By Marbella Eboni Hill
Marriage is one of the most highly valued social institutions America. Being married is as normative as being employed. Still, in the United States some groups have become less likely to ever marry over time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Black Americans, who face racism in every aspect of social life are also fairing the worst in terms of marriage outcomes. Their likelihood of ever marrying cannot be explained by differences in the desire to marry. Many people who want to marry face challenges beyond their control to achieving this goal..
One of the challenges impacting young people’s marriage behavior today is the growing confusion about what qualifies one for marriage in the first place. The pathway to marriage was more clear, and socially required, in the past. Gendered courtship processes once involved familial involvement. Men were expected to be protectors and providers of wives and families while women were confined to the world of homemaking and caretaking. This was, of course, a white-coded marriage model not accessible to most Black couples who have historically shared marital responsibilities. Black women have always had a central role in the labor force, both paid and unpaid. Black men’s access to higher education and well-paying jobs has been impeded by various forms of discrimination spanning centuries. The white coded “separate spheres model” was always out of sync with how Black couples have historically done marriage.
In spite of this historical context, academics and non-academics alike have blamed Black men for racial gaps in marriage. They have argued that compared to other groups, Black women have access to far fewer marriageable prospects, given many Black men’s economic disadvantage due to unemployment, incarceration, and low levels of educational attainment. Put another way, men’s marriageability in the U.S. has been tied to their ability to take on the role of dominant financial provider, and according to this definition many Black men have been dubbed unmarriageable. However, these arguments paint a monolithic portrait of the Black experience by ignoring the 50 percent of Black Americans who are not low-income, but still marry at disproportionately low rates.
In other words, although Black middle-class young adults have also experienced a marriage decline, they differ from their lower-status counterparts in that these declines cannot be explained by economic disadvantage. This paradox motivated me to query a group of never-married and college-educated Black men about their marriage aspirations and expectations. How do they define the role of a husband in marriage.
The findings, presented in my recent article in Gender & Society, show that high-earning single Black men do not draw on dominant prescriptions of hegemonic masculinity to define their expectations of being a husband, but instead center goals like balance and fairness in their expectations for their future marriages. Each of my respondents aspires to marry a Black professional woman, who they presume will be successful in her own right and committed to her own career. Given these expectations, the men emphasize that it is only fair to evenly share household responsibilities, including financial provision, cooking and cleaning.
However, men paired these egalitarian expectations for marriage with essentialist gender ideas about men as naturally better suited for activities involving risk. Despite arguing that the role of financial provider should be shared between spouses, men define husbands as natural protectors of wives and children. In line with this, they suggest that outdoor household tasks like taking out the trash and mowing the lawn are men’s work, presumably because they are risky, and should remain as such.
Considering Black professional men’s endorsement of both egalitarian and essentialist gender ideologies I characterize their unique racialized and classed gender identity as a form of Black professional hybrid masculinity. I conclude by arguing that although this construction of masculinity does not meet mainstream standards of feminism, as it leaves essentialist ideas about biological gender differences intact, it does challenge long-held controlling images of Black women as masculine and Black men as weak. Black professional hybrid masculinity also undermines academic and public narratives of Black middle-class men’s partnering preference for non-Black women, as not only do these men plan to marry Black women, but they also construct their masculine identities around their needs.
Marbella Eboni Hill is a Sociology Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University in the VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab. Her research focuses on how early career young professionals navigate family formation and work processes at various race, class, and gender intersections.