I had never dated outside of my race before I first met my husband at a restaurant eight years ago.
We were total strangers who just happened to stop in to the same place on the same night. I was sitting alone at the bar, he was the first to strike up small talk as I waited for my meal to arrive.
We wound up talking most of that evening – about our backgrounds (me: divorced mother with two kids; him: single son of two Italian adoptive parents) and work. He was a social worker who had worked with foster children. I was a magazine editor and had adopted my children through the foster care system. I asked more inquisitive questions and he answered without hesitation. His honesty impressed me, and we made plans for a date that following weekend.
Still, there was one question I could not bring myself to ask him that night: I wanted to know his ethnic background. I didn’t want him to think I was colorstruck, but there was so much about his appearance that was a curiosity. His last name, De Luca, was clearly Italian, yet I was keenly aware of his sun-kissed skin tone. His broad nose kept me guessing too – was he biracial?
More importantly, why did it matter to me?
Soon, another worry flared up: it crossed my mind more than once to wonder if he had a thing for black girls. I had heard tales from friends who had dated across racial lines and encountered white men who viewed their mocha skin tone as some kind of exotic trophy. In my experience, whenever white guys did cross over to the other side, they tended to look for light-skinned women, even women who could pass for white. My feeling is that they lean toward the lighter side of the color spectrum because it’s a more socially acceptable standard of beauty.
I don’t consider myself light-skinned; still, I couldn’t quiet my concern. I may have even teasingly asked him about it, but he clearly did not have a particular preference.
Six months later, I still had not met his family, but the moment was soon approaching. Would they be surprised to see their son had brought home a brown-skinned black girl who usually wears a teeny-weeny afro? Would they accept me more easily if I had long hair, light skin and a bob? After all, this country has a history of categorizing the various skin tones of black people, a separation of light and dark indicating that one’s value was lowered or heightened due to the amount of melanin in their skin.
I had seen this kind of preferential treatment play out my entire life, from the playground to the workplace. Light-skinned women were treated with more acceptance. Women who looked like me weren’t of the same beauty standard, and therefore harder to relate to, less accepted. I have been rejected for my looks; I’ve seen opportunities go to others based on how closely their looks adhered to mainstream standards of beauty. I had grown up in a world that made it clear that light and dark were valued differently.
So, by the time I was going to meet his family I had been made keenly aware that I did not represent the classic beauty standard. And I had chosen to add hair extensions braided into an elaborate updo. I was about as far away from the light-skinned, aquiline-nosed, long-haired, light-eyed beauty as I could get. I worried that his family would make certain assumptions about me because my hairstyle was “ethnic” and my skin tone clearly darker than my husband’s.
My husband quickly brushed off any hesitation or fearfulness I expressed. He told me not to worry, that his family would love me.
Turns out his parents could not have cared less that their son was in love with a black woman, and seemed only to care that I care deeply for him. Where we differed was not so much about a preference for lighter skin and all that society associates with it as somehow more elite, refined and acceptable, but actually had more to do with their political preference: they are Republicans; I am a staunch Democrat.
By the time I got up the nerve to ask him about his background – he was adopted from Bogotá, so he knew his mother was Colombian, and his father was of European descent – we were well on our way to a serious long-term commitment.
Knowing my husband’s ethnic background mattered to me because for me it has been difficult to separate my life experiences from my skin color, and I wondered if it had been the same for him. I hoped that if it had, he would be able to understand me on a different level than someone who had never had their race called into question.
Eight years after we first met, the occasional disapproving glances from others became background noise to what was otherwise a couple moving together in perfect harmony. We still get stares sometimes. And when we go to restaurants, the hostess often asks if we’re together; cashiers wonder out loud if we want our items rung up together.
There can sometimes be a subtle show of surprise when my husband introduces me as his wife. But the questions for me have calmed and I hope one day, those questions might quiet for others as well.