I arrive home after tonight’s encounter. Exhausted and emotionally drained, I stare at my laptop screen. A gold star shines from my GMail, marking a news headline reading “Is America Post-Racial?” After the night I’ve had, all I can do is roll my eyes.
An hour earlier, as I left the DuPont Circle metro station and traveled towards the gentrifying U-Street neighborhood, I overheard a group of gay white men in their mid-twenties talking about how “disappointed” they were in President Obama. “He’s not keeping up with his promises to “our” community,” they complained. One of these men says that he still can’t believe he voted for Obama. He explains that he was always a Hillary fan. Another man adds that he isn’t surprised that Obama hasn’t ended the “Defense of Marriage Act” or “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” To emphasize, he reminds the first, “At the end of the day, we need to remember that Obama is still a straight black man.”
I exit the U-Street/African American Memorial station and ride up the escalator as this group of gay white men briskly walk past a group of young black girls. One girl is loudly singing a Beyonce anthem to her friends. I’m surprised that none of the gay men join in.
When I overhear conversations that have underlying or overt racial and political issues at their core, I have a choice to collude. For when I choose to interpellate into these same racial discussions, I am faced with the neverending decision on how much to engage or disengage with my own complicity in these problematic discussions. I suppose I’m exerting a privilege that comes with my father’s half. It allows white gay men to find me just different enough to be exciting, but comfortable enough to confide their taster’s choice in. I’m not threatening in that way.
Earlier this evening, I had been hanging out with a man I recently began casually dating. Before I left his apartment and traveled to the DuPont metro station, the following conversation occurred:
“Preference. You understand?”
He shares and then begins to defend his statement, assuming he knows me.
Maybe I’ve come off to complacent?
He shares, “I’m just not attracted to _________” (insert non-white/ethnic appearing/darker skin category here)
He insists, “Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of ____________ friends” (Insert non-white/ethnic appearing/darker skin category here)
Then he looks back at me, expecting validation, and wants to insert here.
I’m safe. I get it.
Last week, he took me on a date to a restaurant and the view surrounding the grand balcony was beautiful: a scenic panorama of the Potomac River in Georgetown. The vivid sunset over the water was in stark contrast to the table linens, the flowers, the lights, and the people. Indeed, almost everything was white. Aside from the sunset, there was hardly a glimpse of color until our busboy came at the end of our meal, struggling in English to ask if we cared for our food to go.
But wait, back up.
I’ve been told more often than I’d ever care to hear that I’m exotic looking. When I’ve been unwilling to graciously accept this label, I’m quickly challenged with cries of, “But it’s a compliment!” Well is it? My mother’s parents were both born in Mexico and brought to the United States as small children. Being the youngest of three daughters, my mother’s facial features, her light olive skin tone and overall demeanor granted her a certain level of uncategorical, ethnic ambiguity growing up. Her oldest sister still passes completely for white and her middle sister is almost always perceived as Mexican. My mother has struggled most of her life with acknowledging and loving all parts of herself. Being told that I’m exotic or asked, “What are you?” are two types of conversations that I don’t want to have and seem to have been “passed” along in my mother’s image, likeness and my family’s assimilative training.
During our meal, a young black woman, in laughter with her girlfriends, was standing near the bar below. When I curiously asked my date why Georgetown wasn’t conveniently accessible by D.C. metro, he lowered his voice, his face leaning into me, and responded that it was done consciously to “keep certain people out.” His eyes remained fixed on the young woman laughing with her friends. I swallowed my bite and didn’t say a word. Then, I didn’t feel like engaging.
Now, I feel like engaging. When he asked me earlier this evening, “Do you think it’s wrong that I only like white guys?” I paused a beat before answering.
I think to myself, Gurl, Wait this out. This man can’t hear what you really think.
He persists, “Do You?!”
I hesitate again before I respond,
Yes, I do think it’s wrong.
No, I don’t think it’s a preference.
Yes, I do think that’s convenient.
No, I’m sure most guys don’t say anything.
“You understand?” he shares.
Assuming he knows me.
My direct, unapologetic answers to his questions anger him.
He insists that he is not a racist.
I didn’t know I said that.
He yells at me that he is very sick of white people always being attacked.
I didn’t know we were fighting.
He screams profanities at me and raises his body towards me. I think he’s going to hit me, which would be the first time I’d receive a blow that wasn’t from family. My body falls into the default position it knows so well, tensing and bracing back. I remain strangely calm.
How did this situation turn from a date into a potentially violent confrontation? I forgot that a lot of gay white men do not like to be called out for their preferences. He adds that I must be a sexist, since I am not attracted to women. He shouts at me the most cliché statement of all, that he has black friends. Sure enough, I look over at his desk and see the smiling faces of a Latin couple on Christmas card sent to him. Well, maybe not black.
Subconsciously or consciously, I’ve allowed certain types of white men access to both worlds; a familiar convenience of understanding white America with a quick, leisurely trip of a voyeuristic, Mexican spring break. I believe they appreciate the stories of my ethnicity’s marginalized, historical narratives without the unnecessary aesthetic baggage of being “too dark.” There is no real threat of addressing “race issues” or being accountability over our discriminatory actions. It often seems to just be easier to avoid these discussions; unless I bring them up… then it’s my fault when asked if I think “it” is wrong. But wrong, just like preference, are such objective words.
Back at his apartment, I quickly jump into survivor mode, laughing off the situation and retracting my statement. I apologize for seeming too harsh. It’s time to appear “chill;” easy and breezy. While he’s still fuming with anger, I thank him for the dinner, share that I should probably go and pretend I’ll want to hang out later. I leave his apartment, flee for safety and never talk to him again.
While waiting for the metro, I think about how my honest answer to his persistent question probably surprised him. I believe he wanted me to validate his preference and not challenge him to be accountable for his actions. When I was younger, I struggled with a certain level of the butch factor, feeling that my effeminacy may limit my job opportunities, or work against me as a potential boyfriend far more than my perceived race or ethnicity. I’ve been called a “fag,” but never a “spic.”
Here are some of the things I’ve heard about my appearance from gay white men:
(Please check only one option. Multiple identities will not be counted.)
1. “Oh, whatever. You look white.”
2. “Race is a social construct. Everyone’s from everywhere really.”
3. “You are white. Quit lying.”
4. “Exotic” (Insert eroticized, offensive, and dismissive comment here.)
And here are some things I’ve heard about my appearance from gay men of color:
(Please check only one option. Multiple identities will not be counted.)
1.“Gurl, whatever. No one thinks you are really white.”
2. “Everyone is from everywhere really.”
3. “You are not black. Quit trying.”
4. “Other” (Insert insensitive, offensive, and dismissive comment here.)
But check it, I need to check myself.
I’ve been hearing stuff like this all my life. I was trained at an early age by my parents to subconsciously and consciously blend in with the white neighbors. “If anyone asks, say you’re Spanish, because being Spanish is always better than being Mexican.”
We should keep up with the Joneses.
Or the Smiths.
Or the Franklins.
I was taught subconsciously and consciously how to keep the other stuff out.
Perhaps I’m still angry at myself. The most money I’ve ever made at a job, to date, required wearing on an oversized, green Dzao serving jacket with ridiculous tassels and perform cultural insight and presumed authenticity to guests at a fine-dining French Vietnamese restaurant. While all of the other male servers were questioned as to the descriptive qualities of the French-infused dishes, I was probed as to the correct pronunciations of the Vietnamese titles:
Me: “Ca-Chien Saigon.”
Them: “Huh, can you say that again?”
Me: “Ca-CHIEN Saigon”
Them: “What does it mean in English?”
Me: “It’s our specialty dish. The seared red snapper.”
Them: “Are you Vietnamese?”
Only one other server was requested for correct pronunciations, and she was Vietnamese. And the primarily wealthy and white clientele also thought it appropriate to ask her if she was the owner’s daughter. The owner, was not only not her father, he was white. Indeed, the only Vietnamese “authenticity” in the restaurant came from the executive chef, an elderly Vietnamese woman everyone called “Mama.” She worked with an all-Mexican, heavily accented, line staff and together, they provided the appropriate amount of authentic Vietnamese character to the dishes. Ironically, my subtle Mexican ethnicity, combined with my green Dzao serving jacket, provided the appropriate level of Vietnamese character our white patrons sought.
As I think about this evening’s journey, I’m reminded how I must have allowed this man to feel comfortable enough to confess his preferences.
He says, assuming he knows me.
But you don’t know me.
This piece was originally published during my first summer filming the 50Faggots documentary series on the East Coast. I spent a lot of my time back and forth between NYC and Washington, D.C. During my stay in D.C., I met someone I thought I might be interested in casually dating. I wrote the following after coming home after our tumultuous 2nd date.