamour, the PDAs on the White House lawn. It’s a universal picture of love. But for many successful black women, with college degrees, ambitious careers and five-year plans, that enchantment has become something of an obsession.
Those of us hoping to find suitable mates in a dating landscape that is, statistically speaking, pretty grave, are absolutely giddy about the very existence of the first family and especially about the possibility that we could find our own Barack.
We’d give up three hair appointments in a row, our designer puppies and that annual tropical vacation with our best grad-school friends to meet a man like him. Brilliant. Confident. Best smile ever. So into his wife. On the cover of April’s issue of Washingtonian magazine, he appears shirtless to illustrate the publication’s No. 2 reason to love D.C. (“Our new neighbor is hot!”) But if we’d first encountered him the way Michelle did, as a regular guy, under the glow of office lights instead of the spotlight, would he have made our lists at all?
In footage that plays when the networks mention how our cool, young, black president shot hoops with his staff and friends on Election Day, Obama is close to gawky in a simple gray T-shirt tucked in just a bit too tightly. Between plays, you notice tapered pants pulled up a little too high. A slightly skinny build. In those few frames, he’s not the hottest guy on the court, let alone in the country. When he appeared as a presidential candidate on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, my initial swoon as he stepped on stage was short-lived. He playfully hip-bumped the host in an overly bouncy dance routine that embarrassed me into looking away. Suddenly, I was watching my boss get down at the company Christmas party or a friend’s dad grooving to Earth, Wind and Fire at her wedding. Not bad. Endearing, even. But “swagga” did not spring to mind. Sure, Obama is a dad and a boss to many . . . but I get the impression he’s been dancing like that his whole life.
I’ve played matchmaker, unsuccessfully, for scores of black professional women. And I’m convinced that Michelle’s got something on many of us. Not her intelligence or her confidence or sense of style, her glowing skin or the carved silhouette of her arms. I could fill a room with friends who have all these qualities to spare. I’m talking about the choices I imagine she made in those crucial moments between meeting Barack and deciding who he would be to her. She must have focused on an abundance of goodness instead of his hint of goofiness and fixated on a warm smile instead of a pair of oversized ears. It’s easy to see now that he was a great catch, but how many of us would have been open to this guy who strayed so far from the black Prince Charming ideal, starting with his very name?
My single friends and I mingle at events dubbed Pandora and Equilibrium, or with long acronyms about political engagement or the black community, where open bars and soul food buffets are the draw but really not the purpose. I will often identify a black man who “someone should be dating” and talk him up to a female friend, colleague or neighbor, offering descriptors like: Funny. Laid-back. Attractive. And more honest ones like: Ambitious. Shy. Soft but not fat.
Just as I picked at the less-than-cool undercurrents of that presidential pickup game and talk-show dance party, my female friends home in on the negative as they snub my suggestions.
His toes were ashy.
He seems like he’d be a really cool friend, but I don’t know, those lips. . .
He was wearing a bubble coat, and seriously, it was not that cold.
We had a good conversation, but I like a man to be more aggressive.
That was our second and last date. He used the word “authentic” like 14 times.
How many times do I have to tell you I’m looking for someone TALL and HOT? Keywords being tall and hot.
He drank a hot chocolate instead of coffee. What is he? A 6’4’’12-year-old? (I’m putting myself out there—this was my own reaction to an otherwise pleasant date just a few years ago.)
In these comments are echoes of my conversations in mini-communities of black professionals—at brunches, bar-passing celebrations and housewarming parties. I think of my years at Harvard Law School, which has 150 black students at any given time. One would have thought that the Black Law Students Association was a group of first cousins; dating among members was so unusual and so scandalous when it did occur. In these “professional” contexts, women are shaking with one hand and tossing men right into the friend zone with another. Across the country and over the years, the take-away often has the same theme: There was not a single guy there I would date.
Yeah, he was tall, but his head seemed a little small for his body.
It was loud in there, so I’m not sure. Did I detect a stutter?
Boy, was he sweating!
He seems like someone who would like Star Trek.
I don’t care if he can’t see. He should have left those glasses at the office.
He was dancing (or worse, trying) way too hard.
I don’t mean to minimize the statistics that are the baseline explanation for black women’s dating difficulties. They’re so distressing that last year CNN dedicated an entire segment of Black in America to the dilemmas of successful black women in dating and marriage. The Journal of Higher Education published statistics last year showing that less than a third of black males who enroll in college graduate within six years, and that black women outnumber black men in higher-education settings by 2:1. Between 1970 and 2001, the marriage rate for black men and women fell by 34 percent, versus 17 percent for the rest of the nation. The most recent Census Bureau figures show only 70 single black men for every 100 single black women. And those 70 men are not necessarily available—the figure includes single men who are incarcerated. The same survey showed that 45 percent of black women have never been married, compared with 23 percent of white women.
The idea that things are hard for black women who want to date black men who match us in academic and career success is a well-worn cultural narrative.
But if black women are going to defy the statistics, they need to start being more realistic. Holding out for the perfect man, someone who is intellectual but not nerdy—cool but not arrogant—impeccably dressed but not effeminate—not a player but with just the right amount of edge—is useless. Smart can go with a little nerdy. Artsy can be accompanied by off-beat. Ambitious and focused may mean less than a social butterfly. Yes, there was that one guy in law school who was easily 6’5’’, a Rhodes Scholar and a rapper, with a baby face to top things off. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but please!
And let’s be fair. We expect men to resist what society tells them about ideals when it comes to us—God, help the brother who admits a preference for skin or hair displayed on every magazine cover; or the arrogant fool who holds out for his own Clair Huxtable, not acknowledging that The Cosby Show was fiction. We’re justifiably upset when unrealistic standards are imposed on us, but many of us don’t seem to give black men any breaks in return when it comes to the superficial.
I was lucky enough to meet my beautiful, hilarious and unfailingly confident boyfriend two weeks after arriving to D.C. to begin my legal career. (By lucky, I mean I tracked him down in a Giant parking lot, tooting my horn to get his attention and asking if he was new in the neighborhood or needed a ride.) Jason works for a nonprofit. He drives a rattling, rimless Mazda. He has a particular pair of pants that were cuffed too ambitiously by his tailor, and he still wears them to work with determination because he paid for them. He has long dreads that see neither a twist nor a drop of beeswax in between the days I style them. If a tuft of hair escapes a lock in the middle of his forehead and I don’t see him for two days, it sits front and center for meetings and happy hours and pictures.
That half an inch of sock peeking out between his pants and shoes when he takes a long stride and that rebellious tuft of hair might have led many of my cohorts to let him walk out of the grocery store without a second look.
The point is simple. Given the numeric and historical facts, those of us who do seek to have relationships with black men of similar circumstances might need to open up a little. That doesn’t mean giving up on attraction. Attraction cannot be faked or forced. But we must start to question our assumptions about what our ideal really is. If a guy with a tentative smile and an awkward two-step could still get a dance (before he made the cover of every magazine in the country), more black women might just find a relationship they could believe in.
Jeneé Desmond-Harris is a graduate of Howard University and Harvard Law School and lives in Washington, D.C. Her previous work includes an analysis of the career choices of black Harvard Law graduates. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .