“I’ve never been with a black girl before, but it’s something that I’d definitely like to experience. I know black girls are really good in bed and do things that other girls won’t."
“I’d never date her, but I think it would be awesome to have sex with a black girl.”
“I don’t really think black girls are all that pretty, but their bodies make up for it.”
These are just a few of the sexualized comments I’ve heard or that have been said to me in high school and college. I feel men staring at me at the mall, feel their lust on my skin. I notice how they look me up and down, from head to toe, and I try not to imagine what they’re thinking. Many men have whispered vulgar things to me that make me uncomfortable and scared.
It’s disturbing to be viewed as less than a human. It’s disturbing knowing that these men, at any time, might try to act out their thoughts and take advantage of me.
Seeing men view me this way has also made me wonder about my future and my relationships. Will a man only want to date me because of my body or the “exotic” way they think I’ll behave? Will they like me for who I am or because of what they think I’ll offer? I automatically expect that when a man approaches me or asks me on a date, it’s because he wants something in return. I expect to be disrespected and am prepared to defend myself. I expect to feel uncomfortable when I politely say no to men who persistently call, who make it clear that they want my body.
I know that all men are not like this, but thinking this way has become a habit. I am jaded and sometimes shut down altogether.
Our society seems to have accepted the way women are sexualized in movies and TV as the norm. But black women are sexualized in a different way: We are fetishized, a fantasy. It doesn’t matter what we wear — even when we avoid anything revealing or risqué, the combination of our race and gender has become equated with stereotypes about our sexuality. But while black women’s bodies are viewed as desirable, black women themselves are not. Black female bodies are treated as less than human — and have been for centuries.
History is full of examples of this devaluation. Take Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman — a Khoikhoi (Southwestern African) woman who was exhibited as a freakshow attraction in the late 1700s because of her large buttocks. She became known as “Hottentot Venus,” and she was put on display for everyone to see, her body shown off like an animal in a zoo. Later she was sold to an animal trainer and researched by a professor named Georges Cuvier. Cuvier watched and examined her, searching for proof of a so-called missing link between animals and human beings. Baartman eventually died of an inflammatory disease, but even after she passed, Cuvier dissected her and put her brain, skeleton, and genitalia on display for people to continue to gawk at.
Fast-forward to 2016, and it’s clear that similarities to this historical dehumanization persist today. Black women aren’t blatantly dissected and displayed the way Baartman was, but we are often still looked at and treated like animals. In film and TV, black women are cast as overly sexual or aggressive. In music videos, black women are often vixens, wear minimal clothing, and are called “side hoes” or “black b****.” Black women in these videos commonly do a lot of sexually aggressive moves, like pelvic thrusting, stroking men, or licking their own lips suggestively in order to arouse viewers.
I remember seeing these music videos on VH1 and BET as a kid. I watched rappers disrespect the half-naked black women by their sides, calling them derogatory names and throwing money at them. On BET Uncut, music videos by Snoop Dogg, Nelly, and 50 Cent were even more graphic: Black women talked about oral sex, intercourse, and masturbation. Take “Splash Waterfalls” by Ludacris. The lyrics and video for that song are about giving a woman pleasure and buying her fancy things but not actually having a stable relationship with her. Watching that video, and so many others like it, at a young age painted a picture in my mind of how black women were viewed and were supposed to act.
But I was really confused about one thing: Why were these women letting men treat them this way? Men didn’t just portray women in these ways; women portray themselves in these ways, too, and continue to. Take “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj, in which women of color are stripped down to thongs and shake their butts. Did these women feel as though they had to act this way because the media had led them to believe that that’s what they should do and how they should act?
The sexualization and dehumanization of black women in these music videos contributes to the mentality that we are only worthy of sex, not relationships. While many men seem to prefer the physical features usually associated with black women — big butts, big lips, big breasts, and curves — they’d rather have these features on a white woman’s body, because white women are seen as more virtuous, and black skin isn’t considered as beautiful. I heard this often growing up, especially in school. Many black girls have told me that they wished they were “lighter,” because lighter skin is seen as superior and gives women of color a better chance of finding somebody who will date them. Unfortunately, many men confirm this, saying they would prefer to date light-skinned women because it’s more socially acceptable, or even because light-skinned girls’ race is more ambiguous — they could be mixed. Yet those same men are often still attracted to dark-skinned women, but will only pursue them in the context of a strictly sexual relationship. In our culture, it’s easier to love a black woman for a night than for a lifetime.
As a woman of color, I am nervous. I am nervous that my voice will not be heard over my body, that the way I look speaks louder than the actual words I say. I don’t want to have to worry about my body endangering my well-being, but I do. I don’t want to be taken advantage of or for a man to say that I wanted something that I didn’t because he couldn’t control his own fantasies that are rooted in society’s racist treatment of black women. As a light-skinned black girl, I do not receive as much criticism as darker-skinned black women do, but when it comes to dating, people still maintain stereotypes about the way my skin color affects my humanity, my viability as a partner, and how sexual I will be.
A black woman’s body is worth so much more than sex. It is more than a fantasy. I want black women to be able to use our bodies but not for our bodies to be used. I want black women to be able to use our bodies to express ourselves in ways that do not cast a derogatory light on us, and for us to know that we have control over the way our bodies are seen. A black woman’s body is beautiful and should be seen by society in a way that reflects that beauty — not cast behind a shadow that dims it.
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