Illustration by Brittany Holloway-Brown for BuzzFeed
At first glance, Black Girl Travel seems to be like any other American international travel club, just one that caters exclusively to black women. But buried toward the bottom of its About Us page is a fuzzy YouTube video that indicates a wider problem.
The video is a defense of the company — directed at “haters” who have criticized Black Girl Travel for encouraging black women to date men in other countries.
“The heart of what we do is about empowering African-American women with options,” says Fleacé Weaver, founder of Black Girl Travel, in the clip. “I have done a lot of research and talked to a lot of women in this country, and what I’m hearing is: You can’t find dates, you can’t find mates, you can’t find husbands.”
Weaver, a statuesque black woman flanked by two chic employees on either side, is all long lithe limbs and wavy hair. Her presence, despite the poor video quality, commands the screen.
“And I kind of thought about, like, well why is that? And as I started talking to [women] it’s like, they’re only dating black guys. Don’t shoot me!” she exclaims, pressing her hands to her chest, then throwing them out in a shrug. “It’s the truth. That’s what’s happening.”
She cites her research, 2008 census data that suggests that even if every black man chose to partner with a black woman, there would still be 1.5 million black women left mate-less.
“That’s why I created BlackGirlTravel.com. To get you to start thinking about dating interracially,” Weaver says warmly. “There are a lot of incredible men out there, yes, you know you want a brother. … That’s what you want, right? And that’s OK. But we know it’s just not enough to go around!” Weaver’s staff laughs along with her.
“What you gotta do is open your mind.”
Weaver’s not alone in her exhortation to black American women. The idea that we should travel abroad — particularly to Europe — to find love has a home in online discussion groups, travel websites, blogs, and Facebook pages, all of which earnestly and enthusiastically encourage us to “swirl,” i.e., date non-black men (the term is designed to evoke a half-chocolate, half-vanilla soft-serve).
Though they vary in tone — some are celebratory, extolling the joys of finding “Swirling Success in Sweden” while others are bear hard-nosed messages like “The Dating Truth for Black Women: Go to Europe and Don’t Look Back” — every site insists that black women in America are better off looking for love in another country.
I first came across the encouragements to go to Europe and “swirl” when I was a junior in college preparing to study abroad in Sweden. Though I cringe to admit it now, I was excited by the possibility of a semester spent flirting with Swedes. As a painfully self-conscious biracial woman, I had struggled to date at an Ivy League school, and studying abroad was as much an escape as it was a necessary academic endeavor for an international relations major. But I am also a European Union citizen, born in Hungary to a Hungarian mother and Nigerian father, and my optimism was tempered by the reality of my experiences living and traveling in Europe, experiences that taught me I was both Other and object. As much as I wanted to believe in sites that told me differently — that men across the pond were just waiting for my arrival — I felt like I also knew better.
And while these sites say they intend to expose black women to a world of possibilities, the “possibilities” seem to predominantly feature black women with white men — a move that, intentionally or not, presents interracial dating as aspirational. Kim Butler, a data editor from California who moved to Germany in 2011, pushed back on the argument that Europe is a solution to black female singlehood on her blog last year. She told me she’s noticed many of the pro-”swirl” websites seem to be pushing one message: “What is right is white.” But Butler says there is more of a conversation to be had. “Are we going to start talking about some of the issues going on in America, why there’s not so many black female couplings … or are we just going to say, ‘Screw it! We’ll just go to Europe and find a white guy.’”
“That’s not what we’re saying,” Weaver told me via Skype from Rome. She’s a former Los Angeles socialite who ran a once-popular site for affluent African-American Angelenos: blackweekly.com. “We say, ‘Date all men.’”
And her statement was more or less repeated by nearly every one of the women I interviewed who advocate that black women date interracially and internationally. Several added that they tell women to “choose character over color.” But it’s difficult to scroll through picture after picture of beaming-black-woman-with-smiling-white-man and not feel that interracial relationships are being idealized, rather than simply celebrated, an experience discomfiting enough that it has at times made me question my own relationship with a white man.
“Once those images are posted and once they’re permeating society, then a certain kind of picture is presented and reinforced about who black women should be with,” Tiya Miles told me over the phone.
Last year Miles, the chair of African-American studies at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor and a former MacArthur fellow, wrote about the issues facing black women and interracial dating for the Huffington Post. While “in a perfect world love would be blind,” she wrote, in the United States — and its polarized racial landscape in which black is essentially bad and white is essentially good — our romantic decisions are also political ones, whether we’d like them to be or not.
The practical, not the political, was certainly the driving force for Weaver when she founded Black Girl Travel. The company, which was originally named Bella Italia before expanding to other countries, arranges tours for groups ranging from fewer than 10 to over 70. She could readily name all the women she’s taken to Italy who are currently in relationships with, or married to, Italian men. But she insisted that Black Girl Travel’s purpose isn’t to convince black women that Europe is the solution to their singlehood.
“I’m not saying it is the promised land; I’m just saying you have more options,” Weaver said.
Weaver is speaking to what she calls “the 1.5 million”: the number of black women in America who outnumbered black men in 2008 (now 2.5 million according to current census data). The women who, even if every black man chose to date a black woman, would still be left without a partner. Because it assumes all black women are heterosexual, this figure can’t accurately convey the number of single black women seeking a male partner. But black men are more than twice as likely than black women to marry outside their race, perhaps because stereotypes about black men and sexuality increase their desirability — while comparable parallels aren’t often available to black women. According to some advocates of interracial dating, unlike black men, black women face a unique pressure to date within their race.
“Black women are the community,” said Christelyn Karazin, founder of BeyondBlackWhite.com, author of Swirling, and creator of a new interracial dating show Swirlr, told me via Skype. “It’s like what Alice Walker said: We’re the mules. We’re the mammies. We’re not supposed to leave. We’re supposed to be holding it down. ‘I love my black kings, I’m holding it down!’ Meanwhile, so many of us are so miserable and unhappy and think that we don’t even deserve to be happy — that it’s about being black first and a woman never.”
Karazin, who also spearheaded a controversial movement advocating against single motherhood in the black communtiy, describes tangled and knotted long-standing ideas about black desirability and femininity — or, the supposed lack thereof. The slave trade turned black bodies into objects of toil and labor, and made black women’s bodies desirable largely in the context of rape, which allowed slave masters to exert further control over them. Slapstick mammies made exultant, toothy-grinned claims on the screens of early 20th-century cinema, their large and lumbering figures merely vehicles for laughs. And black female sexuality has often only been portrayed in its most grotesque and sensational forms, those of Hottentot Venuses or conniving jezebels. Throughout American history black women were either desexualized or hypersexualized according to the whims and anxieties of whites in control of their images.
In America, with the exceptions of nearly exclusively light-skinned celebrities, to desire a black woman is to reach your hand into the bottom of the beauty standard barrel. It’s why the adoration following Lupita has been so refreshing, and complicated. As recently as 2011, science (or, “science”) has been used to claim that black women are decidedly unattractive. As black women in the United States, we’re told not only that we likely won’t get married, (based on oft-misconstrued statistics that apply only to women aged 25–29), but that trying via modern conventions like online dating are probably futile — after all, we’re also the least likely to get messaged in online dating.