My friend Rick and I had just sat down for dinner at an Indian restaurant on Sixth Street in New York City when we spotted something mouthwatering that wasn’t on the menu. It was our waiter — tall and handsome, an Indian version of Enrique Iglesias — and we both wanted him for dessert. I figured Rick had the edge because in the United States, attractive white guys usually did. When Enrique approached our table, though, he focused all of his attention on me. By the time I ordered the shrimp biryani, he was practically sitting on my lap.
“I guess he likes darker guys,” Rick sniffed as Enrique walked away, having barely acknowledged Rick. Although I let it go, the comment bothered me — and still does to this day, more than 20 years later. Was he suggesting that no one could possibly be interested in me for reasons other than the color of my skin? Or maybe he was speaking an unavoidable truth about black men and white men who find them attractive: Does a white man who wants a black guy only want a black guy? Do they see anything other than skin color when they look at us?
I’ll never know for sure what Enrique saw in me, but unavoidable truths about black and white became harder to escape after I left New York City in 2006 to live abroad, first in Argentina, later in Australia, and then Thailand. At home and away, though, the assumptions have often been the same. When you’re white and someone wants you on sight, it could be for a palette of physical traits: being blond, brunet, or “ginger,” having brown, blue, green, hazel, or gray eyes, being twinky, geeky, or quirky, a jock, a daddy, or a bear.
When you picture a twink, a geek, or any of those other gay tags, isn’t he always white?
Meanwhile, to quote Los Bravos’ 1966 hit, black is black. When you’re a black guy, you’re always just “the black guy,” or el negro, if you happen to be in Buenos Aires. One description tends to fit us all. It’s not only that there are more physical variables among white men in regard to eye and hair color than there are among black men, Asian men, and even, to some degree, Latino men. It’s also an inability or unwillingness to look past the most obvious one.
As a black man living abroad, I can’t say I haven’t benefited somewhat from tunnel-vision attraction. After years of being more or less invisible on the U.S. gay scene, where blue eyes and white skin ruled, in Buenos Aires, 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 sartorial elegance, my winning smile, or my piercing brown eyes. It was all about the color of my skin, and 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?”)
During the 15 years I lived in New York City, I’d encountered countless so-called chocolate queens, or white guys who only dated black men. I’d even gone out with a few of them. But for the most part, it was an unspoken thing. White men who approached me rarely brought up the color of my skin, regardless of whether it was what attracted them to me. (This was pre-Grindr, and before social media and the mainstreaming of online dating made self-censorship virtually obsolete, so perhaps things have changed significantly in the last seven and a half years.)
In Buenos Aires, it was usually the first thing guys mentioned when they saw me. Some were virtually blinded by it. I once got into a physical altercation with an Argentine man that began with him sexually harassing me and ended with him calling me a nigger in front of the BAPD. He later apologized, explaining his actions by saying he’d had a huge fight earlier that day with another black guy, his ex. The implication: Hate one, hate us all. There’s no difference.
The less likely you were to see black skin in a city, the more likely the men who came on to me were not to notice anything else about me. In Southeast Asia, they’d sometimes caress my skin like fur while they raved. Then they’d grab my crotch to test the stereotype. Rarely did they seem to be interested in me as anything more than an exotic curiosity. I was a circus attraction, an amusement-park ride: You got on, and then you got off. On to the next one!
Australians were generally subtler in Melbourne, where I probably saw more black people in my first month than I did in my four and a half years in Buenos Aires and my year and a half in Bangkok combined, but they still managed to weave skin color into nearly every conversation. On the night of my first date with my ex-boyfriend Jayden, when I asked him what he saw in me, he said, “You’re hot, you’re tall, and you’re black.”
Although it was nice to be noticed, I always wondered if any black man standing in my John Varvatos boots would have warranted the same attention. Were we all interchangeable? One Monday night at the Prince of Wales in Melbourne, a woman walked over to 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. It wasn’t because I was the red-hottest stud in the room or because of my gray, indeterminate sexual orientation. Perhaps I was being too modest, or maybe I’d had too many people play the black card with me (and before our conversation was over, she would too), but I was convinced that if I were white and the same level of attractive, they all would have been looking elsewhere. My momentary popularity wasn’t personal, and my wobbly self-confidence needed it to be.
A year or so later in Bangkok, I was talking to Jack, an American expat from North Carolina. When he asked about the time I’d spent in Australia, he made a comment I’d heard way too often.
“Oh, man. I bet you got a lot of attention there.”
Here it comes again, I thought, trying to construct a clever comeback in my head. “I get a lot of attention everywhere.” There!
“I’m not surprised. You’ve got a very handsome face.”
What? No “black” comment? Now, there was an unexpected twist! Although he had his own race thing — his boyfriend was Thai, and he was typically attracted to Asian guys only — he found me attractive for reasons that may or may not have involved my skin color.
JEREMY HELLIGAR is a Cape Town-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in People, Us Weekly, Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Time Out, and his own blog, Theme for Great Cities. He’s working on his first book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?, a travelogue/memoir about his expat experience. Follow him on Twitter @Theme4Gr8Cities.