A guide to avoid hypersexualizing Black bodies

Hypersexualizing the bodies of Black men and women is never, ever benevolent.

Screenshot from Donnell Blaylock Jr Hershey Chocolate Teaser Video

By: Youeal Abera, Staff writer 

As a young Black man who lives in Vancouver, a city where African-Canadians constitute 1.2% of its population, I discovered what it means to be “visually different” at a very young age. When I hit puberty, and when my friends began to date, things took an interesting turn.

On my hockey team, in my high school, or even in my church, my white companions would talk about Black bodies in ways that, as a youth, left me profoundly confused. I wondered why the timid white girl in my grade 11 class emphasized her need to exclusively date dark-skinned Black men. I wondered why a leader in my church scoffed at a Black teenage boy holding hands with his white girlfriend, stating that “Black guys always know what to do to get white girls.”

Now, as a young adult, I’ve become actually aware of the hypersexualization of Black men and women. It’s also not a new phenomenon: take for example the story of Sara Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman born in the late eighteenth century in what is now South Africa. Baartman was brought to Europe as a human exhibit after supposedly signing a contract she probably did not sign well-informed and out of her own free will.

Placed in front of vast crowds across Europe, Baartman’s large buttocks were presented to millions of European eyes within human “freak show” exhibits. She became infamous and ridiculed. White people would travel long distances and pay fees just to gawk at Baartman’s Black body.

Her brain, skeleton and sexual organs remained on display in a Paris museum until 1974. Her remains weren’t repatriated [to South Africa] and buried until 2002,” explains Justin Parkinson, a BBC writer, in a historical feature on Baartman.

The story of Sara Baartman is one of the most tragic examples of Black hypersexualization.

In our present, I understand that this kind of hypersexualization often surfaces as a backhanded compliment, like when white women express how fun it is to “get with” Black men. This fetishization mirrors the sexual curiosities of individuals who, after long ingesting poorly represented media content, yearn to explore Black bodies as if these bodies are theirs to conquer.

In the end, the hypersexualization of Black bodies is rooted in the tremendously problematic ideology that whiteness is the norm and that Blackness is of the “other.” It is propelled by a shameful desire to partake in the fallaciously depicted “deviancy” of Black sexuality.

I also know what it can do to Black men and women. Many damaging stereotypes are derived from this hypersexualization: Black women have bigger behinds and breasts than white women, Black men are brutes in the bedroom… Although some may conceptualize these as “positive” stereotypes, they actually lead Black individuals down an unhealthy path where unrealistic expectations and underlying worries become ingrained into romantic relationships and self-images. Take, for example, a recent Vice article that dove deep into ugly scenarios where Black women were hypersexualized within their interracial relationships.

Black people, time and time again, are forced to navigate offensive and awkward situations. Keeping this in mind, I thought it’d be helpful to curate some do’s and dont’s when it comes to discourse regarding Black bodies.

 

Do:

  1. Understand that we, just like you, are humans. We appreciate and practice sexuality just like anyone else.

Like you, we bleed. We also love sex. However, we don’t f*** like animals. We do understand that sexuality, practiced respectfully and consensually, is beautiful. Forget what you’ve heard: our sex looks exactly like your sex. Issa Rae said it best when discussing how Black actors perform sex scenes in her hit show Insecure: “We don’t get to see Black lust in a normalized and natural way that isn’t hypersexualized. For HBO, we have so much license to show Black people loving and f*cking. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of that?

2. Going on a hike is an “adventure.” Dating a Black person isn’t.

I will never understand why white people think that dating Black people is “exciting.” Going on a rollercoaster is exciting. Kendrick Lamar dropping a surprise single — THAT would be exciting. However, dating Black people is just like dating people from any other race: you have your honeymoon phase, you secretly hate your partner’s parents, and you even develop their bad habits (I still watch Netflix with subtitles on). However, insinuating that we are “exciting” really just means that we are “the other,” and that’s a horrible thing to think.

3. Know that we have different shades of skin.

There are many shades of Black skin. Therefore, it’s erroneous to state that a light-skinned Black man is “the handsome type of Black” or that a dark-skinned Black woman isn’t the “beautiful type of Black.” Whether it’s Zendaya and J.Cole or Viola Davis and Morris Chestnut, all Black skin radiates with a beauty that can’t go unspoken.

4. Understand that the amount of sexual experience we have varies greatly, just like with individuals of any other race.

Some of us have had a lot of sex, while others haven’t.

5. Call us Black, not “chocolate” or “caramel.”

There seems to be a wildly misinformed conception that Black folk enjoy being referenced to as candy? If you aren’t Black, please don’t refer to us as food — we don’t exist to sate your sexual appetite.

6. Respect that the physical strength and athleticism of Black men varies.

Please understand that if a Black man doesn’t know how to play basketball . . . he’s still Black. If a Black man doesn’t have a natural inclination towards sports, he’s still Black. The age-old notion that Black men have “super genes” is actually more racist than you think. Understand that not all Black men are 6’11’’athletes who can give you the life of a “basketball wife.”

7. Understand that you don’t have to tell a Black woman that they look like Beyoncé or Rihanna to compliment her.

We all obviously know how gorgeous Queen B and the Badgal are. However, Black women are diverse and their beauty is versatile. To be quite honest, when you tell a Black woman that they look like Beyoncé or Rihanna, it really just shows how narrow your knowledge and perception of Black womanhood, and Black beauty, really is.

8. Understand that if a Black woman had plastic surgery or otherwise altered her body, it wasn’t to “look more Black.” She did so because she wanted to.

I’ll never forget the confusion and shock I felt when I was talking to a group of (non-Black) friends and realized that they all believed that Black women in hip-hop got body enhancements to look more like “Black women.” Realizing that there was a lot to unpack in these comments, I simply stated that Black women, just like women from any other race, have complete autonomy to do what they want with their bodies. When a Black woman undergoes plastic surgery, it’s a sign of her agency, not her racial image.

9. Know that a Black woman’s hair whether it’s natural hair, a weave, a wig, or is bald doesn’t determine her Blackness. She’s Black because she is Black.

To be completely honest, I’ll never understand where white and non-Black people develop their fascination with a Black woman’s hair. Comprehend that whatever is on her head will NEVER negate, or accentuate a Black woman’s blackness. Case closed.

10. Understand that a Black woman’s curves doesn’t have any indication or influence on her sexuality.

We’ve all heard the stereotype of Black women and their butts. Whether small or big, a Black woman’s butt should never be indicative of her race or affect the respect you give her.

 

Don’t:

  1. Say “Once you go Black, you never go Back.”

I’ve been hearing that since my childhood. However “amusing” or positive this stereotype may seem, it perpetuates the stereotype that Black men and women are foreign creatures and their bodies are so majestic that once you have sex with them, you’ll never settle for anything else. It actually reinforces the notion that Black people, and their sexuality, is Other.

2. Call Black bodies “exotic.”

Don’t assume that Black bodies can give you different experiences than what you’re used to.  We are humans, just like you. Nobody has ever taken “exotic” as a compliment.

3. Ask Black women if it’s “really better” with Black men.

Again, this coincides with the notion that Black men are beasts who, in accordance to your racist fantasies, can leave you sexually satisfied. White women are usually the culprit of this crime, and it almost always stems from stereotypes shown on TV or in movies.

4. Assume that a Black woman’s Blackness is defined by the size of her behind.

One more time for the people in the back: a Black woman will always be Black and she must always receive your respect.

5. Proclaim that a Black woman is being lascivious for wearing any type of clothing.

Growing up, my church would watch the Super-Bowl halftime performance every year. One year, Madonna performed and no one from the (predominately white) congregation said anything about her costume. The next year, Beyonce performed and a number of church members (who know I’m a fan of Bey’s)  told me that she dressed like a “prostitute” who needed to “class it up a bit.” Historically (ever since white slave-owners raped and abused the bodies of Black women), people (especially white men) have felt entitled to speak on how a Black woman must conduct herself. White women slut shaming Black women isn’t foreign, either. Black women can wear what they want.

6. Feel entitled to make assumptions on the origins or motivations of an interracial relationship that involves a Black individual.

At the end of the day, love is love. Who are we to tell anyone who they should or shouldn’t date? An interracial relationship between two consenting adults doesn’t require your assumptions. Ever.

7. Assume that light skin Black men/women are pure and that dark-skin Black men/women are sexually aggressive.

This is a testament to how the issue of colourism (particularly in the Black community) is so rampant. An individual’s shade of Blackness is never an indicator of how they’ll behave. This is not that hard to understand.

8. Claim that Black men and women within the LGBTQ21A+ community aren’t “real” Black men or women.

Like in every demographic, homophobia unfortunately still exists within the Black community. Homophobic attitudes deriving from both the Black church as well as years of toxic masculinity mean that the sexualities of Black LGBTQ21A+ individuals are still demonized and validated. Karamo Brown, when speaking about making history as the first openly-gay Black man on television, stressed how problematic this homophobia is: “That’s just the unfortunate truth with many people in our community. We have been told that we are not good enough, that we are less than.” We must always respect and cherish the Black individuals within the LGBTQ21A+ community, and we must understand that Blackness is not invalidated by queerness.

9. Attribute sexual deviancy to Blackness.

Again, Black people have sex just like individuals from any other race. When you depict Black sexuality as something abnormal, you explicitly or implicitly apply a deviancy to its nature.

10. Touch our hair. Like WTF? Don’t.

I’m so tired of this shit. We are not your personal petting zoo. Imagine how crazy I’d look if I walked up to a white man on the skytrain and fondled his herbal-essences, hipster hair. For the love of Black Jesus, don’t touch our hair.

If you follow these integral Do’s and Don’ts, you’ll be on your way to becoming a master of evading the hypersexualition of Black bodies. As one last piece of advice: whenever you decide to compliment the beauty of a Black person, always make sure to ask yourself where your admiration comes from. Is it the person themselves, or the stereotypes that have plagued their race for centuries?