Black Men

By Maral Sotoudehnia

The ways in which cultures sexualize their citizens are processes made up of ever-evolving rules. What’s sexy one generation may, due to internal or external social factors, be unsexy the next. We exist in a time of exciting sexual evolution in our own culture, in the midst of a sea change that’s seeing every one of our old sex symbols being thrown out the window. Maral Sotoudehnia explains why we find the black man so singularly irresistable. But first a word of warning: this article seeks to promote a frank discussion about ethnicity and sexuality, built upon scholarly research. The Gauntlet’s goal is not to offend, but rather to inform and incite dialogue.

I have a friend named Deb, out east. Deb and I have known each other since we were kids; she attended prestigious schools in the suburbs of Montreal, grew up as a prodigy child of successful Jewish parents, and has never, to my knowledge, ridden a public bus before. The other day I received a telephone call. Deb, it seems, has gone through a total class transformation, and now she’s dating a black guy. Terrell packs a gat, she tells me, and is a high school dropout. He lives at home and wears pants that start at his knees. Mom and Dad, of course, aren’t big fans of Terrell. This makes Deb want to be with Terrell even more; he’s the embodiment of sex appeal according to our cultural understanding. After all anything black is cool, and more importantly, overflowing with sex appeal, right?

In a broader social context, Deb’s choice of partner reminds one of Ice Cube’s recent replacement of Vin Diesel as XXX, that defining sex symbol of our mainstream sexual culture. The move from a white to a black musclebound uberhero raises some interesting questions about the ways in which our culture relates ethnicity, class and sexiness. The answers definitely have something to do with muscles, machismo and most importantly, image. But why, I ask myself, does society continue to romanticize the idea that you’re sexy simply because you’re black? Does the colour of our skin really matter so much when it comes to physical attraction? Or is it the image represented through cultural stereotypes which form our understanding of who and what we find sexy?

One thing which may help explain the recent sexual popularity of blackness has to do with the way our sexual identities work and function within other contexts. Class, caste, ethnicity, politics and history all affect they way people interpret and identify visual images. In other words, our perception of visual messages forms our understanding of them. With that said, the black man must act within his cultural boundaries in order to be considered sexually desirable, and must never attempt to break away from conventions associated to society’s notion of black sexuality. If blacks ever do deviate and act outside their cultural “class”, then their sexuality or sexual identities are in jeopardy of being interpreted in a completely opposite manner, ultimately categorizing themselves as unsexy. In other words, if a black thug acts white, then he will not be viewed as a physically desirable man. I can think of a perfect and specific example in recent pop media that can clarify the ideas we’re talking about: Steve Urkel from Family Matters. Steve is a black man who fails to conform to greater societal notions and ideas associated with his skin colour because he exist as an ironic character; as a result, he isn’t considered by the audience or other characters to be a sex symbol, let alone at all sexually desirable. The only times Steve is able to assume a positive sexual identity is when he acts black. Steve is written and played as a rather repulsive dork, and is only considered sexy when he is his alter-ego Stefan, a fast talking black man who looks and talks with a tough swagger. Steve/Stephan is only capable of achieving social and cultural acceptance when he is Stefan because in that character he is conforming to greater societal notions of how the black man should act. Once Stefan returns to being Steve, he is no longer considered sexy or desirable: instead, he simply reverts to his sexually and socially uncomfortable state.

Visual factors are also important when looking at society’s notion of blackness equaling sexiness. It’s a fact that the darker something is, the more shadows it produces, which in turn adds texture and definition to the object. The principles are the same when we apply those concepts to skin colour. When you’re tanned, your skin looks more shadowed, and as a result your muscles look bigger and more toned, or (if you’re like me) it can create the optical illusion that you’re actually fit and work out. In other words, darker skin helps us form cultural notions about what we find sexy or desirable. We’ll go to great lengths to attain that desirability–we will even bake ourselves if it means that the object of our desire will find us sexy or sexier.

And when we see people who have been naturally graced with that beautiful, dark skin, we worship them; these people seem mysterious, like a rare jewel, or a wonder, and that makes them exotic, and when something is exotic, there is a certain amount of wariness or fear of the unknown associated with the subject. It’s like taking a walk on the “wild” side or breaking out of cultural norms and conventions, and freeing yourself from social expectations. Black people have been defaulted to fulfill the need for this exotic desire in our society. They’re sexy because they’re different–but the difference isn’t just skin colour, it’s the lingering racist, colonial mythology of blacks as uncivilized savages. At the same time, we amalgamate all black people to represent one oppressed culture, a people who still have to overcome cultural and societal barriers because of the system our granddaddies imposed, and that excites us somehow as well.

That’s part of what irritates me about Deb’s current romance: I doubt it’s intentional, but her attitude toward their relationship utterly reinforces such ridiculous and backward cultural generalizations. Think about the black man’s stereotypically large penis: it implies that he is an animal in the sack, almost inhumanly sexually adept. So much so, in fact, that there is no reason the white man should even try to compete–after all, the black man is just a sex-crazed animal. Generalizations based on notions surrounding unnatural sexual prowess as a natural result of one’s skin colour only exist to reinforce constructed ideas that black and white people are different from one another, which serves to discourage progress in cultural understanding on both sides. It also helps construct a modern form of racism, or prejudice, one that is not necessarily vocalized, but is instead latently expressed by the media and popular culture.

Such cultural stereotypes also serve to put sexual pressure on all people due to social expectations. Take Too $hort’s “All My Bitches Are Gone” as an example of those cultural stereotypes reinforced and also as a method of sexual self-validation expressed in the form of power: “I used to have a lot of bitches/Straight down for me/ Doin’ anything I said/ Even hoes on the street.” Not to say that all rap music proposes to maintain the status quo of the no-good black thug who empowers himself through promiscuous, careless sex, but songs like this one only help romanticize generalizations which promote a negative sexualization of the black man and suppress true cultural representation.

This point is significant because it suggests that part of society’s sexual obsession with anything black feeds the image of the black man on the wrong side of the law (the black thug). This is an image of the black man which we see portrayed daily through various media forms, most notably in the music industry as any number of gangsta rappers. Rappers conform to these stereotypes because again, it is only by acting within social expectations that these icons are capable of being sexually attractive to their audience.

In other words, the only way for popular black icons to have any sexual power is to act the way they are urged to by our cultural context. After all, what sexual power does the black man have in relation to his white counterpart–or more directly, what does he do differently than the white man to maintain his masculinity? The myth of the black man’s phallus plays a part (as the penis is, obviously, the most powerful signature of masculinity) but more importantly money is always power in any society, and the number of women the man can get with his bling is also important in forming any man’s masculinity and heteronormative sexual identity; what the black man must do differently in order to ascertain his masculinity and sexual power in society’s eyes, is to let the world know that he’s bad. Because of his savage colonial image, the black man has to be bad in order for our culture to understand his power. He has to be a thug, a gangster, or a pimp. Let’s return to our rappers to illustrate how our culture encourages the black man to be bad so that he can be sexy: think of NWA (Niggas with Attitude), or Tupac, or 50 Cent, or any number of others. NWA’s very name tells their audience that they obviously don’t wish to portray themselves as good, kind-natured boys; Tupac was shot five times and 50 Cent nine times, and both men survived. Being bad or surviving heroic wounds works to legitimize these black rappers as being both sexually desirable and powerful.

Another example of this can be found in the image of the black gangsta with gold fronts; he’s packing, always on the wrong side of the law, and will smack his bitch up. He’s mean, dangerous, and rude, but the ladies still love him. Try rapper DMX’s song, “Bring Your Whole Crew:” “I got blood on my hands and there’s no remorse/I got blood on my dick cuz I fucked a corpse.” I don’t think I know a girl who could honestly appreciate the words, but for some reason DMX can say it and girls go crazy; it makes him sexier because he can now conform to the heteronormative ideal of what a man should be, and he’s acting the way we expect him to, and that’s what women find desirable; it feeds into those exotic carnal desires and the notion that ultimately we want a big, strong man.

Or, perhaps our obsession with blackness and bad rap music is somewhat fueled by our constant need to observe and visually consume others, but in a manner which does not necessarily deflate our egos so much. As Freudian as it may sound, we tend to project our repressed fantasies and desires on people who act as the subjects of our objectification, and with that said, wouldn’t it boost all of our egos if we thought, even if it was a subconscious thought, that the object of our desire was not so out of reach after all, but on some level, below us? Rejection is what we all fear, whether we admit it or not, and if that fear was somehow diminished or removed, not only would we be capable of looking past or masking our own failures and inadequacies, but we would also indulge ourselves in our own greatness and wonder, and that’s easiest to accomplish when you’re looking at someone more socially accessible, or who has darker skin.

These visual signifiers allow us to visually consume the black man more easily because we view him as being more accessible and available to us; we are more confident in gazing at someone whom society tells us is inferior. It can also throw gender roles into a reversal. For women, they don’t have to worry about the black man’s accessibility because, for once, a woman can be sexually dominant and hold more power than the man. For example, if we go back to friend Deb and applied this concept to her relationship with Terrell, we could see how Deb (though she may not consciously be aware of this) would feel as though she is not inferior to Terrell because she comes from a richer, more educated family, which would in turn, make her more secure in her relationship with him. To her, though she may always be viewed as an object because of her femininity, her capability of visually consuming, and more importantly having access to Terrell’s sexuality is rendered easier because she is of a different, higher socio-economic class. Whereas she attends a highly acclaimed university, he doesn’t even have his GED, and where she has a trust fund and is already economically self-sufficient, he is not. In other words, Deb wants a black thug because she can, in a sense, own a black thug. She maintains the control and dominance and most importantly, power in the relationship, and therefore he becomes the object of possession, not her.

The notion that black men are more sexually accessible also ties in with the idea of voyeurism. After all, it is easier to watch and gaze at somebody if you feel that they are more available, or accessible. Could this be a reason why Hip-hop culture has become so popular? Hip-hop is commonly associated as being a part of black culture and over the years it has evolved to take center stage as a leading force in the music industry. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it is easier to idolize somebody who comes from the ghetto because he’s not so out of reach, than it is to idolize someone who is out of your socio-economic league. Perhaps that’s one reason why black rappers like Nelly are considered sexy and desirable: they are being marketed as sex symbols because of their skin colour, not because of physical beauty. It’s both because they are black and because they play up to general stereotypes that many find them attractive, and most of these black sex symbols are only depicted as such because it does render them as being less threatening, which subsequently allows them to attract a much wider audience.

With the increasing popularity of hip-hop in the mass media, North America has become sexually obsessed with anything that’s considered black. Rap music is no longer considered to be underground, or a counter-culture in North America, but an omni-present force in mainstream culture. In the end, black sex icons in the media constantly reinforce stereotypes surrounding what our society considers to be black. Our understanding of blackness renders blacks sexy and desirable to the masses. They’re exotic, socially and economically more accessible (which means our culture can objectify both black sexes much easier than it can objectify the white sexes), and black men are perceived as dangerous–which is ironic, considering their perceived social and economic vulnerability. Paramount to our understanding of the way our culture sexes black men, however, are the indivorcible stereotypes it holds to them. Such a racist history has birthed a strange twist of fate, as black men are the most important sex symbols of our time. I just hope Deb can learn to ride the bus with Terrell.


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