I was on holiday on my own in Malaysia some years ago. Whilst I was there I met a group of English women who had been travelling around Asia. We got along well, so decided to all go out for a night out in KL. Whilst there one of the women took a shine to me. We had several dances, kissed a fair amount and enjoyed ourselves, but we didn’t sleep together as I was staying out of relationships for my own personal reasons. When we got back to the hotel, although we parted, she called my room later to see if I wanted to come over. I declined. When I returned to the UK, I rang the woman to see if she wanted to go out on a date. She replied, that although she’d had a good time on holiday all she was interested in was in seeing if it was true, and now she was back in the UK she couldn’t be seen out with a black man.
We never spoke again.
In my recent blog post about the homoerotic nature of the white male fascination with black masculinity, one of the things which struck me was that although that was a powerful blog, it needed to be seen in conjunction with the oppression of black male sexuality by white women as well. This blog is therefore my attempt to raise awareness of the pain of this form of psychological torture. A torture borne out of only being seen as the exotic racial other, and not being seen as human beings in our own rights with our own needs wants and desired from our partners, no matter whatever the culture they derive from.
I once dated a white woman who lived in Nottingham. We dated for several months, where she would come down to London or I would go up to Nottingham. We did a lot of clubbing and had a lot of fun. One day during a gap in our meeting up, I received a call from this woman. She said she was ending things because she had also been seeing a white man who lived local to her. She also said that whereas she saw us as a bit of fun, that she would never settle down with black man, and that she wanted to make things work with this local white man.
We never spoke again.
Butler (Butler, 1988) in her excellent writings on the subject, spoke succinctly about the nature of performance for white women within a patriarchal environment, where women put aside their own wants and needs and take up an unconscious, socially constructed role, within patriarchal environs. In this instance though, it also needs to be noted that for many black men, safely inhabiting white spaces, and especially around white women, can involve the same kinds of preforming. The exotification is not always overt, it is often not spoken, but it is always there, in the glance, the touch on the muscles, the racial code switching to show an affinity and to impress by using black jargon (Leonardo, 2004). Racial power dynamics are also intertwined within this discourse, where the racial other has to know its place within the hierarchy, below whiteness, away from white femininity, but not too far, so as to be admired, desired, and occasionally tasted as forbidden fruit (Andersen, 2014). Within this racialised dyad, the exotified other is invisible. ‘It’ isn’t seen except as an extension of the fantasies of the white woman subject. ‘Its’ intersectional Identities which make up its humanity, such as its parenthood, its profession, or its age and intelligence, having been othered into the unconscious to be replaced by a projected sexualisation based around cock size and potency. A projection borne out of a western patriarchal narrative which dictated that for a women to be sexual was to be labelled as amoral.
Yet, for those black men who choose to play this kind of role (and I have done as much as anyone), there is a cost. The cost is embedded within the psychological self-othering which goes with this racialised fitting in. We are not allowed to be our sexual selves as we would define them. We cannot be black sapiosexuals, or androgynous black men, or black men who just like to sit and talk and be friends with white women (with all women). Within this white supremacist, yet patriarchially coated, environment, our sexuality is defined by whiteness and is no longer actually ours.
I was once dating a white woman in East Sussex for about a year. Her Facebook posts were always full of pictures of us laughing together, and she was very proud to show me off to her friends as this black, male, doctor who she had, in her words bagged. That was all until I voiced concern about something in our relationship that I was unhappy with. Then she started to go cold on me. When I was soon after diagnosed with costochondritis, after a brief visit to hospital where I thought I might be having a heart attack, I went on my own, with no help from my partner. She ended things that week, without even asking me how I was.
Via a text message.
We never spoke again.
The message in this passage above for me, after months of therapy, was that as an exotic black man I should never have had complaints about my relationship. I should have severed my doubts, my pain, and instead of expressing myself, I should have been happy to perform my role of Stepford Coon in ordinance of the superiority of white femininity. This is because raising the pain of being racially objectified raises the spectre of that shame filled fragility of white femininity which has in these instances perpetrated said racial objectification.
Some of my closest friends though are white women, and when they read this blog they were not only not surprised, they were also saddened at this, my need to protest. So, whilst there are many women who would not see this racialised interplay as part of their character, I would ask, are you complicit also? My reasoning here is that this kind of racism is systemic. It is something imbibed without knowing, ingested from birth, via the media, our caregivers, and majority culture. So now, even though there may be women who try hard not to objectify black men, given the systemic layering in of the exotification of blackness, when witnessing their peers objectifing blackness my sense is there are very few who would call this behaviour out. The danger with this silence is it makes one complicit (silence is violence).
Conversely, the lack of acknowledgement of black male pain at their exotification is in many ways why it has been so easy to watch the likes of George Floyd’s murder on the numerous social media posts online. To be able to sit and observe, without a hint of remorse, shame, or consternation, the murder of a man, shouts at the underlying racialised hatred that many, white women included, have towards black men. That a black man stepped outside of the lines defined for him within this culture, offered him up to such destruction. That this destruction can take many forms, both literal, metaphorical and psychological.
The most soul-destroying aspect of the struggle therefore is that we as black men are just not taken seriously. Whilst I write from my heart these blogs of mine, from that abyss of vulnerability, it always astonishes me how many people say that my words of pain and occasional joy resonate with the reader or those in the audiences in my talk. It is as if they have never heard a black man speak so openly about their experiences as the racialised and exotified other, as if my pain provokes an empathy and compassion and learning within them as I return to me, as they return to me, my humanity stolen away by the exotification of my racialised persona.
I personally have had to dig deep into my own abyss, into my own traumas, to have women hear me, and recognise what I have been through, so recovering my humanity and distancing myself from objectification. Yet, it has always cost me. Hours have subsequently been spent on the sofa post a date or a presentation, lying down, knackered, emotional, or angry, as I sadly fought the whitesplaining of women (both professionally as well as personally) who needed me to remain hidden. Their need to deny my humanity, or to take the other side, a conjectural position bolstered by their own innate unprocessed supremacy, meaning I was often repositioned as invisible, as an object, as the exotified Other.
So, to the allies amongst you, my message is simply this:
Hear black men (listen to our pain).
Believe black men (empathise with us).
Take black men seriously (respect our humanity).
Andersen, P. D. (2014). The Hollywood Beach Party Genre and the Exotification of Youthful White Masculinity in Early 1960s America. Men and Masculinities, 18(5), 511–535. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X14558880
Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. Theatre Journal, 40(4), 519. https://doi.org/10.2307/3207893
Leonardo, Z. (2004). The Color of Supremacy: Beyond the discourse of “white privilege.” Educational Philosophy and Theory, 36(2).