In the summer of 1993, my sister and I watched Boyz n the Hood with our parents. Although I was 10 and she was 11, they were OK with our viewing movies designed for older audiences as long as adults were there to supervise and we talked about them thereafter. The part of that post-movie discussion I’ve always remembered vividly was our parents instructing us on the benefits of having the right types of significant others, like the characters Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and Brandi (Nia Long), and the very different expectations of “success” they laid out for us.
My sister was lectured about the importance of finding a man of class and high character who would make enough to support her and their future family. I, however, was basically told to earn a lot of money and be a responsible financial provider for whatever woman I decided to be with. We each had very clear duties.
I wanted to someday lead a household the same way my father had, so I deeply internalized that message. But a change was occurring that would greatly impact our dating scene: the rise of the Black female breadwinner. Fast-forward more than 20 years, and that sage advice has now become outdated in a nation where women who bring home the bacon are the norm and Black businesswomen represent the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in America. My sister, clearly my academic superior, is doing very well careerwise and financially; I, on the other hand, am a writer who is definitely far from balling. When she and I have talked about dating, an interesting dynamic became clear: I frequently encounter Black women who make more than I do, and it has become normal for her to find herself in a higher tax bracket than many of the dudes she meets.
It took me a while to reconcile my place in a woman’s life because I was tethered to the connection between being the breadwinner and my masculinity, so I had to learn how to detach myself from archetypical gender roles that limited manliness to bringing in more cash than a significant other and being a bit disconnected from all the other things that make relationships and families work. I also had to learn how to be supportive emotionally and verbally, and to be open to complementing the needs of a woman who experiences the professional stress and competition that comes with ambition.
The truth is, sometimes it worked out and sometimes it flopped. I’ve been supportive and supported but also belittling and belittled as I’ve struggled with my partners’ egos and expectations. Although I’ve now found love, I’ve also been rebuffed for my perceived material inadequacies. But I don’t get down about it anymore because I remind myself that the women I dated were told the same thing my sister was, and they are likely just as confused about the dating scene as I am.
Our parents did a great job of raising us, and gender roles are a tough topic to broach. But now that I’ve been exposed to the ways those roles can be limiting, I accept that my worth is multifunctional and my woman’s value is incalculable.