When I started my dissertation research a year ago, I had not considered what impact the widespread media coverage of #BlackLivesMatter as a movement and rallying cry might have on my respondents. With my research, I intended to explore the online dating experiences of women who identify as multiracial here in Texas; what I have found has been a complex mobilization of Black Lives Matter as a metric of racial progressiveness. In 2016, it has become clear that the increased media attention being paid to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is shaping a particular orientation toward, and conversation around, race and racism in the United States. As scholar Khury Petersen-Smith notes, the movement has “shattered what remained of the notion of a ‘post-racial’ America.” More specifically, my work has found that BLM has impacted individual-level relationships, creating a framework within which people are able to evaluate and “vet” their dating partners, especially amidst claims that society is more “progressive” and that the atrocities we have witnessed are “not about race.”
As every good social scientist knows, words mean things. The language around, and produced by, movements like BLM – particularly in regards to discourses of race, racial inequality, state-sanctioned violence, and racism – has influenced the ways in which the multiracial women in my study discuss race, racism, and inequality in the context of their intimate relationships. Several women have described using their own stances on the issues BLM addresses as a means of selecting potential dating partners. This finding suggests that BLM and other widespread social justice movements are having significant impacts on how people are navigating racial politics on an interpersonal level. This is particularly pertinent during a time where U.S. media and popular culture is especially focused on issues of racism and state-sanctioned violence.
Thus, Black Lives Matter provides multiracial women with a means of framing their commentary on racism, racial inequality, and violence. Often, these women describe trying to find a “middle ground” in which to exist politically, so as to not fall within the so-called “extremes.” This middle ground calls to mind the notion of mixed-race people being a “bridge” between communities. The “middle ground” also suggests that to be on the extremes is to identify too closely with blackness or to not be “beyond” race. Thus, many women expressed contradictions over the course of their interviews; for several women the tensions around race and racism are issues of “diversity” and something that these women perceive black people to be “ethnocentric” about. It is telling that the multiracial women who believe that the concerns of BLM are solely concerns for black people are women who are not of black descent. However, women of myriad mixed racial backgrounds – including those who are not part black – noted that the issues the movement highlights are concerns for us all.
Alternatively, the women concerned with the so-called “appropriate” behavior of those interacting with the police rather than the inequality inherent in police violence rely on counter-Black Lives Matter narratives. They suggest that if someone is “acting stupid,” then an officer can only assume they are “dangerous and on drugs.” As social scientists have demonstrated for decades, overwhelmingly, the people who are assumed to be dangerous and on drugs are people of color. Virtually every woman who indicated that those killed by police are somehow responsible also relied on some “liberal” talking points, suggesting that officers “not go for the kill shot right away” or that “we need better training.” However, these women also used anti-black logic, which suggests that those killed by police are the deserving aggressors. Virtually all the women I interviewed who opposed BLM utilized the “some bad apples” discourse to suggest that these instances of police brutality are isolated incidents. This logic enabled several women to suggest that the movement is being overly sensitive and that the wrongdoing is on “both sides.”
In terms of dating, women who consider potential dating partners’ views on issues of race and racism were invested in finding someone capable of making informed commentary. White masculinity in particular has a specific meaning in this political climate. Some multiracial women expect white men they date to have a certain racial literacy – the racial socialization and antiracist training that defends against and counters racism – and would not consider dating (white) men who are not at least marginally versed in anti-racist discourse and logics. This, however, is not necessarily a requirement for all potential partners, as several women indicated that they assume that men of color will just “get” that racism exists. So, white men are expected to provide proof that they “get it,” much of which is proven through how they engage with discourses around race and racism. Several women described pulling up videos of police assaults – such as the now infamous pool party in McKinney, TX – or referencing other news stories during dates in order to see how men would react.
While it may not be surprising that women are excluding partners that they do not view as compatible, it is notable that several women indicated that “what’s going on” in the U.S. did not seem to matter much until about two years ago, correlating with the rise in Black Lives Matter demonstrations and news coverage. Public discourses impact our everyday lives, particularly the highly racialized, classed, and sexualized process of dating. We should be concerned for not only how people are responding to BLM and other related social movements, but also how people are implementing racial rhetoric in their everyday lives. As the mixed-race women in my research illustrate, the dating practices of Americans have the unfortunate potential to continue to reproduce much of the polarizing and unequal racial politics, as well as inherently unequal social structures, that have made Black Lives Matter and its like necessary in the first place.
~ Shantel Buggs is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on dating patterns and race.