Is Marriage For White People?

6 years ago

When I first read Jenée Desmond-Harris' article in The Root about an upcoming book by Stanford Law School professor Richard Ralph Banks, "Is Marriage for White People?" what surprised me most wasn't the title, but the book's conclusion.

The title of Banks' forthcoming book, available on September 1st, comes from the mouth of a 12 year-old student featured in a 2006 Washington Post article by Joy Jones.

Stanford Law Professor and author, Richard Ralph Banks

Image Credit: Natalie Glatzel

While reflecting on the decline of the traditional two-parent family norm she knew it as a child, Jones invites the reader into a conversation with students from her sixth-grade career exploration class in Southeast Washington, DC.  Her male students express an interest in becoming good fathers but not necessarily husbands.

One student states: "We're not interested in the part about marriage," and another: "Marriage is for white people."  Well, these young men eventually grow up into older men, and assuming that views formed at the age of twleve become ingrained by the age of thirty, Banks argues that black women who desire a relationship, particularly one leading to a emotionally satisfying, economically stable, and mutually beneficial marriage, are better served by marrying interracially.

"No!" I thought to myself, "Surely the answer isn't stated as simply as that!"  So I read an advance copy of the book, as well as an excerpt from the book featured in the August 8, 2011 Wall Street Journal article "An Interracial Fix for Black Marriages." The book opens with a picture of "two Black Americas" juxtaposing the "Obama Ideal"(a Black man married to a Black woman)against the relational reality of many Black families in America.  Banks spends the next five chapters delivering statistics and research that speak to a marriage decline among the black middle class.

What I found to be the book's biggest strength was the stories shared by Banks' from his interview with Black women in their thirties and forties.  

In Chapter 6, we meet Cecelia Edwards, a corporate attorney and law firm partner, who shares about the demise of her marriage to Daryl, a former construction and factory worker.  Using their story as a point of illustration, Banks comments on the the relationship between middle-class women and working class men (the "Blue Collar Brother"), characterizing the core of this relational dynamic as "not to reject him, but to change him."  By the time I got to that sentence all manner of red flags were going off in my mind knowing that entering a marriage with the intention of changing someone is bound to end to in disappointment, regardless of skin color.

Next we meet Carla, a high-earning wife married to a man who makes money, but just not as much money as she does.  Here, Banks concludes,

"When a wife out-earns her husband, the couple cannot conform to that conventional male-breadwinner model.  Rather than adhere to predefined roles, they have no choice but to improvise, to attempt to fashion their own model of a relationship as they patch together expectations developed during their own coming of age."

But this improvisation sounds exactly like what the hard work of marriage is supposed to entail.  Furthermore, could the idea that the "conventional" or "traditional" marriage as the ideal be part of the problem?  Query whether such a model fits within the context of the dual-income, married couple with or without children and whether a husband providing for a family--income notwithstanding--could also mean re-filling the gas tank of the car he just used, folding the laundry that consists mostly of his clothes, or restocking the fridge he just emptied.  For the first year of my own marriage I fit Banks' depiction of the "Power Wife," working full-time after graduating from law school while my husband finished his own academic program.  And yet my husband felt no less of a provider to me or showed himself to be any less responsible for ensuring the health and well-being of our family.

As I stated earlier, what surprised me most about the book was its fairly simplistic conclusion for addressing the "marriage woes" of Black women after sharing stories about marriages which appear to have problems much larger than simply the race of the people involved.  According to Professor Banks,

"If more black women married nonblack men, more black men and women might marry each other.  If black women don't marry because they have too few options, and some black men because they have too many, then black women, by opening themselves to interracial marriage could address both problems at once.  For black women, interracial marriage doesn't abandon the race, it serves the race."

But, not necessarily.

Recently a friend and I were chatting while people-watching near the National Mall on a sunny summer day.  She said "if you're going to date interracially, you should at least date someone attractive if you're going to have to put up with all that stress."  As a Black woman married to a White man I began wondering if was unknowingly sending out nonverbal cues that my marriage was a sacrifice and practice in martydom.

"What stress?" I retorted.

"What do you mean 'What stress?'!" she replied.  "Don't you think your life is more stressful because you're in an interracial marriage?"

"Actually," I replied matter-of-factly, "No, I don't."

My point was that interracial marriage, even one that consists of two lawyers (one of whom enjoys arguing--that would be me)  it not necessarily any harderbecause of our racial identity, but that doesn't mean it's any easier. The work of marriage, two individuals with two different histories coming together to form an intimate union, and essentially creating a new family and history, is a challenge in and of itself.  Those specific issues will differ from person to person and couple to couple, and Banks makes the salient point that,

"A difference in vaules or cultural orientation is not something that a couple can or should 'get over.'  Our cultural values are part of who we are, an expression of what we deem important in life."

As such, the difficulties of marriage, cannot simply be brushed aside or resolved without addressing the issues beyond skin-deep.

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