***This piece originally published on 1839***
The amount of times that someone has told me that they’ve never hooked up with or dated a Black man is unbelievable. These men, almost always White, look at me hungrily, their jaws slack, their eyes half-closed. With low voices they say, “You know, I’ve never hooked up with a Black guy,” as if they were boasting a generous trust fund or declaring their revolutionary work to tackle childhood malnutrition. The first few times it happened, I had laughed, trying to take it as the compliment these men thought they were giving. For a while, it worked — I didn’t feel particularly weird about being called someone’s first Black date until I went to get coffee with one particularly bold Tinder match.
Peter, we’ll call him, was very handsome. He had a long face, full lips, and long, blonde hair that was cropped short on one side. He had come into Starbucks wearing a blue, woolen blazer over an off-white sweater. His khaki pants were tight on his legs, leading to polished, blue dress shoes. Trekking through the Pittsburgh cold had given his cheeks and nose a light red blush, adding color to his wintered skin.
He had sat across from me after ordering a soy milk vanilla latte with an extra shot of espresso. As he pulled off his gloves he said, “Your hair is very cool.” At the time, I was rocking a high-top fade. I had afro-picked my curls till I looked like the third member of Kid ‘n Play and solidified the do with ozone-depleting amounts of hairspray.
“Can I touch it?” he asked.
I hesitated, not because I had thought the question was offensive or inappropriate but because I had painstakingly molded it with my hands only ten minutes before to make sure it was symmetrical.
“Oh, are you not into that?” he had said, his eyes falling. Peter looked longingly at his vanilla latte, suddenly making me wish I was the warm paper cup that sat in front of him. I had wanted to please him; my reservations melted away instantly.
“No, no,” I said, leaning forward to offer to my carefully sculpted hair, “It’s just that no one has asked me that in a while.”
Peter grinned, exposing a slight snaggletooth that had failed to make an appearance in any of his Tinder pictures. As I stared at the top of my own drink, his cold hands had dived into the depths my hair, pulling the hidden curls greedily. I felt a few hairs painfully pull loose from my scalp, caught between Peter’s fingers. After a few moments, I leaned away. His hands left the confines of my high-top, dragging along a few lost hairs that fell feebly onto the table.
I quickly brushed the hairs away and smiled nervously.
“Wow,” Peter had said, absent-mindedly wiping his hairsprayed hand on a napkin, “It feels like a sheep.”
“Have you ever felt a sheep?”
Peter’s eyes left my hair and focused on me. “No, but I imagine it’s what one would feel like.”
I stayed quiet, unsure of what to say. My hair had been compared to steel wool and shag carpets but never to an animal. The comparison annoyed me – why did my hair have to feel like something else? My hair felt like hair. I had never touched White hair and said, “Wow, it feels like a dog,” or “Has anyone ever told you that your hair feels like wet string?” I had taken a deliberate sip of my chai latte to steady myself.
Before my cup had a chance to return to the table, Peter said, “I’ve never hooked up with a Black guy before.” The tone of his voice sent warning chills running up the side of my arm. I noticed greed in his eyes. Even though I had heard the words so many times before, this time they made me feel like a wounded antelope found by a lion. I soon realized that everyone who had said those words to me said them with the same thirsty edge as Peter. The sharp words had a deeper meaning that had escaped me until then: “You are a trophy to me. I have never had sex with a Black person and I want to change that with you. You should feel flattered.”
I frequently receive similar messages on Grindr, where men express their interest in my “big, Black dick” despite not knowing the size of my aforementioned appendage. Men often assume I “like it rough” without me telling them any of my preferences. A few men have even asked me to be their slave.
Also, when I first joined Grindr as a freshman, quite a few profiles proudly proclaimed “no Blacks.” While the words are rarely posted on profiles these days, their owners are likely no less racist. Some men refuse to talk to Black men, masquerading their discrimination as “preference.”
The reason this “preference” is actually racism is because, for a person to say that they aren’t romantically or sexually attracted to Black people at all, they are saying that among the billions of Black people on this Earth, there isn’t a single quality that one of them possesses that could make up for their Blackness; no matter what they do, who they are, or what they believe in, they are still Black and thus unworthy of attraction.
While gay, Black men have to deal with getting fewer replies and messages on dating websites than any other race, I’d like to make it clear that it’s not all bad. There are many men who don’t hypersexualize me or find me unattractive because I’m Black. It takes time to be able to figure out who to stay away from and accept that sometimes people just won’t message or answer you, but once you do, it makes life and dating much more manageable.
That said, those racially-tinged experiences have stayed with me. Some more forgettable than others. And some less forgettable.
I remember once, in a moment of naïve desperation, meeting up with a man who expressed interest in me, mainly due to my Blackness. He repeatedly mentioned my race and used it as the denominator for almost all sexy talk. I was horrified to later find out that he was an Africana Studies major. I imagined him writing his thesis on me: “Black freshman lacking self-respect allows man to call him a ‘bad, Black thug’ despite not identifying as such.”
And, I imagined reading the thesis, wondering which animal he thought my hair felt like
Brandon Small is currently a senior Microbiology major at the University of Pittsburgh. He is an aspiring doctor and human rights activist.