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Published: Saturday, 3/11/2006

The black woman's dilemma

BY L.A. JOHNSON
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

PITTSBURGH - Melissa Norfleet is young, gifted, and black.

In her third year at the University of Pittsburgh law school, she's looking forward to graduation in May.

She also would like to start laying the foundation for the part of her life that will take place outside the law office.

"Everybody is engaged at this point in law school when you're about to graduate," says Ms. Norfleet, 25, of Pittsburgh.

She doesn't want to be young, gifted, and black - and alone. She'd like to meet a great guy with whom she can eventually settle down, and she'd like that man to be black. She is uncomfortable dating outside of her race.

"My preference is black men, not that I've not seen white gentlemen that I'm attracted to," says Ms. Norfleet, who plans to go into international business, human rights, or real estate law. "It takes a lot more for a black female to date outside of her race, and I feel that it's less accepted."

A 2000 statistic in a newspaper article that 42.4 percent of black women have never been married inspired the filmmakers behind Something New, a romantic comedy that explores a professionally successful black woman's issues-fraught decision to date a white man. The film stars Sanaa Lathan and Simon Baker.

"I know a lot of fabulous, sharp, professional women that are still single and I thought, 'This is a movie,' " the film's screenwriter Kriss Turner says in the movie's press materials.

"When you get to your late 30s and you're still single, the thing that comes up - especially among black women professionals - is, are you going to go outside your race?" Ms. Turner says. "If you want to find love and get married, you are probably going to have to open it up and think outside the box."

In 2004, the percentage of never-married black women 16 and older was 42.3 percent compared with 22.7 percent of white women, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

Between 1950 and 2004, the percentage of never-married black women more than doubled, increasing from 20.7 to 42.3. During that same period, the percentage of never-married white women increased from 19.9 to 22.7.

In Toledo, one in 14 children under age 5 has two or more racial backgrounds. That's 10 times the rate of the city's senior citizens who are multiracial, according to a Blade analysis of the data released inJune, 2001.

When the territory is expanded to the entire 18-county northwest Ohio region, the rate of multiracial infants and toddlers drops from 7 percent to 4.4 percent, but the formula still holds. The region's rate of young, multiracial children is still 10 times the rate of its multiracial seniors. That means the multiracial population is roughly growing at the same rate from tightly compacted city neighborhoods to the one-stoplight towns that dot the region.

"In a nutshell, the real crisis facing black women is too few men with too few resources," says Larry E. Davis, author of Black and Single and dean of the School of Social Work and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems at the University of Pittsburgh.

"The education and professional advancements of black men have paled in comparison to those of black women. Two-thirds of all college degrees that go to black Americans go to black women."

If a white man were to ask Ms. Norfleet out, she's not sure she'd give him a fair hearing.

"I'm paranoid," she says. "I'd be thinking, 'Why are you dating a black girl and will your parents be OK with this and what about our kids?'

"I've had my share of drama with black men, but it's drama I understand," she says.

Many of the black women she knows who are single, are single almost by choice.

"They don't want to settle or they don't want to date outside of their race," she says.

Toledo attorney and holistic health counselor Diana Patton, 37, who is biracial, can relate.

Reared in Fostoria, Ohio, by a white father and black mother, Patton said her upbringing was steeped heavily in African- American culture and she had never dated someone white until she met her David Patton, who is now her husband. Both were students at the University of Toledo when they began dating around 1989.

"I ran track and he played baseball, so we were always in the same circle. I really felt from the beginning that there was love there. We were always good friends and there was something that really connected us," said Mrs. Patton, who has been married for eight years to David, 38, a financial advisor/stock broker at Smith Barney. The Pattons have two children, son Cameron Jackson, called "CJ," age 7, and daughter Ciera Rachelle, 4.

At first, the love she felt was not enough to overcome societal norms and her own internal pressures about race. Diana dated David off and on for 10 years before she committed to him fully.

"I was racist, I believe, in my own way against interracial [dating]. The biggest issues I had were self-identity. I didn't really know who I was. David and I had a lot of love for each other, but I allowed for other circumstances to get in the way," said Mrs. Patton, owner of Equilibria, a holistic health company. She added that her husband had no problem with dating outside of his race, until friends would bring up issues or talk about blacks.

"He gained this whole new awareness once he started dating me. He had this huge learning curve. He got more self-identity and now he's totally sure of who he is," said Mrs. Patton.

While growing up in an interracial family, and now having her own, taught her to put blinders on societal hang-ups about interracial dating and marriage, she admits that, "You have to have some tough skin. People say negative things because they lack self-identity and everything is tied to a struggle, or a race, or a history and not with people, or their essence, and beauty, and fun and laughing," said Mrs. Patton, who like the lead character in Something New, had an image of what type of black man she would one day hook up with.

Mrs. Patton said it was her faith in God that eventually helped her cope with who she was as a person.

"That's when I said, 'Oh my gosh, I really do love this guy. He lifts me up and he's my friend. To think I wasted all that time on society's norms and being worried about what people might say on all that stuff," she said.

Now, Mrs. Patton's biggest concern is raising her children to be aware of their self-identity and to be proud of all of their heritages.

Lorenda Layne, who also is biracial, grew up in the predominantly white Plum neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and always has been open to dating men of all races.

"All the black people in my high school were girls," says Ms. Layne, 26, a Pitt biology major and Allegheny General Hospital research assistant. She didn't meet lots of black guys growing up, in high school or in college. In high school, the white guys weren't interested.

"It's hard to find somebody [of any race] you can tolerate on a daily basis," she says.

Today, she's engaged to marry a white man she met in an Episcopal church although they're both Baptist. "He'll tell you he never expected to marry a black girl, but he's fine with it now," she says.

His parents are OK with it, too, she says, although his grandmother may not attend the wedding. "When his grandmother saw a photograph of me, she said, 'Has he considered eHarmony.com?'"

Family, friends, and even perfect strangers can be extremely critical of someone's decision to love across the racial divide.

Ms. Layne's black cousins used to tease her about dating white guys.

The parents of a white, male high school friend of hers transferred their son to a college across the country after he expressed interest in dating her, she says. She had been friends with him for years and a frequent dinner guest in his home. She was surprised and very hurt to learn his parents didn't want him dating her.

There's unspoken pressure on both sides.

"For men, when they're with white women, it's the white women who get a lot of 'Why can't you stick with your own kind? There aren't very many good black men out there. Why do you have to take one of ours?'" Ms. Layne says.

"Black men get mad when they see a sister with a white guy, but they don't have a problem dating white women," says coke plant worker Audrey Massey, 49, of Pittsburgh.

Ms. Massey opposes interracial dating. She came of age during the James Brown era, she says, when the slogan was "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud."

"To me, when people [interracial date], it's low self-esteem," she says. "I think it's a self-hatred thing. ... Black people should be together and build on that."

Black pride has eroded among younger generations and black people with dark complexions could be bred out of existence, Ms. Massey says.

Rasheda Davis, 33, of Pittsburgh, thinks there's still a double standard regarding society's view of black women and black men dating people of other races.

When she and her Lebanese boyfriend of six years go out together with their two children, they receive a lot of strange looks from people.

"When my brother goes out with his girlfriend, and she's white, nobody says anything," she says.

Ms. Davis believes society is more accepting of seeing black men with white women. "It's more common," she says.

Ms. Norfleet wonders how many white men really are open to dating black women.

"I don't know how many Robert DeNiro's are out there (the actor has twice been married to black women), but I think the number is small."

In 2002, there were 279,000 white female-black male marriages compared with 116,000 black female-white male marriages, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Ms. Norfleet, the law student, says she has friends, like Sanaa Lathan's character in Something New, who have a checklist of the qualities they want their Mr. Right to possess. However, she says her IBM - Ideal Black Man - doesn't have to be a doctor, lawyer or other professional.

"If I'm dating a man who isn't as educated as me, that's fine, but I want him to be comfortable in his skin," she says.

She remembers a black guy she dated her first year in law school.

"He wasn't in school, but he was good to me and then he ended up cheating on me," she says. "He just didn't think I really wanted to be with him. He would always say to me, 'Why do you want to be with me?'"

She also wants a black man who can be supportive of her aspirations. "If I want to get a job that pays twice as much as yours or get another degree, is that all right with you?"

Sometimes women are willing to settle for a black man instead of the right black man, she says, because the pickings are slim.

For example, there are only a few black men in her law school class.

"One is married. One is with a long-term girlfriend. One was single but now has a girlfriend and the other is crazy," she says.

Ms. Norfleet is planning to graduate and move to Atlanta, which has a much larger black population.

Toledo psychologist Linda Whittington-Clark says that the "black woman's dilemma" is very real.

"Regionally speaking, there may be different levels of 'distress.' Obviously there are more eligible black men and more [who are] compatible - educationally speak-

ing - in major metro areas. The [African-American] churches are trying to confront the gap [black men and black women] with singles ministries and ministries to black men on correcting their ways and thoughts and understanding about relationships in God's eyes," said Ms. Whittingon-Clark, a black woman whose ex-husband is white.

She adds that the whole concept of race is a misnomer, and that society needs to begin to embrace the concept of culture instead. "Once we get that cleared up then going across cultural lines is not threatening to our self-concept," said Ms. Whittington-Clark, who has a doctorate in psychology and is owner of Whittington-Clark & Associates, a local counseling and psychology clinic.

Ms. Whittington-Clark adds that the bottom line in finding someone to date, love, or marry should not hinge on abandoning your own cultural values:

"That's destructive," she said. "It should simply be about what are their shortcomings and what are their strengths and whether a person with a certain cultural upbringing meshes with yours."

When Elaine Lee of Pittsburgh was a girl, it was unfathomable for a black woman to even think of dating let alone marrying outside her race, but she is happy that she's seen change in her 70 years.

"I, for one, have accepted the foolhardiness of allowing color to play a role in the choosing of a mate," says Ms. Lee. "Permit common sense a place in relationship decision-making and I believe future generations will be less racist, more tolerant and accepting, with young black women finding partners who love, care and respect them - all that is necessary to a happy union/fulfilling life - not his color!"

Blade Staff Writer Rhonda B. Sewell contributed to this report.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. L.A. Johnson is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.



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