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Amy Henke and Lamarr Leatherberry love to toss around the football. She is a better thrower; he is a better catcher. When they aren’t playing ball, they watch romantic comedies — Wedding Crashers is their top choice. She likes to try different restaurants; he goes because she likes it. Last Halloween, they were that annoyingly cute couple dressed alike in matching togas. One of Leatherberry’s interests listed on Facebook is “Amy.” They are a typical college couple.
They met when they were freshmen at McCluer High School in St. Louis. Henke, a softball player, had never dated anyone who wasn’t an athlete; Leatherberry was on the football team. Even after she left to play softball at MU and he went to play football at McKendree College in Lebanon, Ill., they stayed together. Now, juniors in college, they are still dating.
“He’s like my best friend,” Henke says. “If something happens to me good or bad, he is the first one I call. I don’t think it was like that when we were younger.”
Leatherberry says, “She’s something special.”
Henke is white. Leatherberry is black. Neither of them had ever dated anyone outside of their race before each other. For them, it is not an issue.
Henke and Leatherberry are among a growing number of interracial relationships in the U.S. According to a 2005 study done at Cornell University, the number of interracial marriages involving whites, blacks and Hispanics has jumped tenfold each year since the 1960s. As society encourages racial tolerance, they’ve also accepted interracial dating and marriage. However, while dating the same race is more common, only about 5 percent of marriages are interracial. Often there is still a stigma attached to interracial relationships.
Diamond Warren, a junior at MU, does not know Henke and Leatherberry. She doesn’t know how they met or what their plans are. She doesn’t know what they have in common or how they feel about each other. However, she does know a lot of interracial couples like them — black male athletes with white girlfriends. She knows that every time she goes to the football locker room to meet her boyfriend, MU football player William Moore, all she sees are “snow bunnies,” the term she uses for white women who date black athletes.
Warren recalls going to Club Athena on a Thursday night in November when the MU football players had a break in their game schedule for the week. With only a $5 cover charge, the club was packed, and rap music blared from the speakers. Despite the cold air, women’s skirts were short, and tops were sleeveless. She remembers seeing more white women than on other nights at this typically black party at Athena. Warren remembers being at another party at a black football player’s house. The house was so packed people could hardly get in. Again, she noticed more white women than usual. She sees a correlation between black football players and white women. She doesn’t think anything is wrong with different races socializing, but she notices a difference. She doesn’t know any statistics about how many black male athletes date white women but thinks that it’s a high percentage.
Moore says he notices the trend of interracial dating on the MU football team. Sean Dixson, offensive tackle at William Penn University in Iowa and formerly of the University of Northern Iowa, says he’s spotted it on both of his college teams. “Hell yeah, that’s all you see,” he says. Donald Thomas, an Eastern Illinois University football player, guesses that nearly all of his teammates have dated white women.
The trend isn’t restricted to football or even just college athletes. The list of black professional athletes who have dated white women is extensive: Kobe Bryant, Charles Barkley, Tiger Woods and O.J. Simpson. These examples serve as evidence that there is a trend of black athletes dating white women.
But why do Americans still care? In a society where words such as diversity and colorblind constantly float around, why are we still caught up on race? And with interracial relationships in general on the rise, why are athletes singled out?
It’s no secret that Americans are interested in celebrities’ personal lives. And at campuses across the nation, including MU, the athletes are local celebrities. Many people recognize them. Fellow students, parents and fans wear jerseys with their numbers on them. On any given Saturday, 65,000 people chant and curse their names. They are on ABC and ESPN. College athletics are watched and followed as much if not more than professional athletics. In 2006, NCAA revenue was $564 million. These student athletes draw massive crowds and are highly celebrated on campuses.
“Black male athletes are put on a pedestal and have access to women others wouldn’t have — multiple women, across racial lines,” MU psychology professor Kevin Cokley says. He teaches a class at the university called African-American Psychology, in which he discusses the issue of prominent black men who date white women.
Some players agree. “Playing football gives you an edge,” Moore says. “[White women] know us even before we talk to them.”
Although playing a sport puts athletes in the position to meet more people and cross racial barriers that would otherwise exist, some still claim that men have another underlying motive. But Henke doesn’t think that everyone who has that type of relationship is in it solely for physical affection.
Others question the motives of the women involved in these relationships. “If they weren’t football players, white females wouldn’t like them,” Warren says. “A lot of white girls don’t think the football players will talk to black girls. I had to tell one that I wasn’t [my boyfriend’s] sister.”
About some white women, Dixson says: “It is football players during football season and basketball players during basketball season.”
Henke says that interracial relationships happen for different reasons, but the number of interracial relationships among athletes has to do with a common interest. “Athletes tend to date other athletes,” she says.
Senior MU softball player Leanne Bowers agrees. “Girl athletes tend to like guy athletes, and they are around them more in places like study hall,” says Bowers, who has been in interracial relationships with athletes and nonathletes. “I wish people could just see people for who they are,” she says. “It will take more and more time.”
It’s not as if America hasn’t seen interracial dating in the spotlight before. Musician Quincy Jones, actor Wesley Snipes, rapper Ice-T, talk show host Montel Williams, singers Lionel Richie and Seal, the late actor Gregory Hines and the late comedian Richard Pryor have all been linked with white mates. Critics accuse black men of courting white women only after they gain stature or money. In the Nov. 21, 2002 issue of the Chicago-Sun Times, columnist Mary Mitchell chastised Michael Jordan for stepping outside perceived racial boundaries. The article came after Jordan’s wife of 16 years, Juanita, petitioned for divorce. She accused her husband of an extramarital affair with Karla Knafel — a white woman. An excerpt of the article entitled, “A White Woman MJ, How Could You Do It?” reads: “Jordan was our hero. At a time when it seems that the first thing a black athlete did when he hit the big time was to marry a white woman, Jordan married Juanita and made her a part of the Jordan dynasty. That meant a lot to black women who, frankly, were tired of watching wealthy black athletes parading white women.” Michael and Juanita reconciled shortly after but filed for divorce again in December 2006.
MU defensive tackle Jaron Baston says, “Athletes don’t set out to date white girls.” Baston first dated outside his race when he moved from Kansas City to the suburbs during his senior year in high school. He disagrees with the idea that there is a trend among athletes, and he says that women of all races might be attracted to athletes because of their popularity status. “I don’t see any problem with it,” Baston says. “I don’t talk to a certain race. I think black girls do it, too. It is just black women see it in a different way when they do it.”
Many express a feeling of betrayal when black men rise through the ranks of status in society and don’t take a black woman with them. The men are sometimes accused of thinking they are too good for the same type of women who birthed them.
Leatherberry says his relationship with Henke took some of his friends and family a little getting used to. But once they got to know her, it no longer became an issue.
Author Veronica Blakely highlights the tension in her book entitled I Want What Most White Women Got: A Black Man. In the poem “Reality Check” she writes about the black man, “Fine as wine, just my kind but why doesn’t he want me?” She goes on to write: “Black men used to love black women. Now to white women they flock … I’m not angry, just a little perplexed.”
These feelings resonate among some black women. “On the one hand it is ultimately seen as a rejection of them and all that they represent,” Cokley says. “This is strictly anecdotal, but there is the perception that you can get away with more with white women than with black women.”
The animosity only thickens when some men state black women aren’t as feminine, are too strong, are too demanding or in general are more difficult than white women. “They are more open, less stressed and cool,” Moore says. For some black players, it’s the reason they date outside their race. “Playing football, you don’t need the stress. It starts off because it is not much of a challenge, and then it becomes a relationship.” His girlfriend, Warren, says: “I don’t know why all the football players date white girls. I ask them, and some just say there aren’t black girls here.”
On predominantly white campuses, some attribute the trend to the disproportionate number of women. There are a little more than 900 black women enrolled at MU, with about 12,000 white women enrolled. Some say that this difference contributes to the number of interracial relationships. Others aren’t buying this and use the case that at MU black women outnumber black men 3-to-2.
“There are relatively few black males on campus,” Cokley says. “Where there is a scarcity, there is a higher demand.”
The highest number of interracial relationships exists among 18- to 25-year-olds. A study conducted in 2000 among undergraduates at East Carolina University reports about half expressed openness to being involved in an interracial relationship. This study also reported that blacks were twice as likely as whites to express openness to an interracial relationship.
Dixson says that he has dated white women a few times since being in college. “I never did before coming to college — never even thought about it,” says Dixson, who attended a predominantly black school in inner city St. Louis.
“College is an experimental time,” Henke says. “But how many of them will marry white girls?”
Forty years after Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that legalized interracial marriage, it is clear that hostility about interracial dating still exists in America. Some people have not gotten past history, and others cannot embrace the outward appearance of interracial relationships.
“I would hope that eventually we would come to a place where black and whites are on equal footing,” Henke says. “I can understand when I hear objections, but we’re in love. We’re not trying to make a statement about anything. It’s just I love him, and he loves me.”
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