As a black man, I can be overly sensitive when it comes to my skin — not the quality of it (as they say, unfortunately, black don’t crack), the color of it.
Usually, though, I’m certain that my righteous indignation is justified. Such was the case 20 years ago, when my friend Rex made one of the most insulting racial comments I’ve ever heard that didn’t include the word “nigger.” One of the reasons why I found what Rex said to be so alarming — and a large part of why I was so fond of him in the first place — was because I was certain that he was one of the least racist people I knew (know, because, in spite of what he said, I still feel this way about him).
At the time, he loved R&B music more than any white guy I’d ever met, to the point where he often introduced me to semi-obscure black singers — N’Dea Davenport, lead singer of Brand New Heavies, Mica Paris, Pauline Henry of the Chimes, among others — that I might not have otherwise discovered until years later, if ever. He’s the only white person I’ve ever known — the only person period — who had a Miki Howard CD in his collection. If that doesn’t give you a ghetto pass, as John Mayer would say, nothing will.
He was equally color blind when it came to dating. Black, white, blue — if you were good-looking and smart, you had a shot with my friend Rex. Although he and I were never more than friends, I always sort of hoped I would find a guy just like him in New York City, someone for whom my skin color wouldn’t be the primary consideration if he approached me in a bar, in a club, or on the street. Someone who wouldn’t show me pictures of ex-boyfriends who were all black. Someone whose eyes wouldn’t linger too long on every halfway decent black guy we passed, occasionally exchanging loaded looks with ones I’d be certain he’d slept with.
One night Rex and I were having dinner at an Indian restaurant on 6th Street in the East Village when we spotted a dish that both of us wanted, one that wasn’t on the menu. It was the waiter — tall and handsome, an Indian version of Enrique Iglesias — and when he approached our table, he immediately focused his attention on me, asking questions and making flirtatious small talk.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal here that it wasn’t the first time we’d met. I’d gone to the same restaurant on the night of Christmas several weeks earlier (it was my first holiday season in the big city, and since every one of my few friends, including Rex, was out of town, I spent all of December 25th celebrating — and dining — alone), and he had been my waiter. So I guess you could say, we had history. Just as I was about to explain this to Rex, he dropped his bombshell.
“I guess he likes darker guys,” Rex sniffed as Hottie McWaiter walked away. I wasn’t sure if Rex, feeling slighted because our server had barely acknowledged him, was taking a swipe at me, suggesting, like so many people who assume that I’m hot stuff abroad do, that no one could possibly be interested in me for reasons that have nothing to do with my color. Or was he simply speaking an unavoidable truth about the nature of gay men who aren’t black who find black men attractive?
If I didn’t know the type then, he’d become impossible to avoid once I left New York City and moved to Buenos Aires, a city where I met people who had never met a black man before me. After years of being more or less invisible on the U.S. gay scene, where blue eyes and white skin rule, for the first time in my life, I was the center of attention for reasons that had everything to do with my appearance. But it wasn’t about my snappy dressing or winning smile so much as it was about the color of my skin. Well, maybe it was sometimes about the winning smile, but it was hard for me to tell when everywhere I went I heard the same things.
“Me encanta el color de tu piel!” (“I love the color of your skin!”)
“Sos mi fantasia! Para siempre he tenido muchas ganas de estar con un chico negro!” (“You are my fantasy! I’ve always wanted to be with a black guy!”)
“Es verdad lo que se dice sobre los chicos negros?” (“Is it true what they say about black men?”)
Oh, you’ve heard it all before, if you know me, or if you read my blog with any regularity.
In Asia and Australia, it’s been a lot more of the same, only in English. (In Europe, regardless of what guys are actually thinking, my skin color rarely comes up in conversation or gets acknowledged in roundabout ways, which might be one reason why it’s my favorite continent.) Here in Bangkok, I recently met a Malaysian guy who lives in Brazil who actually said to me, “You must have a big cock.” It wasn’t hard to figure out why he would say such a thing.
In Australia, the men are as charming as they are attractive, and they’re a lot more subtle than they are in Argentina and in Bangkok, but too many of the guys I meet there still manage to weave my skin color into the conversation. The women, too! One Monday night at the Prince of Wales, a lady approached me and said, “Everyone in the bar is looking at you and wondering if you’re gay or straight, so which is it?”
Who? Me? I knew exactly why they were all looking, and it wasn’t because I was the best-looking guy in the room. Perhaps I’m being too modest, or perhaps I’ve had too many people use the black card with me, in and out of Australia, but I’m convinced that if I were white and the same level of attractive, I probably would have gone completely unnoticed.
Yesterday, when I was talking to Jack, an American living in Bangkok, about my time in Melbourne, and he made an observation that I’d heard way too many times before, I flashbacked to all of those nights at the Prince, Sircuit and the Peel.
“Oh, man. I bet you get a lot of attention there,” Jack said.
Here we go again, I thought, and tried to think of a clever comeback. “I get a lot of attention everywhere.” There!
“I’m not surprised. You’ve got a very handsome face.”
Nothing about my being black? What an unexpected twist! Come to think of it, not once during the course of our conversation, or any conversation we’ve ever had, did he mention the color of my skin. Although I’m pretty certain it didn’t go unnoticed, it’s always nice to talk to a guy who doesn’t feel compelled to acknowledge the obvious.
And he’s from North Carolina, of all places. That might be even more shocking than anything he never said.