Decolonizing My Desire
How I came to grips with my attraction to white men.
Illustration by Kelsey Wroten
I can place the exact moment when white bodies colonized my subconscious, and when blue-eyed men with sun-kissed arms began to hold my desires upon their shoulders like Atlas.
I was nine, wandering through a JCPenny with my mother, when my stomach dropped upon the sight of row after row of decollated white bodies in tight black briefs. By the time she reached out to pull me away, I had already been seized—taken to a place where my black body was the brief that hugged the waist of faceless white men, accessorized by muscles in all the right places. Months later, the bodies gained faces: Leonardo from Romeo + Juliet, Ryan from Cruel Intentions, Brad from Fight Club.
With each new white body I fell for, I distanced myself a bit more from the body I saw in the mirror each morning, bodies that looked like mine in my home and in the halls of my school. The latter proved easy enough, given I was one of the only people of color at my private school in southwestern Virginia—a school founded in 1968, it bears mentioning, the same year the Supreme Court ruled that public school segregation was unconstitutional.
The students were nothing if not pretentious; I was introduced to Christopher Marlowe before I was introduced to Harper Lee. It was here where I learned to see my yearning for Leonardo, Ryan, and Brad as obvious, even cliché, compared to the arcane (and egregiously white) cultural references my overeducated and spoiled peers preferred. Did I not also hold a spark for the Louis from The Dreamers? Joseph from Mysterious Skin? What about Paul from Dogville?
But I soon began to discover that my desires could be linked to a valuable type of social capital. And to find my way socially and academically, I became rich in white culture, while it, in turn, seemed to enrich me. I began to devour books, plays and movies to impress my peers, the more obscure the better; in doing so, I found that the world began to imbue me with the same weight and worth with which I had imbued white culture and bodies.
I modeled myself in their image, and doors that were closed to bodies like mine suddenly swung open. The father who whistled "Dixie" during carpool told me I should take his daughter to prom. I was tapped by exclusive social circles (likely, I can see now, as a token). And when my mouth opened, people began to look past my braids and into my eyes, because they heard a voice that sounded familiar.
I reveled in it—my status as exemplary, unique, white by cultural association. It wasn't until I was 18, at my first gay nightclub, that I began to realize the cost of being a black body rich in white culture.
I remember dressing myself in every bit of twink symbology I had memorized from Justin Taylor on Queer as Folk: Rainbow brand hemp flip flops, skinny jeans from American Eagle, an Abercrombie & Fitch v-neck shirt, Hollister cologne, and long, relaxed hair. After nights spent hypnotically watching and re-watching him tease me, in both the US and UK editions of the show, I could recreate what I saw as the platonic ideal of white gay youth with my eyes closed.
But as I walked in slow motion through the doors of the Chicago gay club Berlin, a phantom wind machine blowing back my hair, I was not met with the lecherous stares or surreptitious gropes I'd always imagined. I found pointed disinterest and casual remove instead.
At first, I thought I was merely being overeager, so I took on a more serious expression, less Justin and more his older lover, Brian. Still, no gaze met mine. Behind each glance that turned away, I saw the revulsion that met my own body each morning in the mirror; it looked as unequivocal for them as it was for me.
That slap of negation—the sting of reading my revulsion in the face of another—was when I first realized that my psyche had been colonized, and that I held an unhealthy relationship with the gaze of white men.
For many, it's a realization that could have provoked a moment of self-examination, but instead of adjusting my gaze, I decided instead to adjust the gaze of those I desired. If becoming rich in white culture had taught me anything, it was how to colonize the minds of those you wished to conquer.
"What do you mean you've never heard of Marlon Riggs?" I told a boy in the library. "There's literally no reason to be an English major if you've never read Another Country," I told another. "Isaac Julien taught gay men how to dream past a nightmare. Have you not seen This Is Not An AIDS Advertisement?"
The white boys I wooed lit up around the fires built by the art of my forefathers. It became the lubricant for our hookups—yet once the lights were back on and they looked me up and down, they still shied away from my gaze. My conquests began to feel fatalistic; they saw me as part of a lineage of queer black excellence that they could quantify and consume.
I remember going to a warehouse party in Pilsen the summer that Michael Jackson died. Sweat rolled down the necks of bodies colliding to the rhythms of the King of Pop and Quincy Jones, and in a corner, I held drunken court. As I delivered a diatribe about the overlooked complexity of the lyricism of Dangerous, I set my mark on a Midwesterner from the city art school who looked like he'd just stepped out of a regional production of Angels in America. The more I spoke, the more he lit up; he said yes before I could finish asking if he wanted to come back to mine and watch Sweet Sweetback's Baadassssss Song.
It wasn't long before I was licking the taste of salt from his neck; he smiled at me, then turned his gaze back to the screen. And I realized that the dick that got hard for me was getting hard for Melvin Van Peebles as well. And if that was true, was the only reason he came home with me to educate himself on exemplary black things? Was I just another exemplary black thing?
I began ruminating obsessively over why I felt this need to convince my white lovers I was something more than just "black"—to have them see me in a way I couldn't even see myself. How could I ask that strangers find my black body beautiful when I saw black bodies as alien, foreign to my desires? Even in my memory of that first night in Berlin, the only eyes I can remember were those on repulsed white faces. How many boys at that bar who looked like me saw my eyes meet theirs with the same revulsion?
So I began to decolonize my desires the only way I knew how—through writing. That obsession, like an itch, spread through me in the way that had moved my forefathers; I began to slowly process what it meant to be a black, male body in a white gay's world. I wrote a play that explored a relationship between a 25 year old black artist and a 65 year old white art collector, to parse the ways I was cradled, coddled and collected by white institutions and how I've collected and used them in turn. Another imagined a relationship between Robert Mapplethorpe and James Baldwin as a way to explore the white men I have dated, and the ways my forefathers had colonized desires, too.
In Black Face, White Mask, the Martinique-born philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote that black people don't feel inferior to others because to feel inferior is to feel you exist. Instead, we obsessively search for recognition, like the recognition of another's gaze, in order to formulate an existence, to become self-aware.
Because I've spent most of my life living in a white world—obsessed with its cultural products, its bodies, its validation—I've lived most of my life unaware that in doing so, I was failing to exist.
Today, I write to will myself into existence, and reshape the world in my image—not for white people, but for myself. To retill the grounds of my subconscious that have been home to violent bodies for much too long, and to find a way to scribble a being onto white paper in black ink.
This article is part of the VICE series The New Queer. Read the rest of the package here.