The Peculiar Case Of The Media’s Obsession With Unmarried Black Women


By now, everyone in the country with access to a television, the internet or a book store has gotten the memo that black women marry at a dismally low rate compared to women of other races.

We’ve seen and read it in the Economist, The Washington Post, U.S. News, Essence Magazine, Ebony and on The View, Oprah, and Nightline, among others. We know that of the hetero-black male population, there is a significant number of black men incarcerated, there are lower rates of higher education, and there are disproportionate numbers of black men marrying outside of their race, as compared to black women. We heard that even setting aside those factors, there are fewer black men than woman in the U.S. population. No one is denying that there is an issue. It’s been an issue for a while now. So why the New York Times recently published what seems like the millionth and one article on why black women can’t find a man is absolutely baffling.

I have been thinking a lot about this issue and discussing it with friends – black and white, male and female – to pinpoint precisely why these articles bother me so much. I, like many other black feminists/womanists, constantly call for more discussion of issues affecting black women and other women of color in the mainstream media. Black relationships and the black family are important mainstream topics. But the media is obsessed with unmarried black women. One black woman commenting on the ABC Nightline post put it best – she said she is waiting for the article about black women tripping down altars riddled with reporters and social scientists. The inundation of these articles, T.V. specials, and books is an attack on black women. The overall message conveyed is unproductive and harmful.

Specifically, here’s my beef (and bear with me, because I have a lot of it):

Blame Game

The media often places the blame on black women for their perceived inability to find successful black men, especially when black women become more educated and achieve greater success in their careers. Although some articles and T.V. specials acknowledge the disparate number of available black men vís a vís black women due to the racialization of the criminal justice system, the discussion rarely turns to how black men can improve their romantic interactions with black women. Rather, the media often focuses on black women and their “issues.” Many of these articles, T.V. specials and books are purposed to instruct black women on how to be more desirable to black men or how to lower their standards. A prime example is the book The Denzel Principle: Why a Black Woman Can’t Find a Good Black Man, which blames black women for setting their standards too high – they apparently only want Denzel Washington, not the mail man.

The Nightline multi-part special entitled “Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?” sent the message that, as the title implies, black women are to blame for many of their problems finding a man. The Nightline special posed questions that begged for “experts” (including Steve Harvey, a comedian, whose “expertise” on black women and relationships remains unclear) to figure out what is wrong with black women. Are they too strong? Too powerful? Too aggressive? Too demanding? Of course, these stereotypical characteristics of black women are the same traits often attributed to successful people generally, regardless of race or gender. So the take away to black women is that the very characteristics that made you successful are the same ones that will keep you single, lonely, and of course unhappy.

Instead of being asked to make a choice between being either strong and independent or married, black women would be better served if our strengths were celebrated and not demonized, and if we were recognized as individuals. Black women would fare better if writers, experts and social scientists would take a break from hyper-examining and over-analyzing us to figure out what our “problems” are.

Scare Tactics

The media employs age-old scare tactics in their over-coverage of this topic. Black women, particularly educated ones, are scared into thinking that they are undesirable. Media coverage of unmarried successful black women presents an image of black women as desperate, angry, helpless, and unfit for love and happiness. Even the articles that do not blame black women convey a similar message. The Economist article, Sex and the Single Black Woman: How The Mass Incarceration Of Black Men Hurts Black Women, contributes to the scare campaign. In this article discussing how the criminal justice system has decreased the number of eligible black men, the accompanying cartoon depicts scavenger-like, angry black women fiending over an empty pool of eligible black men, fighting desperately to avoid the “prospect of spinsterhood.” The article quotes a relationship counselor, Audrey Chapman, who says, “The skewed sex ratio ‘puts black women in an awful spot.'” This article and its artwork tells black women, Be scared! Be ready to fight to the death if you want a successful black man.

Many of my black women friends with whom I spoke about this issue share the same sentiments about the media’s coverage of this topic. They are all in their late 20’s or early 30’s and highly successful; some are Ivy League educated, have graduate degrees, and are moving up the ladder in their fields. Some are single, few married, and many in serious relationships. One of my closest friends, Merary Soto, has a successful career in finance and a burgeoning acting career, and is also angry about the barrage of articles on unmarried black women. She said that articles like these are part of a larger structure to keep women constantly dissatisfied – just like how “diet fads are used to keep women insecure and unhappy.” She explained the damaging effects of this scare campaign, which I think is right on point: “An insecure and unhappy woman will start under-performing at work, will exclude herself from positive social activities. The list of negative effects goes on and on.”

Obama Effect

I spoke to another successful black female friend about the motivation and timing of these articles. Television ratings and magazine and book sales are obviously a key factor, but why so many of these articles, and why now? These issues are not new. My friend suggested that it was the Obama Effect. Basically, the image of the Obamas – a black president (arguably the most successful man in our country), who married an incredibly successful black woman – is everywhere. Barack and Michelle are on television, magazine covers, the walls of local barbershops and salons. In her article Love & Marriage: Happy Black Women Would be Bad for Media Business, writer Theresa Lasbrey argues that the media launched an “anti-black woman campaign” to counter the image of the Obamas. She writes that the media screams, “The Obamas are not the norm! Do not dream of this for yourself!”

The Obama Effect is very real. It is further evidenced by the article, “Marriage Eludes High Achieving Black Woman: Many Remain Single and Childless, According to New Research.” The article is illustrated with a gleaming picture of Barack and Michelle Obama, coupled-up, smiling and happy. But the text of article, curiously, makes no mention of the Obamas. The message sent to successful black women readers is clear: You may want this, but sorry – this type of happiness will elude you.

Marriage as a Measure of Success

In the Nightline special about the low rates of marriage among black women, the problem was described as follows:

“[O]ne group of women has found it harder to leverage professional success into the model personal life.”

This group of women is, of course, successful African American women. The article states that although “black women in America have made historic strides academically and professionally,” the statistics “point to another issue: Many of the women are single.” The article notes that, “42 percent of African-American women have yet to be married, compared to only 23 percent of white women.” Further, “[t]here’s also a gap in numbers. The 2000 U.S. Census counted 1.8 million more African-American women than black men.”

The Nightline special concludes that the model personal life for successful black women is marriage. In other words, black women cannot truly be successful without a husband. This conclusion is not only sexist, but a fallacy. Black women will not be any less successful if they do not marry. I do not want to be misunderstood; I know from personal experience that many black women want to find a companion with whom they are compatible and can potentially build a family. But even if a black woman does not find this man, does not want a man, or ends up with a man who is not black, she can still be a success.

* * *

To be clear, I am in no way denying that successful black women seeking to marry black men face more difficulties than women of other races who want to marry within their race. Many black women are frustrated. I hear the lament of many of my single black women friends. I am a single black woman and understand the effects of a limited pool of successful black men. I have experienced “black male privilege” (coined by sociologist L’Heureux Lewis), which, among other things, explains that black men take advantage of their limited numbers and oppress black women in the relationship context. I know that many successful black men are aware that they are a commodity and are in the highest demand. Many of them refuse to cash in, so to speak, when their stock is so high. I have had many conversations with professional black men who explained that they couldn’t get “any play” in high school or college because they were considered a nerd, but now they are desirable and have their pick of black women. They are going to be greedy because they can. Further, I have personally encountered a significant number of black men who exclusively date outside of their race. So, I get it.

My point is that the media has failed to show a balanced perspective, and the effects are reckless and promote feelings of self-hatred among black women. Although the numbers do not lie, the numbers presented in this media attack do not reflect the reality for black women. Black love still exists; it is not an anomaly. And black women have options. There are many black women who have, and are beginning to, date men of other races. There are also single black women who are working on self-development and focusing on their personal goals, careers and other things that fulfill them and make them happy. There are women who choose not to marry, but have a long-term relationship with significant others. And there are plenty of black women who marry black men.

The media attack on black women can only be assuaged by showing the multitudes of black women’s experiences with dating and marriage. But I suppose that story is less sexy – and less intentionally scary – than warning black women to Be Afraid, and demanding that we lower our expectations.

Image via
Stardust Trailers.

This post originally appeared on Feministe. Republished with permission.

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