Jeremy Helligar (pictured) is a journalist, author, and world traveler from New York City, where he spent 15 years working for People, Teen People, Us Weekly and Entertainment Weekly before moving to Buenos Aires on a whim in 2006. He lived there for four and a half years before once again packing up his things and hopping all over the globe — from Israel to South Africa to Italy to Thailand. He currently lives in Melbourne, Australia where he works as a freelance writer and maintains a blog.
His first book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World is humorous travelogue and memoir about being a gay, black, American man living in self-imposed exile. Queerty recently had a chance to interview Helligar about the book and the racially-charged question he’s come to dread.
What is it that you find so annoying about the question, “Is it true what they say about black men?”
The repetition is the worst part. I think the first few times I heard it in Buenos Aires I probably chuckled. But by the 50th time, it gets old. There’s a lot more pressure on black men to live up to certain sexual standards, pressure that I don’t think is necessarily placed on white guys. That question, for me, represents this glaring double standard.
What are some of those sexual standards?
Well, the first stereotype is the obvious one, that all black men are well-endowed. I think that goes hand in hand with the stamina stereotype and also the preconceived notion of black men generally being tops. I imagine that these stereotypes are rooted in mental images and associations that go even further back than porn, as far back as the slavery era, when racist whites equated black men with feral beasts.
So you consider the question to be racist?
I do think it is a racist question. What people don’t realize is that by asking it, especially right out of the starting gate, by making us all about how we are in bed, they are stripping us of our individuality and equating us with our penises. After so many years of thinking of myself as a multi-dimensional human being, I realized that, for many, I was merely the size of my penis. In my experience with too many non-black men abroad, being with me has been more about satisfying their curiosity than getting to know the man beyond the skin color. Most gay white men never have to deal with that.
I like the part in the book where you talk about how some gay guys are very quick to write off potential lovers/boyfriends simply because of their race, i.e. gay men who put on their Grindr profiles “No asians.” I often hear guys argue that it’s not racist, it’s about personal preference.
Saying I like apples better than oranges is a statement of preference. Writing “No Asians” in your Grindr profile is not about preference. It’s about exclusion, especially when you insist on putting it in writing. You aren’t saying you prefer this over that. You’re saying, “If you’re Asian, don’t even bother.” These same people judge white guys individually and dismiss them individually. If they don’t like them, they just don’t respond or block them. But with Asians, they’re dismissing them collectively, making a preemptive strike against them because, well, they think they all look the same, or they’re all unattractive, which is basically what you’re saying when you say you’re not attracted to an entire race. I don’t understand how people can’t see the problem with this. It’s discrimination, which is key to racism. And the sad thing is, it’s an artificial, misguided distinction because “Asian” is as varied as “White.”
You talk about that in the book as well. “Asian” defines a diverse range of people. Asia covers China, India, Israel, Iraq, Russia. Yet folks tend to lump all Asian people into the same category.
The thing is if you’re thoughtful enough to make the distinction between the people of the various countries in Asia, you’re probably thoughtful enough not to insult them by putting “No Asians” in your Grindr profile. It’s pretty much the same as putting “No Europeans” in your Grindr profile. And would anyone do that? It’s such an ugly distinction because “Asians” are no less varied than “Europeans,” yet some people think it’s perfectly fine to lump them all into a box because a few physical traits fit all. Then they label the box “Asians: Do not touch!” and say, “Sorry if you’re offended, but it’s just my preference.” Well, you know what? Using the “preference” defense doesn’t make it any less racist.
At the same time, a person can’t control who they are attracted to.
If you’ve never been attracted to an Asian guy, or a black guy, or even a white guy, that doesn’t make you racist. What makes you racist is when your lack of previous attraction guides your future interaction with them, when you close yourself off from them completely. So instead of turning down an Asian guy, or a black guy, as most white guys would another white guy, because you’re just not interested, you make it completely about color. How is that not racist?
Having lived in a number of different countries, are there certain places where you found racism within the gay community more prevalent than others?
Racism exists everywhere, but it takes on different forms. In my book I talk about how it was the same yet different in Argentina, in Australia and in Thailand. I spent last year living in Cape Town, and it was the same/different thing there as well. The one common denominator is the question that gave the book its title. There’s been no escaping it abroad, even in South Africa, where there really shouldn’t be so much curiosity about black men as they’re everywhere. Of course, segregation persists even 20 years after apartheid, so there is less racial mixing than one might expect, especially on a sexual level. One of the most interesting things is how different my experience with non-white guys in the United States was. I’m not saying that Americans are more or less racist than people anywhere else, but in all my years in the United States, I was never asked “the question.”
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s because Americans are more careful about not mentioning race than people are in countries where black people are rarer. After all, America came up with “African-American” so nobody would have to say “black.” Guys abroad will say things like “I’ve always wanted to be with a black guy” and think it’s a compliment. It’s not a compliment. It’s not even sexy. That’s not about me; it’s about you. It’s like saying “I’ve always wanted to be with a woman,” and expecting every woman in the world to jump for joy because it’s so flattering. “You have a great smile” is a compliment. So is “I enjoyed your book.” It’s important to know that difference.