In a recent episode of ABC’s dating show, The Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay, the first black female to participate, broke down in tears. “The pressures that I feel about being a black woman and what that is... I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. The show exposes the fraught dynamics of race, dating, and marriage for black women in America. “Even before the female-led spinoff of The Bachelor ... in my mind ‘bachelorettes’ were white women who were brides-to-be or bridesmaids in their best friends’ weddings, throwing parties to celebrate the end of their spinsterhood,” writes Robin Boylorn for Slate. By contrast, “black women were just single and waiting.”
According to Akilah Butler, author of The Love Ethic, in the 1900s, most black adults were married. However, many contemporary black women—especially those who come of age in the inner city—are unmarried and often lack modeling for what a healthy African American marriage looks like. In my region of upstate New York, for example, it’s a rare sight to see a black male under 40 with a black female. (By contrast, my husband’s and my generation, the baby boomers, did tend to date and marry within our race.)
While intermarriage is becoming more common, black women in America still face significant challenges in their relationships with black men, and the problem is doubly difficult for women in the church. According to David Morrow in Why Men Hate Going to Church, “a staggering 92 percent of African-American churches in America reported a gender gap.” According to Morrow’s sources, “75 to 90 percent of the adults in the typical African-American congregation are women.”
That means black Christian women face a low probability of marrying black Christian men. Although discipling African American men is part of the solution, I’m concerned more with discipling my black sisters and, in the midst of an ongoing crisis, drawing them into Christian community. As Jasmine Holmes writes about being black and single, “I still find myself looking back and wishing that my white friends knew—or at least admitted—some of the unique struggles that I had to face and that I still watch so many of my [black] sisters in Christ face every day.”
The church has both a crisis and an opportunity on its hands. With that in mind, how can we as local church communities help to heal the broken identities of our black sisters, especially in the realm of relationships?
Flawed self images
At a time when families as a whole, and black families in particular, are seriously unraveling, young black women are facing a maelstrom of conflicting messages about their bodies, identities, and especially their relationships. On the one hand, the last decade has seen a resurgence of young black women taking pride in their natural attributes, from the natural-hair movement to the make-up free look of The Voice judge Alicia Keys. And yet the average black girl often struggles with self-esteem issues. Research on online dating indicates that black females get much less interest than women of other races. They also have to contend with stereotypes of the angry, loud, or “ratchet” black female.
Commenting on an article about a black male celebrity with a white partner, social worker Dawnlena Deans-Malone observed, “What I dislike (passionately) is this subliminal message being sent to black girls by men in the entertainment business (actors, athletes, musicians) that black girls are not good enough to marry.”
I recently interviewed four young, African American women, all pastor’s kids between the ages of 15 and 19: Deja and Destiny Perkins and Moriah Bryd and her stepsister Naylah Williams. All four described their relationships with their white peers as “civil” but also told me they feel an uneasy sense of not quite fitting into their predominantly white schools. Naylah, 16, reported that if she is sandwiched between white friends, someone will inevitably comment on “the swirl.” She also reported that, because her skin was lighter, she was more accepted than classmates who were darker and more identifiably African American, as judged by their neighborhoods or accents.
Deja, now 18, remembers a formative incident from middle school, in which she expressed interest in a white boy in her class. Upon hearing the news in front of a group, he promptly declared that he would “never” date her. “I wanted to cry,” Deja says. “But part of me realized, that’s just the way it is.” She and her sister Destiny reported that they had never dated outside their race but did hang out with kids of different ethnicities.
Although their comments address larger interracial dynamics, they also gesture toward the problem at hand: Relationships for young black women are fraught with challenges. Furthermore, lack of interracial progress (as noted above) impacts intraracial relationships—how black men relate with black women. And these combined challenges affect how black women see themselves.
Fixing flawed self images
Although pop culture is a powerful space for modeling what it means to be a black woman, there is no substitute for family and community. For many black women (including these girls), our mothers, aunts, godmothers and “other mothers” are fortresses for us, the confidantes to whom we turn to for unconditional love, support, and leadership.
Karen Dace, vice chancellor for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Indiana University–Purdue University in Indianapolis, grew up in Chicago in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. As a single woman, she realized early on the importance of female role models when she overheard a girlfriend’s daughter telling her mother that she wanted to be like “Miss Karen” when she grew up, because “Miss Karen” owned a home, had a nice car, a fur coat, “and didn’t no man give it to her.” “Older women are supposed to teach the younger women,” Dace says. In advising these mentors, Dace says “be honest about the mistakes you’ve made. And don’t let [young women] think [their] value is tied up with who they are in a relationship with.”
The church, of course, is the most powerful space for this kind of mentoring, modeling, and discipleship. The four young women I interviewed are all pastor’s kids who grew up in church and were indelibly impacted by the women around them—including older teens who navigated the same shoals.
What can we as Christian women do to help younger women like them blossom into their God-given potential?
When I was a young Christian, I had several older women take me under their wings. As a single hoping for marriage, I spent countless dinners, Bible studies and phone conversations with older Christian women who counseled me on patience, encouraged me in my waiting, and shared testimonies of God’s faithfulness to them and their families. Now as a married, middle-aged woman, I try to be intentional about reaching out to younger Christians, especially women still finding their way in relationships with men.
Although Scripture exhorts older women like me to disciple the younger (Titus 2), black fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins, boyfriends, and husbands are also called to play a pivotal role in encouraging and affirming single black women. When black men treat “younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2) and also respect them, cherish them, and celebrate their unique attributes, it goes a long way toward building up their esteem and laying the groundwork for what a godly marriage looks like.
“The black church has a history of holistically discipling people,” says Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, and that discipleship is key to the future of black women. Together, black fathers, black mothers, “other mothers,” and “other fathers” are the pillars of the African American Christian community best suited to instill resilience against flawed self images. Along with the greater multi-racial church, we have the power to offer young black women what they need to root their identity in the knowledge of their belovedness in God’s sight, rather than in the fleeting appraisals of the current society and culture.
As Karen Dace notes, black girls should not only know “who they are, but whose they are.”
Hope Ferguson Morgan is a writer in upstate New York.