Introducing Single Ladies, a new series about what it’s like to live the single life as a young woman or non-binary person.
Last summer, I was on a date with a 20-something man we’ll call Trent. At first, conversation flowed—we talked careers, food, travel, friends, family. And then things just started to… careen.
I had been explaining how my parents met and married through an arrangement, something that’s common in South Asian culture. He didn’t quite follow, which is understandable, so I tried to explain: “It’s a cultural tradition.” “They define love and marriage differently than the American way.” “It may not be for you or me, but it was for them,” etc.
Each time, he had a rebuttal that probably sounded cleverer in his head. And each time, it was laced with condescension. “You better not let your parents control your life like that,” he said, with a derisive laugh. “Don’t be like other brown girls.”
This from a man who had opened the date by telling me he’d never been out with “a brown girl” before, so he was excited to check that off his list, as if I were an item on a sample platter.
Since then, I’ve realized that I’m no longer looking at white men as romantic prospects. As flings and for flirting, sure. As friends and confidants, absolutely. But for something of substance, I’m not so sure. Of course, I didn’t realize I’d made that choice until I reflected back on my last year in men. And it wasn’t entirely based on Trent; the long list of Trents, Daves and Andys who came before him contributed to my decision, too. He just happened to be my tipping point.
So many of the people of colour I know have cultural baggage around dating
As a Pakistani-Canadian woman in her late 20s, there’s a pressure to never move out of home, to have children, to opt for an arrangement, to maintain the “back home” quo, where dating of any kind and pre-marital sex is considered deeply taboo.
I haven’t prescribed to any of those principles. And I do date, both men of colour and white men. But it’s the latter who always seem to require an explanation for all of the above, and also for why I lived at home as long as I did and had an early curfew, and why meeting my parents isn’t as simple as pencilling in a Friday night dinner. Sometimes it feels like even the way these men say my name—the practiced pronunciation, and the inevitable request for definition—is a slight, and that’s not because it’s wrong to ask (it isn’t). It’s because I’m tired of explaining. I wouldn’t, after all, inquire about the ethnic origins of a James or a Michael.
The fact is, all of these things are pieces of my cultural baggage, which is something many of the women and men of colour I know also have. I can’t count the number of times we’ve sat around a dinner table swapping stories and asking each other: When do you tell them? How much do you tell them? What do you do if they don’t understand? Can it even work?
Something tells me those conversations aren’t happening in quite the same way with our other halves.
It’s always exhausting to be othered, but it’s worse when it’s from a (potential) boyfriend
Healthy relationships require a mutual give and take, and space for empathy. But in my experience, dating a white guy often leads to an automatic imbalance. I find myself having to explain family, tradition, tastes and experiences I did or didn’t have, while there’s a silent assumption that I already understood his—and honestly, I probably do, because growing up in Canada meant learning how to straddle the East and West.
Laying down my baggage, then, takes trust and vulnerability, especially with the risk of being misunderstood. And while sharing your personal history and background is certainly key to building a relationship, there are times when I feel like I’m simply too much to understand. I have a long story for everything, whether it’s about how I left home or how he can’t have a relationship with my parents (think Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner vibes with his, and that times 10 with mine). I don’t look the same; I have hair on every inch of my skin; I’m worried he might be fetishizing me; my circle of friends is multi-ethnic and loud and proud about it; I grew up in a diverse suburb that I can make fun of but he absolutely can’t; my favourite tote bag reads “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man.”
These are points of possible tension. So, they don’t have to lead to actual tension—but a lot of the time, they do.
Preparing for dates can feel like I’m going into battle
That’s why, before I go on dates with white guys, I steel myself. It’s like I’m going over a defense strategy that I’ve built over time and perfected; I know exactly when the questions will come, what they’ll be and the looks I’ll get. But even though I know what’s coming, the confused (at best) and condescending (at worst) responses can still hurt. They seem to say, “I don’t know anything about your culture, but I can tell you right now what’s best for you.”
Yes, some men are open, kind. They don’t generalize, they ask questions, and come from a place of wanting to understand rather than assuming they’ve got it down.
But whether that effort is made or not, I find myself unable to get past why I always have to be the half carrying the heavier load simply because I was born with it, hoping I can pass without the texture of my life being used to dismiss me as not much more than “a brown girl.”
Sometimes, I wonder if there’s even a point in trying
I grew up feeling as though I needed to be ashamed of living outside the Western default, whether that was for hiding my “smelly” lunches in elementary school, committing to my unibrow throughout middle school or keeping my legs covered during the summer. But the feeling that I need to be pardoned for my background before I can find connection with a potential partner is something I’m finally throwing away.
In the last few years, when I started working—and therefore spending most of my time—in an office where I am one of a few people of colour, I realized I’ve been gravitating towards more diverse circles on the evenings and weekends as if those spaces are water and I’m dehydrated. And evidently, I’m doing the same thing in my dating life.
To put it simply, I’ve been the token person of colour at school, at work and in circles of friends. I don’t want to be a token in a relationship.
I think that’s why I find an innate sense of comfort and recognition with dating a fellow minority, whether they are a part of my culture or not. If not, sure, I’ll still need to explain things. But because that need is mutual, it’s met with a distinct understanding that feels akin to seeing someone familiar across a crowded room.
Sure, relationships are work and naturally, dating is, too. But I so often feel a border between me and my potential partners—is it any surprise that I’ve started to wonder if it’s worth bothering? If it’s not just simpler to work with what you know?
There is no right choice, but there certainly seems to be an easier one.