Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Coloring Book: Notes on Being Black and Dating White

The following is my latest essay on dating and race, for Medium.

I can't say for sure when it hit me  -- the harsh reality of race and racism, that is. It probably didn't knock me down like a punch in the stomach but perhaps arrived in a series of taps on my back that gradually intensified, becoming harder, faster, louder, eventually moving to the front and slapping me across the face. Maybe it crept up on me like a bad moon rising or a slowly marching band of gloom playing a requiem for dreams indefinitely deferred.

Although I was well aware of prejudice against black people growing up in Kissimmee, Florida's Deep South, I actually had few encounters with overt racism. White folks sometimes gave me the side eye, and I'm sure some of them talked behind my back, but it's not as if they went around saying terrible things to my face. Not one white person there ever made me fear for my physical well-being.

If the white kids hated me, they were, for the most part, discreet. Sure they called me an Oreo --  "black on the outside, white on the inside" --  as if not adhering to their stereotypical image of how a black kid should act was a badge of honor, and the only girls who ever went out with me or showed any interest in me (all two or three of them) were black, but for the most part, my white peers befriended me or left me alone. Although I knew about white-on-black racism, and I was aware of how some white people saw me (as different and probably inferior), I never felt particularly ostracized by them because of my skin color.

Aside from some housing issues when I was in college at the University of Florida in Gainesville (unfortunately for me, a black roommate/tenant wasn't always the most-desirable roommate/tenant), I wouldn't really have a problem with The White Man until I started dating him. Of the four white people whom I can vividly recall directing the N Word at me personally in my lifetime, two were the rednecks who used to chant "I smell nigger" every time they passed me on the playground. The other two were gay white guys, both Argentine, who tried and failed to get me into bed during my four and a half years living in Buenos Aires.

That's when I began to draw that thin line between fetishism and outright racism. I hadn't quite made the connection on New York City's gay scene, being more accustomed to the traditional "I'm just not into black guys" form of racism (which, comments of the two playground rednecks aside, is more insulting than anything anyone ever said to me in Kissimmee). In Manhattan's massive melting pot, I often felt invisible to gay men because most of them, especially the white ones, were not searching for someone like me. Black may be beautiful, but blue eyes were everything.

I learned to live with it and tried to look the other way, which is what I also did when I met white guys with a blacks-only dating policy. I avoided them mostly because I wanted to feel special. I wanted them to like me for my unique qualities, not because I fell into the limited color-based boundaries of their attraction. It wasn't until those two Argentines concluded their ardent pursuit of me with the N word that I realized that chasing after black men and sleeping with them doesn't necessarily preclude racism.

"Just because he fucks you, doesn't mean he respects you." - Juliana Qian, "The politics of racial attraction"

There are many stories of slave masters bedding and beating their human property (one of them told, to devastating effect, in the 2013 Oscar-winning film 12 Years a Slave) to back that up. I once jokingly called a white boyfriend "racist" after he made an on-color comment, which I've since forgotten. "Yeah, I just had a black dick in my mouth, and I'm racist," he said with a chuckle in his defense. I laughed, too, but not just with him. I didn't seriously think he was racist, but that wasn't because we'd just had sex. To his credit, though, race seldom crept up in any of our conversations. We talked about many things during our time together, and race was rarely one of them.

I'm not sure whether that was due to his lack of awareness in the ignorant sense or his lack of awareness in the It-didn't-matter sense. (He was Australian, and therefore white-on-black racism was not part of his national heritage, though Australia has plenty of other forms or racism to go around.) I knew I was an aberration from his romantic norm. Dating a black guy was neither a personal habit nor part of a socio-political-sexual movement for him, and perhaps that's why, for better or for worse, he never treated uncovering the mysteries of my black male psyche like his manifest destiny.

In my experiences with gay white men, it often seems like the more black men they've dated in the past and the more exclusive their pursuit of black romantic partners has been, the more hyper-aware of skin color they become in general. Although understandable, that can become problematic if/when they begin to instinctively attribute particulars of my personality to race or base assumptions about me and my life on it. I'm so much more than black. (For the record, while my serious boyfriends all have been white or Latino, I've dated pretty much every race and ethnicity under the sun, for despite any personal preferences I may have, my attraction is limitless.)

In a city with racial politics as complicated as Cape Town's (I relocated to South Africa's gay mecca after my extended stints in Buenos Aires, Melbourne and Bangkok), my dates with white men almost always seem to end up on the subject of color. Shortly after my arrival here, I met a white expat from the U.S. Midwest who had been living here for ten years. When he described Tamboerskloof, my first Cape Town neighborhood, as being "very white," his tone was laced with disapproval. I wondered what he would have thought of someone describing a neighborhood as being "very black." Did he not realize that the racist undercurrent of his observation was just as powerful? And why was he telling me? Should I have been living somewhere with more black people? Would he have said the same thing to a white person?

During our conversations, race kept interrupting. When I mentioned my dream of one day adopting a baby from Tanzania, he seemed surprised and perplexed. Tanzanians, he pointed out, were the least attractive of all Africans. As he started going down his mental list, beginning with the most attractive Africans (those from the Democratic Republic of Congo), I wondered if he'd written it down somewhere or if he'd recited it so many times with other black dates that he'd committed it to memory.

I wondered where I fit into his hierarchy of black. Did I rate as high as the guys in Senegal? As low as the Tanzanians? Despite the strangeness of his commentary, it was obvious that he did indeed think that black was beautiful (if it originated in certain countries only), and I quietly gave him credit for recognizing that there's inherent variety in "African." But I was disarmed, too. He was categorizing black Africans as one might categorize dogs. Were the black natives of each country merely interchangeable specimens? Should I have reconsidered adopting a baby from Tanzania because he might grow up to be unattractive to certain white men?

On another occasion, I was having lunch with another white American expat in De Waterkant, a predominantly white, upscale-ish and touristy area in central Cape Town, when a large group of patrons arrived and joined the group that was already seated at the table directly behind us. I prepared myself for the worst, for I'd spent enough time in restaurants to know that nothing good comes from the arrival of a large party that has nothing to do with you.

Apparently, they were so excited to see each other that they forgot they weren't the only people on the terrace. They started hugging and kissing each other, rubbing their butts into the back of my chair and practically sending my face flying forward into my burger. I turned around and shot them a WTH glare, which they didn't notice because they were too busy fawning over each other. My lunch date, however, couldn't miss it.

"You know, that's a race thing," he announced, his tone halfway between sympathetic and accusatory. "They're doing that, treating you like you aren't even there, because you're black."

"Oh. Really?" I knew what it felt like to be invisible in an all-white crowd, having been to enough gay bars in the United States, but race couldn't have been further from my mind. "So how do you explain that black people in Cape Town do that sort of thing to me all the time, too, probably even more than white people?"

He couldn't. The large party whose behinds were poking the back of my head probably didn't even realize that there was a behind in my seat, much less a black one. To put a racial slant on their obliviousness was sort of like assuming that the white driver whom I once saw run a red light at the corner of De Waterkant and Buitengracht and hit a black man on a bicycle was driven by some racist impulse. He probably was just being a typically reckless and impatient Cape Town driver.

On yet another Cape Town date (the third one with a white expat from Scotland), he made yet another observation about everyday white-on-black social crimes. He said he used to witness them firsthand every time he went out to dinner with his ex, who, of course, was black. From his point of view, white waiters and waitresses always seemed to hand the bill to my dinner date, not to his ex, because they presumed that the black man, no matter how finely attired he might have been, wasn't paying. I'd had enough bills placed on the table right in front of me to know this simply wasn't an actual culinary trend.

My biggest problem with these knee-jerk assumptions, aside from the fact that everything that happens to a black person doesn't happen because he or she is black, is the way black men keep getting cast as the victim, damaged at the hands of The White Man. So many things besides being black (like being male, being American, being gay and, most of all, being human) have contributed to who I am and to my experiences. I've never thought of myself as a victim.

As I explained to the second expat above, in my self-image, I'm a man first, gay second, American third, and black fourth. (Interestingly, his hierarchy was as follows: 1. White, 2. Upper middle class, 3. Male, 4. American, 5. Gay - which explained a lot.) My first two self-identifiers spawned innate qualities, while the qualities spawned from the other two are derived more from my experiences as those two things than from the self-identifiers themselves.

My maleness, my gayness and even my American-ness are things I identify as in my head when nobody else is around. When I'm alone, though, I don't think of myself in terms of my skin color, and I rarely do when I'm with my friends, most of whom never bring it up. Even when I look in the mirror, it's not the first thing I see. But there's always something - or rather, someone - there to remind me when I go out with certain white men.

Although in my experience, it has never been malicious or nearly as condescending as the way super-liberal feminist Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) treated her maid Florida Evans (Esther Rolle) in the early seasons of the '70s Norman Lear sitcom Maude, hyper-awareness of race in white people who exclusively date black can still sometimes have uncomfortable and unfortunate consequences. I'm firmly against choosing romantic partners based on race or rejecting them for the same reason, but I understand that's exactly what some people do. I just wish more of them were honest about why they do it and what it might say about them. Being white and dating a person of color doesn't make you color blind. In fact, when it becomes a pattern, it can lead to seeing color more than individuality.

That's something I think about every time I sit across from a white date, and the conversation takes a turn into familiar and expected territory. Once again, I'm almost certain that the main thing he sees when he looks at me is black.

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