Amid all the scrutiny that Malia Obama has been subjected to in her first months at Harvard University, nothing has attracted as much press attention as her being snapped by eager paparazzi kissing a white guy.
The guy—identified by enterprising journalists as 19-year-old Rory Farquharson—is a British-born Harvard sophomore. The kiss, outside last week’s Harvard-Yale football game, suggests that the 19-year-old former first daughter is boldly asserting her independence after eight sheltered years in the White House.
The families of presidents have always been the subject of tabloid fascination, but Malia Obama, like her father Barack Obama before her, inhabits an unprecedented position in America’s centuries-long race debate. Many, including other first daughters past and present, have argued quite reasonably that the press should leave Malia alone. Of course, that’s unlikely to happen. Never before has such a high-profile young woman of color navigated her way through the Ivy League dating pool. Which is why it’s all the more intriguing that Obama’s journey—at least for now—has ended with a white guy.
Marriage rates overall are in precipitous decline across America, but this is especially true for black Americans—only 30% of black American adults were married in 2015, Pew researchers found. Black women—particularly those with the most education like Obama—are faced with a limited pool if they seek to date within their race. Due to a host of societal conditions—from early death to mass incarceration—twice as many black women attend college as black men.
Among all demographics, African American women are the least likely to date outside their race—with barely 12% marrying non-black spouses. The reasons behind this trend are as disturbing as they are depressing. For one thing, black women are America’s least-desired ethnic group by men of all races, according to ongoing research by dating site OK Cupid. On a community level, explained Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks in his book Is Marriage for White People?, black women often face a type of pressure to marry within the race that white simply women do not experience.
“There is still enormous social pressure on black women to only marry black men—to ‘sustain’ the race and build strong black families,” Banks told me in an interview in 2011. “In short, no matter the personal cost,” Banks said, “black women are encouraged to marry ‘down’ before they marry ‘out.'”
So far, Obama’s kiss is been met with relatively little backlash. This decorum, however, is likely to fade if Obama continues to date—and ultimately marry—outside her race. One need only look to the vitriol heaped upon tennis star Serena Williams last winter when she revealed her engagement to Alex Ohanian, the white co-founder of Reddit who’s now her husband (and daughter’s father). Williams’ announcement was met with messages of anger, betrayal and dismay across #blacktwitter. Williams may be rich, famous, and stratospherically accomplished, but for many black Americans her romantic decisions are not fully her own.
Like Williams, Obama cannot escape the optics of her new boyfriend’s whiteness. Whether we like it or not, Farquharson’s race and class—his father is a CEO of an investment fund and he was the “head boy” at an expensive private school in the UK—have implications far beyond her rarefied milieu.
For the moment, at least, those implications are likely still years away. At just 19, Obama’s long-term romantic trajectory is impossible to predict. What is certain is that the frustrating absence of black male peers means that nobody should be surprised if Obama chooses to date—or eventually marry—”out.”