As a half-Black, half-white man raised in a primarily white environment, I sometimes feel like a straight white dude in a queer black suit. Ill-fitting. When you’re not totally in touch with your communities it’s normal to idealize or debase them. The perception is skewed.
When you’re not totally in touch with your communities it’s normal to idealize or debase them. The perception is skewed. For the average white person, I’m the real deal: I’m Black and I’ve got Black friends and a Black family and we all live happily in a cozy little black HLM building*.
Plus, I’m not really Black Black, right?
So, I’m not a thug, or violent or uneducated… I’m a safe Black friend. The milk chocolate kind. I’m the perfect token minority friend to showcase to all your acquaintances, show them you’ve got a lot of colored friends! You can’t be racist, it was just a joke after all, no one took it seriously, right?
Furthermore, as a French native and resident, I noticed a troubling connotation surrounding the word “black”. In French, the word for “black” is “noir”, yet it’s very unlikely to hear the latter in an everyday conversation in France, Black people are called “Black” rather than “noirs,” producing an othering of black people — they’re not even referred to by a French word. Meanwhile, “noirs” is avoided as if it’s a slur.”
As much as I’m not fully white, for most of French society, I’m not fully French either: I’m a sort of avatar of Afro-American culture on the French soil, giving you a super-soulful gangsta hip-hop jazzy feeling. The soft-power of America is enough to overshadow my presence in my own homeland.
And yet, I have privilege: my sisters and I remember spending holidays in my mother’s Senegal and being told by family members and friends how beautiful we were, how lucky we were, how unblack we were.
Colourism is the after-effect of a racism that’s been rubbed in the face and, eventually, mind of a population for centuries: Black is wack? Lighter is better. If you made a list of the major black super-stars (assuming you leave dead people out of this) you’d create a crowd of light-skinned, posing, moving, talking idols, that stands up for their communities.
How many Obamas, Beyoncés, Princes, Halle Berrys, Rihannas, Janelle Monaes, Laverne Coxes can you think of?
And now ask yourself this: how many Grace Joneses can you think of ? How many Viola Davises ? Lupita Nyongo’os ?
We’re so committed to this idea of “visible black women as light-skinned” that we actually believed Rachel Dolezal when she said she was black. This aspect of colourism is more notoriously associated to women: Black men will go out of their way to call dark-skinned women aggressive, possessive, crazy, ugly, or maybe they’ll just say they “prefer” to date white girls.
And this is the same excuse that’s used in the gay community as well: “sorry you’re not my type” is a line a lot of non-white queer people have heard. Pretty ironic that a community where homophobia is rampant would showcase the same kind of behavior as the gay community.
The worst part of it is picturing a complete opposition of the Black and the gay community; as exemplified by Milo Yiannopoulos and his fuckboy army. If today a gay white man can dismiss his complete refusal to date outside of his race as a “preference” rather than a bias, it’s because of erasure. Black men are this supposed hyper-masculine presence combined with an aura of stereotypical sexuality for gay white men** to get off to. The real people fit into this fantasy land or don’t.
If this seems like a purely Black/white rhetoric it’s because that’s my world, this is the sum of my experience, stripped of precise names and reduced to the recurring situations and feelings. My life is like a meme: something that repeats itself in a slightly altered shape but still recognizable, an experience I can’t be the only one to live and understand.
When you add to all of this the fact that I’m on the bisexual spectrum, you end up with another set of boxes to put me into, and all the Black/white dichotomy observation I made above can be applied to my queerness as well: I “pass as straight” or “pass as gay” but when I announce my bisexuality I’m suddenly other and I become this walking anomaly of almost-masculinity, not-quite-queerness, definitely-a-minority, not-that-oppressed that is not quite what you expect or want me to be.
That’s the thing with places like “straight”, “gay”, “black” and “white”: some people are stuck at the crossroads with no map or GPS. And instead of creating a new place or try to fit in one these places, maybe they should just go for a walk — off the beaten tracks.
*HLMs are high-scale project buildings that can mainly be found at the city’s periphery and one of the main stereotypes about them is that only poor people of colour live there.
**I won’t mention the disturbing obsession of young white adolescents with Black men’s genitals here, plenty has been said of the fetishization of the Black body, let me just say that it’s impressive how much so-called “straight” boys can speculate about your body in your presence.