A friend who lives in Paris forwarded me an item from the Internet, concerning a singles ad that had allegedly appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It read: “Single Black Female seeks male companionship. Ethnicity unimportant. I’m a very good-looking girl who loves to play. I love long walks in the woods, riding in your pickup truck, hunting, camping and fishing trips, cozy winter nights lying by the fire. Candlelight dinners will have me eating out of your hands. Rub me the right way and watch me respond. I’ll be at the front door when you get home from work, wearing only what nature gave me. Kiss me and I’m yours. Call (404) 875-6420 and ask for Daisy.”

It was apparently a hoax of sorts, however, and at the end of the message there was a note that “over 15,000 men found themselves talking to the Atlanta Humane Society about an eight-week old black Labrador retriever.”

My friend, who is not American, was incensed by this, but it was circulating among a group of her American co-workers as something to be laughed about. They could not begin to understand what was upsetting to her about it, and so she sent it on to me for a kind of cultural reality check. I in turn ran it by a few friends of mine. Not a very scientific test, admittedly, but interesting enough to get me on a roll.

My American compatriots, black and white (and mostly men, I should say) tended to insist that the humor in this ad did not necessarily demean black women–that the parody was “cute” as one described it, a play on words, and that there was no serious bestialization of human beings at stake here. Chill. To the extent that there was a sense (mostly among the women) of insult, they saw it as aimed at all women. Indeed, as an advertisement laden with lusty innuendo, it hints of prostitution more than just “play.” To almost all of them, however, the humor lay in the unexpected substitution of one category of “black female” for another, a simple, silly kind of humor, innocent enough.

Yet what my Parisian friend couldn’t get over was the very fact of a personal ad in which race was prominently mentioned at all. In contrast, almost all the Americans didn’t make much of it. We’ve all seen ads like it, perhaps–the single black female, the lonely Asian male, the self-described hunk or hunkette who is tall, blond and emphatically Caucasian. Indeed, perhaps the most openly and unashamedly segregated sites in the United States remain the personals columns of any given newspaper or magazine.

“It’s very conspicuous to someone who wasn’t raised here,” my friend in France said. “It’s like when Americans speak of Africa like it’s a nation; or refer to someone as Asian. Black and white are categories so huge as to have no rational meaning, yet since they have such undisputed power as a real social practice, it’s a pretty reliable signal of some taboo or division, a place where no one wants to look.”

So I guess we should try to look. Antimiscegenation was outlawed in 1967, but the degree to which those underlying attitudes and fears assert themselves even to this day is sometimes hard to see. When Essie Mae Washington-Williams stepped forward and revealed that she was Strom Thurmond’s daughter, the very first news accounts almost universally described her as “a black woman” who claimed to be his daughter. Once his family admitted the relationship, however, she quickly became “mixed-race,” specifically “half-black” or “biracial.” But clearly, “biracial” doesn’t really mean much in terms of biological heritage in a country where almost anyone who’s been here more than two or three generations is not just biracial but multiracial and multicultural–words, alas, that seem to have become nothing less than dirty in the recent culture wars.

It’s worth looking at the hidden layers of meaning behind the quietly polarizing category of “biracial”: It seems to be emerging as a term reserved for those who are the product of recent rather than historical unions between one socially “black” parent and one socially “white” parent, and where the white parent acknowledges the child, either by marriage or–as with the Thurmond family–by admission.

This particular choosiness goes back to statutes like the Georgia law that Judge Charles Pickering defended in his infamous 1959 law review note: It deemed miscegenation on a par with incest, imposing sentences of up to ten years for “adultery or fornication” prohibited “by reason of race or blood.” These days, interracial relationships are permitted under Georgia law, but the legacy of the old statute is apparently still at work. Take the case of Marcus Dixon, an honor student and high school football hero who was admitted to Vanderbilt University on a full scholarship. He had a consensual sexual relationship with his steady girlfriend when he had just turned 18 and she was three months shy of 16. Unfortunately for them, Georgia law considers underage sex a crime; it’s deemed aggravated child molestation–whether or not the perpetrator is also a minor–and covers all sexual activity that results in “any injury.” In Georgia, “injury” includes losing one’s virginity. If the letter of this law were being obeyed, therefore, Georgia should be jailing half the teenage population in the state on any given day. It elects not to do so. Marcus Dixon has been convicted by a jury and sentenced to the minimum ten-year sentence. Race was not mentioned explicitly, of course, but is it really a total surprise to learn that Dixon is black and that his girlfriend is white?

A few weeks ago, my colleague Kim Crenshaw wrote a piece for this magazine about the blind eye that has been turned to Strom Thurmond’s liaison with a young woman who was in all probability a minor at the time of his impregnating her. Marcus Dixon was not so indulged. I look forward to the day when single black females might be courted with candlelight dinners or could ride without fear in the proverbial pickup truck; and where single black males could play–and I do mean consensual play–with the same field of expectation as all the golden-haired retriever puppies. Ethnicity unimportant.