By the time I hit my mid-twenties, after years of dating both inside and outside of the United States, I came to a terrible, lonesome conclusion: American men don’t find me attractive.
The first time a guy actually asked me out, I thought he was messing with me. I was studying abroad in London, and years of steady rejection, along with daily reminders from my male bully that I was “too dark,” or “too black,” ensured that I would never believe this guy when he said I was beautiful. I was inoculated against compliments. So I told him to fuck off.
What I didn’t know then, and wouldn’t understand until I returned to London for an internship after my college graduation, was that he hadn’t been playing a cruel trick. After spending some time abroad—following my semester in London, I bounced back and forth for vacations, an internship, and graduate school—it began to dawn on me that while I had been made to feel like a hideous, lumbering monster in the United States, as soon as I left the country I became interesting and attractive to men.
Life in London was a revelation. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but I can’t imagine who I would be or what I would think of myself if I hadn’t been lucky enough to travel overseas. Kelis’ Milkshake could have logically provided the soundtrack to my entire trip; it was like an eighties movie montage where the dorky girl finally takes off her glasses and makes all the boys sweat. It’s likely that my experiences were just a regular Tuesday to other twenty-somethings, but for me they were life-changing—for example, one time I met a guy at a party and danced with him all night. Pretty un-extraordinary, right? We later dated until the romance fizzled for very normal reasons. It was a radical experience.
When I left the U.S., it felt like someone had turned on a light switch; it felt like the switch was flipped off the second I returned. On season 2 of Parks and Recreation, there’s an episode in which a delegation from Venezuela comes to visit; all of the men start lusting after Donna, which confuses her co-workers. Donna says to the camera: “I’m not surprised. I’ve been to South America, I do very well there.” I felt the truth of this acutely. Before my first trip abroad, I asked a longtime crush to go to the movies with me. He enthusiastically agreed, and I was thrilled. But soon he told me that he was being harangued by his friends for agreeing to go out with me, and he called off the date. He joked that he wouldn’t be able to find me in the dark, anyway, since I was so dark-skinned.
The more I traveled and lived abroad, the more the contrast was amplified. From Scotland to Italy to the Dominican Republic to just across the border in Canada, I was met with the same positive reaction. It was the inverse of my experience in America, where, from east to west coast, cities to suburbs, men treated me with indifference. After each trip, I’d return to the United States confident, excited and determined. I imagined that I’d cleared an imaginary hurdle, freed from the nun’s life I’d resigned myself to. Things will be different now, I’d tell myself. But they never were.
I was naive, and yet I was determined to figure out what made my dating experiences in America so different from my time abroad. I knew Americans could be very specific about our dating preferences, in the same way we are about everything else we consume. It seemed likely that the U.S. has a more narrow view of what’s attractive, exemplified by a British cousin of mine who looks like me and is rarely boyfriend-less. “What’s your type?” is often the first question you’ll hear in the U.S. when someone wants to set up a friend; a question I have yet to encounter elsewhere. What took me longer was to understand how often the answer to that question includes racial preferences and biases.
I was reluctant to fully accept what I subconsciously knew was a huge problem, but this willful ignorance couldn’t stand for long. I read the OKCupid study How Your Race Affects The Messages You Get, which plainly stated that “men don’t write black women back” regardless of much they responded to others. One of my best friends, who is also black, called me when she read the study, nearly giddy. “Finally! This is what I’ve been saying, but nobody believes me,” she said. “Now there’s proof! If anyone asks me why I haven’t met anybody yet, I’m sending them this study.” She closed her OKCupid account. Her glee at finding evidence was understandable; it’s incredible, though, what counts as good news when you’re dealing with something painful. Soon, I closed my account, too.
I also read the Psychology Today blog post that claimed to scientifically prove that black women were less attractive than other women, and along with the rest of the country, I read John Mayer’s bizarre Playboy interview in which he dismissed black women as partners because of his “David Duke cock.” The Psychology Today post was eventually removed from their site, but its defiant, almost celebratory bigotry was a product of the same broken system that would allow Mayer, whose work is rooted in black culture, to feel comfortable referencing the KKK to express his aversion toward black women.
By the time I hit 30, I felt resigned to this state of things. A few months ago, I found myself back in London, briefly, for a close friend’s wedding. It had been years since I’d visited, and I was so deep into American mode that I didn’t recognize when men were flirting with me. When a guy asked me to get a drink with him, I was startled, then delighted—then crestfallen that I’d have to return home the next morning, where the light would promptly switch off again. There is, of course, no single solution to any puzzle this complex, but what’s undeniable on a personal level is this: American men don’t find me attractive. Like the HP face-recognition program that didn’t recognize black faces as human faces, I, too, am generally not recognizable as a romantic option.
While I remain stateside, dreaming of my next trip abroad, I’m happy and lucky to have other types of love in my life that are just as important as romantic love. But like anyone else, I want companionship, or at least a random make-out. It smarts to think that my chance of having that is dramatically diminished while I stay within these borders. And no shining memories of a London internship can temper that fact.
Jihan Crowther is a writer. You can find her at jihancrowther.com and on Twitter @jin_crow.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.