I learned a lot this past week about perception, language and who has the right to the floor when it comes to speaking about such issues.
As a woman of color growing up in a small Midwestern town and an intellectually liberal but socially conservative family, I did all of my radical growth in private. My sexy books, my rebellious phase with tattoos, my first taste of a wine cooler. It was only when I moved out of the house I grew up in that I began to become more comfortable giving voice to what I liked, what I desired. And, goodness, I have always loved innuendo. I have been punning and perving since long before “That’s what she said” became a catch phrase. Because it was the only way I knew how to channel things inside me that were still culturally taboo. “I can’t do it, but I’m sure as hell gonna talk about it!”
So, now, as a budding romance author with a Twitter account, I just put it all out there. And I’ve been truly lucky to find a community that understands it. I say “filthy” and “dirty” and they know I don’t mean “Where’s the soap?” I say “vanilla,” and it’s a given that we’re not talking about ice cream. And we’re not talking about race.
Here’s the thing: People of color don’t have the luxury of not “considering” race. It’s on our skin. We wear it. We know it. We live it. Are race and sexuality connected? Sure. Absolutely. And perhaps if I had compared Idris Elba to a white man roughly physically similar — like Channing Tatum — and made the same comment, you could cock your head and wonder if I was being a little bit racist. But my brain, and my Twitter account, are far from Mandingo Central. Idris Elba, in my pervy, kinky, erotic romance writer world, is an alpha hero. Tom Hiddleston is a beta male. (Mind you, I was soon persuaded differently about the latter idea. Oh, how I DO love romance writers…) And it was nowhere in my mind that I was painting a black man as savage in comparison to a white one. Could I ponder it? Sure. I'd be happy to have a rational debate about it sometime. Especially with black women, for whom it's a far more personal and relevant issue.
But that topic was introduced into my space in a combative manner, and I was “invited” to talk about it. In my own space. All too soon, the women who joined in to shut down the bewildering path of this topic and I were painted as the aggressors. The attackers. The people ganging up on this well-meaning white lady who just wanted to talk. Because, you know, there hasn’t been a long history of POC being considered threatening. Because, you know, this is the exact same thing as living a minority experience: “I live in NYC. I've lived and worked in racially diverse neighborhoods for 15 years ... Community organizer. Teacher. Bachelors in Sociology. Masters in Education. Both specializing in race/class.”
You can “specialize” all you want. But that doesn’t give you our brains or our skins or our speech.
This was not on me. I was not going to, and still won’t, cop to being a secret racist because I pictured Idris Elba to be aggressive in bed while Tom Hiddleston is submissive. No. Nope. Uh-uh. I explained myself succinctly early on in the exchange. What followed became an exercise in justification and education … that didn’t take. When someone is that convinced of their rightness, their earnestness, there is no changing their mind. Unless you are, of course, white. It wasn’t lost on me that the only people who did make an impact in the argument with this person were white women. It was a barrage of indignation and accusation with me, but a dialogue with those who fought on my behalf.
And that, folks, is a problem. This idea that only white women can effect change. That is the very thing I’m fighting against as an author of color, trying to put multicultural fiction out there into the world and spotlight my fellow authors and the diverse stories I find.
You know what else is a problem? The guilt and grief I felt that day, and still feel. Did I say something wrong? Was I crass? Was I slutty? Never mind that Idris Elba did not need someone crusading for his honor — the actor is quite outspoken about his potent appeal — the one thing I did “consider” was if I was dirty. Not in a sex way. Not in a kink way. But in a shameful way.
No. Nope. Uh-uh.
No one has the right to make me feel that way.
But that’s what she said.