Why Women Upgrade

In my previous post, “Upgrade Him? Girl, No,” I talked about the “Negro Improvement Plan,” which I will now call the “Man Improvement Plan” — the desire some women have to take a man and make him over, whether he wants to be made over or not.

Some people wanted to understand why women do this.  I wish I could answer.  I have a hard enough time trying to understand why I do the things I do, let alone answering for all women.  Stanford Law School Professor Ralph Richard Banks, who also happens to be a friend of mine from law school, is exploring the phenomenon of high income black women/low income black men, among other topics, in his forthcoming book, “Is Marriage for White People?”   I haven’t seen an advance copy of Banks’ book, and don’t yet know what conclusions he has drawn.  Speaking solely from my own perspective, however, I can offer at least a few reasons why some high income black women are drawn to lower income men.

1. Familiarity. As a child of blue/pink collar workers, blue collar men are most like the men I grew up with: my father, my uncles, my cousins and now my brothers.  In my family, my sisters and I are the professionals, while my brothers are all laborers.  It is hard to imagine saying a man like my father, uncles and brothers isn’t good enough for me to date.

One of the things that appealed to me about my ex was that he was so familiar.  Our mothers grew up together in the South, and his Philly background was very similar to my Detroit upbringing.  We could speak in code about certain things — certain people, even — without any need to explain what we meant. 

I didn’t feel that same level of comfort with the men I dated who were from upper middle class backgrounds.  I imagined bringing them to Detroit to meet my family, and worried that they would be uncomfortable in my parents’ house, with its rusting porch furniture, cracked plaster walls and cigarette-burned, ass-stained sofa.  Even if they weren’t uncomfortable, I would be.  By contrast, the North Philly house my ex grew up in was in no better shape than my Detroit home, and I had no qualms about bringing him home to visit my people.

In your twenties, when your parents are still your primary reference point, the family background can be a big factor affecting your choice of mate.  As I’ve gotten older, my family background has become much less of a concern.  Even before both my parents died, where and how I grew up had ceased to define who I was.  Now, it almost seems irrelevant.  But it took a while to update my own assumptions.

This is where it’s important to be honest with yourself.  The fact is, if you leave the hood and get an undergraduate and graduate degree, you will change.  You won’t be the girl from the hood anymore, no matter how hard you fight it.  It wasn’t a slap in my father’s face that I didn’t date a Ford Motor Company assembly line worker.  I realize now that neither of my parents expected me to.  So when I wound up with a round-the-way guy from North Philly, the very opposite of my previous polite, gentlemanly long-term boyfriend, my family was shocked.

“What was it about him?” my sister would ask years after my divorce, the incredulity in her voice signaling that no answer I gave would ever make that coupling seem logical.

I don’t think I was actively trying to “keep it real” by dating a hood dude, but I was seeking to connect with a part of my background that receded in importance the longer I stayed in New York.  But there were better ways to honor my family than marrying the very type of man my mother had worked so hard to keep me away from.

2. Hot Pursuit. Hood and blue collar guys are direct.  Sometimes, too direct.  But they will pursue you, and hard.  I met my ex at his mother’s funeral.  You can say what you want about a man who is macking when he’s supposed to be grieving, but there was no doubt about his interest. 

Although our courtship was carried out long-distance, he never flaked out while he was pursuing me.  Whomever and whatever else he may have been doing locally, he called, sent little notecards: in sum, he paid attention.  This was rarely my experience with men I dated in New York, many of whom were juggling their options or hedging their bets. And when a woman is still trying to figure out if that guy she has lunch with once every other month likes her likes her, or just likes her, that kind of determined, deliberate pursuit is very appealing. 

I also happened to meet my ex after about a year of no dating, when I very much wanted to be in a relationship and not just hook up with people for sex.  Timing is indeed everything.

(Public Service Announcement: Call me old-fashioned, but I believe men who are interested in you, call you.  Not text, not Twitter or Facebook message: they call.  If he’s not calling, he’s not that interested.  Or he’s calling someone else.  The fact that he’s not man enough to admit it doesn’t make it any less true.)

As appealing as the dogged pursuit may be to one’s ego, in the end you have to ask: “What happens if I let him catch me?”  Are you prepared to be with a partner whose interests and lifestyle may be quite different from yours? 

If the answer is no, you may need to let him catch you long enough to do what you have to do, and then move on.  If you don’t have shared values and a shared vision for the future, it probably will not work, no matter how much you like each other.  Settling for someone who isn’t what you want just to have somebody in your life generally doesn’t work out over the long term.  But when it comes to relationships, emotions often win out over logic, at least for a while.  As unwise as the upgrade phenomenon may be, as long as there are lonely, needy people in the world, I don’t expect it to stop.


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15 Responses to “Why Women Upgrade”

  1. Link Love « A (formerly) unemployed bride plans a wedding on a budget. Says:

    […] set of posts from lawyer/writer Carolyn Edgar on why women should not try to upgrade a man and the real reasons that they do. This is good […]

  2. onefromphilly Says:

    “If you don’t have shared values and a shared vision for the future, it probably will not work, no matter how much you like each other. Settling for someone who isn’t what you want just to have somebody in your life generally doesn’t work out over the long term. ”

    And there you have it! And this also applies for blue collar, white collar or Fortune 500 men.

  3. LifeAfter Says:

    I enjoyed reading your last two post. They were clear, concise and quite candid. And since we are in the business of sharing thoughts, I thought I’d share some as well.

    We live in a society that makes it difficult for two people with different socioeconomic backgrounds to be together. And this is true of all folks, irrespective of their race, gender or class. The story of your experiences with your husband and your struggles plays out continually in the homes of all different kinds of Americans. It is especially difficult for those of us who have “ascended” into the middle or upper classes, perhaps because we tend to long for what we left behind.

    It seems, at least to me, that you are attributing your experiences to a subset of a larger social phenomenon. I think the main issue in these “upgrade” situations is class, as opposed to race or gender. When you say things like “Negro Improvement Plan” (which you rightly corrected here for what I believe to still be an inadequate title) a reader may get the impression that this is a problem endemic to men of color, and thence perpetuating a narrative that makes me a bit uneasy. I mean, these are your experiences and this is your story, a story worth being told and worth learning from. I just think it best if we stray away from making such broad generalizations. People are different, situations are different, let’s just mollify our prejudice by letting our reason and discretion do the guiding.

    • carolynedgar Says:

      I was with you up until you started talking about broad generalizations and mollifying our prejudices. I was specifically talking about my experiences as a black woman. I don’t think there’s inherent prejudice in that- it’s who I am. Nor do I think I should have to recast my experiences in race neutral language to signal to the outside world that this is a universal experience. The fact that black people are expected to render their stories without color if we want to expand the reach of our message highlights how messed up we are on race in this country. If I can read works by white authors and other people of color without needing coded permission to do so, and if I can discern universal truths in those writings that cross racial, ethnic, class or other boundaries, why can’t other groups do the same with black writers? Finally, I think it is very difficult to separate class and race issues when discussing communities of color. Bottom line, I think people of all races ought to be able to read my stories for what they are- one woman’s stories about her life experiences and the lesons I’ve learned from them- without my needing to signal to my non-black readers, “hey, this is for you, too!”

    • Faith Says:

      Funny how your issue with “people of color” is a not so secret misdirection of any criticism of a black male and an act of blanket protectionism that’s so transparent. The post isn’t about the male in question but a reflection of the influences that led to the author’s decision to choose such a male. Correct me if I’m wrong on that C.

  4. Linda Says:

    Excellent summation…

  5. dawn summers Says:

    BOOM! Hammer meet nail.

  6. ju Says:

    “As unwise as the upgrade phenomenon may be, as long as there are lonely, needy people in the world, I don’t expect it to stop.”

    Please let it stop!

  7. Faith Says:

    This is why black women need to expand what’s “familiar” to them.

  8. TH O'Connor Says:


    Another great post. What made me participate in the Give a Black Man a Chance program” is that the men who had resumes similar to me also felt like they had to compete with me. In addition there are many similarly educated men who dont want to be with a woman who is their equal, they are going after the pink collar women. I ended up finding happiness with a man who doesnt look like anyone in my family (on the outside) but who shares my values and appreciates me for who I am.

    • carolynedgar Says:

      In a way, it’s still the give a man a chance plan. You just gave a different kind of man a chance, and found the one who matched your values. Ultimately, that’s what we all need to do.

  9. david michel Says:

    people are stupid

  10. 2010 In Review « Carolyn A. Edgar Says:

    […] The busiest day of the year was July 27th with 409 views. The most popular post that day was Why Women Upgrade. […]

  11. “Upgrade you” only sounds good when Beyonce sings it” or, “Why the Negro Improvement Plan is a waste of time” « Homespun Wisdom Says:

    […] her real name is Carolyn Edgar and she serves as Vice-President and Legal Counsel at Estee Lauder. She also graduated from Harvard Law School along with Ralph Richard Banks, author of the book Is Marriage for White People? : How the African-American Marriage Decline […]

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