When it came to dating, my parents had two rules. The first involved age — no going on dates until I turned 16. The second was about sex — no boys allowed in my bedroom.
Those two rules were easy to abide by. The only boys that ever saw where I slept were glossy ones I duct-taped to my bedroom walls from magazine cutouts. Dating prospects didn’t come around until college. So did a third (and final) parental limitation on dating.
It was freshman move-in day at my large urban university in North Philadelphia. My family had just finished lugging plastic bins of backup paper towels, picture frames with faces I would replace and an extra fluffy mattress pad. I was saying goodbye to my mom and dad as I watched them raise their eyebrows at the mob of diverse freshman unloading their college supplies.
“Don’t come home with a black boyfriend,” my dad said in a raspy whisper as he pointed one finger unintentionally at my heart and gestured towards my co-ed dorm.
My dad’s comment infuriated me. I held my breath and shook my head, saying nothing. Knowing the dynamics of the word “home” were about to change, I let a nervous giggle escape without unleashing my usual well-meaning but uniformed 18-year-old ideas about racial injustice.
A perpetual comedian, my dad’s parting words were not unlike his jokester self. But like every daughter of an Irishman knows, there’s a bit of truth to every sarcastic remark.
Throughout my time in North Philly, my dad’s harsh command never came up. Neither did dating. But black guys did. They were everywhere — complimenting my dress on the street, asking to borrow a pen in class, and filling my beer at parties. So were white guys. But I drifted to anyone who was different from what I was used to.
I don’t believe my parents are racist, but they’re uncomfortable with the unfamiliar. For me, it’s the opposite. It was time for my undergraduate liberal education to put me in a cultural blender and press puree on everything I thought I knew about religion, feminism, and race. It was time for my inner-city girl, wannabe journalist self to roam free.
After my fair share of empty make-out sessions on the weekends, I started fully embracing singlehood without much concern over finding a boyfriend.
One summer night after my junior year, my girlfriends and I went to a bar known for its outdoor deck and dance scene. Laughing and getting down to pulsating beats paired with silly rap lyrics, it wasn’t long before I felt a body behind mine. I turned to see who it was. The only thing white about the man who was “getting low” behind me was his enormous smile revealing his larger-than-life teeth. He extended a hand and introduced himself as Quinn. We danced a few more songs and spent the rest of the night flirting. Quinn’s real name is Qinisela. He goes by the American version because he thinks it’s easier for new people to pronounce. He was born in Mali, Africa and grew up in Paris, France. He was in Philly earning his M.B.A in finance. Quinn wore cowboy boots, dressy slacks that were too big for him and a fitted T-shirt with ugly swirl designs on it. He asked for my number.
The next day, he took me on my first grown-up date. Our night ended at a diner with mirrored walls and bright lights. Under them
For a year, our differences kept us busy. I introduced him to books and art. He taught me how to say the f-word in French. He cooked African cuisine and introduced me to plantains for dessert.
I told my mom I was dating someone. I used Qinisela’s American name. When she asked where he grew up, I said France, quickly choosing to edit out the part about Africa. Throughout my relationship with Qinisela, I lied by omission (the worst kind of lying, in my opinion) every time his name came up in conversation with my parents.
“When are we going to meet this Quinn?” my mom asked one weekend I was visiting home.
I told her my relationship with Quinn was off and on. For once, that was the truth. He graduated and found a sought-after desk job crunching numbers and salivating over spreadsheets. I was running my student magazine, planning photo shoots and designing advertisements.
College ended and I was back home with my parents in-between four years of make-believe independence and a lifetime of uncertainty. One afternoon, my mom asked if I ever heard from Quinn. The desire to please my parents suddenly became secondary to my desire to tell the truth.
“Mom, I have to tell you something,” I said. “Quinn is black.”
The jaw of my strong-willed, outspoken Italian mother dropped. Silence filled our picture-perfect, antique-inspired living room. My mom threw her hands up in a bewildered, flabbergasted fashion. She wanted to know why I never told her before. I said that if my boyfriend had been white, I wouldn’t have needed to tell her. I told her I was scared of her reaction. I apologized for hiding the truth.
“Where is your backbone?” she yelled. I answered by standing up straighter, feeling the bones in my spine harden.
After a few months I moved out of my parents’ house and into a row home in South Philly to begin my journalism career. I started my postgraduate life much like my undergrad one — as a single woman with no dating prospects.
Shortly after I moved, I had a date. I called my mom to tell her I had forgotten a few of my belongings at home. She asked what I was up to that night. I told her I was going on a date with a white guy. She roared with laughter, thanking me for being upfront. I broke the news that my new romantic prospect was Republication, knowing that wouldn’t sit right with my blue-collar Democrat family. She groaned and pondered the lesser of two evils.
She offered to deliver the last of my stuff the following day. When my parents arrived, my dad was grinning. He asked how my date went. As I dangled the keys of my new house in my hands, I explained that I didn’t really click with the guy.
I kissed my parents on their cheeks, saying goodbye. As they left, my dad put his light, fair-skinned arm around my mom’s deep olive-toned shoulder.
“GeGe, when I came home with an Italian girl my parents hated it, “ my dad said, stretching out the syllables of the word hate.
“He’s right. Grandmom and Grandpop didn’t want him to date me,” my mom confirmed, nodding.
I melted. My dad has been going home with the same Italian girl for 30 years. His little comment—a quick remark he stuck in during a goodbye—was his way of telling me that when it comes to dating, it’s worth it to break your parents’ rules.
*Names have been changed