Friday, August 27, 2010

Who We Date: Queer Men of Color and Race

A blessing that I have found as a writer and particularly through my blogging is that more often than I ever imagined, folks that read my writing come to me with questions wondering if I've ever written on the topic or wondering if I would share my thoughts on a subject.

With total and complete humility, I am really and truly honored when that happens. And sometimes, I don't have much to offer but I always try to share my thoughts honestly, including owning when I just don't know.

But now and again someone asks a question that I have not only thought about but also lived in a really personal way. Recently, a long time acquaintance of mine from Minnesota sent me a really honest and searching email. In some real ways he and I have had parallel journeys. We are both mixed race queer kids from Minneapolis. In fact, we both grew up in the same neighborhood. We are about the same age, and, in fact, though I didn't know him growing up, we have many friends in common. I met this gentleman almost as soon as I started going out to 18+ night at the bars in Minneapolis.

Unsurprisingly, in the mid-90s, he and I were two of a very very very small handful of queer men of color in the bars at the time.

When he wrote to me, he was asking if I had ever had the experience of having a black gay man ask me if I have ever dated a black man. Or, even more directly, accused me of being only into "hot white boys." He also asked if I have had the experience upon meeting someone in person or online and politely declining their interest if I have been accused, immediately, of my declination being about the color of the person asking, specifically, black skin. He also talked about the frustration of being in those moments and feeling that based on the place the conversation had gone that he was unable to answer honestly. For him, the honest answer is that he hasn't dated a black man. In my case the answer is yes.

But the distance between his no and my yes is not all that great.

Like my friend, I grew up in what is still the third whitest state in the country. In the last 15 years, Minneapolis as a city has diversified in leaps and bounds. The city that is now is not the city, demographically, that it was in 1995. There were no queer Latin nights at the bar. The black queer community was deep underground and it organized itself through a series of house parties. The queer Latino community also eschewed the gay bars for house parties and straight Latin clubs. Indeed, we knew who each other were at the salsa bars but it was a community in the closet--a really big closet. The Asian/Pacific Islander queer community at the time would throw late night BBQs in order to get together, and they would, from time to time, go out en masse and dance all together in the same corner of the bars. The gay bars were dominated by white gay men who felt absolutely no restraint in saying clearly and to your face, "I don't date black men." And, frankly, it didn't matter how light skinned a black man was...if the skin wasn't pearly white, then you weren't on the menu. There were the exceptions, most often white men that fetishized men of color, but, overwhelmingly, the message was quite clear: Black ain't beautiful in the queer community in Minneapolis.

Add to that the conundrum of the mixed race family. I have no idea the details of my friend's family, but I was raised by my white Mother and her family. And, although my Mom is now married to her fourth husband of color, I was deeply aware of how my own family struggled with race, and I knew some of our family history around race. In particular, I knew that my Mother's relationships with men of color had caused deep divisions in the family.

Throw on top of that all of the media messages we get about what constitutes beauty...and you have a trifecta of factors, particularly in a city with almost no visible queer community of color or examples of brown and black men loving each other openly, which has lead to many a person of color in Minneapolis that, indeed, is only into "hot white boys."

Further, my friend went on to discuss the fact that sometimes people are just attracted to a certain type of person, look, etc. And that there are folks that won't date someone because of their skin color, but he had a hard time wrapping his head around why folks would go into the world and start from a place of assuming that if they are turned down for a date/hook up by another man of color that the reason must be about race.

I really have no problem understanding that.

I have heard too many times and been told to my face or via chat on a hook up site that, "I am cute but I don't do XYZ," that I am suspicious, particularly with white men, when it comes to that. I don't assume the rejection is based on race unless they admit that it is, but when they do, I about lose my mind.

And, when a man of color asks me or accuses me of not being interested because he is black, I general have a very compassionate reaction and understand where that question originates. It originates in the very real racism, and in the case of queer men of color, internalized racism that exists overtly in the queer community. Unless said person that I've rejected is being a straight up biznatch, I generally am really clear about why it is that I am not interested...usually its because the man has a butter face, but, instead of saying that, I simply outline, nicely, that this or that isn't working for me. And, if necessary, I can always pull out my slut book and list off the 100 or so black men that I have quite happily dated and or rode like a mechanical bull at a country bar in Texas. Ahem.

That's Brandon now...Brandon in 1995 wouldn't have dated a black man to save his life. And that shit was all about me.

I grew up with a Step-Dad that beat my ass so badly that I still take anti-PTSD medication to this day. I grew up in a family where I received, never ever consciously, indirect messages that black was somehow bad--as I knew that my family had been angry with my Mother for dating black a child's black men must be a bad thing. Being mixed race and one of the "smart kids," I had been given shit by other black kids in my neighborhood and all throughout school, so by the time I left for college, except for the black kids in my magnet program in high school, I didn't want anything to do with the community--and I had never experienced the very real and beautiful educated and loving black community that exists nor did I understand the roots of the anger of those beautiful black men that ridiculed me in school....I had been the target of anger from black men that were justifiably pissed off at white folks but since they couldn't attack them, I was the next best thing. And then coming out when and where I did and being told clearly that black wasn't beautiful was the final nail in my self-hating coffin. I then ran off to a school with exactly 9 U.S. born students of color about half of which were black. So, you know, not a lot of unlearning negative messages about blackness and beauty coming from that quarter (though there were a lot of white fake hippy children playing djembe and taking African dance...GOD HELP ME!)

I didn't think about any of that nor did I engage with any of that when looking at the men that I was dating, I just told myself that I just wasn't attracted to black men and that, you know, people are attracted to different people, so what's the big deal.

The big deal was all that shit beneath the surface that was the real reason why I wasn't attracted to black men...and it had nothing to do with black men, everything to do with me, but...and this is the part that is about not engaging with the truth behind why I wouldn't date black men...and by turning a number of black men down...I was replicating the exact cycle of hurt that was dividing black and brown men from each other and made me unable to find my own people beautiful.

I was lucky. I transferred from my first college to the University of Minnesota, and Minneapolis had started undergoing a radical demographic shift and queer people of color were asserting themselves into the community. Folks were also pushing back against the racism found there. I started doing national work with other queer people of color and was given the opportunity to work in close community with loving people that knew EXACTLY the reason why it is so hard for brown men to love each other, and, through their gentle love, I was able to start seeing that my lack of attraction wasn't really just a "preference," but a result of a series of personal historical and community history events that decided for me what constituted beauty and attractiveness. I worked at a queer youth organization that was mostly queer youth of color organizing with other queer youth of color. And we all struggled around these issues together.

Finally, I made a decision that I was only going to date men of color and for almost four years that is exactly what I did. I had the blessing and the privilege to look into my own past, see my wounds, and work to heal them with other people that had experienced the same thing.

And because of that, to this day, when I am confronted by anger from men of color that immediately believe that I am not interested in them because of race...I understand. For me, now, it isn't true. And I am able to share clearly why it is that I am not interested in a particular person with the complete and secure knowledge that it isn't about race. (And I am fairly certain that the parade of nations that has made it way through my bed including some lesser known island nations in Micronesia is a certain indicator that the days of only white men in my bedroom are long gone). But I understand the anger. I appreciate the anger. And I hope that the reasons for the anger will one day no longer be there.

But that is going to take more intentional work on the part of brown and black men to examine the decisions we make, understand the decision we make, heal from any wounds that we have taken, and then look again at who we love and who we fuck. And, if at that point you still have a preference for this or that type of person that includes a particular shade of skin, you at least know that it is actually a preference and not a choice that was made for you by history, racism, and a standard of beauty that most often doesn't include men with skin like ours.


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  2. Thank you Brandon. This was perfect timing. I found myself trying to articulate this very thing to someone last night but my words were not very clear, only my frustration. It is something that I have dealt with and still deal with especially now that I'm in Chicago.

    Living in NYC after Austin changed a lot of the ways I viewed things. I knew that my issues/crap wouldn't fly and I was able to find just about anyone and anything attractive lol I started to look past race and just see the beauty of people. I also felt like I was appreciated instead of disliked because I was half black. It was where I learned to be truly happy with being bi-racial. I started to love my heritage.

    Being in Chicago these past couple years have been hard because many of my issues and feelings from TX are starting to find their way back and I don't like it. I am looked at differently and I am started to look at race differently here too. It worries me but I am trying my hardest to remember where those feelings come from and to at least be honest with myself :) So thanks!

  3. Being a Kenyan/Swedish mix and intelligent person myself :), I totally resonated with your statement: "I had been the target of anger from black men [any gender for me] that were justifiably pissed off at white folks but since they couldn't attack them as I was the next best thing."
    That pretty much sums up what I encountered with the black kids I grew up I turned the other cheek and kept on walking. But before walking, I told these kids that just because I was smart didn't mean I "talked white" (and to deny my mom is white...and how do you talk a race?) and that I was offended when I got comments for having "good hair." I got -we all got- what our Creator God gave us. Love it no matter what society says.

    It wasn't until I went to a college that had 2% students of color (majority of that int'l students!) that I got it. Until I was a community organizer and dealt with the systemic affects of racism in my now adult world (Mpls sheltered the heck out of me in my seemingly United Nations schools!). Finally, my trip back to Kenya made me get it, I mean really truly get it.

    We ought to be head over heels in love with who we are inside and out. Without that self-love, it is super hard to love anyone else for who they are, not what they are. Straight, queer otherwise, everyone matters and everyone deserves to be loved for just being, existing; not for what someone else says are the qualifiers for being lovable (romantic and non-romantic love).
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, your experiences and yourself with us Brandon. Love you!

  4. Um, I think you already know how I feel about the sitchy-ation. Well put, as always.

  5. Brandon, thank you. I am reading this as a white mother raising two bi-racial kids. Before I had these children, I was an unofficial foster mom to two teenage girls - both of mixed race heritages. These girls both told me, "don't you ever have kids with a black man - you don't realize how hard it is on the kids." Then I went up and married my husband and we produced these beautiful brown babies.
    The words of these girls haunt me. I don't know what it was like for them and I try so hard to see outside of my own white skin, the messages my children are getting. My daughter has "good hair", my son isn't quite dark enough for some of his African American friends. I see them each navigate and gravitate - and I know that their time in elementary school is going to be the simplest in their life. I hope and pray that we are instilling in them pride in both of their ethnic backgrounds - and I have to admit, that we tend to navigate toward much more pride in their father's side. I guess that's me having my struggle with the inherent racism in which I was raised - the racism that seeps into all of us no matter how hard we fight back.
    I hope that my children are as resiliant as you, my friend and again I thank you for sharing this part of yourself. Nancy

  6. I really really do not like the term "butterface" even though I accept that there are commonly accepted norms of beauty when it comes to faces. People who are born with "butterfaces" can't do a g-damn thing about it.
    your pal, Betty, who is more of a butterball than a butterface oh, P.S. thank you for being the kind of friend that I can just blurt this out to. yay.

  7. Thank you all for your reflections and for reading. And, Betty love, that is the first time I ever used the word, but I used it for comic punch. It's mean, and I would never ever refer to someone using that word in real life.

  8. thanks for the clarification! you notice that I didn't bother to comment on the subject matter of your blog post, just focused on one word that set me off. Oh well - I know you forgive me. BTW - it is such a pleasure to read your reflections on the changes in Mpls over time. Having lived here since 1959 I can confirm your observations about the changing demographics, and also the continuing presence of wayyyyyy too much racism (and I own some of it). xo

  9. I think this kind of self-searching is critical...and hope that more gay men and people who make up the gay community do more of it...I have always found the gay communities I have encountered to be absolutely racist--in Alabama and at Purdue University....and have always been loud and outspoken about it...I myself have always liked to taste the rainbow--as the saying goes....with a penchant for Jewish men and a very good history with Latinos and Russians....I think people always need to look at that which defines them.

  10. This reminds me of a line from the movie "Boy Culture," the line is:

    "You know what pisses me off? When guys say, 'I'm usually into Black guys, but...' Well tonight must be my lucky night, you're abnormal and I'm Black!"

    Great post, I enjoyed it.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts, feelings, and insights. And thank you for reading!