Published: Oct. 1, 2012 By

“Just the term ‘black women’ conjures up thoughts of an overweight, dark-skinned, loud, poorly educated person with gold teeth yelling at somebody in public. I hope that doesn’t make me racist but honestly that’s the 1st thing I think of.”- Lee, middle class white male in his 30’s, from Florida

[1] In this quote Lee provides a highly racialized, gendered, and classed view of black women. Lee is a middle class white male with no black female friends, rare interactions with black families growing up, and who states his interactions with black women only consist of work-related experiences. Yet, he expresses strong negative views of black women as unattractive and uneducated as the first thoughts that come to his mind. This quote by Lee and several other white male respondents in this essay dispute notions that only a few highly identifiable, old, deep-south bigots hold strong deep seated racialized views of black women. These expressions by white male respondents are indicative of the consistent exclusion of black women as relationship partners by white men, and representative of a powerful mental processing at play that goes beyond the limited language of stereotype.

[2] Census data reveals that black women have the lowest interracial marriage rate of all women except white women and the interracial marriage rate of black women and white men has modestly increased from 1% in 1970 to 4.1% in 2000 (Lee and Edmonston 2005). Research also shows that black women are overwhelmingly excluded as interracial dating partners, with one study showing that white men excluded black women as dating options at 93% (Feliciano, Robnett, and Komaie 2008). Census data and interracial dating studies show a longstanding persistent trend of black women as an excluded heterosexual relationship partner for white men (and other men of color) (Quian and Litcher 2007; Phua and Koffman 2003; Yancey 2007). These trends exist in a society that today prides itself on colorblindness. Current research studies on interracial marriage decisions and the current hegemonic race discourse often leads one to believe that racism exists only within the hearts of a few bigots and that race encompasses a greatly diminished role in interracial relationship decisions (Rosenfeld 2005; Yancey and Yancey 1998). Quantitative polls that measure racial attitudes of whites today show a marked decrease in racial hostilities, however, these polls do not account for the complexities of frontstage and backstage racism, whereby whites manipulate racial performances for the settings that they are in (Picca and Feagin 2007). Research by Pica and Feagin (2007) shows that when in frontstage settings around people of color or in social settings where racism is politically incorrect, whites are more likely to engage in racial performances of colorblindness, however, when in backstage settings around other whites, these same whites are likely to express or engage racially discriminatory thoughts and behaviors.

[3] To understand the phenomenon of black women’s consistent exclusion as relationship partners for white men, a critical theoretical assessment must be undertaken that debunks notions of colorblindness and imperatively places race, intersected with gender, and class as the focal point. Hence, this essay critically examines the integral role of race, gender, and class in the consistent exclusion of black women as relationship partners for white men. Historically, dominant and influential white men have constructed black female bodies in raced, gendered, and classed terms. This construction of black female bodies has been that of sexual licentiousness, natural immorality, disease, animalism, prostitution, and masculinity; the opposite of hegemonic, white, femininity (Collins 2005; Hammonds 1997; Jones and Shorter-Gooden 2003; St. Jean and Feagin 1998). Black women, in the past and today, are considered everything that a white woman is not in terms of beauty, sexual morality, femininity, and womanhood. This global overarching construction of black female bodies has persisted throughout society through pervasive raced, sexed, and classed dominant narratives and visual discourses, including controlling images or myths, such as the jezebel, sapphire, matriarch, mammy, and modern mammy. The construction of black female bodies and the classed and gendered construction of whites (as well as other racial groups) have come to represent hegemonic edifices. Due to elite white men’s power to construct and control reality in such a way that it best maintains white domination and power and the general subordination of other groups, whites have effectively framed the ways in which everyday whites and people in general come to know, see, and understand black women (and society in general) in raced, gendered, and classed ways. This long standing historically constructed “knowledge” of black women has become embedded in the deep frame of many contemporary white men. A deep frame represents our deep world view and mental infrastructure of our mind (Lakoff 2006), which consists of cognition, knowledge, emotions (Feagin 2009), and discourse used to make sense of our everyday world. The social construction of black female bodies as the abject opposite of white women is an integral component of the deep frame of whites (as well as people of color), along with other racialized, gendered, and classed elements. This is the knowledge base that informs contemporary white men’s perceptions of black women.  

[4] I critically examined the deep frame of contemporary white men utilizing open-ended, online self-administered questionnaires. One hundred and thirty-four white males, ranging from the age of 18 to over 50 and representing 38 states, completed this in-depth online questionnaire. Forty-four percent of the respondents represent the Southern region, 20% the Northeast, 24% the Midwest, and 12% the Western region. Respondents tended to be educated and middle class as 42% of respondents possess some college education, 30% a bachelor’s degree, and over 48% of respondents are middle class.

[5] A central aspect of this study was to ensure that white men would share their honest and open thoughts about black women. Due to the framework of this study, including the sensitive subject area, the research technique best called for the use of online open-ended questionnaires as opposed to the traditional qualitative technique of face-to-face interviews or the use of phone interviews. By using a self-administered online questionnaire, I am able to eliminate the bias that I cause as a black female researcher asking white men questions on their views of black women in a face-to-face format. Respondents may be more likely to “exhibit social desirability bias,” or to provide responses that they believe are socially desirable as opposed to their honest thoughts, if interviewed by myself or even other researchers. Research shows that discussing sensitive subjects, such as race, drug abuse, or sexual behavior could lead to socially desirable responses, however, removing the interviewer and using self-administered questionnaires lessons the likelihood of this social desirability bias (Kellner 2004; Sudman and Bradburn 1982). In light of the United States racial history and present and the ideological shift towards “colorblindness,” white male respondents may be unlikely to disclose strong racial views, thoughts, or behaviors in a face-to-face interview with a black female researcher. White male respondents may also be unwilling to share their honest racial thoughts with a white male interviewer that they perceive as having dissimilar views. In short, most people in society, particularly whites, do not want to be perceived as racists. The internet; however, acts as a backstage setting, allowing white men privacy to reveal their deep frame of black women, including emotions, thoughts, and perceptions, without fear of reprimand.


Discourse of Racial Comparisons: Meeting the Normative White Standard

[6] Entrenched within the deep frame is the construction of whites and blacks as abject hierarchical polarities, with whites afforded positive imagery and blacks negative. Moreover, embedded within the deep frame is the normalization of whiteness, or the white norm. Crenshaw (1995:115) states that the white norm is an “unspoken form as a statement of the positive social norm, legitimating the continuing domination of those who do not meet it.” Whiteness, as it functions to wield power and maintain domination, is made invisible and is deracialized because it has been solidly built into the definition of what normality is in society. Whites have essentially “‘coloniz[ed]’ the definition of normal” (Haymes 1995:111) and have explicated difference, or opposition to this norm, as blackness. According to Foucault (1977) normalization is an instrument of power and plays a role in classification and hierarchization. Thus, the normative standard of whiteness continually inscribes white as the ideal entity, as innate superiority, and maintains white privileges and domination, yet in a more tacit fashion than in the Jim Crow era.

[7] The social construction of whiteness as normality, as the obligatory standard, is central to how whites have framed society in racialized, gendered, and classed ways. The ways in which many whites see, understand, and analyze society and the people in it isrooted in an understanding and interpretation of society as defined by whites. Thus, white men’s deep frame understanding of beauty, skin color, body features, facial features, and culture is from a perspective that is white defined and that privileges what whites have characterized as the epitome of beauty, desirability, and rightness.

[8] In this essay, I analyze the dominant discourse of whiteness as normality that white male respondents expressed in this study. Several white male respondents’ placed certain facial and body features as the most desirable attributes; however, these attributes often have a white norm. The white male respondents employed what I refer to as a discourse of racial comparisons. When sharing their thoughts on black women as attractive or as possible partners, they compared black women dyadically to the white normative standard embedded in their deep frame, and judged black women’s beauty based on their ability or inability to meet this standard. Those black women most capable of meeting the white norm―in body, facial features, skin color, hair and culture―were often considered the most desirable by respondents, whereas black women unable to meet these comparison standards were perceived as less desirable. Some respondents reprimanded black women to strive for this norm, while certain others viewed black women as genetically incapable of meeting the white standard. The white norm was expressed explicitly by some respondents at times, such as white male respondents’ expressing an interest in those black women who “act white” or “look white.” Whereas in other responses, whiteness as normality was unspoken or tacit; for example, black women’s bodies or features were described as abnormal. In analyzing and interpreting the responses and in understanding the dyadic and hierarchical nature of how western thought has been constructed, it is readily clear that what goes unspoken as normal is whiteness.

[9] In most occasions, when white male respondents engaged in a discourse of racial comparison, they used a white woman standard embedded in their deep frame. However, at times Latina and Asian American women were used to represent this norm as well, as these groups are seen as being closer to the white standard than blacks. Research shows that often Latinos/Latinas and Asian Americans are placed, by whites, above blacks and closer to whites along the raced, gendered, and classed white-to-black continuum (Feagin 2000). According to Bonilla-Silva (2004), certain Latina/Latinos and Asian Americans are afforded by whites an honorary white status, as they are seen as having certain attributes that fall in line with white norms. However, this classification is tenuous and always subject to change. It is important to note, that embedded in the deep frame of many whites is not only the knowledge domain of white superiority to blacks, but also that other racial groups of color, including Latina/Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, are superior to blacks. Ultimately, whites place blacks the furthest away from the white ideal.

Attraction to "Brown-Skinned White Women"

10] Around 54% of white male respondents described themselves as physically attracted to black women, while 46% described themselves as either rarely attracted to black women or not attracted to black women at all. Interestingly, respondents from the southern region described themselves as attracted or rarely attracted to black women at virtually the same percentage (55% and 45% respectively) as the overall research sample. It is important to note, that while southern respondents were attracted to black women at a similar rate as other regions, respondents from certain southern states, such as Texas and Tennessee, were generally more likely to engage in racially inflammatory language and less likely to use colorblind discourse. This finding is representative of the historical differences in racial discourse and interactions across regions.

[11] Those respondents that described themselves as rarely attracted or having no physical attraction to black women were most likely to define that lack of attraction to black women in the following language: “coarse” or “nappy” hair; “black” facial features, “big lips” and “wide noses”; dark skin; and “larger” and “disproportionate” body shapes. Those respondents that described themselves as attracted to black women stated that they were most attracted to black women’s eyes, lips, and skin tone. However, some of the respondents that described themselves as attracted to black women stated that they were not attracted to black women with kinky hair, wide noses, and large body shapes, and some had preferences for black women with light skin and straight hair. While there were some respondents that attempted to use “colorblind” language in describing physical attraction to black women, stating they found the same things physically attractive in black women as they did in white women and/or that they “see no color” when it comes to physical attraction or interest in women, it is important to critically analyze this. As the research discussed earlier shows, black women are overwhelmingly excluded as dating and marriage options by white men; thus, despite the profession by some white men of “colorblindness,” the material reality shows that something else is in play.

[12] Respondents that found black women unattractive or that were rarely attracted to black women, and even some of those that found black women attractive, rooted that opinion in those traits defined as “black” traits, such as dark skin, kinky hair texture, and full facial features. Even those respondents that described themselves as attracted to black women limited that attraction to those black women with more “white” facial features and hair texture, thus invoking a discourse of racial comparison in which whiteness is the standard black women’s beauty is judged against. Gilbert, a lower middle class Coloradoan in his 30s, described himself as attracted to black women, but a particular type: “I am attracted to black women that fit my ideal petite body type, and ones who are lighter skinned.” His expression of being attracted to black women who are of a lighter skin color elicits the long-heralded notion that black is only beautiful when it is synonymous with a multiracial identity. Dillon, an upper middle class Texan over 50, was more direct, stating, “I do find some black [women] attractive, but they tend to have more white physical features and are polished (good grooming, dress, athletic, professional). Alicia Keys comes to mind.” Dillon specifically stated that possession of “white” features are what he believes make black women attractive, and like many other respondents, offered Alicia Keys, who is multiracial black and white, as the ideal black woman.

[13] Ross, a middle class white male in his 40s, also from Texas, offered a similar standard of attraction to black women.

Sexual attraction for me is a combination of physical and personal attributes. If I find a ‘black’ woman attractive, it is because their hair type and facial features are more representative of the [C]aucasian race. If that aspect is attractive, then their speech and intelligence level would have to be more representative of that found more prevalent in other races (such as [C]aucasian or [A]sian - i.e.: anthropological mongoloids.

This respondent, like many others, viewed black women who have “white” physical traits as the only black women he is attracted to. His response echoes a long historical message that only black women who look like “white women” can truly be attractiveThus, he causally made the connection between whiteness and beauty. Furthermore, he makes a causal connection between whiteness and intelligence. Despite admitting to having no close black female friends and few personal interactions with black women, outside of work and church acquaintances, he places whites and Asian Americans as naturally more intelligent than blacks, with his assumption that intelligence is not as prevalent in blacks.

[14] These respondents espoused white traits in black women as more beautiful, thus alluding to a multiracial black woman as the most desirable. Indeed, there has been a long history of presenting black women with a multiracial background of white ancestry, formerly referred to as the derogatory term mulatto, as the ideal black women. During slavery, mulattos and quadroons, the products of nonconsensual sexual relations between enslaved black women and white slave owners (as well as overseers), were heavily sought after and paid handsomely for by white slave masters. According to one slave trader, he would not sell a mulatto child while she was young because he believed she could be of much greater worth to him when older, as a “fancy piece”: “She was a beauty – a picture – a doll – one of the regular bloods – none of your thick-lipped, bullet-headed, cotton-picking niggers...” (Northup1855:87).  Although both multiracial and all black women were enslaved and divested of rights, by this quote it is clear that there was a distinction between the “beauty” and “worth” of blacks who were imbued with a white racial background versus the perceived “ugliness” of those blacks who were not.

[15] Maxine Leeds Craig (2002) in her work Ain’t I A Beauty Queen: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race traces the long historical trend of offering multiracial women up as the “ideal type” black women. For example, in the early 1900s, the ideal black woman was of Egyptian type. According to the New York Age, this woman was defined as having:

A well balanced and symmetrical head, full slender neck, the features clear cut, with the appearance of being chiseled rather than cast;…a fine Negro nose with a trace of the Egyptian and a slight aquiline curve; the mouth fairly small but well proportioned and a slightly pointed, round, firm chin…the marvelously fine curving eyelash of which the Negro race can be justly proud (Pp.49-50). 

Craig (2002:49) notes that this “ideal” black woman in the description above is of “mixed racial heritage” and although hair type and skin color were not explicitly stated, the desire for long hair and light skin was “so firmly established” that it “went without saying.” But most important here is that this quote is representative of the continuous use of multi-racial women as the “ideal representative” of the entire black race. This is an aesthetic that is unachievable for most black women yet is supposed to be a symbol of her “finest expression” (Craig 2002:49), that of a white racial heritage.

[16] Davis, a lower middle class white male from Idaho and in his 20s, extended this notion of the multiracial black woman. He described what he believes an attractive black woman to be:

There are some black women who are attractive. And they aren't full black. The only black women I find attractive are a mix of black and [E]uropean, black and [L]atino, or black and [A]sian. They end up with the tan complexion, and hair that doesn't look frizzled or like a brillo pad.

Davis cited the racial hierarchy in his comments, ranking attraction as first Europeans, then Latinos, and then Asian Americans. Davis classified only mixed-race black women as attractive. Another respondent, Brock, a lower middle class Nebraskan in his 30s, also categorized mixing with other racial groups, besides whites, as ideal. This respondent, who claimed to have many personal interactions with black women, including sexual relationships, stated that “attractive black women tend to be slender with straighter hair and [A]sian-esque features…” For both Davis and Brock, “blackness” must always be “watered down” with other racial groups in order for a black woman to be considered remotely attractive. Consider here the deep frame by which the white normative standard is so firmly entrenched, as black women are only beautiful based on their ability to look like “brown white women” or to appear least black as possible. This reflects the placement of black women at the bottom of the race and gender hierarchy in the deep frame of many whites (as well as some people of color).    

The More "Black" the More Masculine

[17] Whites have constructed black features, including body shape, facial features, and hair, as the dyadic opposite of white features, a central component of the deep frame. Dating back to early European travelers in various African nations, whites have defined what they perceived as black features in negative terms. Because femininity is heavily rooted in women’s physical body, what is defined as a beautiful body becomes the mark of femininity, and what is defined as a beautiful body is rooted in a white woman norm (Collins 2005). The construction of black or too-black features as being “ugly” most significantly affects black women because being black, or as close to the spectrum of (white-defined) blackness as possible, effectively locks black women outside of the definition of beauty, and thus outside of the confines of hegemonic femininity. This construction of beauty is firmly grounded in the racialized and gendered deep frame that whites (and many people of color) see, understand, and make interpretations from. Despite what many may perceive as changes in the overarching notions of beauty, meaning the acceptance of some black women, such as Beyonce, as beauty icons, these changes are often surface level and have not uprooted the deep notions of black beauty as “at best less beautiful and at worst, ugly” (Collins 2005:194) in the minds of whites (and some people of color). Thus, when asked about physical and sexual attraction to black women, their deep frame which places the “blackness” of black women outside of hegemonic beauty and femininity surfaced for many white male respondents. Consider Bob, a middle class respondent from Missouri over the age of 50. He stated:

I think black women's features are too extreme; they are too dark, and they usually are much too large for my tastes. The black women I have know[n] are very aggressive and have terrible attitudes…The only black women I have found even marginally attractive are smaller, lighter-skinned black women with nice rear ends. ala Beyonce.

In contrast, Bob stated that he is most attracted to white women: “I think that white women’s features are softer, yet more defined. I just think they are more attractive than women of other races.” He described white women as “intelligent, beautiful and confident,” in contrast he described black women, in several sections of his questionnaire, as “very fat” and “very black” and attributed a host of other negative characteristics to them, such as “bad attitude,” despite admittedly having very limited personal interactions and experiences with black women.

[18] James, an older, college-educated respondent from Arkansas, who has had some personal experiences with black women, echoed Bob. When asked about his attraction to black women, he stated the following: “Do not find attractive – facial features, hair, skin. Occasionally a black woman whose black features are less prominent will be attractive, but rarely. Most of the black women I find attractive…are of mixed ethnicity and appear more white than black.” For James, as with many white male respondents, the less “black” black women look, the more attractive they become. Levi, a white male in his 20s from Tennessee explained what he finds unattractive about black women:

…I'm not attracted to dark skin. Not attracted to the stereotypical hair or sometimes greasy looking hair and skin that i have seen enough on black women to associate with them. i wouldnt like it on other races either, but i tend not to notice it on them. [S]ome ethnic hairstyles [I] do not find flattering. [B]ut to each theirown maybe some other guy finds it attractive.

Levi, who has had rare personal interactions with black women, expressed that he is also not attracted to features associated with blackness, including skin color and hair. He noted that he tends to specifically notice this on black women and not other racial groups, which is not necessarily surprising as there tends to be a preoccupation among whites with blacks, more so than with other racial and ethnic groups. Throughout his questionnaire, he noted that friends and family would not be “thrilled” with him dating black women and that he feels social pressure from friends to not date black women, stating that this is not out of hate on his friends’ behalf but “mostly out of fear of being a pariah in the white community…” When asked what would need to change for more white men to marry black women, he stated, “Social pressure can dissipate, but being attracted to black women can’t change.” Thus, he seems to provide as a fact that although social pressure from friends and family may quell down, white men will generally never be attracted to black women, particularly black women with black traits. The important thing to realize here is that often what white men view as attractive and unattractive is rooted in how society has been socially constructed in racialized, gendered, and classed terms, a construction that privileges whites and makes it seem generally natural that blackness, such as black facial features, dark skin, or hair texture, is unattractive.

[19] Another respondent, Dan, an older, working-class male from the Midwest plainly articulated one of the most racialized and gendered components of the construction of black female bodies when he expressed, “I tend to read African features as somewhat masculine. The ‘blacker’ the person, the less femininity I tend to see.” Whereas the other respondents alluded to black or too-black features as being a negative “extreme” that incites unattractiveness, Dan articulated that perceived unattractiveness as a sign of masculinity. Dan’s assertion of black features on black women as masculine is rooted in the deeply racialized and gendered framing of society in which embodied in the construction of the black female body is the firm denial of black women from hegemonic femininity, beauty, and womanhood. As is evident in Dan’s quote, he operates out of the dominant discourse relevant to the overarching deep frame that inscribes black women as masculinized.

[20] A recent study by Goff, Thomas, and Jackson (2008) that analyzes how personal perception of attractiveness is affected by intersecting gender and racial identities, finds expansive data that reveals how whites (and other racial groups) connect blackness with masculinity. In this study, a large sample of college students, predominantly white (82%) and male (72%), were shown several head shots of black women, black men, white women, and white men for a period of five seconds and then asked to judge the pictures in terms of perceived masculinity, femininity, and attractiveness, among other factors. Important findings of the study are that the predominantly white participants perceived black faces as more masculine than white faces, that participants had greater accuracy in guessing the gender of black men as opposed to black women, and white women as opposed to black women, and that participants perceived black men as slightly more attractive than white men and white women as more attractive than black women. Thus, the participants’ perceived of black women (in the pictures) as being men and of black women as less attractive than both black men and white women. The authors show the historical construction of blackness as masculine, as both black men and women were perceived as more masculine than white women and men, and black women were rated as “less attractive” based on their perceived masculinity according to the respondents. This study shows how deeply the notion of black women as masculine is `rooted in the racialized and gendered deep frame of whites. According to Lakoff (2006), the frame is often used unconsciously, without people knowing it. The notion of blackness (black woman) as masculine is deeply ingrained in the white mind, via their deep frame; thus, for the respondent Dan, “blackness” or the “blacker” a person is, automatically activated his deep frame that tells him exactly what blackness is defined to be―masculine―irrespective of or respective to gender.

[21] It is also important to note that the construction of black female bodies as the opposite of femininity, in the deep frame, was not just for the purposes of defining the black female body as masculine for the economic benefit of slavery, because the “strong” bodies of black women could work the fields and bear children. Black female bodies were also constructed as the opposite of femininity so that black women would not be a legitimate source of competition for white women, because as masculine, a black woman is not a worthy and legitimate partner for a white man (or even a black man, for that matter). She can be desired behind closed doors by white men or experience rare circumstances of outward affection by white men, but in an open and legitimate sense, she is not an acknowledged body of competition to white women because she has been constructed as a body that does not compare.

The Black Sexual Body

[22] Black women’s physical and sexual body parts, particularly the buttocks and vagina, were a subject of complex thoughts among white male participants. As with facial features white men engaged a discourse of racial comparison, whereby a white standard was directly or indirectly expressed in their thoughts on physical and sexual attraction to black women. White men’s discourse on black women’s buttocks represented the buttocks as simultaneously a site of sexual/physical attraction and a site of condemnation. Drake, who is in his 20s and resides in Nevada, discussed his attraction for black women with a larger buttock:

I am sexually attracted to most all women, but black women have a certain 'exotic' look to them, and I like that. Specifically, I really love black women with bubble butts and nice legs, and who are fit.

This respondent, who was currently dating a black woman at the time of the study, described himself as mostly attracted to non-white women, stating that he is “…attracted to black and Latina women. They have beautiful skin and eyes. I also love that they have a generally fuller figure and more voluptuous. I like a nice bubble butt.” Drake defined black women as “exotic,” which may play a role in increasing or exciting his attraction level to black women, with black women’s buttocks being the height of that perceived exoticness. Black women’s “butts,” historically, have been an integral component in defining black women as an “exotic,” sexual body. Another respondent, Doug, a white male in his 20s who resides in Vermont, stated, “…I like big butts. In high school I read (and looked at) King magazine, which is like Maxim but for a black audience, and all the models have really big butts.”

[23] Black women’s butts have long been a “sign” of white-defined black sexuality, with the “protruding” black butt representing “primitive,” “raw,” “uncivilized” and “heightened” sexuality (Collins 2005; hooks 1992), one that was historically denigrated and pathologized. In today’s commodity culture, the black butt has been re-commoditized and is now popularized and more acceptable in mainstream white society. White men in contemporary times can now more openly express their desire for full, black butts, and those white women (as well as women of other racial and ethnic groups) who do not possess a full behind can now attempt to recreate or emulate black women’s butts through special clothing, fat injections, and other types of “booty-enhancing” techniques. Clothing companies financially capitalize on this new desire for the protruding black butt. Victoria Secret’s creation of “uplift” jeans, which include a “built-in back panel” that “lifts” the buttocks up “from the inside, yet is completely invisible from the outside” (Victoria’s Secret 2008: 28), is an example of this economic end. Thus, black women’s butts have entered mainstream white society as more acceptable, have been appropriated by whites as a symbol of “beauty,” and represent (as in the past) an economically rewarding commodity, one that white women and white men can now openly claim as desirable.

[24] Nonetheless, the desirability of black women’s butts comes with exceptions and stipulations, as so defined by whites, as we shall see with the respondents of this study. Not all white men have accepted the beauty of the black butt; for some it is too visible a sign or a reminder of blackness. Additionally, there are stipulations for black women’s butts. In order to be acceptable, the butt must be white-defined proportional; if not, it can be considered pathological, as it was during the days of Saartjie Baartman. Consider Morris, a middle class male in his 40s who resides in New Jersey; he stated, “Black women tend to have larger hips and butts, which is often a turn-off for me. I like a girl’s ass but not a big one. Sorry. I know lots of guys do.” While Morris was considerably tame in his response, others were not. Jean, a college-educated respondent in his 40s residing in Delaware, described black women’s butts as “[h]uge, sloppy asses.” Another respondent, 20-year-old Quincy, an Ohioan, described his aversion to black women’s butts in this way: “Ghetto booty, no thank you.”

[25] Several white males expressed similar views by characterizing black women’s butt’s, “curves,” and bodies as being out of proportion and indicating that they find black women with “disproportionate” butts and shapes unattractive. Raymond, a 40-year-old respondent from Louisiana, stated that “[s]ome black women have excellent figures that are well proportioned, but not most.” Jay, a North Carolinian in his 20s, expressed that he finds “…most things about black women attractive, except for…a disproportionate ‘rear end.’” Similarly, James, mentioned earlier in the section during the discussion of white traits, declared that what he finds unattractive about black women, along with facial features, hair and skin texture, is that black women’s “rear ends are too large and out of proportion.”  Providing his take on a proportional buttocks and black women, Nelson, a middle class male in his 20s from Idaho, shared what he ideally looks for in women:

White in ethnicity, tan in complexion. Between 5'3 and 5'7 105 to 140 lbs. Hair color isn’t really that important, although blonde is preferable. Breast and ass should be well proportioned to the rest of the body. Long hair is good. And blue or green or grey eyes.

When asked if he could find his ideal woman in black women, he stated:

…I have yet to meet a black woman who is well proportioned and has a good personality. And for the most part, they don’t have blue green or grey eyes.

He later stated that “Beyonce has an ass that is well proportioned to the rest of her body. Alicia Keys is very petite with gorgeous eyes. That is about as far as it goes with me being sexually attracted to black women.” Similarly, Wallace, another respondent from Delaware, who is college educated, middle class and in his 40s, described himself as rarely attracted to black women, stating, “I think some normal weight black wom[e]n have nice above average breast and plump butts that [are] nice. Most black wom[e]n have fat butts and are ugly.”

[26] Black women’s butts have been constructed as a site of sexual attraction, as noted earlier, because the protruding size emphasizes sexual licentiousness, yet at the same time a spectacle and pathology. Thus, while on the one hand several white males find the “black butt” as attractive, both physically and sexually, others see it as a pathologized and racialized spectacle. Consider, for example, the white males’ descriptors of black women’s butts as too “fat,” “sloppy,” “ghetto,” and disproportionate. The historical creation of the “disease” steatopygia by white scientists, who analyzed the bodies and shapes of Saartjie Baartman and other African women, was used to define the “unnatural,” “protrusion” and “disproportionate” shape of the black buttocks as pathological, primitive, and sexually deviant (Gilman 1985).  In this same vein today, the treatment of black women’s butts as disproportionate, by white male respondents, has a direct connection to the historical construction of black women’s butts as the bane of pathology by European scientists in the 1800s.

[27] Likewise, when black women’s genitalia were mentioned by white male respondents, it was most always described as appearing unnatural and deformed. Zack, who is in 20s and resides in the state of Nebraska, stated that he is not sexually attracted to a “[p]ink vagina but dark skin around.” Consider also Walter, a Coloradoan in his 30s, who provided a similar discourse: “[I] think their vagina is just not right looking, the black lips and the pink inside is just a total turn off.” Walter expressed not only his lack of attraction to black women’s vaginas but also the notion that the vagina of black women is “just not right looking,” essentially implying that the genitalia of black women is defected and abnormal. Extending this thought, Bob, a respondent mentioned earlier, who had an aversion to black women and described them as “very fat” and “very black,” stated, “…I do not like to see black women naked because of their dark breast[s] and the black vagina area looks disgusting.” Here again, black women’s sexual body parts are described as a site of repulsiveness, rooted in the notion of their perceived deformity.

[28] As with the buttocks, black women’s vaginas have long been a site of pathology, from a historical perspective. Along with the buttocks, it has been used to oppressively demark black women as primitive and as “evidence” that black women are innately inferior to whites. For example, the “Hottentot Apron” of Saartjie Baartman, which was a “hypertrophy” of the labia, caused by “manipulation of the genitalia,” was “diagnosed” by early European scientists of the 1800s as a symbol of primitiveness and disease (Gilman 1985:85). In the same vein of pathologizing black women through the genitalia, Edward Turnipseed in 1868 made the argument that the black woman’s hymen “is not in the entrance to the vagina, as in the white woman, but from one-and-a-half to two inches from its entrance in the interior.” Due to this believed “anatomical mark” of difference, Turnipseed deduced that “this may be one of the anatomical marks of the non-unity of the races” (Gilman 1985:89); hence, Turnipseed deduced that black women are not even the same species as whites. Although the demarcation of difference and pathology regarding black women’s genitalia may have changed over time from shape and formation in the 1800s to “color scheme” in 2010, it remains the same that black women’s vaginas are constructed dyadically to the genitalia of whites. Thus, white men’s deep frame of black women’s bodies consistently and continually frames anything akin to blackness as a deformity and pathology; while whiteness goes unquestioned as the normative standard.

Oppositional Discourse: Black Women as the Standard

[29] In most instances, when a discourse of comparison was used by white male respondents, white women were the norm, or the standard, that black women were compared and judged against—their ability, or in most instances their inability, to meet this standard. In rarer circumstances, when a discourse of comparison was used by white males, black women were the standard, not white women, nor the achievement of a particular aesthetic akin to white women, such as fair skin, straight hair and aquiline features. Those respondents who engaged this oppositional discourse throughout the entirety of their questionnaire were more likely to have long-term dating relationships with black women, many personal interactions with them, and to choose black women or Latina women as the women they are most attracted to. For example, Reginald, a North Carolinian in his 20s, stated the following:

Some things about trying to fit in to the "mold". I find that a black woman that accepts her beauty as a black woman, embracing her skin, hair, and form, is much more attractive than a black woman that tries to be a mass produced [B]eyonce. Women in the mainstream that are more appealing to me are singers [E]rykah badu and [I]ndia [A]rie, not the [B]eyonce prototypes. Black woman that learn to work with the incredible tools they have are much more attractive.

He went on to state, when asked about his physical attraction to black women:

…body shape, skin tone, physical strength and beauty. [T]hey project beauty and strength more than white women, whom [I] feel, project more indecisiveness and immaturity with decisions.

Reginald, who described himself as most attracted to Latina women and who had been dating a black woman for the last three years, said that he finds black women and the various attributes of black women more attractive than white women. For most other white male respondents, black women who were considered beautiful (and the only black women a few respondents found even “remotely attractive”) were the well-known singers Beyonce and Alicia Keys. Both Beyonce and Alicia Keys possess a white normative aesthetic; Beyonce has a light brown complexion and wears her hair long, straightened and blonde, while Alicia Keys, who is multi-racial with a white mother and black father, boasts the aesthetics of fair skin, long, naturally wavy hair, and aquiline features. Beyonce and Alicia Keys are placed in the mainstream media as two of the few representatives of “black beauty” (although they represent a multi-racial beauty), and one that black women should strive for. Reginald commented that he recognizes this particular “prototype” presented often in the mainstream media, yet in contrast to most other respondents, he appreciates black women who embrace their natural beauty and who do not manipulate it to appease white ideals. Similarly, Luke, a lower middle class Tennessean in his 30s, shared his views on black women’s beauty. When asked if he could find his ideal woman in black women, he stated:

Absolutely. African traits are some of the "best" in my book. I like black women, mixed heritage or not, who prefer locks, braids, or short hair to artificially straight hair. Also, full lips and dark skin are blessings to be proud of. I have to be honest here and say that women of African ancestry are often not lacking in the hips and "booty" either as many from other background sometimes are a bit….

When asked about what he finds physically attractive about black women, he said:

Do not: Like unnaturally straitened hair…. Do: Like very dark skin. Like kinky hair. LOVE locks on black women. Love African features such as full lips, strong frame, and beautiful dark eyes that pierce the soul.

Luke, who also described Latina women as the women he is most attracted to, stated that he has had many personal interactions with black women, including having several black female friends and dating two black women. He, too, said that he views black women’s natural beauty as preferable to manufactured beauty that meets the normative societal standard. He noted that black women should be proud of their natural features, commenting later in his questionnaire that black women should love themselves more. Unfortunately,accepting black beauty, for black women, is a difficult feat in a society subsumed by European beauty standards.

[30 It is important to make a critical note here, however. Although only a small number of respondents considered black features, hair textures and styles as the most beautiful, this could be another form of exotification. In this sense, black women may only be beautiful in terms of how “different” or “ethnic” they appear and the “exotic” contrast that they can provide to whiteness. However, by analyzing the entirety of these respondents’ questionnaires, it is hard to decipher if this was the case, as both Reginald and Luke do describe themselves as dating black women, being open to marrying black women, and surmising that it is likely that they will marry a black woman or a woman with “African ancestry” at some point in their lives.

[31] Outside of providing an oppositional discourse of comparison, there were also a few respondents that engaged impartial language throughout the entirety of their questionnaire and seemed to be genuinely open to black women and women of all racial backgrounds and did not uphold any particular standard of beauty, whether European or black. Larry, a working class white male in his 20s from Oklahoma, responded this way:

Black wom[e]n are unique in the fact that they are black women, but human is human. Attractiveness for me is not about race, but it is about personality and values. Be proud to be a black woman, but don’t think that it makes you more or less attractive, to some it may be this way but to some it is not this way.

Larry stated that, although he had rare interactions with blacks growing up and lived in neighborhoods with only a few black families, he has had many personal interactions with black women since adulthood and has dated one black woman, despite his family’s disapproval of the relationship. In terms of the interracial relationship he was in, he shared that his “…family is mostly racist, so sadly it was not taken well, but I let them know quick they were going to have to accept it.” He noted “less racism” as one of the factors needing to change in order for more white men and black women to marry.


[32] In this essay, the primary focus was to analyze, interpret, and problematize white male respondents’ physical and sexual attraction to black women. The analysis reveals how white male respondents view black women’s bodies from their racialized, gendered, and classed deep frame. For many of the respondents, it is simply common sense, or fact, that white women are more attractive than black women, that straight hair is better than “kinky” hair, that light or white skin is preferable to dark, that aquiline features are preferable to full, flat or wide features, and that black butts and body shapes are disproportionate. This essay also shows the complexity of the beauty standard. In contemporary society, fuller lips and fuller behinds are now more acceptable, and, in some instances, are considered beautiful. Despite this complexity, whites, through appropriation and commodification, can control which features of the “other” will be considered beautiful and more acceptable, yet never with fear that it will elevate the black woman’s beauty above their own. Of central importance is that the data in this essay illustrates how old notions of black women, constructed by the racialized observations and interpretations of early 16th and 17th century European travelers, scientists, and writers, are consistent elements in the deep frame or commonsense world view of white men today. Although a minority of respondents expressed an attraction to black women who were not “brown skinned white women” capable of meeting the white normative standard, this is atypical, as the integral power of the deep frame of white men often disciplines their thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors and thus disciplines what they define as beautiful.


Questionnaire Guide

Thoughts and Opinions on Relationships with Black Women

  1. Demographic Questions

    1. Gender
    2. Race
    3. Highest level of education completed
    4. Current household income
    5. Job
    6. Employment or school status
    7. Religion
    8. Ever been Engaged
    9. Marital status
    10. State
    11. Age
  2. Experiences with Black Community and Black Women

    1. What is the racial makup of the neighborhoods you have lived in?
    2. Growing up, how often did your family interact with black families?
    3. Since adulthood, how many close black female friends do you have?
    4. What type of personal interactions have you had with black women? Please explain
  3. Attraction

    1. The women that you are most attracted to are of which racial/ethnic group?
    2. What do you find physically attractive about this racial/ethnic group?
    3. What personality traits do you find attractive about the women of this racial/ethnic group?
    4. Please describe your ideal woman in terms of personality and physical beauty:
    5. Do you think you can easily find the traits of your ideal woman in black women? Please Explain
  4. Attraction Continued:

    1. Are you physically attracted to black women?
      1. Please describe what you do or do not find physically attractive about black women?
    2. Are you sexually attracted to black women?
      1. Please describe what you do or do not find sexually attractive about black women?
    3. Would you feel intimidated to approach a black woman you were attracted to? Please explain why or why not
  5. Traits

    1. Do you think there are any traits that predominantly represent black women? If yes, please explain
    2. Do you think black women are more sexual than women of other racial groups? Please explain
    3. Please share any thoughts or opinions about black women that you have not already shared:
  6. Racial Traits

    1. Do you think it is necessary for black women to have a strong racial identity today (Racial Identity: meaning strong connection to an African American heritage)? Please explain why or why not
    2. Do you think you would be romantically interested in a black woman that had a strong racial identity? Please explain why or why not
  7. Dating

    1. Under what circumstances would you date black women? Please explain
    2. Has anyone ever discouraged you from dating black women? If yes Please explain whom
    3. Have you ever dated black women?
  8. Dating No

    1. What type of relationship would you be most likely to seek with a black woman?
      1. For example: no relationship, short term dating, sexual relationship, long term relationship, other
    2. Would You date Black Women?
      1. If Yes: Do you think it is likely that you will date a black woman in your lifetime
      2. If No: Please share why you would not date black women
  9. Dating Yes

    1. How many black woman have you dated?
      1. For example: no relationship, short term dating, sexual relationship, long term relationship, other
    2. What type of romantic relationships have you mostly had with black women?
      1. For example: short term dating, sexual relationship, long term dating, long term dating that could lead to marriage, etc.
    3. What type of romantic relationship would you like to have with black women?
      1. For example: short term dating, sexual relationship, long term dating, long term dating that could lead to marriage
    4. How did your family respond to you dating black women?
    5. How did you meet the black woman(en) you have dated?
    6. What were some of the traits that have interested you in the black woman(en) you have dated?
    7. Have you ever been engaged to a black woman?
    8. Have you ever been or are you currently married to a black woman?
  10. Marriage-yes

    1. How did you meet? Please Explain
    2. How did your family respond to the marriage? Please Explain
    3. Do you feel your marriage is accepted by society? Please Explain
  11. Marriage

    1. Would you marry a black woman?
      1. If YES: Do you think it is likely that you will marry a black woman in your lifetime?
      2. If NO: Please share why you would not marry a black woman:
  12. Intermarriage

    1. The intermarriage rate between black women and white men is very low. Why do you think the intermarriage rate is low between black women and white men?
    2. What would discourage you from forming romantic relationships with black women? Please explain
    3. What would need to change for more white men to marry black women?

Works Cited

  • Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2004. “From Bi-Racial to Tri-Racial: Towards a New System of Racial Stratification in the USA.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. 27:931-950.
  • Collins, Patricia H. 2005. Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge. 
  • Craig, Maxine L. 2002. Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1995. “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law.” Pp. 103-126 in Critical Race Theory,edited by K. Crenshaw, N. Gotanda, G. Peller, and K. Thomas. New York: The New Press.
  • Davis, Kingsley. 1941. “Intermarriage in Caste Society.” American Anthropologist43:376-395.
  • Feagin, Joe R. 2000. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. New York: Routledge.  
  • ------. 2009. White Racial Frame.New York: Routledge.  
  • Feliciano, Cynthia, Robnett, Belinda, Komaie Golnaz. 2008. “Gendered Racial Exclusion Among White Internet Daters.” Social Science Research38: 39-54.
  • Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Gilman, Sander L. 1985. Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.  
  • Goff, Phillip A., Thomas, Margaret A., and Matthew C. Jackson. 2008. “‘Ain’t I a Woman?’: Towards an Intersectional Approach to Person Perception and Group-Based Harms.” Sex Roles 59:392-403. 
  • Hammonds, Evelyn M. 1997. “Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence.” Pp. 170-182 in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, edited by M. Jacqui Alexander and C. Mohanty. New York: Routledge.  
  • Haymes, Stephen N. 1995a. “White Culture and the Politics of Racial Difference.” Pp. 105-128 in Multicultural Education, Critical Pedagogy and the Politics of Difference, edited by C.E. Sleeter and P.L. McLaren. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
  • hooks, bell. 1992. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press.
  • Jones, Charisse and Kumea Shorter-Gooden. 2003. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Kellner, Peter. 2004. “Can Online Polls Produce Accurate Findings?”International Journal of Market Research 46: 1.
  • Lakoff, George. 2006. Whose Freedom? The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
  • Lee, Sharon M. and Barry Edmonston. 2005. “New Marriages, New Families: U.S. Racial and Hispanic Intermarriage.” Population Reference Bureau 60: 1-40.  
  • Northup, Solomon. 1855. Twelve Years a Slave. New York: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan. 
  • Phua, Voon C. and Gayle Kaufman. 2005. “The Crossroads of Race and Sexuality: Date Selection Among Men in Internet ‘Personal’ Ads.”Journal of Family Issues 24: 981-994.
  • Picca, Leslie J. and Joe R. Feagin. 2007.Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstageand Frontstage. New York: Routledge. 
  • Qian, Zhenchao and Daniel T. Litcher. 2007. “Social Boundaries and Marital Assimilation: Interpreting Trends in Racial and Ethnic Intermarriage.” American Sociological Review 72: 68–94.
  • Rosenfeld, Michael J. 2005. A Critique of Exchange Theory in Mate Selection. American Journal of Sociology110:124-1325.
  • St. Jean, Yannick and Joe R. Feagin. 1998. Double Burden: Black Women and Everyday Racism. Armonk, NY: M.E.Sharpe.
  • Sudman, Seymour, and Norman M. Bradburn. 1982. Asking Questions: A Practical Guide to Questionnaire Design. San Fransisco: Josey-Bass.
  • U.S. Bureau of the Census. 2004. Interracial Married Couples: 1980 to 2002. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Victoria’s Secret. 2008. “Denim Sale.” Victoria’s Secret, December 2008, p.28.
  • White, Deborah G. 1985. Ar’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 
  • Wilson, Shauna B., McIntosh, William D., and Salvatore P. Insana. 2007. “Dating Across Race: An examination of African American Internet Personal Advertisements.” Journal of Black Studies37: 964-982. 
  • Yancey, George. 2007. “Homogamy Over the Net: Using Internet Advertisements to Discover Who Interracially Dates.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 24: 913-930.
  • Yancey, George and Sherelyn Yancey. 1998. “Interracial Dating: Evidence from Personal Advertisements.” Journal of Family Studies19: 334-348.