Feminism | Posted by Isaiah Strong on 02/15/2017
I Am Not A ‘Phase’
I was standing on the top floor of a fraternity house in the early days of my sophomore year of college. Across the room, I saw an upperclasswoman I had heard about through the grapevine. She was well into a drunken tirade critiquing or complimenting each of my friends’ respective physical appearances and clothing when I approached. Then this young white woman turned to me.
“So Isaiah, you’ve got this whole mixed thing going on for you,” she said. “You should use that to your advantage.”
She clearly didn’t see this drunken comment as problematic, but I was taken aback, confused, and painfully uncomfortable. To her, the idea was that for me — the son of a black father and a white mother — this “whole mixed thing” gave me an advantage and an ability to attract girls on campus.
At first, I struggled to understand why I found this so upsetting. Then I realized that she was fetishizing my race — something I’m deeply connected to both culturally and politically. I was also struck by how her words served as yet another moment in my life that has exposed the complicated feelings I’ve always had as a black man constantly surrounded by white people.
There is a concept in racial discourse called “double consciousness.” It’s the idea that people of color are constantly aware of the way white America looks at them. I am aware that I’m in an environment in which it seems like people only see my skin color, so I make a conscious effort to be seen as nonthreatening to ensure that I can’t be profiled or stereotyped. I keep to myself and my groups of friends at parties, and I always try to stay in my own personal space and avoid interacting with people I don’t know.
As the product of an interracial relationship, I’ve always been aware of how this double consciousness has impacted my approach to dating. I distinctly remember the first time I had plans to hang out with a girl alone in high school. The girl, like the vast majority of students at my high school, was white — which my father knew. Before I left the house, he sat me down.
“Don’t be alone with her for too long,” he told me. “If you’re in her house, keep the door open.”
“Why do you say that, Pops?” I asked. “Nothing is going to happen. We’re just friends.”
That’s when he expressed a fear too many black parents have for their children: “If she tells someone you made a move on her or claims you did something, you could end up in serious trouble.”
This sentiment likely isn’t foreign to parents of any young man, but I think parents of black boys are particularly, urgently aware of it. The media’s infatuation with portraying black men as hypersexualized beings with little civility, combined with the assumption of guilt that black men face in courts of law (particularly when their accuser is not black), have instilled in so many parents — including mine — an ingrained fear for the life and innocence of their black children.
America’s disturbing and complex relationship with black men — particularly the way they have been portrayed as hypersexualized savages out to rape and steal white women from white men — has existed for a long time. Perhaps most famously (and tragically), in 1955, Emmett Till was killed for whistling at a white woman (which, it’s worth noting, the woman in question now admits never happened). Interracial marriages were still illegal in parts of the U.S. as recently as 1967, and the discrimination has not gone away even now: in 2014, 13 percent of Americans still didn’t approve of black-white marriages (Gallup).
My college is hardly more diverse than my high school was: Only a tiny percent of the student population here is black. I entered school well aware of this, and also well aware of the stereotype that college-aged white girls often attempt to rebel against their parents by hooking up with black men, the classic “college-rebel phase.” Coming into college I was familiar with the fact that my skin color might be used as a reason for others to pursue hooking up with me, and quite honestly I was afraid. Indeed, for the first few months I was on campus, my white peers made comments about and acted towards me in objectifying ways — words and actions to which they clearly didn’t give a second thought. These types of interactions continued throughout the year, and only caused me to grow increasingly frustrated and hurt.
This feeling was epitomized by a girl I met during my first semester. One night, one of her friends approached me and my friend, who is of Middle Eastern descent.
“You know, you guys are just her type,” she told us of her friend.
“Her type?” I replied, confused.
She looked us up and down before saying, “You know. Darker.”
Later that year, I began to develop the beginning of what could’ve been a relationship with one of my friends. Things began to deteriorate, however, when some friends began to refer to her as “the one who is into black guys,” or made comments about our relationship like, “once you go black you never go back.” These comments tapped into my fear of being someone’s “phase” and made me feel like maybe she was only attracted to me because of my skin. These comments also disturbed me because they implied that attraction across racial lines is different, abnormal. Ultimately what could’ve been a healthy relationship ended before it could fully materialize.
But perhaps even worse than the fear of being viewed as “phase” — as a dehumanized provider of a sexual experience — is hearing women claim they simply aren’t attracted to me because of my skin color, or are even afraid of me because of it. In the past year alone I’ve heard my peers say things as blatantly racist as “I don’t think any black guys are attractive because they all look like monkeys.” An Ethiopian friend of mine who attends my university has told me of countless times when white male college students have approached him at parties and asked him to leave because girls think he’s “creepy.” His experience reminded me of a black high school friend of mine who was turned away from a house party because he was “too black” and was told that “it wasn’t that kind of party.”
I’m sick of feeling like I’m walking a weird tightrope when it comes to the possibility of dating women outside my race — trying to balance myself in the space between those who want to use my race for their own gain and those who believe my race inhibits me. As a person of color in a predominately white institution, overcoming the discomfort of my race being used to objectify or demean me is a priority.
Recently I have taken steps to overcome my fear and discomfort after hearing a quote from 1960s black activist Stokely Carmichael: “Now, then, in order to understand white supremacy we must dismiss the fallacious notion that white people can give anybody their freedom.”(So Just). When I heard this in one of my courses I had an epiphany. For so long I’ve been taught to react to potential threats on my comfort in the context of my skin color, particularly in the realm of sexual attraction. Then the Carmichael quote ignited a realization — true liberation lies in being the actor and leaving victimization in the past.
Now, I will no longer let the fear of this objectification prevent me from being seen, from living my life. Overcoming the fear of my race being fetishized starts with me pushing those innate feelings to the side and being courageous, so this past month, for the first time in my college career, I went out of my way to ask a girl, who happened to be white, out on a date. I refuse to let my college experience be inhibited by how others may or may not perceive my race.