How do you know whether someone likes you for you—and not for, say, your race?
It's a question most people of color have grappled with as they navigate the dating world. And within the gay community—where sexual racism is a profound and widespread phenomenon, and the line between what constitutes a fetish and what constitutes bigotry is often impossibly blurry—it's one that takes on added significance.
Queer men can be notoriously racist when it comes to their dating "preferences." "No Asians" or "No Blacks" are disturbingly common sentiments in dating app profiles, even today. The gay and queer community may have a rat's nest of hang ups when it comes to our self-esteem, our relationship with masculinity, and how we treat each other as human beings, but it sometimes can feel like our relationship with race is the thorniest of all.
That makes dating much trickier for queer people of color. The guy who writes "No Asians" on his profile? I know he's an asshole and I'm not trying to fuck with him. But what about the guy who signals South Asian men like me to "the front of the line" in his Grindr bio? Provided I can look past how douchey that phrase is, how do I know whether he's going to see me as an actual person and not some racial fantasy? And why does knowing I'm part of someone's racial preference make me, and queer men of color I spoke with, so uncomfortable?
Whether sexual preferences amount to actual racism—and whether it is racist to include them in online profiles—is a hotly contested topic. (The latter is both tacky and racist, if you ask me.) Wherever you stand, online dating and apps allow guys to put their racial hang ups out there in the open, be it explicitly ("Not a rice queen, no offense") or more subtly. But perusing grids of potential hookups has also made specific minorities easier to identify and approach, like looking at a menu.
To feel fetishized based on your race—and to determine whether that feeling is even warranted—is much more complicated than facing outright rejection or avoidance. Merriam Webster defines fetish in this sense as "a fixation"; the men I spoke to for this story most often referred to it as "a thing." And they agreed that it's not always necessarily a bad thing. Given that men of color face such discrimination in the dating pool, shouldn't we embrace the guys who are specifically into us?
Rarely is it ever that simple.
While the men I spoke to agreed that guys tend to be explicit about their racial proclivities online, reading a situation in person can be more tricky. "A lot of it has to do with how the person plays it," said Malcolm Bish, a data analyst from Brooklyn. Bish is black, and while he said he feels he is often approached specifically because of his race, "if it's clear they're willing to engage with me on an intellectual and emotional level in addition to a sexual level, then it's not necessarily a deal breaker."
But not every situation is that easy to read, especially if you're trying to give guys the benefit of the doubt. "My initial instinct is always like, 'Oh this guy is totally into me—cool, whatever,'" said Ru Bhatt, a DJ in New York City, about getting to know guys offline. "It's only when they rattle off the [South Asian] names of last few people they dated that I'm like, 'Oh god.'"
"In the first five minutes, I wouldn't notice anything; ideally I'd think they were just talking to me," echoed Sean Tao, a Project Manager in LA. "Unless they're hanging out with a big group of Asians. I have seen that, and they're like, 'Oh, [you're] the one Asian I don't know.'"
Clearly, discerning someone's intentions is a matter of intuition. Sometimes signs may be obvious, even physical. ("Grazing my arm, in an 'I like smooth skin' kind of way—that's happened a couple times," Tao said.) But more often they emerge in casual conversation, whether it's a guy trying to hint that he's "down" or expressing an affinity for Asian food. "One guy started talking about his rice cooker, and I told him I didn't have one," Tao said.
But how do you distinguish between clumsy attempts to relate with someone's culture and a more uncomfortable sort of fixation? "The question is, are you into Asian guys because you're just interested in the culture and you see them as human beings, or because you can assert your dominance over them, [enacting] all these weird, racist stereotypes?" Bhatt said.
The problem is that guys often make blatantly stereotypical assumptions—about everything from one's dick size to their taste in music—based on skin color alone, a sentiment shared among those I talked to again and again. "I'm pretty good at not having preconceptions about people before they open their mouths," Bish said. "But I feel like that happens to me all the time, and to a lot of my friends as well."
While a first date invitation to a sake bar may be easier to look beyond, sexual objectification, and an inability to see minority men as viable romantic partners, is where many draw the line. "The fetish is more so in the bedroom, and not necessarily out in the open. And that's where it bothers me the most," Tao said. "I think that characterization and generalization [of Asian men as submissive] is not appropriate. That happens quite often."
Whatever the fantasy may be, for guys who think they know what you're like in bed, their interest tends to stop there. "My problem with a lot of caucasian men who fetishize men of color is that they will consider us as a one night stand or as a hookup, but they won't actually consider us as potential candidates for a longterm relationship," Bish said. "Some guys will have sex with you because you're black, but you won't be considered boyfriend material for the same reason."
While Bish admitted that, depending on where his head is at, it can be empowering to embody someone's fantasy, usually it just feels reductive. "It often makes us feel interchangeable," he said. "Like, 'Okay well this black guy's not interested, but let me go to this other black guy. They're more or less the same, he will fill this slot." That feeling of being considered interchangeable cuts deeper once a situation evolves past hooking up and into something more substantial. When discovering a guy has a "thing" for South Asians, Bhatt said he "feels like a commodity. You feel like he was not interested in you for you and who you are, he was interested in you because you have brown skin."
The narrower your ethnic group, the more exoticizing a guy's fixation can seem. There was a time when I'd never experienced what Tao and Bish described in our conversations; a white guy surrounded by other men of my ethnicity. I've become used to being one of very few South Asian guys in the room, if not the only one, particularly in queer settings. My difference is by turns easy for me to overlook and a quality I fiercely guard like a unicorn horn.
The first time it happened to me, I was at birthday drinks for a white friend. We'd met on Scruff a couple years earlier, and hooked up a few times before moving on to date other guys. I should have known when his boyfriend after me was Indian, but I didn't figure things out until I showed up that night and half of his dozen or so guests were other South Asian guys. As I joined them in the restaurant's streetside patio, I felt self-conscious—embarrassed, even—to be counted among what felt like his menagerie of South Asian conquests. I was sure he had hooked up with all of us at some point.
I didn't confront him about it until some time later, when he admitted that he's long harbored a fantasy of winding up with an Indian man. I thought it sounded absurd. Why? Had he ever even been to India? He couldn't quite explain it, and no, he's never been.
Had I known (or been perceptive enough to see) his inclination toward Indian guys when we met, I'm not sure I would have pursued anything with him, much less become friends. I bring enough insecurities to the dating table; wondering whether someone likes me because of my skin color isn't one I can easily sit with. But I value the connection we have—three years into the friendship, I know now that he sees me for who I am. From the other men of color I spoke to, it's knowing and appreciating for yourself exactly who you are that makes navigating these encounters—and sorting creeps from genuine guys—more manageable, if no less of a pain in the ass.
"When I was [younger], more so I would think, 'Oh, do they have a fetish?'" Tao said. "I've reached a point in my life where that's isn't something I really need to concern myself with. Because that will come out later, and if it does, then so be it. Maybe the guy is great, and let's just be happy that he likes eating rice."
Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter.