My relationship with my identity has always been complicated.
I grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where, more often than not, I was the only black face in a room. Still, my family is extremely Afrocentric, and we celebrated everything from our black skin, to our curves, to the way we styled our hair. Even in those moments when I was the only one like me, my mom and my nana never let me second-guess myself.
Despite growing up with confidence, there were times I looked around and wished I had white features. I spent a huge chunk of my young life attracted to men who preferred my white, Hispanic or lighter-skinned friends. This made me feel upset and a little insecure. After years of this cycle — overlooked as a result of the color of my skin— at 18, I found myself attracted to a guy who was fixated on me specifically because I was black.
A fellow Upper East Sider, he was a handsome guy from a wealthy Albanian family. He never called me by name, instead always calling me “beautiful.” We talked for a few months via text message and Facebook chats.
Every conversation started with, “hi beautiful” or “hey beautiful.” It turned me on to date a wealthy guy who thought I was the most attractive woman he’d ever seen. He was always telling me how hot I was, and how he never thought a girl like me would be interested in a guy like him. The fact that he only praised my looks was a red flag, but, unfortunately, I mistook his words for admiration.
Eventually, he politely asked me out on a date. In person, he kissed me throughout the date, told me how beautiful I was, and even paid for my pizza. We were falling for each other, or so I thought.
There were several other red flags I had missed along the way.
Like the fact that one day, over text, he told me he was only interested in black girls. Initially, I didn’t think much of it. Instead, I thought back to when I was in elementary school and my best friend Donovan asked a white boy in class, Robert, whether he liked me or not. “No, I don’t date dark girls,” Robert said.
I was able to overlook my new guy’s infatuation with my blackness because I was hungry for the desirability and affection he was offering. It felt good to be sought out for the very thing that had caused me to be overlooked in the past.
If I were to meet someone of another race who “only dated black girls” today, I would handle things a lot differently. But at 18, the more he complimented me, the better I felt.
Another red flag was that despite his preference for black women, he told me his grandmother forbade him to date outside of his race. I wondered how that would go down if we became a serious couple.
The worst red flag of all was when he told me his family made fun of him for his infatuation with black girls. I imagined him sitting around the table with his family: “Hey, how’s school going?” His mother would say. “Did you get an A in biology? Oh, and please tell me you’re done chasing after those black girls.” I imagined his relatives laughing afterward. It made me cringe just thinking about it.
To him, I was “exotic” and sexy, but to them, I was an Albanian parent’s nightmare. I was curious, why was he so infatuated with what his family despised? What was this dude’s end game? Did he ever intend to be serious with a black girl, or did he get off on having sex with a girl his family found repulsive? I doubted he had the courage to introduce me or anyone who looked like me as a serious partner.
My suspicions were confirmed when I innocently asked him if he’d told his parents about us, like I’d told my mother about him before our date. I was sure he would say yes. Why wouldn’t he, if he liked me so much?
“No, I don’t think I’m ready to do that yet.”
I realized I was his dirty little secret. Funny how he had no problem asking me for sex on the first date, but when it came to meeting his family, he was unable to give me a straight answer. Turned out, the black skin that he found so appealing in the bedroom was not so appealing outside of it.
After our date, he disappeared and completely went off the grid. I was a wreck at first because I thought we had hit it off. An old friend of mine, who is African-American, told me that he also messaged her on Facebook. The message read: “hey cutie, i want to get to know you.” She didn’t respond to him, and was disgusted by how fast he hit on her after our fling. I was shocked at first, but then my shock turned to anger. All this time, the only thing I was to him was a sexual conquest, and now he was looking for another black girl to fixate on.
Though I was relieved my friend didn’t fall for his trap, I was even more relieved that I chose not to sleep with him or give him another chance when he came back into my life begging me to forgive him.
As I was transitioning from childhood to adulthood and beginning to understand the complexity of racism, I already knew that it was wrong to judge a person by the color of their skin. But it took this experience to understand that fetishizing a specific demographic is just as offensive.
Ultimately, a racial fetish is more than just a matter of preference or “having a type.” The real problem with them is that they reduce a whole, complicated person to one trait, leaving you never really sure if the fetishizer likes, or even sees you, for you who you really are. And there’s nothing flattering about that.
After that brief fling, I tend to be extra careful with who I bring in my life and in my bedroom. I keep my heart guarded if I feel my race is an issue or a fixation for anyone. My blackness is not a defect, nor is to be fetishized.
Moving through the dating world is a lot easier now, mostly due to my confidence and the fact that I know my worth and do not need anyone to validate me to feel beautiful. I love who I am and find myself attracted to men who love me back. Not for my skin color, but for who I am on the inside.