I Might Be Beautiful: Black, evangelical, and single

Unlike my other insecurities, my race felt like a death sentence. The search for the secret to being chosen was supposed to unearth something I could change, but what could I do about being black? A loving and wise Father made me this way but could he work around it? Seven out of ten black women never marry.

In second grade, my first crush, Matt Lawson, was white. His sister, Missy, was my best friend and their house connected to ours on the Air Force base we lived on in northwest Michigan, above the thumb. I told my older sister I thought he was cute and she told me white boys didn’t like black girls. Like other generalizations I’d heard about race as a child, I thought this couldn’t be true. Wanting to prove her wrong, I began to tally every white male/black female couple I saw. There weren’t many, but I felt a strange flicker of hope every time I saw one. I still do.

By the time I’d graduated from college, I’d found exactly two black guys—both trombone players—attractive. My interracial couple tally was also still going strong. I’d never given much thought to Asian men either until I moved to China after graduation, but once there, I began to see their appeal. As my sister had before with white guys, a friend informed me Chinese men didn’t like black women; they’d even be disowned for bringing one home. A second tally was in order and I called this pairing—the Asian guy and black girl—the golden couple, due to its rarity. My best friend also helped me keep count.

I have never felt beautiful in the minority. I really only began to entertain the idea I might be pretty after moving to DC three and a half years ago, where a sizable black male population reminds me daily that black is worth a second look. Besides my white ex-boyfriend, I hadn’t had that before.

In my thinking, pretty became stratified: there was friend pretty, black pretty, and pretty pretty. Based on my interactions with men on the street, I concluded I was at least black pretty. Pretty pretty, the zenith, could only be conferred by a white man. It pains me now to see how skewed my scale was.

I was late to love my skin. Appreciating the beautiful, deep hues of Lao people taught me to embrace my own. Yet, until DC, I still resented God for making me black. I was certain this seemingly insurmountable reality would frustrate His otherwise beautiful plan for my life.

My earliest motivation for trying to educate white people about race, though I wouldn’t have admitted it, was the selfish hope that one day black women would be found beautiful. I saw disparities in income, education, policing, and beauty as all connected, all part of being seen as fully and equally human. I resented white people’s apathy toward examining their preferences and policy stances because, to me, their inaction meant I’d remain overlooked. It bothered me they couldn’t see that privilege extended even here.

My impatience explaining prejudice or trying to convince others of their racialized preferences linked directly to how such thinking disadvantaged me. It was unlikely I’d ever be shot dead in a traffic stop, but because I all but saw marriage as a matter of life or death, addressing perceptions of beauty seemed no less urgent than policing.

After joining the church I attend now, I talked with a friend and fellow member about how I worried the men might be too conservative to find a black woman attractive. Of all the couples I’d tallied since childhood who I personally knew, the man was either non-Christian or theologically and politically more liberal. My friend, a white guy, agreed.

The more invested I’ve felt in this community, the more resigned to not being seen by men as a woman. A few weeks ago, I was debating what to wear to a party among two options, one a little more revealing than the other. I tried the more revealing one on for one of my roommates and said, “I don’t see what difference it makes. I’m just going to see guys from church and they don’t even see me as a woman. I could probably go naked and it wouldn’t matter.” Last week someone asked me why I never seem to get bitten by mosquitos, and I replied, “Mosquitos are like white men: they don’t like black women.”

My first few years back in the States, a continuous offensive of articles about how black women are the least likely to marry, found least attractive, have the hardest time with online dating, and have the most negative stereotypes associated with them besieged me. Each sad statistic after another was soul sucking to read then look around and have nothing to show to refute it. I struggled to find God’s power more compelling than the numbers and, though I honored him with my lips, I bowed my knee to the stats as all powerful and supreme.

I resented the black women I saw around town who exemplified the worst of the negative stereotypes. They made it harder for me. I also quietly resented Asian-American women who complained about singleness because they were our antithesis: found most attractive, most reached out to online, most likely to marry, the ones everyone wanted. It all just seemed unfair.

White friends from church recommended dating books to me with opening chapters that immediately confirmed black women were not the intended audience. The sections on physical appearance described a white ideal: “Men appreciate hair they can run their fingers through—and they don’t want to get them snagged in scraggly, frizzy, pubic-looking bird’s nests. The era of the perm is over, ladies. Wavy hair is fine, but a hair ball is definitely not a man magnet.” Long straight hair was a recurring theme both in books and real life conversation. Already a fraught issue in the black community, hair became an even more sour subject for me. Whether I wear my hair out relaxed, or wear it in braids, I wonder how it is perceived, about who will think I’m too “ethnic” to take home to their parents with my hair this way or that. Another white male friend from church commented that black women’s body type appealed to black and not white men. “White men aren’t really into, you know, all that…” And how could I forget the white sister who told me over dinner after church that white men objected more to black women’s character than our appearance. I went home and cried.

My sister and I used to commiserate over what felt like coming in last place before the starting gun even went off. The only sliver of solace I could muster was that generations of blacks died in slavery without seeing the freedom God could have secured for them but she and I were now free, so maybe the next generation of black women would be found universally beautiful even if she and I missed out.

I joke about it now, but a few years ago, it made me sad. When friends play matchmaker, they can always think of someone for the white girls in the group, but never for me. Until, that is, a black guy comes to church and then they’re like, “Did you see that black guy?” When my white friends can’t conceive of any other race as a partner for me it stings. That they are stuck thinking about relationships along racial lines, even if they’d say they support interracial relationships, is disappointing. Yet I do not assume malicious intent. Early in my time here, there was a serial dater looking for a girl he could take to China. In any other world, the first person you might ask is the girl who previously lived there, loved it, and was known for moving abroad on short notice. I don’t think it would have worked out, but despite being the obvious choice I was never asked. The invisible femininity of the black woman in white spaces hurts, and when spoken of, it is largely explained away by white listeners who hear only an indictment but never a sister’s pain.

I’m not alone either. Other black women, both strangers and friends, in white evangelical communities have voiced similar struggles. At a gathering of black women at The Gospel Coalition Women’s Conference last month, we were asked to discuss in small groups how the church can care better for black women. I posed a follow up question to my table about how caring for blacks and caring for women might not cover caring for black women and this very issue came up. More and more black women have opened up publicly about this challenge.

What about black men, you ask, what’s wrong with them? Absolutely nothing. I just see so few. However, similar to when I went to China and the exposure changed my perspective, DC has done the same. Since moving here, I have mostly gone on dates with black men.

In discussions around black women and relationships, we are often accused of having impossibly high standards that preclude many a good black man. I remain unapologetic about having standards and the lure of a relationship is not strong enough for me to accept one at any cost.

The racial piece to my story has often been the most vexing because it is the piece over which I have no control. It also triggers the general feelings of unfairness and injustice I wrestle with when I look out at the world. It has, perhaps more than anything else, tested my thoughts on God’s good design and the bounds of his power. I have seen God’s grace at work here in my heart and I’ve come to see that God’s choosing not to do something doesn’t mean he cannot do it—he remains a God who is able. I also no longer stake his goodness, power, or his kindness toward me on this.

By calling this out, I risk being that black girl—the one who jumps to conclusions or who makes everything about race. But I’m ok with that, because while I am open to the possibility I may be wrong, this is still how I, and many other black women across the country, have experienced it. Whatever anyone else may take from this is of secondary importance; this is for my black sister who struggles alone.

You are not less. God has not shortchanged you by making you black. It pleased him to do so and it is his good and perfect will for you. You are not first a product of your time or country, but of God’s deliberate and loving choices for your life and your holiness; time and country are instruments in his hands. Rest knowing He gives greater honor to parts that lack it. The same God who caused the sea to stand like walls on either side of His people as He led them out from captivity on dry land is incapable of giving you anything less than his best. He is the sovereign Lord over every opportunity that does or does not materialize for you. Any evil that may befall you as a side effect of our broken world (and even broken brothers and sisters) he will use for your good. Your cries for mercy, justice, and to be seen have reached his ears. You are not and will never be alone. You are neither forgotten nor overlooked. With judgment more perfect than any found on the earth and with the eyes that first envisioned and beheld beauty, the Lord confers value on you and looks at you with pride in his craftsmanship. The white brother who can’t see past your melanin doesn’t deserve you. We are not here to throw our pearls before those who would pick them up and ask, “What are these?” Girl, you betta find you an oyster farmer. The Lord’s portion for you cannot be stolen. Your melanin produces a strength in you that those without can only know through you. They need to know it so don’t disengage. Within the treasuries of grace the Almighty has for you is the power to resist bitterness and envy; draw deep and often from those stores. They cannot be depleted. The purity of your heart does not accentuate your beauty, it is your beauty, and when you can look at your neighbor and say, “Forgive them, they know not what they do,” you are not being weak, but channeling the divine. At the end of it all, you will be praised for your faithfulness, so whatever else this world may try to take from you, do not let it take that. Our God is big. Your skin does not limit Him. If you are one of the seven and not one of the three, know that a life of meaning, joy, and breathtaking intimacy is available to you; don’t leave these promises unclaimed because you don’t believe they are yours. You did not get silver, while the three got gold. Your promised abundance is also no less than your white or Asian or married sisters’, but be careful where you search.

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13 thoughts on “I Might Be Beautiful: Black, evangelical, and single

  1. Danielle says:

    Again, this piece is excellent. Thank you for sharing so honestly and eloquently. Also, who the heck are these people at our church who have said these things and gave you those books??!! Seriously!

    • Alicia Akins says:

      Thanks, again, for the encouraging feedback!

      The guy who commented on black women’s bodies and the woman who commented on our character don’t go here anymore. I didn’t think they said those things to be rude, I honestly think they didn’t really think through what they were saying and how it might be heard by me. I don’t think they were trying to be hurtful but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t hurt.

  2. Rachel Reihing says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and heart on this blog! Just found a post by you shared on facebook by a friend, and I can’t wait to read more. I feel like this is a blog I have needed to read and didn’t even know it. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences ❤

  3. Michelle Witte says:

    I absolutely echo Danielle’s thoughts above, I just was worried about being rude to your friends. But honestly, what books are those? And who says those things? Who *thinks* those things? (Lots of people, I know, I know…)

    • Alicia Akins says:

      To be fair to these folks and provide a little more perspective, you could probably pick up any popular magazine on the shelf and find similar advice on beauty standards. They’re everywhere: commercials, movies, TV, magazines. How many white people would even know that dating as a black woman poses unique challenges unless they’d had a black friend who’d told them. I know very few white people who go proactively seeking out the experience of others (but am encouraged tremendously by those who do).
      I know you’re probably familiar with the statistic that 75% of white people have no non-white friends. White normativity is so ingrained and pervasive that it’s easy to subcribe to it by default, like when you sign up for something online and a box at the bottom is already checked by default. I hope by sharing these experiences that folks will see the prechecked and challenge it.

  4. Tree says:

    Alicia, superbly written as always. I am not surprised but infuriated at how prevalent and persistent racism is & how it has permeated within society across cultures. Beauty standards & the auto-prescription of character traits by race are entrenched (I know, I know, preaching to choir here), and I wanna smack the people who told you that “black women’s body type appealed to black and not white men” & that “white men objected more to black women’s character than our appearance.” One question is what privileged folks our age will do to change these perceptions of beauty & character traits.

    • Alicia Akins says:

      Thanks, Tree! I swing between ‘not surprised and infuriated’ and tired. I think the less I wrap the meaning of life up in getting married it gets easier or becomes less urgent, but it is still discouraging nonetheless.

  5. Jack M says:

    “They need to know it so don’t disengage.” Biggest take away from this one.
    These words run true and give hope. I think race(ism) just like other social stratification around the world is a human trait. In Africa, we are plagued with Tribe and Clan wars as deeply divided as racism on the global scale. A destructive and self seeking need to feel validated.

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