Wednesday, October 7, 2009

THE COLOUR AND THE SHAPE

Today during my late-morning jog, I was crossing a bridge behind a beautiful woman, who seemed to be dressed as much to impress as to burn calories. I looked down below and noticed a group of men ogling her from under the bridge, visions of impurity obviously dancing in their heads. For a moment, I put myself in her running shoes -- same gender, different race. What if I were a gorgeous black woman jogging along the same path, overlooking the same guys? Would they stare at me in the same lascivious way?

Contrary to what the locals say, there are a number of black people, mostly men, in Buenos Aires. I sometimes see the guys on the street, but usually they come out at night, during peak party hours. Many of them arrive in BA from the U.S., looking to partake in the city's now-legendary gay scene. Four and a half years ago, when I first visited, BA's gay nightlife was still a pretty well-kept secret. And I certainly wasn't expecting the attention I was about to get -- on the sidewalks, in the stores, in the restaurants, in the bars, in the discos, everywhere, it seemed, but in the solitary comfort of my hotel suite.

Now I'm no fool. I like to think of myself as distinctive in any culture, but I'm well aware that the fascination with me here hinges on a myth. For some reason, South Americans (especially Argentines) hang on to outdated sexual preconceptions about black men. I have even met a number of guys with the audacity -- and stupidity -- to publicly admit that being with un negro was one of their fantasies, as if I were supposed to take such a sweeping and reverse-racist generalization as a personal compliment.

In some ways (and hold on, I'm about to take a major leap here), the attitude of many male gay porteños toward black men (sexual novelties) is like the attitude of many white slave masters toward their light-skinned female slaves, only whippings, cotton picking and impregnating are generally not involved. We are, largely and basically, objects of desire wanted solely for sexual gratification, nada más. Momentarily, it might be great for our egos, but in the long-run, it does nothing for the self-esteem.

In other words, we're pieces of meat. After all this time in BA, I understand how women in the U.S. feel when they pass a construction site. I understand how the jogging woman this morning might have felt had she noticed those guys lusting in her direction (though truth be told, she probably consciously encouraged it when she was getting dressed).

But what about my ethnic sisters in BA? Are they as invisible here as they generally are in the U.S., even in this Michelle Obama era. How do they fit into the general scheme of mad stereotyping here? How do porteños respond to them? Do they get the same kind of unsolicited attention from straight men and gay women that I get from gay men and straight women (and occasionally, from straight men and gay women)?

In all the time I have spent in BA, I honestly haven't seen very many black women. And I've certainly never broached the subject of Argentines and race with any of the ones I have met. But after crossing that bridge today, the subject is on my mind and no doubt will be until I get an acceptable answer to my questions. If and when I do (and if and when I meet a guy, or girl, I'm completely convinced doesn't see me as the physical manifestation of a life-long stereotype), of course, you'll be the first to know.
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