My older sister has been calling me an Uncle Tom my entire life. She’s the type to say things like this to my face. Which means I, from an early age, began arming myself with language; and that I, from an early age, began crafting ways to double down on my right to desire white men.
This past year, we’d settled into an uneasy truce. We were sitting in her car in December, parked in a lot that had once belonged to Little Rock's University Mall. The mall had died since I’d moved away, then been bulldozed, then been replaced by another (outdoor) shopping center. Beneath all that lay a still deeper history, when this area had served as the city's western frontier in the late ’60s and early ’70s. White flight had moved much of Little Rock’s young, mostly white managerial class into this area. Herded east by city officials in the ’50s, black people had always lived in the South and East ends, as far as I knew.
But by the time I came of age, hip-hop had gifted explicit, outspoken materialism almost exclusively to black youth. To us, white folks dressed shabbily. The mall, therefore, was ours: It was the place where kids bought Jordans at the sneaker store — before and after Michael Jordan said nothing about the stickups we dodged to keep them. It was where we appropriated Waspy signifiers like Tommy Hilfiger — before and after Hilfiger declared he hadn’t intended his clothes for black people.
Ever the little brother, I implored my sister to say again what she’d said a few nights before about me and white people.
“What, that you love them?”
“Yes, but the other part.”
“That I used to think you loved them,” she said, both of us laughing at my need to be affirmed in this way.
“But it’s something else, ain’t it?” she said, looking me over and laughing, though it seemed as if she was trying to cover up some kind of fear. Perhaps she feared that being so cavalier with white people would someday bring me harm, that they would recognize my zealous gaze as leering and want to punish me for objectifying them. I couldn’t quite tell. “Yeah, I used to think that you just loved you some white people. Now I actually think you hate them.”
I certainly talked about race enough, over the years, to have earned her rebuke. I spent more time in the company of white people than anyone else in my family, and was never quite as wary. I had a more playful attitude when it came to race, wanted to toy with the ideas black people share about white people when in exclusively black company, in a way that betrayed both a deeper interest in whiteness and what it meant as an identity.
Her read in the car was much closer than it had ever been before to the way I’d always seen my own critical interest in whiteness. For years, I'd managed to convince myself that fetishizing whiteness was my form of protest — that by indulging my instinct to look at and desire white guys, I was affirming my right to have a perspective, and an appetite for something white men didn't want me looking at.
Of course, you could look at white men the way the culture wanted you to — chiseled and perfect, or draped in the signifiers of a lower socioeconomic, or black, performance style. White male beauty was Chris Evans as Captain America, swole up on Super Soldier serum, or Channing Tatum as Magic Mike in a fitted cap, grinding to Ginuwine’s Pony. But few seemed interested in what I actually found attractive about white guys — all that mundane, pale, unkempt suburbanity. Merrell hiking sneakers, Patagonia fleeces, and washed-out crewnecks indicated a distinct white boy unaffectedness that I discovered I had a taste for. The clothes and postures that made white guys unremarkable were the things I fetishized, my way of rejecting all of the fastidious grooming associated with both my black and gay identities.
I was also a sucker for watching white men’s faces blanch in shock when they realized that, for once, someone was actually checking for them, objectifying them — that this time, they were the ones on view. Each new word or trope to describe that rarest of thing, the white male pinup, was like a relic — dad bod, normcore, Suburban White Dad, DILF — from my personal golden age of male objectification, the 1980s, when Chippendales and Playgirl and regional pro wrestling promotions made the sight of white guys posing in Speedos a giddy, bawdy, mutually understood joke. But I was never able to convince my sister that I was at work at something more impactful, or perhaps more sinister, than just ogling white guys.
It felt like a triumph to hear my sister admit that there might be more to my interest in whiteness than pure, uncritical affection. There were things I’d only begun to tell her, about how my miscegenation fantasies had helped me accept the act of bottoming, the idea of racial subjugation seeming to match my preferred sex positions. That wanting a white guy to blow my back out made sense to my body, which longed for my mind to be free of race fatigue.
But her words also terrified me. I’d long been wary of the ways my eyeing ordinary white men was problematic, that it fetishized an attitude that was simply a trapping of white privilege — not having to care — and venerated white beauty, even if that beauty appeared deconstructed or a little disheveled. My sister had always served as a kind of race conscience for me. Her censure had always assured me I was at least still legible to the rest of the world; her new fear and confusion meant that something had actually changed in me. The confusion on her face meant I could no longer rely on her as a measure of what I was becoming.
About a decade and a half ago, while still in college, I began wondering if there were any ways to respond to whiteness other than righteous indignation. Could I engage whiteness, think about it, talk about it, and not necessarily be angered by it all the time? I was an undergraduate at Howard, so there weren’t actually many white people around. In fact, I hadn’t spent much time around them at all. If I considered whiteness from the vantage of my own lived experience, I was more inclined to want to play with it, poke at it, wink at it maybe, and seduce it if I could.
I'd long since read John McWhorter’s Losing the Race, and I’d soon make my way through both Darieck Scott’s Traitor to the Race and Melvin Dixon’s Vanishing Rooms, so I had plenty of cautionary tales. I’d read Baldwin’s Another Country, the urtext on interracial desire, looking mostly for the homoerotic parts (which he kinda skimps on by killing off Rufus so early). I’d even found a copy of Gary Fisher’s Gary in Your Pocket, a momentous occasion of seeing myself in fiction (though Gary also dies, during the plague in 1994). In 2002, my alternatives were to trek through American letters looking for gay black men, many of whom ended up dead by the novel’s end, or to get horned up watching Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal dry-hump in the mountains.
I’d also begun reading D.H. Lawrence around this time, again for the promise of homoeroticism, and because the Barnes & Noble editions were cheap, and because I depended a lot on white cultural products to bolster my intellectual identity then. Like so many before me, I fell for the rank, foreign British bodies in his Sons and Lovers, so pale beneath the smudges of black soot, and for the earthy masculinity of straight men wrestling nude on bearskin rugs in Women in Love. These depictions of rural England imprinted pale bodies befouled by streaks of soil in my mind forever, I think.
So I looked at white guys, a lot. And I could’ve kept it to myself, but I didn’t want to. At parties I spoke about my desire loud enough to sound like a personal ad. I had no intention of doing any violence to my people; I just found it kind of hot when you framed abjection, getting fucked, whiteness, and abdicating power together. Speaking about wanting white guys at such a volume allowed me to push through the fear of coming out. And to make myself more comfortable, I intellectualized that desire — offered related texts, referenced social justice. In doing that, I thought I might be able to extract some real insight or pleasure from the whole “race thing,” but I wasn’t exactly innocent in being obnoxious about it.
Once I made it to New York, I went looking for actual straight white bodies to explore. I imagined I would topple centuries of heteronormativity, that I would snare the lone straight white guy noble enough not to need marriage or legacy, choosing to love me instead. This would be our revolution. And so, rather than seek solidarity in gay spaces that seemed too white, or black gay spaces that seemed too femme, I pulled a reversal — sought entry into the whitest, straightest spaces I could find. Like a one-man rush committee for a good old boy fraternity, I solicited the attention of the most monied, most powerful — and yes, hottest — white guys in sight. In my mind, I became a casting director for those Bruce Weber Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs.
From the outset of any encounter, sex with straight white guys was two things: an apology for who I was not, and a rabid investigation into the root of this desire before the guy got too squeamish. Most of the time, sex happened without much notice, after cookouts in Brooklyn, the last holdouts after the sun had died but before the whiskey was finished. More than once, they wondered how I’d known they might be into it. I was never quite sure. These sex encounters were burdened by too much fantasy on my part, and too much fear on my partner’s, for them to ever to live up to the billing. Also, throughout, I had to hold back, not wanting to scare them off by letting my feelings show. Eventually, though, I found I had an appetite for little else.
I knew enough to fear indulging the desire I felt for white guys. I was afraid of becoming a Race Man, still cringing then at what Eldridge Cleaver said of Baldwin decades earlier: “The cross they have to bear is that, already bending over and touching their toes for the white man, the fruit of their miscegenation is not the little half-white offspring of their dreams but an increase in the unwinding of their nerves — though they redouble their efforts and intake of the white man’s sperm.” But I convinced myself that this line of inquiry was merely an intellectual exploration. That exploration would soon subsume both my creative and sex lives.
The truth is, I read Cleaver’s words less as an indictment than a provocation — and that in itself concerned me. I feared wasting the work of brilliant black minds who had spent decades dismantling the hegemony of whiteness. And I couldn’t escape the idea that what I feared most was losing what I’d gained from living in proximity to white people: my privileged place as a favorite.
Maybe the desire to get fucked by a white guy was no different than the other times I’d tried to escape home, a grasp for some white environ that guaranteed patronage or support. There was also the danger that someone would be offended, or wounded. Going forward in the face of that danger meant finding pleasure in being abrasive. It meant taking a swipe back at Cleaver and all the other black thinkers who’d grown haughty in their piety, congratulating themselves for having recovered from, or having sidestepped altogether, the self-loathing they were quick to diagnose in me.
The real bodies in my life up until then were black bodies, some of whom were already having children as I was just beginning to come to terms with my own body and sexuality. That scared and kind of embarrassed me; to compensate, I imagined myself among white people. I could fantasize about experiences I didn’t dare live out yet; I had to keep the reality of sex and shame at a distance. I know black bodies more intimately, their spit and piss and shit and blood, and so I stowed my own body within a white fantasy world, away from the homophobic ridicule I imagined the flesh-and-blood black folks around me held in store.
Something akin to friend-zoning happens when I meet black men, gay or straight. I’ve been conditioned to want to revel in black community, because yes, I too love a cookout, and yes, I would appreciate somebody coming to scoop me if ever I fall into the sunken place. But something about what community and sex have each come to mean in my life means that, for me, the two things don’t compute.
I fear that wanting whiteness is an addiction, and that I’ve surrendered to it — that my body has contracted in some irreversible way, ruining any chance I might still have of attaining any #BlackLoveGoals. I’ve cast around, in that fear, for things that explain my disinclination to pursue black male romantic partners. I’ve begun to rationalize, and to re-examine.
I was 7 years old when my grandmother’s kidneys began to fail, and she moved in with my family. My sister now had to share a room with my grandmother, transitioning to the twin beds my brother and I had used before. In exchange, my brother and I were made to share the queen bed she’d vacated. For the next three years, until my grandmother died, we slept this way.
When it came my turn to greet her on the day she’d been installed in her new room, I told my grandmother — a woman confronting the end of her life with a cracked Bible, an afghan, and a tin of Hershey’s Kisses and Caramels she kept under her bed — this: “You stink.”
This still embarrasses me, so much that I’ve developed tactics — pinching myself, slapping my hand — to free myself whenever the memory latches on. In the moment, she took it gamely. At least she didn’t hold it against me. Still, for years, I watched from the doorway as my mother lovingly changed her mother’s dressings, plaited her purple hair into a crown, until I was finally brave enough to venture closer, spending summer afternoons perched beside her watching her stories (The Young & The Restless was our favorite) while I unwrapped candies.
But my grandmother forced my brother and I, and our burgeoning bodies, into close proximity — his approaching and then entering puberty while I still wet the bed, just a roll away. In the house, there was always the smell of my grandmother’s colostomy bag. I came to know family as this: bodies failing one another and the shame attached to that. I couldn’t bear to taint my brother, to contaminate his side — his adolescence, his young manhood — with my piss.
Has he stood in the way of my learning to eroticize black men? After all, most black men I meet resemble my brother in some way. (Perhaps I am the only black man in history to whom all other black men look alike.) Although something about this anecdote with my brother and the bed feels too pat, I wonder.
Whatever else this memory can tell me, it indicates how important, and pained, my connections to family and community have been. I later learned to do my community the favor of withholding my sexuality, performing this chivalrous act for straight black women on the watch for DL bamboozling. By keeping my desire quarantined to white guys, by tamping down the prepubescent crushes for husbands and uncles and dads in my neighborhood or my church, I was maintaining community. For me, for some time, self-denial and love of community were one and the same. I want to forget that history, but the body takes longer in its forgetting, I think. The early strategies I derived for pleasure — or to avoid pain and shame — still determine my affections.
Not every white guy has read Euripides’ play The Bacchae, but society certainly teaches it to him: to cradle his privilege like Pentheus, king of Thebes, lest every disenfranchised minority rip it from him (or, as they do in the myth, rip him limb from limb). I’ve looked hard enough at white guys to know that many of them only want to be looked at in certain ways — adored, not ogled — before they start getting uncomfortable, and much of media accommodates this.
So this past February, while the world celebrated the beauty of Trevante Rhodes and Mahershala Ali stripped down to their Calvins, I mourned Bill Paxton in private. I marveled at how well his plucky, gap-toothed smile transitioned between sadistic jock stud Chet in Weird Science to galactic GI Joe stud Pvt. Hudson in Aliens; I googled shots of his middle-aged ass thrusting for the patriarchy while navigating the perilous space between the bedrooms of his sister wives in Big Love. It was maybe the first time I could truly lust in peace, assured that black men were somewhere getting their due in the world and that I wasn't needed to fill the quota.
I laugh along with Eudora Peterson and Phoebe Robinson, two black female comedians in New York, as they detail the travails of black women acknowledging their romantic attachments to white guys, knowing the betrayal they believe themselves to be making, and the giddy excitement they feel in making it. I read confessionals from black people with histories of interracial relationships, some of which sound guilty, some defensive.
I was once a fixture at parties in New York, where I was willing to extol my exclusive fixation on white men, explaining that I’d never slept with, never even dated, a black man. Partly to be brazen — to have a story to tell beyond my Southern accent — but also because there were so many things I’d learned by now, and felt ready to say:
Whiteness affords its bearers the ability to slum. With it, one can withstand being a bit nasty — think motocross, muddin', Mad Max (the old one AND the new one) — because of what the Western mind makes of whiteness. Getting nasty, of course, is hot.
The nonchalance I’d always envied in white boys was nothing but their privilege. Their bodies slouch because they’ve never been policed, never had anything to prove. Nonchalance is hot.
If you close your eyes and try to run fast enough, you too can sometimes feel like a part of the pack, join your howl to theirs. Playing wolves is also hot.
White people gone native (doing stuff outdoors) — when viewed from the comfort of indoors — is hot.
Giving myself permission to approximate the slang of a boy-crazy teenage girl from the ’80s, using words like “hunk,” “stud,” and “hot,” is also hot, as are Australians (in general) and rugby.
At times I’ve resorted to globally outsourcing "lustable" white guys, because of America’s reluctance to offer up white men for viewing. Oftentimes, countries throughout the former British Empire are safely outside the reach of the US’s classic racial analogy (white:rich::black:poor), making it easier to imagine a poor white person, and thus easier to feel that they’re available for your voyeurism — which is creepy, but also hot.
The popular opinion in my mostly black communities has always been that white people were vaguely dirty; I now understood why that idea had long excited, not repulsed, me. I didn’t quite want that dirtiness for myself, but I did want to know what became of a body free of so many scrubbings and combings and smoothings. I didn’t mind saying these things about my desire for white guys aloud, either, no matter what company I found myself in. Once, at a party, while bragging of my fantasy of getting a tramp stamp, a party goer turned to me and asked, “Of what? ‘Jim Crow’?”
Not even the sting of that barb could subdue me. Afterward, I just went and sulked by looking at Rogan Hardy videos on HarlemHooksup.net. Hardy is the undisputed King of Race-Baiting Black Bottoms; when his white tops call him “nigger,” he just grins through his glazed lips. Videos like these shored up what I knew: that my own sexual desire for white men was born of a drive to destabilize power. I hoped my willing submission as a black man would challenge what white lovers thought they knew about me, and undermine the assumptions they had about black men’s innate aggression. Processing what it meant to abdicate to power, to survive it, to transfigure it, was useful to me.
I’ve never had a relationship with a white person, friendship or otherwise, innocent of this dynamic. I feel affirmed, sometimes haughty, at how adroitly I look at whiteness. The complaints from white guys in my life — that I shouldn’t racialize things all the time, that they never look at themselves this way — only compounds my glee.
At parties where I serve as the token black guy, I plant myself in the corner and watch fixedly, vengefully, as they jam to classic rock songs — "Beast of Burden," "Don’t Stop Believin,'" anything by the Eagles. The smirk on my face telegraphs that I feel I am owed this spectacle.
Over the years, I’ve realized that a jaded, arch, irreverent black perspective has a lineage, too. I was oblivious of Kara Walker until I walked beneath “Event Horizon,” an installation of her fantastical antebellum silhouettes at the New School, and noticed the humor in her approach to a period I’d only ever considered solemnly. Also of Jamaica Kincaid, who once said, “It is true that our skin is sort of more or less the same shade. But is it true that our skin color makes us a distinctive race? No.” And they were only preparation for the protagonist of Andrea Lee’s Sarah Phillips, an irreverent black American expat who says of her relationship with her French boyfriend, “I wasn’t upset by the racism of what Henri had said. Nasty remarks about race and class were part of our special brand of humor. ... On nights when we lay awake in bed, I often teased Henri into telling me nigger jokes.”
It began to seem as though there were a phantom black history out there, visible to me, but just barely. And if I wanted to reveal more, maybe I had to stack the old guard —
— and light a match to them, and stand there and watch them burn. (Toni I’d save. Maybe Huey and Audre, too.) When I indulge this fantasy, I wonder if those flames will finally catch me, make me feel sorry this time — or feel something — as I look over this legacy. Or will I just keep feeling inured to the whole endeavor of consciousness-raising, knowing that, beyond all else, what I can’t do again is stand on ceremony? So much of what I’ve done to reconcile one part of myself — my racial identity or my sexual identity — becomes a hindrance to reconciling the other. All that's left is fatigue with both, a fog in my head I just wish would clear.
Sometimes I just wanted to immolate the entire thing — the whole project of loving my community. But one couldn’t come to know the lineage of black artists disaffected with race politics without also knowing the criticism their work had raised, to clock the accusations of self-hatred, to consider the questions raised by their critics, and to also regard those critics warily, as enemies of work that I’d admired. Maybe the answer to the question I posed to myself in college is that it’s simply impossible, or irresponsible, to engage questions of race from a black point of view and do so dispassionately. I don’t think that will keep the question from being asked.
Though I wouldn't have admitted it throughout my twenties, I think I believed that someday, a straight-acting white boy would hear me and step forward to recognize the value of my intellect, flattered by my fawning. If not to choose me, then at least to touch on me a little. And I believed that would be enough to buffer me from the world. I know I believed that because of what I feel now, in his absence — regret over the time I lost on fantasizing, bitterness when I realize how much of a party favor I actually was. Realizing that, I worry that it's too late to try to muster any enthusiasm for communities where I might have fit in more readily. And why would they want me anyway, at this point?
I’ve gained very little from desiring white guys, still less from knowing the desire so well. I've been way less successful than some of my fellow snow qweenz at securing white daddies, my former black militant body and disposition never quite able to pull off twink successfully. I inherited from my mother, or maybe from my grandmother, a want to hunker down and hum our way through trouble, the stubborn will to leave problems unacknowledged rather than face treatment head on. My mother does this through religion. I do it through liquor. I fear I'm sick from stories that were intended for someone else; I think I gorged myself on preservatives and sweeteners my body now cannot process. I don’t have much more than images and kinky ideas about white guys, and most nights, that's hardly enough.
I’ve tried to show my sister what I want my blackness to be right now: opinionated and curious and loving, able to escape the rigid ideas imposed on it by myself and others. But I still want to be recognizable to her, and loved by her. The truth is, I don’t know how my allegiance to blackness will be measured. I don’t anticipate ever being asked by an ultimate authority. Maybe there’ll be some amorphous tally done once I’m dead, with marks on both side of the ledger. ●