An anti-racist white guy taught me to fear the fetishization of my body.
I always used to wonder: “is the gay community incapable of seeing my Blackness as universally attractive?”
And for the longest time, I honestly couldn’t figure out where I began to question this. But as I’ve begun to trace my fear and disbelief, I found it originated back to one of the happier days of my life, actually — on a date, of all things. An incredible one. It was in a moment of complete infatuation and butterflies, being treated so well by this super cool white guy, that I started to fear that it might not be for the right reasons. I instantly began pulling back and couldn’t explain it to him, myself, or any one of my friends that asked “what happened to that white guy you were talkin’ to?”
I don’t quite remember what he said but he was telling me about his ex and suddenly I realized said ex was Black. And my heart sank. The thought that this guy who I was mesmerized by, who seemed mesmerized by me, might only be seeing my Blackness, birthed a new form of fear in me. One I’d never felt before that moment.
Googling ‘racial fetishization’ will get you a mixed bag of results, but by far the best definition I’ve seen is from Lillian Sun, creator of FleshLight Chronicles (definitely follow her on insta!), calling it “sexual prejudice plus power”. She goes on to say that “what fetishizers crave is this power over something else, to project their own fantasies into another body based on what the media portrays, regardless of whether that body is actually a person.”
For Black men, these fantasies are derived from very standard and well-known stereotypes — aggressive, dominant, athletic, urban, hypermasculine, well-endowed — but are often not held to the same standard as other forms on the spectrum of racism because they’re sexualized and thus, arguably, just a part of preference and attraction. But fetishization is nothing more than dehumanization — the dwindling down of a complex and complicated identity into an “other” category. It sounds like something a crazy person would think, right? But you’d be wrong. A quick Google search found me this little gem on Quora.com, about how one white woman appreciates Black guys’ “animal masculinity… like Tarzan”. You can’t make this shit up, people!
But back to this white guy.
I remember learning a lot about anti-racism work from him, specifically the kind he was leading in white spaces, and he even introduced me to the works of Beverly Daniel Tatum — psychologist, educator, former president of Spelman College — whose teachings I take with me into every conversation I have about anti-racism work. He was also an educator and had a large hand in equity and inclusion work. I mention all this because I want to be especially clear that this man was the elusive white anti-racist that we’re all demanding we see more of. He’s gone on to do DEI work at some huge companies and yet even he, likely unknowingly, taught me to fear the fetishization of my body. And not that it matters but the boy was fine, too.
I remember seeing him 3 or 4 times before I tried to buck up the courage to talk to him, backed out at the last minute, and then eventually found him on Grindr and sent him a message. To my surprise, he remembered my face and seemed very into me. Listen, this was the first time I’d ever tried to “talk” to a white guy. It was my first year in Washington, D.C., and I was only 24 years old and had one of my best friends boosting my head up to make a move. I was just this baby in the big city who’d come from little ole Savannah, Georgia where Black guys went to Black bars and white guys did their own thing and never the twain shall meet.
Long story short — he was great and we had a fun time. But we fizzled and from that entanglement, I couldn’t look at white guys without thinking: does he like me or does he just like Black guys? I’d crossed one threshold and was now worried about a whole new level of racism that I might be experiencing. And what was worse was that most of the guys who I’d eventually question about fetishization never believed they were doing it or that it was even a thing.
These thoughts are inevitable for BIPOC, and particularly Black guys, in mixed gay scenes and relationships within the queer community:
Am I being fetishized? Does this guy only look for Black guys? Is that bad? Tell me and be honest: do you have a history of dating more than just Black guys? I don’t know why that’s important to me but tell me, dammit!
The inner voice turned up full-throttle and drove me crazy for years after that. I meticulously grilled white guys who messaged me on Grindr, who smiled at me in bars or told me I was handsome. I bet you say that to all the Black ‘studs’, don’t ya? I had to know about their entire dating history. The fear that they weren’t actually seeing me was a constant.
There’s a big conversation happening about race discrimination in the LGBTQ community, and particularly about exoticism and fetishization of Black gay men, but its definitely not happening fast enough, or at least, it didn’t happen fast enough to protect me from years of struggling to see myself in a different light than this community saw me in. It wore away at my self-esteem and in a shocking reversal of harm, caused me to seek out other Black guys for perceived security from that gnawing suspicion. I was internalizing what was happening and, in turn, projecting what I wanted onto other Black bodies. I felt just like those white men. I was erasing what was there for what I wanted to be there: safety. And some of those men turned out to be very, very unsafe for me.
Can’t I be universally liked by white guys — or Asian and Latinx guys — who’d last dated a guy of a completely different race but saw in me qualities that they found attractive? Or can I only be liked by guys who are specifically and intentionally seeking out Black guy after Black guy after Black guy?
Don’t get me wrong. I truly believe seeing the beauty of Black men is a sign of higher intelligence and good taste. And yes, I have heard the long upheld African-American proverb: “once you go black, you never go back”. But I think we can all confirm that while this blaxploitation phrase had problematic roots, it’s since come to mean a lot more about loving our Black culture and humanity as a whole and not something as simplistic and dehumanizing as our perceived sexual prowess.
There’s been a long raging battle about preferences versus biases on gay dating apps. Several studies construct data-driven hierarchies around who gays find most-to-least universally attractive, or at least who gets the most responses. So we’ve all learned that explicitly stating who you don’t want is just not cool. But what about the white profiles that say things like “no racial hangups” or “open-minded”? What about the ones that say “Black guys to the front”? Shouldn’t I feel some kind of tinge of satisfaction at the change in the norm? That I’m finally experiencing some of that Black privilege everyone’s going on about? Access to him that his fellow white guys lack?
Well, I don’t.
Because accepting that I’m an acquired taste means giving into the idea that others are simply standard American fare.
So, if you’re reading this and you’re Black, I hope you don’t feel that way. And if you’re non-Black, when a Black guy asks you about your dating history, maybe what they’re really asking is: can I trust that you see me?