Who Will They Marry? Black PhDs and the Marriage Market

There is a marriage crisis among Black students in graduate school. In all my classes Black women out-number Black men by a ratio of thirty to one. The women are on a reproductive cliff if they want to have children. They must do so soon, or Mother Nature will dump them over the edge.

Chronologically, the average life expectancy for women is 88 years in Canada. Reproductively it’s game over at age 35. Most of the women in my classes are about 30 years old – near the end of their reproductive lives. Mother Nature is not so decisive when it comes to men and reproduction. Male chronological and reproductive ages are in synch. As long as a man can get up and get it up, he is still able to seed children.

Marriage has never been a neutral act. It has always reaffirmed cultural norms in terms of who is acceptable or unacceptable as a marriage partner. It has always been a political act, reflecting patterns of racial and gender dynamics and hierarchies. Traditionally, women aim to marry up the social ladder or at least on the same rung. Cinderella wishes to marry a prince, not a stable boy.

Feminism has opened up education for women, giving them an alternative to hoping for a prince. Generally, more education leads to better marriage prospects, higher jobs and fewer children. This accepted truism is more complex for Black women. From media reports it seems that no one wants to date, never mind marry, educated Black women.

Black men don’t want us because we are seen as too demanding. White and men from other racialized ethnic groups, don’t want Black women because we are too Black.

Feminism can help Black men to unpack the toxic box of stereotypes about educated Black women, and examine its foundation on the capitalist bedrock of racism, sexism and class. In the process Black men can also learn how these same forces shape their own lives as men.

Capitalism, and its tentacles of racism and sexism, continues to mold the economic reality of Black lives. The intersection of these affect women and men differently. It created steady jobs for Black women as nannies, cleaners, and nursing assistants. These are physical, low-paying jobs based on caring for others, especially white people. Race and sex has also systematically kept Black men at the margins of the labour market. It is no accident that the unemployment rate for Black men is three times the average.

Getting an education is the quickest way out of unemployment or the dead end jobs. The strategy has worked successfully for the Black women in graduate school. It has not for our men due to their high drop-out rates. Black men are systematically pushed out of school so that they can continue to function as capitalism’s disposal source of labour. Hired when needed. Fired when not.

Yet, Black men too believe the patriarchal philosophy that their masculinity is tied to their roles as bread-winners and heads of the household. Due to systemic racism it has always been difficult for Black men to be the former. This has not stopped them from clinging to the latter.

Black feminism questions the patriarchal privilege of Black men. Rather than taking part in the debate, it is easier and more acceptable for Black men to lash out at the women. Economic gains made by Black women are seen as compromising the integrity of the race or cultural group. In extremis, successful Black women are seen as emasculating Black men. The same logic extends to marriage. Black women who marry outside the race are seen as sleeping with the enemy. While men who do the same are seen as making a personal choice. This falls hollow when one sees row after row of Black male celebrities with their white wives. Why is it so hard for Black men to confront their fetishizing of white female skin?

The Black women in my graduate class are grappling with complex issues while their biological clocks are in free fall. It is culturally acceptable for a male doctor to marry a women with elementary school education. The reverse is not true. So what are the women to do?

Each woman will have to choose how the intersections of race, gender and class plays out in her personal life. With or without children. For some that may mean being single. For others it might mean marrying a bus driver or outside of their racial or cultural group.

Whatever choice the women make it will be tough. It may mean letting go of some long held values, traditions and dreams. It is far better to make the choices with eyes wide open. Black men can help by respecting the choices of Black women. They don’t have to like it, but respect it. Black men also need to question how their male privilege and notions of masculinity plays out in the marriage market. Rather than seeing educated Black women as competition, they need to start seeing us as allies. We are in the same quest for social justice in all areas of our lives, including marriage.


Spot the Black PhDs in the Class

‘Thank God I am not the only one.’ That was my first thought when I entered the seminars in my PhD programme. In both classes people of colour were the majority. It was not what I was expecting.

Ages ago, and it was not in the time of the dinosaurs, when I did my first degree I was the only Black person in my class. I was not the only person of colour, or ethnic minority as we said in Britain, I recollect that there was a South Asian student there as well. We were the second generation of post-World War II immigrants in the mother country, so it was not surprising.

And I was studying for a degree in chemistry, an ultra-nerdish choice for a working-class Black girl from a small-town.

About a decade later, I came to Canada and did my master’s degree. Things were supposed to be different here. In Toronto, I had met a lot of middle-class Black professionals who did not think it was odd that I had a degree. They did not accuse me of being a sell-out or ‘acting White’. Yet, as I entered the classroom I groaned. Different country, different decade and I was still the only Black person in the class.

Fast forward another two decades. I was shocked when I saw so many faces of different hues in my PhD seminars. And half of them were Black Canadians, not foreign students. I wondered if it was due to being in the education department, and the narrow speciality of social justice education. Then I remembered that Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, where half of the population are people of colour.  Still, it was surprising to see so many of us in an elite setting.

How many Black PhDs are there in Canada? I don’t know.

In Canada we pride ourselves on being a multicultural country. We welcome diversity. Therefore, race-based statistics are rarely collected. It’s a nice way of avoiding discussions on racism. We don’t measure it, therefore it doesn’t exist.

Things are more transparent in the USA. Some seven per cent of African Americans have a PhD, from the US National Centre for Education Statistics, 2012. The number is increasing each year, but needs to double to reflect their 13 per cent share of the population.

Women outnumber male PhD graduates across all racial groups. What was striking was the huge gap in the Black community: some 65% of African American PhD graduates are women. This is amazing news. But why are the Black men falling so far behind?

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love

Choices: Marriage or Academia?

Like mosquito bites the professor’s words stung. The more she talked the more the bites itched. I willed myself to continue listening, ignoring the angry rash spreading in my spirit.

The professor introduced herself in class by summarising her accomplishments and climb up the academic ladder. Her achievements were many. Then she added a few personal details. She was married, this I expected. She had two children, this I did not expect. It was the first mosquito bite.

I did my first degree in England, switching from chemistry to international relations. As expected, there were no female professors in the science faculty. There was only one in my social science department. Three years of school and only one woman to show the possibilities of an academic career. At that point I decided it was not for me.

I did not want to end up at aged thirty, single, childless and old, facing a group of adolescents dissecting me with their pitying looks. Scanning my fingers for a ring, ears pricked for any hint of a life outside of lectures, books and exams.

Male professors aged thirty were fanciable, even in their corduroy pants, sensible shoes and jackets with elbow patches. A whiff of Old Spice enhanced their appeal. Female professors were a different a different chemical combination, smelling more like hydrogen sulphide than Chanel No. 5.

A decade later I did my master’s degree in Canada. Half of the professors were women (White). Hiding behind the gender parity was another reality. Most of the female professors were either single, divorced or childless. The male professors were the ones who were married with children. Once again, I decided that academia was not for me. Female professors were lonely old maids – albeit superbly educated lonely old maids.

And now, some two decades later, in my PhD class orientation, was a woman living the life that I had walked away from. She was my age. She was an academic. She was married with children. It should have been me. The mosquito bites blistered in my spirit.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir or Travel and Love