On dating scene, some black women seek something new
One of the last barriers of interracial romance -- black women dating white men -- is finally being eroded, thanks to a popular movie and innovative dating services.
SPEED DATE: Juan Carlos Rodriguez, 34, meets Lissette Labrousse at O'hara's in Hollywood,
Shari Johnson looked around the dimly lit room inside a Hollywood restaurant, took a deep breath and stepped through the door.
All at once, the 30-year-old nurse from Miramar had visions of scenes from romantic movies like Boomerang, Hitch, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and Something New.
Johnson tried but couldn't suppress a big smile. Twelve other women and 13 men were taking seats at the tables.
This scene was a speed-dating party -- where men and women ''date'' for three to eight minutes and then rotate to the next candidate. And the daters on this Tuesday night, who paid $37 each to attend, were African-American women and white men.
''I didn't know what to expect,'' Johnson said with a chuckle. ``But this is nice, Something New.''
Johnson's reference to that particular movie was no coincidence. Ever since it drew critical praise and big box office receipts a few months ago, the story of a black woman who breaks a personal barrier and falls in love with a white man has resonated with Johnson.
''It hasn't been so much about race,'' she said. ``It's about being willing to look in different places to maybe meet someone nice.''
Johnson's philosophy isn't just reflective of a popular movie, social experts say. It is an indication that black women being romantically involved with non-black men -- frowned upon until recently, even by those who are OK with interracial relationships -- is becoming more acceptable to society at large.
''Where black-and-white interracial unions are concerned, black men are still more likely to marry interracially than black women, but the numbers of black women in such relationships are noticeably increasing,'' said Jaslean La Taillade, a race and relationship expert and professor in the family studies department at the University of Maryland-College Park.
According to La Taillade, for decades black women shied away from such relationships because of a lingering stigma that dates back to forced sex between white slave owners and black women.
So what has changed? The workplace, for one.
More highly educated black women are climbing the corporate ladder, where near the top they almost exclusively find white men, La Taillade said.
''The result is common. When you spend a lot of time with someone -- like office hours every day -- you get to know them better,'' she said. ``And when you get to know them better, traditional notions fade and you develop close friendships. And close friendships can lead to romance.''
And while Hollywood has often embraced the black heroine, it has only been in recent years that mainstream films -- watched mostly by white men -- have made black women sex symbols.
''With black women like Halle Berry, for instance, being cast in leading roles, romantic roles, opposite white men, they are being held up now as symbols of desire in much the same way many white women always have,'' La Taillade said.
Larry Davis, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, and author of Black and Single: Meeting and Choosing a Partner Who's Right for You ($13.95 Agate) agreed, saying that ``white America has recognized that black is beautiful -- by way of leading roles, beauty pageants, etc.''
Perhaps more significant and most unfortunate in the public acceptance of black female/white male relationships, Davis said, is the fact that there are fewer black men for single black women.
In recent years ''black women have had a terrible market,'' Davis said. ``When you think about a half-million black men incarcerated, falling behind in graduation rates, not gainfully employed, black women have been forced by circumstance to broaden their scope in a very tight market to find men.''
A third factor in burgeoning black female/white male relationships is ''white women are also driving a harder bargain,'' Davis said. 'So white men are saying `Why limit myself to this group, when that group [black women] has equally high standards and just as much to offer?' ''
As for the Tinseltown influence, ''the reason that Something New worked was not so much because the couple was interracial, but because the two love interests were from different socio-economic backgrounds,'' said April Masini, author of Think & Date Like a Man ($15.95 iUniverse, Inc.) and relationship advice columnist on www.AskApril.com. ``Finding love with the gardener [the male lead in Something New] is like finding love with an employee. There are lots of differences and comedic opportunities in socio-economic backgrounds, like in the original comedies based on this idea, like Pygmalion, Pretty Woman.''
But while many of those at Tuesday's speed-dating party said race played almost no role in their attendance, some admitted it was the only reason they came.
''I just appreciate black women,'' said Marcelo Ponce de Leon, a 40-year-old trucking company owner from Miami Springs. ``I have dated black women before, and I think they have more family in mind than some other women.''
With that, Ponce de Leon shrugged and gave Johnson a wide smile. One warm handshake later and the two were engrossed in chatter about favorite movies and music, ethnic foods they've tried.
Two minutes into their speed date, they put their heads together and laughed like school kids with a secret.
Then the little bell rang, and the date ended.
''Time to move on,'' called out Darren Waldholz, bell ringer and president of Lock & Key events, the company that hosted the event.
''I've found that people really are looking for variety,'' Waldholz said. ``We get the same type of single, busy professionals, regardless of the party category, whether it's interracial, or short guys and tall women, or different religions, bald men and the women who love them.''
Lissette Labrousse, 29, and Juan Carlos Rodriguez, 33, hit it off too, but insisted there was nothing too complicated motivating them.
''Something New,'' she said, smiling. ``You can't say you're open to something different and then not do anything about it.''
Rodriguez, a Miami real estate broker, said he wanted to meet black women simply because it would be a new experience for him.
''For me this was the easiest way to meet women who you might not come across everyday,'' he explained.
It was clear though that for every pair like Johnson and Ponce de Leon and Rodriguez and Labrousse at the party, there were others who hadn't seen recent polls that show a majority of Americans are OK with interracial relationships.
Two-thirds of the party attendees declined to be interviewed: ''I just can't. You don't understand,'' said one worried-looking woman.
''I have a reputation at work, and you know how people can make assumptions,'' said another woman.
''We have come very far, but there is still reluctance and opposition by some -- enough to scare people from sharing their relationships with their own families,'' La Taillade said.
Rosemarie Shaw, 35, also a nurse from Miramar, admitted she had misgivings about attending the speed-dating event and talking about it.
''You don't know how people are going to talk to you, what they're going to expect of you,'' she said. ``Most of my friends told me they were going to want to know what it was like later. I'm shy. I had jitters. I was asking myself if I was doing the right thing.
``In the end though, what I found was that being here with other people who were also curious and open-minded made me more relaxed and gave me a little strength to maybe try to meet different guys again, maybe next time in a different way.''