How I learnt to stop worrying and love black men

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Interestingly enough, my attraction to black men only started at university. Before then, I would never have thought of black men as potential sexual or romantic partners; as a teenager, they never entered my mind when I pondered over who was hot and who was not in my class at school. The origin of my inability to imagine being sexually intimate with black teenage boys, was the fact that I grew up in a deeply racist, working-class coloured community in Grahamstown.

Black men were people who either worked in our garden (for a pittance), or were "the boys" that my dad managed in the army. And all the adults around me talked about them disparagingly. In fact, I quickly learnt as a kid that the quickest way to insult my little sister, who was darker than the rest of us, was to tell her that she looked "like a Bantu".

One of my uncles, in fact, was so dark that he got the insulting nickname, "K***ir", which has stuck to this day. So, as a kid I always thought of black men and women as gardeners and maids, and associated the worst stereotypes with them. In many ways, they - because we did think of black Africans in my community as "they" - were regarded as less human than us. The quickest way to bring shame on your family, in our community, was to "have sex with a Bantu".

So, when a good friend at university, Vanessa, wanted to set me up with a black American exchange student, who was at Rhodes University for a while, I was shocked that she could imagine I might be interested.

Pretend that I had said: "No, Vanessa, I find the thought of sex and even romance involving a black man truly disgusting."

Would my response have been immoral?

We have, again, the dilemma here of needing to distinguish between the origins of sexual preferences, and whether or not one then needs to change those preferences as an adult, if the origins are embarrassing, or even racist in this case.

I think that if I were to respond to Vanessa like that, then I probably would be revealing some deepseated racist attitude towards black people. It is clear to me that my disinterest in black men, at that time, was a direct result of being immersed, as a kid, in coloured racism. Coloured racism in my family, and in my community, had clearly blocked me from being able to imagine sexual and romantic intimacy with black men.

This is a great South African shame. But, it would be very odd, surely, to think that the racist origins of that sexual disinterest mean that I must go to therapy to help me see black men as sexy.

I have no doubt that the racist origins of that hypothetical response about black men disgusting me, would make many of us uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable. And I am ashamed of those kinds of immoral origins that underpin many of our preferences in life for all sorts of things. (Even Stoney ginger beer had a reputation of being a "Bantu drink" in my neighbourhood.)

But the key question is whether or not it is acceptable to say to Vanessa: "V, I never, ever want to date or have sex with a black man. Only hook me up with coloured and white guys."

I think that is okay. If not, then we would be implying that we should date without any discrimination. Why stop at your "natural" sexual orientation? If excluding black men from a list of potential partners is wrong, on account of race, then surely I should also not exclude women, since that smacks of sexism?

Or, what if I do not have a preference for, say, someone who is disabled because of how we are socialised? We learn early on in life to pity disabled people, and this blocks us from easily imagining a disabled person as a potential sexual or romantic partner. But how many of us think that having no interest in a disabled person, sexually, means we should seek a post-hypnotic suggestion to change that? It seems quite clear to me that while we can say there is something immoral about the origins of never wanting to have sex with, say, black men, it doesn't follow that I must now change my preferences as an adult.

Our sexual choices are too personal to be given moral guidelines to follow.

The irony, of course, is that I eventually gave in to Vanessa's persuasion. So I went on a very reluctant date with Akel, a visiting student from Duke University in the United States, to the local Spur restaurant (of all places). Within seconds I was infatuated. His charisma would have swept me off my feet if I had been standing. His humanity, his charm, his intelligence and piercingly innocent big eyes, drew me in.

Our second date, which involved a walk up to the 1820 Settlers Monument, ended with me stumbling along the pathway in the botanical gardens that connect the Rhodes campus with the monument on the hill, and Akel catching me just in time, staring into my eyes, and inducing mad love.

Yes, I confess: it was cheesy, and straight out of a cheap chick flick. The rest is a Sweet Valley High novel (or chapter rather), interrupted by the fact that his life in town was inherently temporary - and he was a bit of a player so I could never really be his. Still, after Akel and I had a sexual and romantic dalliance, I never looked back: black men are now a permanent and sweet weakness.

But here's the moral of the story: the fact that I allowed myself to meet Akel does not vindicate any argument that we should change a sexual preference that has an immoral, irrational or psychologically dodgy origin. Sure, with the benefit of hindsight, I can say it was a good thing that my childhood racism was eliminated in the end, insofar as that racism had stopped me from seeing black men as potential partners.

But I tell this story also in support of the fact that there is randomness both in how our tastes are formed and randomness about how they are changed. The chance encounter with Akel led to a new world opening to me. Who knows? A chance encounter with a woman next week might close the chapter on a gay past, and open a heterosexual world I never knew I'd love even more than playing with men? It does not follow that I must hunt down a woman and test this possibility.

Random occurrences are just that - random. Sex, and sexual encounters, should not be engineered. Doing so, it seems to me, would be robbing sex of its rather basic place in our lives: playful; in the moment; from the well of unreconstructed desire. Our bodies are the most intimate parts of who and what we are, and it would be unduly invasive to be required to have sex in the name of "equality" or "nonracialism" or "multiculturalism".

It is one thing - correctly so - to judge your white neighbour for being scared to share her house with a black man; but it is surely something else - wrongly so - to judge her for not wanting to share her vagina with that black man. Go forth and have random sex with gay and undemocratic abandon.

  • Eusebius McKaiser is the host for Talk at Nine on Radio 702 during the week. McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a top international debate coach, MC and public speaker, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytical articles are widely published in SA newspapers and he has a weekly column in the New York Times. He holds law and philosophy degrees from Rhodes and Oxford universities. This article was published on Pretoria News.