"When you’re born into a culture that prides itself on religious jawboning, you are taught that you’re broken, filthy, and must hate yourself. As a result, you’ll accept any form of affection even though you know you deserved better."
The fetishization of Black bodies is centuries old, and examples are rife in history, literature, and pop culture. Sarah Baartman, an enslaved Black South African woman, was dragged across Europe as a freak show attraction due to her large buttocks. There’s the popular Ebony porn category and its male offshoot BBC. White supremacy darling Milo Yiannopoulos bragged about being a “bottom for tall Black men.” He eventually married a Black Muslim man who clearly ignored the cautionary tale of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Oh, and there are the Kardashians.
As a queer kid growing up in Jamaica, I yearned for the day when I could escape my homophobic culture and experience romance. When I transferred to the University of Toronto, I almost immediately signed up for online dating. I applied no discernment when responding to messages. I viewed a modicum of interest as love and agreed to go on dates with any man who asked. You see, when you’re born into a culture that prides itself on religious jawboning, you are taught that you’re broken, filthy, and must hate yourself. As a result, you’ll accept any form of affection even though you know you deserved better.
According to clinical social worker and Clark Atlanta University professor Dr. Nathaniel Currie, LCSW, ”Gay and bisexual Black men especially have noted fetishizing as oppression in social environments, where they are often referred to as BBC, bull, Mandingo, and other slang terms that emphasize hyper-masculinity and oversized genitalia.”
After a month of dating, I came to realize that I was being fetishized. The month, however, would continue for years.
Here are those stories:
The porn producer repeatedly invited me over to his place, forgetting that he made it slip that his loft doubled as a studio. Internalizing my steadfastness, he emailed me a spreadsheet showing the profitability of each porn category. He painted doing “a few scenes” as the panacea to my being a cash-strapped international student. I used the data in a final year essay on fetishization for a media studies class. I got a 100% mark.
The potential roommate had so many red flags, he could have doubled as bunting at a Canada Day celebration. I searched Craigslist for off-campus accommodation and found just a handful of apartments within my price range. Mr.Red Flag kept changing the apartment-tour times, and finally, I was knocking on his door after 10 pm. It was a tiny studio apartment with one bed. I was so angry that I had wasted my time and saddened that I would never find an apartment.
When I tried to leave, he blocked the door and propositioned me. I could live almost rent-free if I would just be his dom — he pointed to a nearby table laden with gear and toys. I got out of there as fast as I could. When I safely reached the sidewalk, I had a Kerry Washington cry.
The entertainment executive was notoriously wealthy. Each Pride, people would clamor to get an invitation to his legendary parties — a cross between Shangri-La and Caligula. What I didn’t realize was that he enjoyed exploiting young men, especially newcomers. I would wake up to messages urging me to visit him. The promise of hundreds of dollars to dust and serve refreshments in the buff would not detract from the nauseating plantation-like situation.
Other non-woke white men who felt entitled to my body include the ex who threatened to call immigration when I decided to leave the relationship. In his written ultimatum, he used the phrase “When I thought I was importing my own personal Mandingo…” The words, hand-written on a yellow legal pad, still rankle. I was earning more money, made lots of friends, and it pained him to see that as an immigrant, I quickly made his country home.
How could I forget the dentist who refused to allow me through his building’s front door during the three-month duration of our relationship? He’d always find an excuse to pick me up (I lived one street over) or meet me at the corner, so I'd use the underground garage. I eventually stopped visiting. Years after he found enlightenment, he admitted that he was not comfortable being seen with a Black man but loved sleeping with them.
And to wrap up this list, I have to mention the blind date who loudly called me his “Chocolate mountain of a man” in a packed Starbucks. And, the numerous men who have killed the mood with sudden race play.
“White gay men extend their privilege beyond societal norms that allow them the audacity to believe that their Black gay partners are privileged to be with them and therefore assimilate ‘ownership’ of such Black bodies,” said Atlanta-based psychologist Machel Hunt. It would take me years, many terrible dates, and caustic relationships to learn self-love. Years later, I would feel seen when I heard the words of Suddenly Seymour.
Despite being 6’4” and built like a linebacker, the men mentioned above displayed no reticence. To them, I was an appendage, a warm body, a plaything. It was this temerity why Ed Buck thought he was invincible when he predatorily sought out Black men, eventually killing two by pumping “methamphetamine into their bodies against their will.” It would take two years, and incessant public outrage from the Black queer community before Buck was charged.
I’ve spent years in therapy and have done the necessary work to love and value myself. That’s why I now have the strength to share these stories. Yes, my queer pride sits under a carapace of Black fearlessness. However, for the young Black or non-Black queer POC reading this essay stealthily on a smartphone, while keeping an eye out for a homophobic parent, know that you matter. Don’t accept scraps of love, from anyone. You’re more than a snack, something to immediately satiate. Look in the mirror and repeat the words of Lizzo, “Look, baby, I'm the whole damn meal.”
Meet The Family
Vaughn Stafford Gray is a Jamaican-Canadian lifestyle and culture writer who shares birthdays with both Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde. He has a storage locker solely dedicated his collection of books on etiquette, entertaining and back issues of Monocle magazine. VSG loves lecturing people on the virtues of Britney Jean Spears, throws epic dinner parties, and enjoys drinking spiced rum with tonic.