So last week there was Peter. This week it’s Mike … or, actually, Mikhail. Mike is an older Russian man I rode with on my way to work Tuesday (“I am 68 years old! Can you believe that?”). He saw me coming, and his face lit right up. He started talking to me as soon as I got close enough to hear. After a few minutes, I just took out my notebook and pen and started writing down the things he said, so I’m going to let him speak for himself.
“I’m so happy when I see you. I love black womans!”
“My girlfriend, black like you, she is the best.”
“I tell everyone, if you want happy, take a black woman, must have a black woman.”
“You know, I try other lady, Italian, French, Russian. Then I go with black lady, and I think,” he slaps his head (hard) — “what can be wrong with my mind? Why I wait so long?”
“My girl, I give her care, she give me care. I give her many gifts. For Christmas, I give a mink coat, six thousand dollars. And gold, gold, lots of gold. Real gold, like 22 carat, 24 carat. Yellow not American that’s gold today, green tomorrow.”
“You know, other woman nice, but black woman … STRONG … like horse … and nice, sweet, good. Oh yes, I tell all my friends they must get a black woman. Even the ones don’t agree at first, they learn later. I have two friend right now looking for a black woman. I’m serious!”
Um, yeah. Me? I just wanted to get to work.
It would seem that some people (ok, some men) think that the way to my heart is to tell me they love black women to distraction, to the exclusion of all other women. Never mind the fact that they are wrong to think this will win my affections. Even if single-minded focus on black women was the secret, no one helps his cause by getting in my face with “once you’ve had black, you never go back.” And even if that wasn’t a sure-fire losing argument, telling me how I’m strong like a horse is most definitely a deal breaker.
When I lived in France all those many years ago, I was momentarily distracted by an old man who was very into me … or … at least into the idea of me. He was one of those “Oh, I love black women,” guys, maybe the first I’d ever encountered. He would go on and on about black women. I didn’t pay it much attention at first, mostly just substituted “you” for “black women” when he talked. It didn’t matter. I was having some great dinners, getting nice driving tours of the city and only having to give up a chaste kiss or two and the end of each date. It worked for me.
But then it got tired. He started talking about how I wasn’t quite black enough, that he wished I looked Senegalese, that those women were really black, not like me with my “mixed heritage.”
In every country I’ve visited I’ve had to deal with men’s porn-and-slave-trade-inspired fantasies of “going with a black woman,” as Mike would say. That kind of interest is like erasure. It doesn’t take into account or acknowledge in any way the existence of me as a person. And it leads to ugliness such as the man who walked up to me on the street in Cordoba and, when I refused his offensive demand for sex, shouted: “What, you’re black. You know you want it.”
But let’s be clear: this I-love-black-women thing doesn’t (ahem) discriminate. It’s actually a problem I had with AC (a Jamaican) when we first met. He had a whole set of wacky-ass beliefs about what must be true about me because of the color of my skin and the size of my body. I wouldn’t say I’ve disabused him of this foolishness, but he at least knows that I’m one fat, black woman who doesn’t fit the picture he has in his head.
I was upset with Peter because (among other issues) he heard my voice and turned me into a white woman. I’m upset with Mikhail because he saw my skin and turned me into … I don’t know, an industrial strength sex toy? Is it so hard to actually see other people, to leave enough space in your mind for the possibility that someone doesn’t fit neatly into some category you imagined before you ever met them? I don’t doubt that Mikhail’s black girlfriend is a wonderful girlfriend for him. He seems perfectly happy. But does that mean he would be perfectly happy with any black woman? And how happy would his girlfriend be to know he thinks she’s interchangeable with any other brown-skinned woman? I’m no saint: I make snap judgments about who I think people are when I see and hear them (my friend Leo knows full well that I thought he was an older black man when I heard his voice … imagine my surprise to meet him in the body of a young white guy), but I keep them to myself. I know that what I imagine isn’t necessarily going to be what turns out to be true and I leave room for people to be whoever they actually are. I just wish the Mikhails and Peters of the world could do the same.