Caught in the thirst trap: White gaze on black bodies

Lana Lopesi outlines the politics of sexual fantasies, with some help from Idris Elba

Posted on

Lana Lopesi outlines the politics of sexual fantasies, with some help from Idris Elba.

Let’s be real, we all love a good sexual fantasy. And for those of you who pretend you’re above it, I see you. But let’s get intersectional for a minute. You know, intersectionality, that word that we (especially feminists) love to throw around, which talks about the interconnectedness of types of oppression (race, gender, class etc) but which very few people actually uphold. Yea, that.

We know sex is political. It’s time to acknowledge it’s political in terms of race, as well as gender.

I’m a lover of men of colour. To be frank I have never had a white boyfriend, sexual encounter or even kiss.

I’m a lover of men of colour. To be frank I have never had a white boyfriend, sexual encounter or even kiss. (I can feel your reverse racism comments being thrown at me, but say it with me now: reverse racism does not exist. Prejudice is slightly different.) It’s a statistic I’m proud of, because people of colour grow up in a society where Western beauty standards are a part of our conditioning, to the point where it affects not only our opinions of our own bodies but also the bodies that we are attracted to. A conditioning which, as a woman of colour, I have strongly withheld. So yea, I may take a second look when someone dark and handsome walks past, but boy I was not ready for ‘Pound my yams: Emily Writes gets the horn for Idris Elba’.

Emily Writes, editor of Spinoff Parents, wrote this post on her personal blog in response to this slightly strange video featuring the Black British actor Idris Elba (born to parents from Sierra Leone and Ghana). In the thirst trap, Elba is playing up his sexuality, suavely dressed and drinking champagne, soliciting competition entries to win a potential date with himself. Basically the more money you donate, the more entries you get. Somewhat surprisingly, given the sexual innuendo, the money goes toward W.E Can Lead, an organisation which supports African girls in Sierra Leone to receive an education, aiming to develop young leaders and future change makers. 

However, objectifying Elba is very very different to objectifying Skarsgård. Why? Short answer: because he’s Black.

Identifying as a feminist, Writes is known both for presenting herself as a sexual being with sexual desires and fantasies and for commentary on parenting, a combination I appreciate. This humorous piece of hers about Alexander Skarsgård in Tarzan first brought her to wide attention when it went viral. Her public reclaiming of women’s sexuality is refreshing. Unfortunately for Writes and for the rest of us who think liberation might be quite nice, her assertion that women are sexually empowered makes chauvinists bang on their trolling keyboards in bitter frustration, as Writes discusses in this interview with Alex Casey. 

However, objectifying Elba is very very different to objectifying Skarsgård. Why? Short answer: because he’s Black. 

I watched the Elba video, and I get it. He’s hot and basking in himself. He's totally lapping it up. But, unlike Skarsgård in Tarzan (shirtless and oiled up) – and unlike historic sexualised stereotypes of Black men – Elba wears a suit, with his legs crossed, displaying all the symbols of the upper class. 

In contrast, Writes’ objectification of Elba relies on, and reinforces, racial stereotyping of the Black sexual being. 

The assertion (even in clear fantasy) that Elba ‘FUCKS LIKE  A CHAMP’ is one example of the author making Elba’s black body captive to her white gaze. It’s violent.

Let’s go back to that intersectional word for a minute. ‘Pound my yams: Emily Writes gets the horn for Idris Elba’ is not written as the representative of one minority allying herself to another minority; if anything, the feminist here is enforcing racial oppression. The assertion (even in clear fantasy) that Elba ‘FUCKS LIKE A CHAMP’ is one example of the author making Elba’s black body captive to her white gaze. It’s violent. The hypersexualisation, fetishisation and unashamed consumption of this black body is beyond words. That crotch photo? Come on! But the particular part I keep coming back to is: ‘You know it. He’d go off like a missile. And you wouldn’t have to do anything. You could just lie there. He wouldn’t expect you to do any weird shit he’d just give you a good going over. Like a perfect steak. You’d be well done.’ With the crotch pic, Writes plays directly into the archetypes of Black men being well-endowed and, with the ‘good going over’, she supports the archetype of white women being passive when partnered with Black men. 

Ethnic stereotypes by their very nature are problematic, however positive an individual instance may seem. In addition, the ‘positive’ stereotype of well-endowment was originally used to justify slavery and oppression. Because of fear of Black men being unable to control their supposedly animalistic sexual desires, enslavement and the threat of death were said to be necessary to protect powerless white women from rape. For a long time, the taboo against interracial relationships was such that any black man found with a white woman was accused of rape by the white community. The Black rapist stereotypes still have huge power. Dylann Storm Roof  said “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go” before he shot and killed nine Black church goers in 2015. 

Black and brown bodies have been relentlessly hypersexualised since, well, white people started looking at them. Portrayal of Black bodies as sexual non-intelligent beings is perhaps best exemplified by Sarah Baartman. You may know her as the European ‘freak-show’ act Hottentot Venus. The South African woman attracted English and the French audiences circa 1810 because of her ‘black skin and large ass’. Racial ‘scientists’ studied her as an example of ‘nature’ as some put it and, believe it or not, her genitals were on display until 1974 at Museum of Man. White desires for entertainment stripped her of dignity, treating her as an animal until her body was finally taken home to South Africa to rest in 2002. But even before Baartman, in 1788 we had Thomas Jefferson convincing us of how sexually animalistic Black men are, by claiming, “They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.” (And closer to home, we have the fetish of the ‘enchanted’ noble savages and dusky maidens, known for their naive minds and sexual 'looseness'; the exotic Other made visible by travelling colonists such as French artist Paul Gauguin.) This era of slavery produced literature and pseudo-science justifying the dehumanisation of Black and brown bodies. Dehumanisation isn’t to make someone appear non-human but rather it ‘denies a person or group of positive human qualities’. In all the above examples – and even the Elba fantasy – Black and brown bodies have been reduced to mere sexual objects, with few or no signs of intelligence.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon argues that the ‘phenomenology of blackness’ can only be understood in the encounter with whiteness or, to be specific, the white imagination. He argues that Black is not considered to be fully human, that Black people are an object put together in the mind of the (white) Other. The Black person is an object which is constructed by socio-economic realties as well as reproduced anecdotes, myths and assumptions. Basically, by fantasising about the big, black, sex-crazed animalistic man, you’re fitting your own racial stereotypes onto someone whom you made up in your own head. 

We’ve been indoctrinated to think that black men are by their very nature sexually primal and aggressive, but enough time has passed for us to now know better.

This is not a discourse relegated to the social anthropologists; no, this is mainstream too. Remember just last year in September when in an interview white American actress Lena Dunham made the following comments about Odell Beckham Jr: ‘he looked at me and he determined I was not the shape of a woman by his standards.… [Beckham’s] vibe was very much like, “Do I want to fuck it? Is it wearing a … yep, it's wearing a tuxedo. I'm going to go back to my cell phone.”’ Dunham then got rightly slammed for insinuating that Beckham only had fucking on the brain. But to her credit, she made an apology that included the line: ‘But most importantly, I would never intentionally contribute to a long and often violent history of the over-sexualization of black male bodies - as well as false accusations by white women towards black men.’ She clearly read the criticism she was receiving and responded appropriately. She got it.

We’ve been indoctrinated to think that black men are by their very nature sexually primal and aggressive, but enough time has passed for us to now know better. Given that the violence of this type of stereotyping has been so well documented for so long, I am really disappointed to see 'Pound my yams' published on The Spinoff without any acknowledgement of its issues regarding race. As I mentioned earlier ‘Pound my yams’ was first published on Writes’ personal blog. There, an appalling group of trolls who were critical of her sexual liberation (and not critical, for the most part it seems, of her displayed lack of intersectionality) forced Writes to take down the post. As someone who also publishes online, and gets trolled online, I know that the general state of trolling is astonishing. And given our inability to switch off from the internet, it’s inescapable. Long gone are letters to the editor. Thus, in order not to let the trolls win, 'Pound my yams' was republished on The Spinoff. It’s completely understandable that their editorial team rallied around their editor in support; I hope people would do the same for me. But this is a serious call for some much-needed cultural advisory. There has been some amazing writing on The Spinoff, but this incident suggests to me that their writers are dealing with the 'wild west', an editorial space which is more about bravado then protection. It seems their editorial understanding of certain cultural nuances isn’t (yet) enough to ensure their writers and editors can be made aware of the likely wider implications of their writing.

You know, it’s similar to how a man can’t publically sexualise a woman in the same way that women can publically sexualise men, without it being icky. There are power structures at play. If men use their privilege to comment on women in particular ways, that reinforces gender oppression. And so, in the same way, a white person needs to tread very carefully to talk about a person of colour without reinforcing their white privilege and power.

‘Pound my yams’ was written without any malice or ill-intent. That's the problem. There was no consideration for what it means to sexualise a black body through a white gaze. A body which is by default subjugated to thousands of years of oppression – that’s incomprehensible to those of us who are not within that body. I sympathise with Emily Writes about the toxic trolling she has had to deal with over a number of years. Long may she continue to write sexually liberated posts that give so many of us brief reprieves from misogyny. But she and her advisors – as we all do – need to step carefully to ensure our writing is free from all unconscious stereotyping. What I have to say here is not trolling. Instead, it is a call to our writers and editors to think intersectionally, and to use their platforms and privileges with responsibility and care. If these types of things can slip through the cracks so easily then we’re not upholding our responsibility as editors to our writers, let alone to our readers. 

Editor's note: Emily Writes' wonderful response to this post is here. It's a great example of how one can respond when being called out for making a mistake. Kia ora Emily; we're learning from you too.