Dating while black and orange – a response to Patton’s advice

When I read Susan A. Patton’s letter to the Daily Princetonian, I can’t say I was all that surprised. As a recent Princeton graduate, I’ve heard variations on her “advice” to female Princetonians ever since I got my admissions letter in 2005.

Nassau Hall, the university's oldest building....
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of you who haven’t borne witness to the “letter read ’round the world,” here is a quick summation. Patton, an alumna of Princeton University’s class of 1977, wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Princetonian, Princeton’s student-run newspaper that was published on Friday, March 29, 2013. The contents of this letter have been so widely distributed that the incoming traffic crashed the server. The Daily Princetonian website has been down since Friday afternoon. (If you would like to read this letter in its entirety, it’s been Google cached here.) This letter, entitled, “Advice for the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had,” offered to female Princeton undergraduates the admonishment that they should marry their male classmates, and quickly, lest they find themselves successful, intelligent, accomplished, and very much alone.

Patton offered such choice nuggets of wisdom as:

For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate. Yes, I went there.


Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated. It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty. Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again — you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.

Being the proud mother of two (male) Princetonians, one who graduated in 2006 and “had the good judgment and great fortune to marry a classmate of his, [but] could have married anyone,” and another who is currently enrolled and whose marriage prospects, according to his mother, are “limitless” (though I doubt the same can be said for his dating prospects on campus for the next few months), Patton appears to believe that the young men that she has raised are quintessentially Princetonian and deserve quintessentially Princetonian wives, but failing that, any pretty, dumb female will do.

Her views on the young women that attend Princeton are just plain ignorant. While I do agree that for enterprising women who choose to someday marry and raise a family, choosing a compatible partner with whom to share a life is important, I don’t, and let me emphasize this, don’t believe that a Princeton man is the end-all, be-all for potential spouses of future Princeton alumnae. I especially don’t believe that a female Princeton undergraduate is responsible for snagging and bagging her future husband before she matriculates.

In an interview on CNN, Patton clarified that what she meant was that in the pursuit of a high-powered career, young women shouldn’t forget about their personal lives, and that they should take the time to see the caliber of men with which they are surrounded on campus. That, I also don’t necessarily disagree with.

However, as an African-American woman, I found myself in a very small minority at an institution like Princeton. In my experience, and I am going to ask you, dear reader, to remember that this is entirely anecdotal, trying to get a date as a black woman at Princeton was harder than getting an A on an organic chemistry exam after doing a Prospect 10 (I think it’s a Prospect 11 these days. Campus Club was closed back in my day, but I digress).

I remember sitting in the student center my freshman year with a group of friends, discussing our dating prospects. Having been told that our “stock” had never been higher, since we were freshmen girls, we lamented our lack of dating options. We broke it down to a rough estimate of how many men were available as potential husbands in just our class year alone in a very crude “flowchart” of how dismal our prospects were as minority women.

It’s been 7 years since we came up with that flowchart and that dingy piece of paper has long been lost, but according to our calculations (all of us were humanities majors, so our math was probably definitely off…cue sexist “ladies and their maths” jokes), out of that class of 1,200, there were approximately 5.67 men available. For approximately 600 women. This chart, which clearly was an exaggeration of our “dire” straits, accounted for the already taken men, the fact that we never saw our male engineering friends unless they took a break from studying (ditto for the student-athletes), discounting the young men we knew weren’t interested in monogamy or, y’know, consent (Statistic alert: 1 in 4 of us college girls will be sexually assaulted! More than likely by someone we know!), recognizing the ones who weren’t interested in women at all, and acknowledging that the majority aren’t at all interested in black girls.

Yup, I went there.

Finding a date that is interested in you as a person and not a phenotypical representation of their Africanist fetishes? Really difficult. I can count on one hand the number of non-minority men that approached me and I only need one finger to let you know how that went overall. (Spoiler alert: That finger ain’t for countin’.)

Then there was the quagmire of dating “in the race”. The ratio of black women to black men when I was at Princeton was approximately 3:1. Not exactly inspiring odds if you want a monogamous relationship that will eventually lead down an aisle.

There were quite a few of us who “beat the odds” and met their future husbands in the “orange bubble.” I wasn’t one of them. And I’m so much happier for it.

I’ve only seriously contemplated getting married twice. The first time, I was 19 and dating a guy in the year below me at Princeton. It was a disaster and I have the passive-aggressive, teenage-angsty Facebook statuses from 2006-2007 to prove it. We thought we were going to get married after we graduated from our respective graduate schools (law for him, medicine for me, though it was expected that I would become a stay-at-home mom after giving birth).  What. A. Joke.

He dumped me two weeks shy of our 10 month anniversary (the fact that we even celebrated “month-aversaries” was one of many signs we had no business even thinking about marriage at all, let alone marrying each other). Ironically enough, losing out on that potential Princeton husband was a blessing. Without feeling the need to define myself by the plans made to accommodate his future, I was able to fully focus on my own future. I took a break from dating, made some new friends, joined an eating club, took trips abroad. I switched majors from Ecology and Evolutionary Biology to Comparative Literature, graduated, spent a summer in South Korea, came back, couldn’t get a job and became semi-famous for being underemployed, wrecked my car, got into grad school, and fell in love. With a non-Princetonian.

Which brings me to the second time I’ve seriously contemplated getting married. I guess it’s not fair to say that I’m “seriously contemplating” getting married when I’m actively planning to tie the knot after my boyfriend finishes his bachelor’s degree. We’re the same age, but as a result of paperwork lost in U.S. immigration’s bureaucratic processes, he was unable to enroll as a permanent resident of the US (and applying as an international student is prohibitively expensive) until a few years ago. So he’s going to a school that I’m sure most Ivy Leaguers have never heard of, getting his bachelor’s degree approximately 5 years after I got mine, and guess what? It doesn’t matter because he’s everything I could have ever wanted in a spouse. He’s intelligent, kind, charming, caring, supportive, and most importantly, is not intimidated by or dismissive of my Princeton heritage.

Admittedly, after the kerfluffle with the Patton letter, he informed me that for the first six months of our relationship, he wanted to muzzle me because most of my stories began with “This one time at Princeton…,” but unlike Patton’s non-Princetonian ex-husband, he thoroughly embraces the orange and black. We’ve gone to Reunions together and he’s currently pressuring me to vote for the “Oktoberfifth” theme for my 5th Reunion next year because he really wants to wear liederhosen for reasons I can’t possibly begin to fathom (I insist that I will not look good in the matching dirndl). He respects the large influence that Princeton has had on my life and accepts that I will probably always be a little bit elitist (I may or may not have sternly told him that “Good girlfriends don’t let their boyfriends apply to Harvard Business School”), and we ultimately know that what’s important is not our schooling, but our character.

My point is (and it’s been a long time in coming – congratulations to those of you who have made it this far) that I didn’t know myself at 19. I know myself marginally better now at 25, but that margin makes a significant difference. I could have let Princeton define me, my relationship, my entire life, but instead, I incorporated Princeton as only a small chapter in my life. It took time and distance to come to the conclusion that I am more than my Princeton pedigree and I wish Susan Patton had realized that maybe it wasn’t her husband’s degree, but their incompatibility and probably her rather obvious elitism that  doomed her marriage.

In addition to that, I hope that her “advice” to the “daughters she never had” is a parallel speech to the one that she gave to the sons she did have. Because if she’s going to be a classist, elitist, borderline microaggressive racist (come on, do you really think she was speaking to minority women at Princeton, too?), heterosexist (um, some ladies want wives), retrogressive throwback to the 1950s, she should at least try to dodge the sexism charge by telling her boys that “you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of women who are worthy of you.”

Because we’re more than worthy. We went to Princeton, bitch.


6 thoughts on “Dating while black and orange – a response to Patton’s advice

  1. Brittany, this is fantastic. Being a Princeton male, I’m sure I did not bristle as much as you did at the letter, but I’m glad you responded. Marrying a non-Princetononian can have challenges if they don’t embrace the school, but thankfully my wife has been very supportive and I likewise try to be supportive of her alma mater. Thankfully, we both have orange as school colors.

    • Thanks for reading, Jon! I agree that it’s very important to find, above all, a supportive spouse, regardless of their alma mater.

      The original letter didn’t particularly rankle me (I found it amusing more than anything), but I just thought it was important to note that with any relationship, not just those between Princetonians, there’s a need for mutual understanding and support. Unless they went to Harvard. That’s just unforgivable. 😉

  2. I enjoyed reading this Brittney. I have to say how different the Princeton that I went to is from the Princeton that you went to. My husband and I are both black, met in our freshman year when we both lived in Rocky, and we can both name about 10 (probably more) couples just like us in the 4-5 years we were students on Princeton’s campus, including my sister-in-law and her husband!

    I have two daughters and I would love it if they went to Princeton. I would love it if they found their husbands there too. Not because I did, but because if they did, they might have a chance at what both their father and mother (and aunties and uncles) now have–a lifelong education and a lifelong partner and friend, but more importantly, someone who will understand her desire to hold on to a musty old beer jacket from 1994….

  3. There are tons of black couples that linked up during or after their Pton days… the crucible in which those relationships seems to help strengthen their bond or tear it apart. The point I like about this post BW is that you open SP’s letter up to examine how much relationships are organic between two people, ancillary to the institution in which they found each other.

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