Why you don't need an instruction manual to tell you how to date outside your race.
When I first read about former Wall Street money manager J.C. Davies' book, I Got the Fever: Love, What's Race Gotta Do With It? on the blog Jezebel, I shrugged her off as clueless. Still, I was curious enough to sign up for her mailing list, and every week or so something offensive and over-the-top (when it comes to interracial dating) would land in my in-box. But it wasn't until I read the post "How Do You Solve a Problem Like White Relatives?" on her blog that I truly started to be ashamed of being white and therefore potentially associated with this corrosive way of thinking.
In that post, Davies, who boasts of her 20 years of experience dating black men, Asian men, Hispanic men and, now, a Jewish man, writes, "I am under attack a lot of the times solely because I am white." She goes on to say that the white people she interviewed for her book said they felt "afraid they might say or do the wrong thing," and concludes, "So I implore you: Don't pick on whitey." I was so incensed by the idea that, somehow, we white folks are under attack that I wanted to see if her book was equally offensive.
I'll break it down for you: It's even more offensive, and I could spend all my allotted space giving you examples, such as when she refers to "Once you go black, you never go back" as an "African-American proverb" or calls black men "the most taboo dating pool."
The very idea that, as white women, we should "broaden our horizons" when it comes to dating assumes that we're only looking for white men to date in the first place. The way Davies positions the groups she profiles, practically pimping them out, suggests that dating outside of our race (or religion) makes us somehow edgy or avant-garde. I'd venture, instead, that if we choose to do so, it makes us human, not in an "I don't see color" kind of way (could there be a more stupid phrase when it comes to race?), but in the sense that we don't limit ourselves to dating one type of person.
Fever reminds me of Andrea Miller's infamous Huffington Post piece, "How to Date an Indian (Advice for the Non-Indian)." Both Miller and Davies are, I believe, well-intentioned, but the problem is that by drawing such large stereotypes, we dehumanize people. When you date someone, you are dating him or her -- a real, live person, not his or her race. The person may have some things in common with the majority of people of his or her background -- or maybe not. Even if so, nobody deserves to be tokenized.
I'm hesitant to trot out my dating history here, because this is a broader issue that everyone should care about. You should be offended by Davies' cavalier, exoticizing attitude, no matter your race or whom you've slept with. But the heart of my discomfort with the book, the reason I've been pulling it out and showing it to friends and exclaiming, "Can you believe this?" is that, as a white woman who has dated and slept with people of various races, I don't in any way want to be thought of as being like Davies.
The answer to dating outside of your race isn't to avoid talking about it or to tiptoe around it. Perhaps that is the only area in which Davies and I agree. I don't believe in using political correctness as a shield. It's natural to have questions about differences, whether they concern race, family, politics or other seemingly "sensitive" subjects.
Last year I was dating a dark-skinned black guy who was going on a trip to Jamaica. "I don't need sunscreen," he told me. But I was worried about his potential sun exposure, and asked one of my best friends, also black, about it. "I feel like an idiot, and very white, but do black people use sunscreen?"
It was a legitimate question, but I didn't ask my boyfriend, because I didn't want to sound as if I thought I knew better than he did. My friend sent me links to the NIH and BBC News and said she, too, believed that everyone should wear sunscreen, no matter their skin color. I didn't want to be right per se, but was glad to know that it wasn't such a crazy query, and her answer made me realize something I should have known all along: Not all black people think alike on this or any topic, and nor should they. On some level, I'd gone to my friend looking for "the black opinion," and realizing there is no such thing was a turning point for me.
Sometimes race is not the issue, or even an issue at all, when it comes to dating. When I was in my early 20s, I dated a black man 18 years my senior. When my family expressed reservations about our relationship, I was sure it was because of his skin color, and got offended on his behalf. Looking back, I can see that they were more concerned about the age difference.
Davies offers up her book as a research tool, complete with movie and book recommendations to familiarize yourself with the culture of the person you're dating, but when you break down the stories of her interviewees, it's clear that you can't learn about a person simply by "reading up" on their "people." You have to get to know that person as an individual. That seems simple and obvious, and yet clearly it's not.
I can't imagine what I'd do if someone came on a date with me, "armed" with having watched Yentl and Schindler's List (both on Davies' list of recommended Jewish-themed movies). As for me, the black guys I've dated are more apt to talk about Tron or The Green Hornet than Mississippi Masala or Jungle Fever.
Sure, making an effort not to be completely clueless about someone's family life and culture can go a long way. But saying "most Asians are very label and brand conscious" or "many blacks have a significant level of distrust of others, especially 'whitey,' " as Davies does, simply encourages us to see a person solely as a member of a particular race and make judgments based around that fact.
I'm not trying to claim that I'm the perfect white girl, that I know everything there is to know about dating someone of a different race. But what I do know is that if you approach another person as a fetish object to be discovered, you're doing both yourself and that person a disservice. There is a lot to be said about interracial dating and how it plays out in real people's lives, but I Got the Fever, though purporting to break down stereotypes, only perpetuates them.
Rachel Kramer Bussel is a New York-based author, editor, blogger and event organizer. She writes about sex, dating, pop culture and books for a variety of publications. She is the editor of more than 30 anthologies. Visit her at rachelkramerbussel.com.