(The Root) —
"I just read your ' "Mixed Kids Are the Cutest" Isn't Cute' column, and I thought your comments on the things that are said to and about biracial children were very good. But let's take it a step further. What about the 'other' little girl? The 'pure' (for want of another word) black little girl who grew up hearing the same comments you heard about how lighter skin was better? That was me.
"It is one of the reasons that I constantly encourage my son, who has two black parents, to date black women. I am not a racist, but I tell my son that if he chooses a black mate, he is reinforcing to another black little girl that black is beautiful.
"So many people believe that this attitude is racist. But I believe I can promote black dating for my son as long as he is aware that people of another color are not inferior. So the question is this: Can I, as a black mother, encourage my son to date only black women and let him know that is my expectation?"
Well, you can encourage, promote and expect that your son will date black women all you want. But I think that approach will set up both of you for failure.
That's not meant to dismiss the pain and frustration that fuel your question. When it comes to the ways in which black women's beauty and desirability have historically been devalued, I get it. You get it. No need to rewrite the book on that here. So it's understandable that you would assign a lot of social, political and personal weight to the racial side of your son's (or any black man's) romantic choices.
You're not alone. Your stance echoes the "little wince" Jill Scott was slammed for admitting that she felt in the face of interracial relationships. It reflects the widely held sentiment that made "You're telling me you're leaving me for a white woman?" extra dramatic way back in Waiting to Exhale.
It taps into the emotion behind the idea that President Obama's "selection of a black wife, particularly a dark-skinned one," mattered, and even that things might not have gone as well in 2008 had he made a different choice. The tension between heavy (and pretty messed-up) historical stuff and individual choices gives interracial dating a permanent VIP spot on the list of evergreen hot black topics.
You're not the first mom to worry about this, either. "This is a situation that I hear about all of the time," says Aimee Meredith Cox, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor of African-American studies at Fordham University. "Black mothers wrestle with the tension between wanting to instill racial pride and a love and appreciation of the diverse beauty of blackness with wanting to honor the individual choices their children make around their social and romantic relationships."
So when I suggest that you drop the pressure, I'm not doing a love-is-colorblind-postracial-Pollyanna thing here. I just don't think it's wise to attempt to soothe that infamous "wince" by micromanaging your son's dating choices.
First, I'm certain it won't work. How often are our dating decisions tied to what anyone tells us we should do? And when's the last time an intellectual understanding of the wrongs of the world inspired a relationship? My prediction: If you make your son feel guilty enough, he's likely to just "forget" to introduce you to any nonblack women with whom he becomes involved.
Second, it's not your son's job to use his personal life to address the issues that matter to you. He's an individual, not a living extension of your priorities and concerns, and if you forget that, I'm sure it won't bode well for your relationship.
Finally, do you really want him to date based on a sense of obligation to you or some larger black-girl contingent? I'd personally hate to think that someone pursued a relationship with me because his mother encouraged him to use his love life to heal her childhood wounds.
So the real question is not whether you can pressure your son to date black women but how you can fortify him against the negative messaging that you fear could lead him to reject black women. What you really want to know is how to raise a child who is secure in a healthy black identity and has a good dose of skepticism about the input he receives about desirability (and all other things race-related).
"You can't force your children to be attracted to any one person or an aesthetic. However, we must think about how we have been taught, socialized, indoctrinated with the idea that white European standards of beauty and appeal should be the universal ideal," says Cox.
While Baylor University's Mia Moody-Ramirez, who has researched the portrayal of minority women in the media, agrees that it's "not a good idea" to pressure him to date black women, she suggests that you encourage him, when watching TV, for example, to "appreciate beauty in all shades."
You can both curate your son's input and encourage his critical thinking. But be prepared — even if you raise the most self-aware, socially conscious, racially and morally grounded child on Earth — that he might still make a choice different from the one you'd make for him, simply because love is not public policy. To some extent, his attraction to women will be not only out of your control but out of his as well.
Focus on where you can actually have an influence: on the quality of your mother-son relationship and, to a lesser extent, on his relationship with what our culture says about attractiveness. You say you want him to reinforce that black girls are beautiful, but why don't you reinforce to him the idea that he's supported by his loved ones and equipped with the wisdom to make his own decisions? Then step back and let his love life take care of itself.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: "I Found One Drop: Can I Be Black Now?"
The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.