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April 12, 2012

Love and Race

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DATING FOR 10 MONTHS Arizona Newsum and Becca McCharen

Photo Credit: Chris Buck

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SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
I'm a young black woman. And despite what you've read, I will get married —By Helena Andrews

Consider this my formal declaration of war — on numbers. I'm talking statistics, percentages, fractions, averages. If they can measure something like my marriage prospects, then I want nothing to do with them. Because for too long, one number has dominated the love lives of black women — and it's time to revolt.

Chances are, you've heard the offending statistic: 70 percent of black women are single. A hot topic in the media, this fact has been the basis of an ABC News Nightline segment about "the black girl's curse"; crowed about in a recent Atlantic cover story; and debated in the opinion pages of The New York Times. Even Oprah devoted a show to the "crisis" of single black women. And now my dire love life has become fodder for national best sellers, like Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks' Is Marriage for White People? and Steve Harvey's book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, which was spun into a film that hit theaters in March.

So, according to the data — and the media that are obsessed with it — I'm screwed. As a 31-year-old college-educated black woman who's never been married, everywhere I turn, the odds of finding a good man are against me. That is, of course, until I turn over every morning to the man sleeping next to me. He is (gasp) black. He is (quelle surprise!) college-educated. He isn't a felon, a deadbeat, a father of illegitimate children, or a cheat — all the categories women like me are forced to choose from, according to the seemingly never-ending stories about the "crisis" of black marriage. Attention, media! There is no crisis in my bedroom.

Many black women I know say the exact same thing: Where is this epidemic of singledom, anyway? "In my social network the number of women my age who are unmarried is low," says New York City — based TV producer Nyree Emory, 38, who is single. "I can count how many I know personally — um, two. I'm a minority among my peers. I keep wondering if this cluster of single women are all hanging out without me. Because I don't see them."

Nyree is single — not sad, desperate, and lonely. But the numbers continue to be rolled out at her feet like a red carpet to retiring alone. "Scholars and the media have pathologized the black family as different from the mainstream," says entrepreneur Jamyla Bennu, 36, from Baltimore, Maryland, who has been happily married for 12 years. "That's not how most black women see it."

How could my experience and that of so many other black women be so different from the official statistics? I wanted to find out — so I started digging. Because so many news reports repeat the 70 percent figure without citing a source, I went straight to the mother lode of demographic data: the U.S. Census.

And what I found was shocking: While, according to 2009 data, it's true that 70.5 percent of black women were never married compared with 45 percent of white women, look closer and you'll see that the figure pertains only to women between the ages of 25 and 29. Not that surprising, right?

Researching further, I found another U.S. Census statistic that may have sparked the frenzy. According to the 2009 data, only 30 percent of black women were married — but the data includes every female from 15 years old up to 90-somethings. So ... my ba—By cousin and grandmother are single. Is that really a crisis?

Finding those reports only made me more curious about the truth — what are the real numbers, since we've been so focused on bogus ones? I called Ivory Toldson, a psychology professor at Howard University who analyzed census data between the years 2000 and 2009. "Our research shows that most black women eventually do marry," he says. "And 75 percent of black women older than age 35 have wed at least once."

That should clear things up, right?

Tina Wells, 32, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, doesn't need convincing. Wells is the CEO of the company Buzz Marketing Group, and she deals with numbers all day — compiling, analyzing, and then reporting them to big-name clients. But in her dating life, "the numbers" don't add up to much. "The statistic that the media love to hype means nothing to me," she says. "I'm focused on living my best life, and —By doing that, I'll attract the right guy."

While it's great to know that most black women's lives don't match the exaggerated numbers, the media are not only to blame. Black people themselves perpetuate the hype.

Recently I took my boyfriend on a "meet the family" tour from Washington, D.C. to North Carolina to Southern California. At every stop, my relatives devoured him from the screen door. And why wouldn't they? He's not just tall, dark, and handsome, but adventurous, talented, and hardworking.

I know my family wished him for me, the daughter who made it to the Ivy League and New York, but some relatives didn't expect me to find him. When I did, they couldn't believe it. I'd forgotten that my aunts watch the news, too. They read The New York Times, listen to Steve Harvey's advice, and watch all of Tyler Perry's movies, which suggest that a woman like me would never find a guy like the one sitting on the couch in my grandmother's house. They too succumbed to the statistics, believing that there is a shortage of men who not only looked like me but also were for me.

On New Year's Day we all sat in the dining room. As my aunts piled slices of pie onto my boyfriend's plate, I watched my cousin play I Declare War with his wife. I Declare War is probably the most boring card game ever. Nobody wins, it's just a never-ending stack of number upon number upon number. But they were smiling, happy to be together. An aunt nudged me and said, "That's how it should be. Just enjoy each other." Then she winked at my boyfriend, who was none the wiser.


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