Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Importance of Being 'Exotic': What Is It With Black Guys in White Crowds?

Does this cap make me look “gangsta”?
Last weekend, a friend of mine made an interesting comment/observation that I filed away for future consideration. This morning, as I lay in bed plotting my Saturday, it popped back into my head.

I'm not sure how or why, but the conversation last Saturday night had suddenly shifted to being black and living in a place where you're not only a minority but a rarity, too. It's a topic that has been broached several times by friends and acquaintances over the last year -- in Melbourne, in Sydney, in Kuala Lumpur, and in Bangkok -- but I've always tried to steer the conversation elsewhere, having had my fill of the subject in Buenos Aires, where I could never be sure whether someone was talking to me out of interest in me or out of curiosity about me (like maybe I'll drop trou and let them see for themselves if it's true what "they" say about black men).

My friend's comment, though, had nothing to do with size (which, as two female friends have indelicately pointed out in the last two weeks, matters -- who knew?!), or why I would possibly be interested in going to a Soundgarden concert. (Could I be less black?) He was wondering aloud about the aura that he said a lot of black men give off in bars and clubs when there are no other black people in the room. It's an attitude, like, "I can have anyone I want here, so why would I want to talk to you?"

I don't know if anyone has ever actually said that to him, but at first, I wasn't sure what he was talking about. Maybe that's because I haven't met enough black men in Melbourne, or in Bangkok, or in Buenos Aires, and those whom I have met haven't exhibited any special behavior that I didn't notice when I was living in the United States. Of course, I'm black, too, so naturally, they wouldn't pull that I'm-too-cool-for-this-room stuff with me.

Then I got a little worried. "Do I act like that?" I asked my friend. He assured me that I don't, but I couldn't help but wonder how I come off to people who don't know me, the ones standing off to the sidelines, too intimidated or too turned off to approach. Several weeks ago, I got some interesting insight into my public persona while talking to the neighbor of one of my female friends.

After complimenting my physical appearance several times, much to my discomfort (it's not every Sunday afternoon that a good-looking straight guy keeps slipping into the conversation how attractive his new gay acquaintance is), he wondered why I am single. I was tempted to hand him the URL for this blog and tell him to read it and weep/laugh/feel sorry for me, but I was more interested in what he thought.

"Well, if I were watching you talk to me -- smiling, animated, friendly -- I'd think you seemed really cool and interesting. You'd definitely be someone that I'd want to talk to. But if I just saw you standing alone, I don't know. You're good-looking, you have a nice body, and with that cap on, you look like a really tough military guy. I might be a little bit afraid to approach you."

"Military"?! Now that's something you don't hear every day. In fact, I'd never heard that one -- at least not in connection to me. If I were white, I seriously doubt that my olive-green cap would have the same effect. My new acquaintance must have read my mind, because he immediately accused himself of objectifying me. And although he stood by every single compliment he'd given me, he acknowledged that my being "exotic" in Australia might have a lot to do with how people perceive me -- both the bad and the good aspects of it.

I wonder if that might be the case with my friend and his view of black guys in Australia. If they were white and acting the same way, would he even notice? Or perhaps the attention they get might influence the way he sees them. Doesn't any guy surrounded by potential suitors look a little bit like an asshole?

In Bangkok, I'd seen it every time I went to DJ Station. Average guys of European descent who probably get little to no attention back home were suddenly holding court with the cream of the Thai crop. Likewise, the Thai guys and Asian men whose fellow countrymen might rarely give them the time of day, or night, were suddenly being fawned over by white tourists and expats. It was an interesting dynamic to watch, and I did sense a certain cockiness in the air, but like I suggested before, does any guy being pursued from all sides come off as being humble?

Just this morning, I received an email from a photographer who had seen my photos on this blog. "I have been on the hunt for the longest time to find a suitable black male model for my work... would you be keen?" he asked. If only it hadn't been for that five-letter word that starts with a "b," my "definitely maybe" would have been a "definitely, of course." But that's just the way it goes. Six years after leaving New York City, I've come to accept a simple truth about life and lust: A compliment is a compliment, no matter what color it is.

Who knows what people are seeing when they see me? The less it matters what people think of me -- a state of enlightenment that I'm continuously striving to achieve -- the less I care. And if you are sizing me up from a distance, judging me with your eyes and not your ears, it's your loss. You don't deserve what you won't get.
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