Archive for Relationships

On the movie “Get Out”, and my experience of inter-racial dating.

I watched Get Out last night. It’s only recently reached cinemas here in Berlin, the benefit of which is that it has allowed much of the surrounding hype to die down. I was thus able to assess it on its own terms. And haha, my God. It’s outstanding.

 

I’m not going to do a review here or recount the facts in any great detail, because – quite frankly – that’s been done countless times already. What I will do is set out my reaction to the film; I’m not sure how long or how structured these reflections will be, since I am trying to type them as freely as they come. Put it this way, though – this film really affected me, so much so that I was up until 2:30am this morning discussing it with a friend. It’s the kind of art that makes you want to discuss it with everyone.

 

I am very public about many aspects of my life, but the one area where I am furiously private (till now, haha) is that of dating. I think that’s because, since I spent much of my working life in in a state of some visibility, I like to keep some part of my life secret and sacred. That desire for privacy means that there are some setbacks that I just don’t discuss. But, wow, Get Out brought so many of those back to the surface.

 

We often talk about black people suffering the adverse effects of severe immigration policies, but, of late, I have been thinking a great deal about the supreme version of border control: that is to say, whether you are welcomed into your partner’s family. It’s one thing to allow a black person into your country; it’s quite another to let one of them marry into your bloodline. I have been very fortunate in most of my longer relationships. The first woman I ever loved was a black woman, so no problem there (if you read this on your occasional visits to Facebook, then thank you, thank you, for being such an amazing introduction to the turbulent world of love. I am still so grateful). I went out with a wonderful white British woman whose family were lovely to me; her grandmother had never met a black person before and was an absolute joy to be around. I dated a white German woman who had two very right-wing brothers but I was lucky enough not to have met them before that romance came to a close (with a spectacular abruptness, but that’s a story for another time, if never).

 

There is the bad stuff, though. There’s the women who you’re on dates with who, out of nowhere, come out with comments that make you realise that you’re little more than a black cock inconveniently attached to an extra few feet of flesh. You’re having a great chat, and then a couple of drinks in you’re suddenly *that* glance to the crotch, you’re chocolate. There’s the white men who want nothing more than to be overwhelmed by a black man, any black man – the stereotype that Keith, in Six Feet Under, described as “Big Black Sex Cop”. There’s the woman I went on a date with who spent much of the evening describing the types of black men she had dated – African, British, African-American – sorting us into behavioural groups like Herman Melville explaining the different types of whale in that chapter in Moby Dick.

 

Ha, my God. It’s all coming back. There’s the woman I dated who was really nice but not nice enough for me to be comfortable with her revelation that, if her parents knew she was dating a black man, they’d be horrified. There’s the woman who walked across the dancefloor in one club to inform me that she wanted to dance with me – only dancing, nothing more – because black men were good at dancing. “Only dancing! Nothing more!” she ordered. (It’s okay, I have dignity, she didn’t get any dancing.) There’s the woman I was dating who was very pleasant but who said of her best friends that “they really like black guys…they’re just not sure how to go about it.” Go about what, I asked, we’re just regular guys. We’re no different to white guys. What are people afraid of?

 

Well, the black penis, for one thing. Time and again I have been reminded that the black penis is a thing that some white people talk about or think about much more than I ever thought possible. Some of you won’t believe me – if not, please ask yourselves why that is, it’s not like I enjoy talking about this stuff – but here we are. They really talk about it. I dated one woman who said that white men, having heard she’d dated black men, couldn’t stop asking about their penises – our penises. “How big were they?” they asked her. “What were they like?” (To which, come to think of it, she probably should have replied: “Get one of your own.”) The black penis is a curiosity. A land beyond maps. An object of terror and desire, often both at the same time.

 

I don’t want to stray too far from the original point here, which is how Get Out made me feel – but maybe that is the genius of the movie, in that it has brought so much of this to the surface. I was talking to a very handsome black friend of mine – the type of man who women stop and openly gawp at in the street, I’ve seen it – and he talked about how so many non-black women seemed to crave him but never dated him. They would express interest but ultimately never follow up on anything – it was as if they wanted to be with him, to try him out, but the taboo of doing so was just too great. For all his brilliance as a human being, for all his physical beauty, he was an object, an oddly unfuckable monolith. 

 

In Get Out, I could identify so much with Chris, the protagonist. So often it feels as though, as a black man, you are expected to prove that you are human – superhuman, even – just to be accepted.  Of course, I am long past the point where I want to be “accepted” – because even if I pass all those invisible and absurdly harsh tests – if I have the right education and the right background and the right demeanour – then it means that the people who have accepted me are still judging all those black men who don’t pass them. Basically, life is too short to date racists. Thank you, Get Out, for reminding me of that; and, if I ever go into the countryside with a partner whose relatives are suspect, then you can bet I’ll be packing a spare phone.

On Asian-American men: John Cho, Hollywood, and inter-racial dating.

So: inter-racial dating. There are a few topics I don’t discuss that much in my writing, mainly because for all my openness as a poet I am reflexively very private about some things, and one of those topics is dating. Every now and then, though, I see something which frustrates me enough to take the leap. I have just listened to a short radio piece on Hollywood’s historical reluctance to cast Asian-Americans as leading men, and – perhaps it was the black coffee, the Monday morning, or the slightly early start – something tipped me over the edge.

John Cho, who is a fine actor and something of an ambassador for Asian-Americans making their way in the film industry, spoke of the boundaries he had encountered when growing up. “Girls would say in an almost benevolent tone that ‘I just (have) zero attraction to Asian men’,” he told the BBC World Service. “It wasn’t considered taboo to say something like that.” I can remember being told similar things, and so his words resonated with me. Whilst who you are attracted to is of course a deeply personal matter, the reasons for that attraction often go unexamined. Cho spoke of the way that Hollywood portrayed Asian men as weak, and not as natural leaders, which had implications for how they were viewed in wider society: including, in some cases, the fact that some would not readily consider them as potential romantic partners.

If you think about it, “I have zero attraction to white men”, or “I have zero attraction to black women”, is actually a really odd thing to say to someone’s face. The response I first think of is “what – all of them? There are millions, you haven’t even met each of them yet”.  Look – it could just be their preference. But it still seems a little strange, particularly when you announce that to someone out loud.

I mean – what do I know. Maybe sexual attraction really is as visceral and uncontrollable as the type of food that you like. Or maybe, at some level, we have been socially conditioned to say No! to the possibility of ever fancying someone from a particular ethnic group, to the extent that we feel entitled to look into their hopeful eyes and say it. I don’t know for sure. All I know is that, should I ever again be in a situation where someone ever says “I just don’t fancy black guys”, I will say “OK, so you’ve not met the hot ones so far. Give me a few moments, let me me go through my phone book. I’ll change all that.”

Well played, Ireland. Well played.

So it looks as though Ireland has said Yes to equal marriage by a wide margin. What a day. As John Amaechi recently wrote on Twitter, it really is “restoring faith in humanity” to see that so many Irish people travelled home to vote on this referendum. The reported margin of victory represents a fantastic validation for LGBT people from the society around them – a validation that for far too long they have to draw only from themselves. How remarkable that, in a Catholic country, LGBT people will be able to walk the streets and think “the majority of my nation is on my side”.

Of course homophobia won’t disappear in Ireland overnight. Of course the abuse and the attacks won’t all magically disappear. But that cynicism can take a ticket and wait its turn.  Because this is the type of change that was resisted for years with terrifying aggression, and which was brought about through endless courage, compassion and love.

Every LGBT person remembers the day they came out. For so many, it felt not so much like stepping out of the closet as stepping into flame. For so many, the fear of living life as they truly are will have subsided sharply, to a degree that can never be measured by any public vote. And this outcome will hopefully resonate far beyond Ireland, in deeply religious countries where homosexuality is still illegal, if not punishable by death. LGBT people in those places can look at this referendum and think, “look, the world is learning to care”.

The poet Jessica Horn has spoken of “love as a revolutionary force”, and that is what the Yes vote in Ireland represents today. Well played, Ireland: well played.

 

 

Notes for your exit interview.

If you’re about to break up with your partner, and you’re reading this the night before you’re going to tell them it’s over, then here are some tips or guidelines as to how you should conduct that fateful conversation. Unless you are a sadist, no-one particularly enjoys the exit interview, that time when you look into the eyes of someone who cares deeply about you and sever all ties. Of course, you may want to inflict pain upon them for all the terrible wrongs they have done you during your relationship, in which case my advice is irrelevant: I have written this only for those who retain some significant amount of compassion for their doomed lover, and who therefore want to make the breakup as painless for them as possible.

Obviously, the news that you’re leaving them is going to hurt. At the same time, there are degrees of agony, and if tomorrow will be a car crash for their emotions then you have the choice to pass them an airbag. Because you are going to break them tomorrow – the only question is how much. You’ve presumably already chosen the venue. Here’s hoping it’s a coffee shop at a neutral location, safely in the middle of town and close to transport links for your speedy and relieved escape immediately afterwards. If you’ve selected a restaurant, that may not work so well if you’re aiming for urgency and discretion – people tend to eavesdrop when hunched over their meals, it’s just one of those things, and your partner, oblivious to their fate, may order food, which will string the whole miserable experience out.

Wherever you do go, make sure that you sit near the door, or in the corner nearest the street, so as to avoid too much scrutiny. And when you begin to speak, to utter the spell that will release you, please remember two things. The first is that your partner will probably have no idea what is coming. Only the very smartest animals can sense the day when they are being summoned to the slaughterhouse. As a result, there will be a moment when they slow the chewing of their food or the sipping of their coffee and sit up with wide, terrified eyes, a moment when they realise, my God, this is the exit interview, this is actually happening. When that moment comes, and it will, keep your tone as level as you can. You have come this far with conviction; do not fail yourself now.

The second thing you must remember is that, during the course of your once-joyous and now-terminal romance, your partner solemnly gave you possession of a series of weapons. At the time, your partner was not aware that these were weapons. Instead, they were your partner’s greatest fears, their most vulnerable truths. Each of those fears and truths is now a nuclear warhead that you can aim at their self-esteem. When you sit there tomorrow morning, with this silently-seething array of nukes for which your partner had the good grace to hand you the launch codes, there may be a moment when you are tempted to use them. Perhaps one of them, perhaps all of them. Who knows – when your chest is rumbling with emotion, maybe even the thrill of imminent freedom, you may find it cathartic to set off these detonations deep in your partner’s heart. But please be careful. The news that you are leaving them will, of itself, be sufficiently devastating. Any additional bombs that you explode run the risk of being gratuitous and therefore cruel.

That being said, say what you feel you must. Please know, though, that whatever you say to them tomorrow will stay with them for months or years afterwards, like radiation. And know that your mark is already on them. For far longer than they will like, your partner will think they see you walking by in the street, reminded of your gait by a stranger; they will pick up their phone to text you a joke, before remembering that they no longer store your number; they will wander down a supermarket aisle, and then stop themselves, realising they only came this way to collect that food you loved. And every now and then, when they pause the frenzy of tasks they’ve taken on to stop thinking about you – at a traffic light, maybe, waiting for the green to beckon them across – their eyes will fill uncontrollably at the loss of you. Or maybe it won’t be there, in public: maybe they’ll make it back to their home, under merciful cover of night, and shudder with tears against a pillow that they hold unusually close.