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Q&A: Ralph Richard Banks Asks If Marriage Is For White People Only

Publication Date: 
November 09, 2011
The Village Voice Blogs
Steven Thrasher

Professor Ralph Richard Banks sat down for a Q&A with the Village Voice to discuss why black folks marry less often than whites, how black women are the least married demographic and the unexpected thing he discovered while writing his book, “Is Marriage for White People? How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone.”

Ralph Richard Banks is the author of the new book Is Marriage for White People? While Banks, a Stanford Law professor, was in town for an event at Cardozo Law School, we met him for lunch in the West Village to talk about why black folks marry so much less often than whites, why black women are the least married demographic, and why white dudes seem to be more accepting of a black woman wearing natural hair than black men.

(And, even though the book is largely about heterosexuals, we squeezed in some queer questions on Prop 8 and Tyler Perry.)

You write in the book candidly about there still being a big hang up about interracial marriage, especially about black women marrying white men. Why is this so, in 2011?

It's largely generational. I think, if you go back about 10 years, interracial marriage was a bigger thing than it is now. And in 10 years, it won't be an issue at all. If you look at people who are in their forties or fifties or sixties, there are certain associations or attitudes they may have about it. But if you look at people in their twenties, they're like, "What's the big deal?"

It's the same way with same-sex marriage.

Yeah. My son is 13, and when we had the Prop. 8 debate in California, he and his friends were 11. Their attitude was, "What are people so upset about?" These kids are so in favor of same-sex marriage, they couldn't imagine what the argument was about. They were just like, "What's your problem?" And I think that people are soon going to be that way about interracial relationships. I think that will happen in the next decade. But we're not there yet.


I wanted to ask you about what I thought might be the most inflammatory thing you wrote about in the book: black women's hair, and white dudes.


You made it sound like white guys would be the most tolerant of black women going natural. You wrote hilariously about that couple where the white guy looked at his girlfriend's weave and said, "Stop."

That's another thing I hadn't thought of [before writing the book]. There are no studies on this, obviously. There's no data. But I was talking to someone in LA by chance, a black woman, and she said, we had this group -- like a sister hair locking group. There were 10 of us. And she said in passing, nine of the 10 women in this group have non-black partners. And I thought, really -- that's fascinating. She said it in passing, but I started thinking there was probably a pattern there.

It was one of those things that highlighted a dynamic and made it obvious. On one side, there are a lot of what we call cultural norms within the African American community -- straightening hair and whatnot. A lot of these norms are enforced within the community by black men, against black women. And, once I framed it that way, it was remarkable how many came up to me with stories, including one of my sisters, frankly. She said there was this guy, her former boyfriend, and this guy was telling her she should grow her hair out and wear it straight, and she shouldn't go natural. And she was like, "Uh, you're not my boyfriend - you were, but you're not now, you're married...and now you're trying to tell me how to do my hair?" She began to see there was a way in which a hair suggestion was a means of social control, a certain way to get black women to do certain things for black men.

On the other side, there's this idea that a lot of black women think, "A white guy won't understand me. We're in different spaces." But it's precisely because he is outside of your space that it might create more openness, more possibility, more acceptance, even. One of my favorite quotes was from a couple in LA, a white guy and a black woman, and the guy says, "I didn't have any idea of what a black woman should be like." So, he clueless, and she has to explain things to him that he didn't know. But he doesn't have presuppositions, and he's not carrying any baggage, either. And I thought that was really cool.