Black Jellybeans

black jellybeanLast night, I was chatting with a friend and we started talking about how a lot of people just don’t get her. While she and I clicked pretty much from the start, she told me that when she meets people, they don’t always have the same easy conversation and connection that she and I have. As we explored why that might be, we realized that it’s because she’s a) incredibly intelligent, b) very direct in her communication, and c) attractive. In my observation and from talking with lots of other women who could be described similarly, plenty of people find that combination threatening. Actually, many folks feel threatened by a woman with any two of those three. But it wasn’t until last night that I put it all together: my friend is a black jellybean.

When it comes to black jellybeans, almost everyone seems to fall into one of two categories. Either you love them or you can’t imagine why anyone would. There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground, and I’m willing to guess that when we’re talking about actual jellybeans, you know which group you’re in.

Of course, this is just a metaphor and I’m not suggesting that this is only a matter of individual taste. A woman who’s upfront about what she wants and needs is often considered aggressive or a bitch, while a man who does the exact same thing is simply being candid. Women who allow their intelligence to be visible are frequently seen as threatening, while men rarely are. And women who are “too attractive” get scrutinized and attacked in ways that good-looking guys don’t. When we unpack each of those traits and our cultural attitudes towards them, it’s easy to see why a woman who has all three gets a lot of crap as she moves through the world. So don’t stretch the metaphor to the breaking point. There’s a lot more to this than “to each their own.”

For that matter, there are also gendered differences to how this plays out. Queer women who are black jellybeans seem to have fewer difficulties with partner’s attitudes around this than heterosexual women. I can think of several possible explanations, though many of them boil down to the fact that queer folks (regardless of their gender) tend to appreciate traits that are outside the heteronormative definitions of how people should act. Even so, I’ve known quite a few women who find it hard to find women who value their black jellybean characteristics.

While the metaphor is limited, I think it has some value when it comes to navigating interpersonal relationships. Reid Mihalko often says that we have more success when we date our own species. I like Reid’s approach because he offers some really useful perspectives on how to find someone compatible. And I also think that the black jellybean metaphor works well because the reactions that many people have to smart, attractive women who speak their minds fall into that love them/hate them split.

I don’t have any specific ideas to suggest to someone who’s a black jellybean for how to navigate that, other than to try to find people who like that flavor. I’m not sure whether there’s any way for someone to cultivate a taste for that particular combination of traits. I would certainly like there to be- I know a lot of amazing women who would love to find partners who adore them as much as they deserve.

So with that in mind, here are a few questions that have been bouncing around my head. If you’re a black jellybean and you feel moved to answer, either in the comments below or privately, I would love to hear from you. I’d like to be able to offer something more useful to other folks, rather that only being able to tell them that they need to find someone who enjoys them for who they are.

  • What’s it like for you when people have that either/or response to you?
  • How do you find people who appreciate your particular flavor? What do you do when it becomes clear that someone doesn’t?
  • Given how often people blame black jellybeans for not being what they want, how do you take care of yourself around that? What do you do to not absorb their negativity?
  • Do you have/have you had a partner who learned to appreciate your black jellybean traits? How did that work out? Was it something they could cultivate? And was it worth the effort for you?


12 Responses so far.

  1. Great post (and a tricky question). I don’t think I’m a black jellybean personally, but I’ve had a lot of close friends and lovers who are, and there are a few things I’ve noticed that may be helpful.
    A lot of times, the problem seems like one of extreme competence and attractiveness acting as a barrier to connection, but it tends in practice to be more nuanced. Often the black jellybeans who experience the black jellybean effect are also introverted, shy, and/or have some social anxiety. This can come across, from someone who is attractive, skilled, intelligent, and so forth, as aloofness or a remote quality. People read them as unapproachable or standoffish, which creates a defensive reaction, and bingo. Dislike.
    The black jellybeans that avoid the black jellybean effect tend to be either:
    * Very outgoing <em>and</em> interested in other people,
    * Very into cultivating personal showmanship/social stage presence <em>and</em> actively practicing Date Your Species, or
    * Very good at playing the Everyman to make connection easier. 
    What helps is having trusted socially sensitive friends to give feedback about body language and projecting warmth, as well as practicing intentionally stepping off the pedestal – <em>not</em> to diminish yourself in any way, but to give the people around you something they can relate to. Strategic vulnerability is great for fostering connection when power and desire dynamics are in effect. It’s so easy when we feel rejected for our best qualities to want to hide our weaknesses, but sometimes all it takes is reassuring the people around us that we are indeed human. This is also an excellent safeguard against accusations of thinking you’re better than everyone else, while still giving room to display extreme competence. Like a superhero, when extreme competence is balanced by extreme humanity, you become more relatable.
    In LTRs, it becomes a bit different. There it can definitely be a case of one partner feeling in the other’s shadow, and the solution there that I’ve seen work best is to either find someone who chooses a support role because they don’t want or need the spotlight, or to find someone who has their own stage.

  2. derek says:

    Sabrina Morgan,
     The one i seem to bump up against most frequently is the “accusations of thinking you’re better than everyone else,”  or the instant claim that I’m judgmental etc…   It’s become a frequent enough occurrence that i’m actively starting to devote energy to problem solving it.  I have a hard time playing dumb and the appreciation for nuance or subtlety in humor seems to be the exception in my experience of human interaction lately. 

  3. HeatherN says:

    “Queer women who are black jellybeans seem to have fewer difficulties than heterosexual women.”

    Ooookay, this sentence has got a bit wrong with it. Queer women who are black jellybeans might have fewer difficulties when interacting with other queer people, but when interacting with the mainstream, they (we) have got all the same black jellybean problems ON TOP of being queer, which is seen as threatening as well. And, even other queer people sometimes fall into judging people based on the mainstream norms.

  4. HeatherN, fair enough. What I was trying to say is that queer women who are black jellybeans seem to have fewer difficulties finding partners who appreciate them for what they are. At least, that’s how it looks to me. I 100% agree that interacting with the straight/mainstream world is a different thing.

    What are your thoughts with respect to what I was aiming at?

  5. BlackJellyBean Number617 says:

    derek: Sabrina Morgan, The one i seem to bump up against most frequently is the “accusations of thinking you’re better than everyone else,” or the instant claim that I’m judgmental etc… It’s become a frequent enough occurrence that i’m actively starting to devote energy to problem solving it. I have a hard time playing dumb and the appreciation for nuance or subtlety in humor seems to be the exception in my experience of human interaction lately.

  6. Marc M. Mahan says:

    Sabrina Morgan,
     Black Jellybeans? I tend to be like a jelly baby (Remember Tom Baker’s portrayal of Doctor Who?) whom no one has heard of. I also think that intelligence and wit are qualities that have yet to find there way into ‘normal’ interactions.  Good looking? Well, yes, that can be a bit scary, but at the same time an income difference is scary, and if it is your income that is out of sync (Low or unemployed in an economy that is still dragging itself out of the doldrums) then there is nothing to be said.
    I would like to thing of myself as intelligent and good-looking, but I am used to being an outcast

  7. Cashel says:

    My husband read this article and said I was exactly the black jellybean you are referring to and I am inclined to agree.  As with all people, there have been people I have met who really like, could take me or leave me, or dislike me.  The difference for me was that from time to time, someone I did not know well would decide they REALLY didn’t like me and I could never figure out what I said or did that elicited such a visceral response.  The only other person I know who could relate to this experience was my mother, who is is also a black jellybean.  Since no one else I knew had this problem, I always assumed it was me.  After reading this article, I thought back on all of them and realized they were are the sort of people who would be extremely threatened by a black jellybean.  It was literally the first time in my life it occurred to me that it might be them, not me.  So I guess I have no good advice for avoiding the negativity, since it seems I internalized it very well.  At the time, I just tried to avoid them whenever possible.
    It has been my experience that people do not grow into liking black jellybeans.  My friends who adore me have always done so from the start and I can’t think of anyone who was lukewarm on my nature who later decided I was a lot cooler than they realized.  The same with partners of black jellybeans I know, myself included.  The men I know who ended up with black jellybeans only ever got seriously involved with black jellybeans, it is just their type. 

  8. CHebert says:

    For a couple decades now, I’ve not felt that success in life is determined by being in a committed relationship. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t want that for other reasons. I admit I’ve felt very fortunate that I don’t seek to parent; in hetero circles, it’s the very rare man who makes it past the first filters. It gives me time and courage to get out of situations with limited potential without as much heartache as I witness in friends.
    The rare gent I’ve met who can rise to the occasion of being with me has always come into my life via my personal network. And by that, I mean the more personal events that involve interactions: small house gatherings; university circles (I’m an academic); unique community events. That said, I’ve not tried a lot of online dating, so perhaps that would work.
    Filters take a few forms. One I’ve used for over 20 years (ie, since early teenagehood) is to present myself physically in ways that do not enact femininity is any straightforward sense, but instead presenting a bit more on the genderqueer line. If a man cannot get over my slightly inaccessible appearance, he won’t be able to manage my communication style or my ideas about gender. I keep some things about myself private when I first meet someone – including that I am a sex educator for adults. It’s a magnet that’s a problem. I figure out pretty quickly who finds my passion for social issues ‘cute’ vs. those who are listening actively and in dialogue with me. I let myself engage with someone more when I realize that the questions they are asking or the challenges they are raising to my or others’ arguments are informed. If they are uninformed but opinionated, or unwilling to have a dialogue – ie, to recognize other informed voices – they are out. And once I do out myself as a sex educator, I filter out those who respond immediately by making a comment about their or my sexuality. If they ask questions from a place of humility or curiosity, they stand a chance. Finally, they have to be passionate about something that I value, though not necessarily the same things I am.
    The wonderful partners I’ve had have fallen into one of two patterns. The first group did the above with ease. They are smart (and often academically inclined) with good social/communication skills, also crave egalitarian relationships, and has the tendency to be happy when he’s made me happy or brought some comfort into my life. 
    I’ve only cultivated it with one person who didn’t fit that pattern. He was really insistent. He wanted to be the kind of guy that could be with me. Very few women turned him down, and my notable resistance initially intrigued him. And in his case, his communication skills, and ability to change his mind in the face of a strong argument – a rare quality – was what made it possible. He believes in me so much, offers a counter-balance to my excessive tendencies, and thinks the work I do is important. In the end, the work was worth it, but the first few months were not easy, when he came to terms with the idea that my analysis was much deeper and better informed than his on several topics. While he doesn’t challenge me intellectually, he does challenge me emotionally, in ways I value.
    In sum, the basic traits: challenges me in intriguing ways; wants to be held accountable as well; communicates well; has a strong sense of self and his own passions.

  9. CHebert says:

    Apparently this post has me thinking. Three other quick comments:
    – early filters: I pay attention to the compliments they give. Are they meaningful to me, personalized, and not (all) about my body?
    – I study human communication, and I think it helps me not internalize situations I once did. Through this focus, I have found ways to disagree or raise challenging ideas to counter someone else that are not threatening (confirmed by the unsolicited comments of others). So one thing I pay attention to is how they manage a tactfully presented disagreement with what they’ve said – that is, to a threat to their self-presentation or identity? If they get immediately defensive, I know they aren’t a fit. That said, when I experience one of those situations described by Cashel, I often need to process. I rely on my analytic skills and occasionally good friends who know me well and were present to deconstruct what happened.

  10. I don’t know about this metaphor. The reaction to black jelly-beans is pretty much instantaneous. This strikes me as something that develops more over the course of a conversation. The difference would seem to be salient.

  11. cee says:

    Black jellybean representing, here.  (And a single mom, so it took me a while to get back to this.)  When I first started reading this, I wondered if you were one of my friends writing about me in disguise. 
    I say frequently that most people don’t get me, that I click with a select few and am mutually mystified by the rest.  It has been communicated to me plenty enough that I don’t doubt it, that I’m found to be intimidating, arrogant, and/or aloof, when in fact I feel shy and socially awkward.  The people who *do* get me are as baffled as I am, because they find me somewhere between accessible and mesmerizing. 
    Fifteen years ago, I relocated myself to metro Boston, because the people I’d met from here seemed disproportionately My People.  Since, I’ve immersed myself in a community that not only tolerates but passionately celebrates the black jellybean combination.  (For example, there are a lot of sex/play parties, and almost all of them are driven by women.  For that matter, there are a lot of other kind of parties, and most of those are driven by women, too.)  The longer I’ve been here, the more I feel that I’m choosing to live in a bubble; every time I look out at what passes for normalcy in America, especially how women are regarded and treated, I retreat again in horror. 
    Do I have a partner who basks in my blackjellybeanhood?  No, but at least I’m now dating several men who appreciate it, and I’ll no longer settle for someone who doesn’t.

  12. Claire says:

    I suspect I may be a black jelly bean (it is my favourite) although I am not an achiever or amazingly extroverted. I am very formal and stiff when first meeting people and I suppose I come off as snobbish. I am actually very friendly and within a half an hour I win most people over but those who only ever get a first impression of me don’t seem to like me. My feedback is that the way I speak (my English private school accent) throws people off. It’s not something that I’m embarrassed of and if it costs me friends in the long run, they are friends I never needed anyway. Sometimes having many social barriers is also a form of self protection.

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