I find this question to be a little more personal than I was expecting so early into Obsidian but here goes. As a young black person, I think it’s important to keep in mind that I grew up in two different cultures. One was White culture and the other was Black Culture. Which one I spent more time in often depended on what part of my life I was in. Currently, I reside in White culture. There is a chance that some of my information may be outdated. I’ll also be using some ideas that I got from Black and White: Styles in Conflict, a book from the 80s, as reference.
There’s one chapter in Black and White: Styles in Conflict that started my interest in comparing the cultures, ultimately causing me to create Obsidian: the chapter on female and male relationships. I can get into gender expression another time but for now we’re going to focus on heterosexual relationships.
When it comes to flirting, there a few really obvious and major differences that contribute to a lot of the miscommunication between cultures about what is appropriate and what is not appropriate in terms of flirting and/ or dating.
Those things are:
- Passive vs Forward expression of sexual interest
- The allowance of women to be empowered and express sexual interest
- Verbal vs situational negotiations
White people are weird. I know you’re so worried about reputations that it’s almost always incredibly difficult to know what is going on at any given point of the courting process. Everything is unclear, and often, I don’t feel like I know what’s happening until it’s much too late. Things that are clearly flirting or a sign of interest means nothing in this culture. Let’s just build a picture with the couple things we know are strong differences between flirting cultures. Passive versus forward expression of sexual interest. Guess which one is which? You got it, White culture is passive. In White American culture, traditionally, the man is the pursuer and the woman is not. By “pursuer” I mean that if the woman is a “good” woman the male takes his time; slowly getting to know her and asking her into more intimate and intimate environments. Then once he feels like they’re close enough, he might ask her out or try to break the touch barrier. Trying to do this smoothly overtime.
As someone who is more used to a blunt type of communication, this has confused me for most of my life now. I have read the wikihow article on how to touch a girl more times than I care to admit, trying to figure out if a white man was trying to make a move on me or not. How do you know? They don’t tell you. When I pursue women, I don’t use these moves. Maybe other black people do, but I still prefer just to use my words.
Using Your Words v.s. Slowly Increasing Intimacy
Here’s our first difference between using your words and slowly escalating the intimacy level. I have to admit, I’m a little confused and have been for a long time about the concept of street harassment. I understand other points of view, but my experience with it is different. See, black men tend to be more overt with their interest. Instead of slowly escalating the intimacy level they make it extremely clear where their interest lies. This may mean they talk to someone on the street, at the club, at church, wherever. It’s not not meant to be disrespectful, but more acknowledging that he could meet someone he’s interested in anywhere and may never see them again. So begins the game. The book called it “rapping” (I think that’s a little dated so I’ll just discuss it as “being hit on”). When a man hits on a woman, it’s meant to do a few things rather quickly: gauge her sexual interest in him and, see if he can impress her with his command of language. My assumption will be that this stems from our African roots, but I don’t know.
So, depending on the ability of the man, he may try to woo his woman of interest with anything from very blunt statements to poetry. With imagery and similes and metaphors, he usually will give his case of why he believes that he and this woman should “be together”. During that time, she makes it clear what level of interest she has whether that be just sexual in nature or getting a phone number or actually dating, etc. You can see this type of flirting clearly in blues, swing, and most black music. In my experience, black men may begin telling you of their interest while in a group but, assuming the woman gets the go-ahead, he will have y’all moved to a more private space to continue talking. Although he may tell his friends about it afterwards, and may even exaggerate the bit, that’s how you know it’s no longer just for show. (EDIT: that’s not to say that street harassment isn’t a thing.)
This brings us to the next difference. Are women capable of deciding and expressing is their own sexual interest? Additionally do they have to worry about a reputation? It wasn’t until I started dating white men that I really gained an understanding of why white women stressed out the way they do. Suddenly, men wearing encroaching in my personal space, staring too hard, and I found myself in an embarrassingly large number of situations where I was unsure where the interaction was going. So I’d ask, and then things would get messy. I always felt that by allowing white men to do nice things for me, I was also making a space that could lead to confusion as to whether or not they were interested in me. It felt like my duty was to sit back and allow men to come to me. Weird.
Suddenly, I had to worry about getting a reputation for being easy. White men don’t really like being asked out in my experience, and it makes them uncomfortable. Or they don’t think I’m actually asking them out. There’s a strange dynamic between being a person that is only being pursued for sexual interest and a good girl who you might bring home. Unfortunately, at least in my understanding, the only one who might know the difference is the man in that situation. It’s never clear what is being worked out in the courting process.
Back to Black Flirting
Let’s go back to Black flirting. The man has verbally expressed interest, now what? Now the ball is in the woman’s court. She has options. If she finds him attractive, she can keep talking to him, listening to him spit game. Then she has the option to decide if she’s interested. If she is, they talk more, they exchange numbers, go on with their lives. If he’s not attractive, doesn’t speak well, is rude, or doesn’t measure up she can make snarky dismissive jokes back.
If he’s harmless but just not worth noting; a simple thank you, nod, or acknowledgement of being spoken to is the polite thing to do, and keep walking. It’s very disrespectful, not even acknowledging his words, and shows he’s beneath you. It’s offensive, but it’s her right. As an anxious young kid I often ignored folks and didn’t understand why they were upset. Now, I get it. I was saying something I didn’t mean through my lack of acknowledgement. I was just too nervous to talk (black culture isn’t easy on shy people). In Black Culture, women are as expected to say no to something they aren’t interested in as much as they are to express when they are interested in something.
“Sexual outcomes are transacted among blacks as initial sexual interest is indicated, namely, through open and direct verbal expression and negotiation.” – Thomas Kochman, Black and White Styles in Conflict
As the flirting goes on, we find ourselves in two different types of consent. In black dynamics, things have been discussed, and both parties accepted. Sometimes that means you might be “talking” (When two people are trying to get to know one another, so they can hook up/ become boyfriend-girlfriend) for forever but that’s another discussion. It’s understood that the woman is available, but just may not be available to any man. Hitting on someone is a question, not a demand. Respectable Black men ask and get rejected more often and let it go (as long as they were rejected respectfully). At the same time, because of the assumption that women will let you know if they are interested, it’s easy to move on and not take the rejection personally. In White culture there, is more room for confusion; women are trying not to move too fast, men aren’t saying what they want, women aren’t being taught to express disinterest, and men assume “bad” women will have relations with anyone; things get messy fast.
Now let’s dig in even deeper. These VERY different expectations around flirting coming in contact. I’m not a white woman so I don’t know what that is like. Reading and thinking about this, really makes me question some of the interactions not that long ago between black men and white women and how poorly they went. Since I can only speak on my personal interactions I find that the barrier is a strange but important thing to note. In my experience, White women are a little easier to handle than White men. White women, although passive, sometimes appreciate a clear verbal interest. Although they do seem to struggle with how to get involved when I won’t do the “sneaky-creep-up” in intimacy.
White men are another matter. I don’t get them. On one hand, I feel like most white men are simply not interested. If they are, they are either intimidated or unclear and so I never truly feel like I know who’s interested and who isn’t. White men also typically don’t care for my asserting my own interest. I get categorized as a “easy”. It’s impossible to tell the difference between moments of interest and moments of friendship. What I seem to think is clear (because I’m playing by the rules), still ends up being unclear because I’m not supposed to be the one initiating things. They assume I’m being friendly when I ask them out for drinks, or to grab dinner. And yet hesitate before kissing me after a first date, after spending all day together for fear of being “inappropriate”. It’s… confusing and annoying.
Black men will sweet talk your pants off (and southern men). White men will flirt more often by being helpful, chatting you up, and generally just being around. Black women will make direct jokes and make statements about your looks, sense of humor and invite you out (ain’t no woman gets a mans phone number in a club, to get drinks, and wants to be just friends). White women. I’m honestly still lost. Hover, waiting? Sometimes I get a feeling, and they blush so bad but I never know if they are flirting.
The last area of difference is this. One I’d never thought of but can’t unsee now. I think it’s a powerful place to end in terms of attempting to start relationships and some of the difference between cultures.
(We aren’t even to interracial dating or differences IN the relationship yet).
“Both black and white cultures acknowledge that it is ultimately the woman who chooses the man. But in white culture, the man hopes to win the woman by restricting the number of men who have access to her, thus limiting her choice and thereby increasing his own chances of being selected….Within black culture, the rules of rapping maintain that a woman can be approached and hit on at any time and place. Theoretically this places no restrictions on access to women, and in practice it is not unusual for a woman to be approached by different, men during the course of a day, especially if she is attractive. And black men recognize and expect that this will happen. As one man put it with regard to his woman friend, “I can’t keep her in a cage, and I know I’m not going to be with her all the time.” Thus it is not unusual for a black man to leave the woman he is with for a moment to go to the washroom or to the bar to buy drinks and return to see another man talking to her. This is not to say that some black men might not try to restrict access to their women in some way. However, without the cooperation of other men, this is difficult to accomplish, and the cultural rule that makes women generally accessible works against this possibility. In effect, black culture recognizes that the appropriate person to restrict access to a woman is thewoman herself.” – Thomas Kochman, Black and White Styles