What TV And Movies Still Get Wrong About Black Women And Dating
There's major bias at play, which is why it's a relief that Malika On 'Good Trouble' addresses it
In "Swipe Right," an episode in the first season of Freeform's Good Trouble, the character Malika Williams (Zuri Adele)—the only main cast member who is a Black woman—has a testy and impromptu date with a Black man who had, earlier in the day, declined to match with her on a dating app.
Although she'd been hurt by the initial rejection, Malika rallied when he later walked into the bar where she works. After an engaging conversation and clear chemistry between them, though, she rejected his request for her number, and called him out for dismissing her as a romantic prospect because she is dark-skinned and Black; she even uses his own dating profile history to demonstrate his unconscious bias against women who look like her.
Unlike most media that deals with interracial relationships, Good Trouble did not lapse into repeating the lazy trope that Black women who take issue with the anti-Black dating preferences of Black men are simply jealous of white women. Instead, it presented a nuanced portrait of what it is like to navigate the racial dynamics of dating in a world where Black women are repeatedly told that factors beyond their control make them inherently less desirable than women of other races.
A 2017 piece in Lainey Gossip about the dissolution of actor Jesse Williams' marriage to his Black wife (and the rumors that he had since taken up with white actress Minka Kelly) describes this in-between feeling of resistance and resentment as "The Wince":
To the uninitiated, The Wince can be hard to explain. It's uncomfortable and rarely talked about out loud because it often gets misconstrued as unfounded jealousy or bigotry towards interracial relationships. But this isn't that. [...] it's that dating outside of your race, as a black man, has traditionally been viewed as a status booster and this seems to be exactly what Jesse may be perpetuating. The Wince is not rooted in hatred. It is an unconscious reflex steeped in a complicated history of oppression, white supremacy and the correlation between dating or marrying white women and success.
When even living legends like Eartha Kitt are rejected by their Black male peers because their Blackness is seen as a hindrance to ambition, the existence of Black love can begin to feel taboo and rarefied; in desperate need of protection. As writer Dee Lockett notes in an examination of Beyonce's Lemonade: "[Black] love is always political, it has no choice. When it fails, it's a failure for all black lovers." But the media often flattens this nuance, choosing instead to willfully portray Black women's sensitivity to the issue as "reverse racism." It's why Good Trouble's approach is so significant.
The past, though, is littered with examples of how other stories have gotten it wrong. A particularly glaring example of this is Sex And The City's Season 3 episode "No Ifs, Ands or Butts." In one of the show's only episodes to feature Black characters, the girls are introduced to one of Carrie's (Sarah Jessica Parker) former colleagues, food critic-turned-chef Adeena Willams (Sundra Oakley) at the opening of her new soul food restaurant. At the event, she introduces the women to her brother Chivon (Asio Highsmith). In typical fashion, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) sets her sights on the music mogul, and they quickly begin an affair. In response, Adeena becomes enraged when the three meet up later at a Black club, asserting that Samantha doesn't belong and that she'll never understand why because "it's a Black thing." After Samantha tells her off for not being "open-minded" Adeena grabs her by the hair and starts a fight that is then broken up by Chivon and security. Ironically, in an interview with Vanity Fair last year to commemorate the show's 20th anniversary, Oakley, too, expressed feeling that familiar "twinge" when she read the script and realized how her character had been written.
Adeena's characterization is just one of a litany of comically offensive things about the episode. In addition to being depicted as irrational for trying to keep the budding couple apart, Adeena is shown to embody all the characteristics of a "sassy Black woman." Carrie's voice-over even refers to her as a "loud-mouthed bitch." In a later scene in which Chivon defends his sister, (who we learn is his only remaining family), he alludes to her "issues" and implies that she is wrong to protest Samantha's demonstrated objectification of her brother. When the two decide to split, Carrie's VO chimes in once again to say that "the real problem [...] was that Chivon was a big Black pussy who wouldn't stand up to his sister." Rather than making a sincere effort to unpack why Adeena might not want her brother to date someone who says things like "I don't see color, I see conquests," SatC frames the cultural issues that Samantha blindly runs into headfirst as narrow-minded protectionism instead of a reflection of the deep historical legacy of fraught interracial relationships; Black men as bucks, white women as signifying trophies, and Black women as invisibilized and yet oversexualized jezebels. Though Samantha spends the duration of the episode making offensive cracks about Chivon's "big Black cock," the show's moral universe reinforces her perspective, heavily suggesting that her race-blind approach to dating is the right one, and that Chivon and, especially, Adeena are ignorant for caring about how her whiteness interacts with the largely Black spaces they inhabit.
Then, too, 2001's Save The Last Dancereplicates the same dynamic. As they wait together for her young son to be seen by a doctor at a local clinic, Chenille (Kerry Washington) reprimands her friend Sara (Julia Stiles) for not acknowledging why it bothers their friends to see a white girl dating her brother Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas). Sara replies that she doesn't understand the animosity because their relationship is between the two of them, and that it shouldn't matter what other people think. Chenille angrily asserts that it matters to Black women because Derek is one of the few single Black men left after "jail, drugs, and drive-by." Inelegantly expressed, Chenille tries to explain why Derek's ex-girlfriend Nikki (Bianca Lawson) is so opposed to their union that she would pick a physical fight; choosing Sara, one of the few white students in the predominantly Black Chicago school, is perceived as Derek's rejection of the Black women who had always been there.
After Sara breaks off the relationship and Chenille confesses their conversation to Derek, she apologizes for inserting herself saying, "You can't help who you love," and contrasts the difficulties of her teen motherhood with the implied bliss of his relationship with Sara. By connecting the two sentiments, the movie inadvertently reveals that it is punishing Chenille for her views by preventing her from having a loving relationship. The film sees her angry rejection of a white woman "stealing" a Black man as an unfounded sentiment that needs to be corrected; in fact, Sara and Derek are happily back together by the end of the movie. Chenille is not allowed to simply bristle at their relationship, she must instead be a single teen mom who is humbled because she can't get the father of her child to cooperate, leaving her jealous and bitter that a white woman can find happiness in an environment that has brought her pain. Once again, the color-blind approach to love is wholeheartedly endorsed, while the Black women who reject it are positioned as angry, jealous, and violent.
A 2018 episode of Atlanta provides perhaps the most egregious example. In "Champagne Papi," Van (Zazie Beetz) and her friends go to an exclusive house party supposedly hosted by Drake in an effort to meet the rapper and get a photo for Instagram. While there, her friend Tami (Danielle Deadwyler) accosts Sabrina (Melissa Saint-Amand), the white girlfriend of a Black male actor attending the party, loudly chastising her for "saddling up with her Black man accessory" and telling her that she's tired of the cliched story. Bewildered, Sabrina insists that she's just a good woman who found a good man, which only invokes more unhinged ranting from Tami, complete with swearing, uncomfortably long stares, and wild gesticulation. Naturally, Tami is a dark-skinned Black woman with natural hair, and Sabrina is blonde and soft-spoken.
What makes the scene so jarring is that nothing Tami says during the interaction is incorrect. She talks about Sabrina's privilege at being able to "invest early" in a relationship with a man who has nothing and the disparate ways "good Black women" are viewed in society. Everything she says to Sabrina is a true reflection of Black women's experiences, and yet by choosing to make her delivery so comically overblown, Atlanta dismisses her and her frustration over the sexual politics at play out of hand. The show chooses to have her berate a literal stranger about her dating choices, entirely absent any context for either party.
In fact, Tami's initial reaction earlier in the episode upon seeing the famous actor with a white girlfriend is, "He would be with a white girl," priming the audience to see the later confrontation as illogical and baseless; her reaction is presented not as an unfortunate mix of intoxicants and built-up social resentment but an unfounded envy of a white woman's Black partner. It's a scene that rankles precisely because it is so cliche. With Atlanta's history of upending and subverting tropes, the interaction feels flat and unexamined; there's nothing subversive in simply replicating a harmful stereotype. With her aggressive approach and wild-eyed stare, the show presents Tami as a figure to be laughed at and mocked rather than a woman reasonably pointing out the truth about the racial dynamics of interracial dating.
With all that historical and cultural baggage in play, what makes Malika's encounter with Isaac in "Swipe Right" notable is not just that the story allowed her to be right about his unspoken romantic preference for white women, but that it gave her the language she needed to articulate that fact to him without flattening her into a stereotype of an irrational or jealous Black woman. Good Trouble did not simply reduce her suspicions and insecurity to "bitterness" as so often happens. Instead, Malika is allowed to express her hurt at being rejected for her dark skin, and is rewarded for her honesty and insight with a sweeping romantic gesture that serves both as penance and a mea culpa. She is permitted to have her happy ending without ever having to compromise her politics or accept implicit terms that she is less than, or should be grateful for whatever attention she gets.
What Good Trouble gets right in its examination of this dynamic is that Black women's feelings about Black men dating white women are complicated and not simply rooted in bitterness. Wrapped up in what, yes, maybe sometimes be residual jealousy, is the learned understanding that our Blackness renders us inherently undesirable even to the men who look like us. Boys who grow up with Black mothers, aunts, sisters, and cousins become men who denigrate the very women who nurtured them. It's a fact Malika later has to confront head-on when old video surfaces depicting the unlawfully killed young Black man for whom she is seeking justice, making offensive and disparaging remarks about Black women and their fitness as romantic partners. It's a hurtful reality that she's forced to face: Far too often Black women show up for Black men without reciprocation. The most vulnerable members of the movement are left to do the heavy lifting for everyone.
"Swipe Right" takes great pains to validate what Malika is feeling and never suggests that she is overreacting or being overly sensitive for making a justified assumption borne out of her own life experience. It also avoids the trap of demonstrating Isaac's interest in light-skinned Black women alone; doing so would have only fortified the common colorist argument that dark-skinned Black women are uniquely undesirable because they are difficult or "unmanageable" and that Isaac was right to avoid her because she is judgmental or aggressive. Additionally, her frustration is reinforced, affirmed, and echoed by her very own Greek chorus of Black women, her best friends Yari (Candace Nicholas-Lippman) and Tolu (Iantha Richardson); a fact that is notable in and of itself, given the media's propensity to make Black women "the only one" within a show's orbit. Between the three women, the show takes Malika's tenderness at her rejection seriously and treats it as something worthy of sincere consideration, affirming and legitimizing the matter of raced and gendered sexual stereotypes as a truthful experience that many Black women encounter in their dating lives.
It's a refreshing new framework for how this well-worn conversation can unfold, that makes a point to center Black women's perspectives about their romantic invisibility, rather than positioning them as sounding boards against which to justify their exclusion as romantic prospects.
Good Trouble Season 2 returns tonight, June 18.