Hypergamy is a fancy word used to describe the act or practice of a person marrying an individual of a higher class or social status than themselves. While the label itself is fairly new to our western vocabulary, the age old tradition of “leveling up” dates back as far as 8th century Ancient Greece. Albeit an uncommon discussion here in the states, the practice of hypergamy isn’t just accepted around the world to this day, it’s expected.
According to clinical psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto, “Women mate across and up dominance hierarchies and men mate across and below dominance hierarchy.” You might not see Facebook pages dedicated to women seeking to marry hypergamously, but make no mistake, Meghan Markle is just one of many women who have intentionally married up the food chain. So why is it that Black women tend to see the concept of hypergamy as morally amiss, proudly advocating for marriages in the reverse direction? Could it be the fear of labels like gold digger and clout chaser that imply that women who seek men of higher social statuses do so with the intent to manipulate or defraud? Or is it the result of a deeply ingrained sense of loyalty to Black American men, a group who’ve been so systemically oppressed in this country that the collective act of hypergamy would find many of them unfit for marriage. Whatever the case, let’s be clear once and for all: Black women, hypergamy is not a crime.
I once heard a woman say that women are naturally hypergamous in the same way that men are naturally polygamous. Arguing that women are biologically hardwired to seek out the highest quality mate they can find due to a small fertility window and a nine-month gestation period for each pregnancy. In other words, a bigger risk and a bigger investment call for a much bigger catch. Whereas men, with their wider fertility windows and the ability to procreate with multiple people simultaneously, are biologically hardwired to mate with many partners throughout the course of their lives. Not that any man would actually want to travel the world, carelessly spreading his seed (insert side eye) but hey, can’t argue biology, right? Right! And if biological evolution and genetic survival are the goals, or just a healthy Black community in general, then hypergamy shouldn’t just be an option for Black women, it should be the standard.
Despite our almost collective dismissal of hypergamy as an acceptable practice, the Black community would likely benefit from its implementation more than any other race. It’s common knowledge that our communities are plagued by pressing issues which can at times make collective improvement seem impossible. And while I’m not saying hypergamy would be a one size fits all solution to these problems, I am saying it might be a step in the right direction. In 2015, Stanford University facilitated a study to examine how influential parental income is on children’s economic futures and the results further exemplified why economic success is neither equally distributed nor equally attainable in this country. Not only did researchers determine that approximately half of parental income advantages in the United States are passed on to children, they also discovered that the longevity of the advantages were more pronounced among those raised in middle to upper class families. Furthermore, the study showed that parental income had a greater impact on the potential earnings of male children and that female children from higher-income families were more likely to marry high-earning partners. In other words, children born into middle and upper class families were more likely to create middle and upper class families, while children born into poverty were likely to remain there throughout adulthood and bear their children into similar circumstances.
These findings defy the entire premise of equal opportunity, which the faulty American Dream was built upon, but they also negate the idea that people’s socioeconomic statuses are conformable or easily changeable. New research by Pew’s Economic Mobility Project finds that 70% of people born into the bottom of the economic ladder never climb to even the middle of the economic ladder. Listing education, marriage, and savings as a few of the reasons why those who did reach higher incomes were able to do so. But the finding itself that poor people tend to stay poor should highlight why who we marry is just as important as how we marry. Particularly because who and how we marry can have long term effects on generations to come. We may not like the personal implications or what we think it says about our values as a community, but in practice, hypergamy could be quite beneficial for Black children. Not just because of the advantages it affords them during childhood, but moreso because of the advantages it affords them as adults.
A 2013 questionnaire created by the African American Lectionary Project was sent to 10,000 African-American clergy of all denominations, as well as a small percentage of non-denominational churches. According to this survey, the top three issues facing the African-American community were Poverty (particularly among children), Education and Strengthening Families. And while we’ve begrudgingly accepted that marriage is the most stable household structure a duo can create, we tend to stop the conversation there, ignoring that all marriages are not created equal. A University of Pennsylvania study on Socioeconomic Patterns of Marriage & Divorce determined that hypogamous marriages, or marriages where the woman had married down financially or academically, had higher divorce rates, higher instances of prolonged job insecurity, and were more likely to result in the creation of single-parent homes. The narrative which encourages Black women to overlook their natural propensity to date towards security and stability often results in marriages where they benefit the least. As Black women, we want to believe that we can we can achieve the American Dream by “any man necessary” but the data tells us that marrying down or even laterally has long term implications on marital status, socioeconomic status, children and health that simply cannot be avoided. It’s decisions like this that either set our community up for success or for more suffering and we shouldn’t be guilted or shamed into making decisions that only benefit the men who encourage them.
I’m not suggesting that Black Women should marry men based solely on their 2018 earnings or leave their partners of 10 years due to stagnant wages. But what I am saying is that a lot of us verbalize what we want but date in the opposite direction. We want financial security but date men who don’t have that to offer, we want our children to have better lives but almost guarantee that they will mirror our childhood struggles. Far too many of us believe that a better life is only admirable if attained through struggle. We have internalized the idea that a “good negro” works tirelessly for everything they get, that a “good negro” doesn’t want any head starts or hand outs because a “good negro” is gonna prove to you they can work their way up from the bottom, all while everyone else looks for ways to avoid that bottom altogether. Yes, the concept of hypergamy is new to many of us simply because there could be no social hierarchy among the enslaved that wasn’t birthed out of dysfunction and marrying out of slavery wasn’t an option. But as our community has evolved and began reshaping itself and its future, it’s vital to identify what steps we can take internally to combat the challenges we face externally.
Hypergamy doesn’t end poverty in our community but it ensures that less Black children are born into a system that many never escape. Hypergamy doesn’t send all of our kids to Ivy League colleges but it gives them access to adequately funded schools and programs, trained educators, functional facilities, and other academic advantages that lower income children may not have access to. Hypergamy doesn’t eliminate single-parent homes but it promotes a familial structure that is undeniably beneficial to children well into adulthood. It’s not a crime to create the life you want and contrary to meme history, Black women aren’t required to struggle to show themselves approved or fit for male consumption.
I’m sure someone will find hypergamy horror stories or dredge up an article chronicling how unhappy rich men’s wives are in their luxury homes, arguing that women are just as likely to be unhappy regardless of how high up they marry. And while the studies are clear that men benefit more from marriage and monogamy than women do, this is simply deflection on the part of men who fear that under a hypergamous lens, they might not measure up. Marrying for love is a concept created by women that benefits men by making only their feelings a prerequisite for long-term partnership. We demand that our potential mates love us upfront but provide for us eventually, building long-term partnerships based on feelings that will likely change and circumstances that likely won’t. We cannot guarantee that our marriages are successful but we can set ourselves up for the success we want by having a clear understanding of what’s important in the long run.
Marriage is a social contract through which two people agree to build together for the sake of future generations, it’s an institution designed to facilitate lineal wealth accumulation and transference, everything else is a plus. Sure, marital problems exist regardless of income or education, and hypergamy doesn’t eliminate domestic violence or infidelity or any of the other problems that patriarchy created. But if we’re being honest, neither does love. So why not?