Conceptions and understanding of race in America have long fascinated me. Race, at least for Americans, is generally a primary identification along with gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Both personal racial identity and perceived racial identity (not the same at all for some people) have tremendous impacts on daily life. Race has been a huge in shaping politics, social interactions, perceptions of the poor and underclass, and determines in part our personal relationships.
A majority the people I have dated have been of a different race. Primarily, I have dated Black guys. Race in various forms makes up part of our conversations, it shapes our language and our communication, and it influences my interactions with other people when I am out on a date with someone of a different race. Being part of the kink community, it also means that on occasion, the issue of race play comes up.
For those of you unfamiliar with race play, it involves using race (in some form) to shape the dynamic between the partners. This can be everything from role playing thug and soccer mom to carrying out a whipping scene while using racial epithets.
Race play does not occupy a huge conversation space in the kink community. However, for those of us in interracial relationships, it does come up. It is a hard topic to discuss because race is a loaded issue, people are coming from different places of power, for some people the desire for race play carries embarrassment or shame, and there are few forums where the discussion about race play does not devolve into ad hominem attacks.
For full disclosure, I have been approached about participating in race play and tried it once. While I had trepidation going into the one encounter where it came up, I did not realize how strongly I would react to the situation. Its like a lot of things in kink. You may have some clue about your reaction, but you honestly do not know what it will be until you have tried something. For me, it ended up being a hard limit.
Race Play as Historical Catharsis
If I am completely honest, I am of two minds about race play. I am a Jungian, in large part, when it comes to understanding the psyche. I do think archetypes, the quintessential figures that make up the standard icons in culture (e.g., mother, father, slave, healer, warrior, etc.), form a basis for much of our understanding of the world. Further, I do believe there is a collective unconscious we all share and that historical wounds to groups can be carried over generations.
In the United States, slavery was so entrenched and such a brutal and fundamental part of our culture, I believe those wounds are encoded into the collective psyche. I think for some people, race play can be a way of debriding and cleansing those old wounds. I think for others it is a way to re-enact a collective social trauma as a means to try and heal it, in the same way a child will replay a trauma in a sandbox (e.g., when they experience a major flood they then build sand castles and flood them repeatedly for the next couple of years). This type of re-enactment can be cathartic.
I also understand that for some people, race is a taboo and playing with it during sex is akin to other taboo play (e.g., rape play, age play). For a person with some understanding of the roles race has played in history and how utterly offensive having a White man whip a Black man would be, both partners get off on breaking the taboo.
For me, people engaged the cathartic type of play are not necessarily crossing a line. On the other hand, I have seen people engaged in play that is designed to play on taboos and I find it deeply upsetting as it tends to reify stereotypes and I have a hard time finding the catharsis and healing in that type of play.
For me, race play ended up being a hard limit. I taught a lot about race and politics when I was teaching at university in NYC. I also wrote a dissertation on multiculturalism and education and spend a great deal of time steeped in literature about race in America. I think I have a pretty well-rounded understanding of race as it pertains to politics, coded language, privilege, opportunity and the various ways it intersects with other social and political factors.
I also have read and seen a lot of horrible shit that happened because of race. When I would teach my civil rights section for my intro to government course, I always had the students read, “The Violin” from Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folk. It was one thing to talk about Jim Crow – about different rail cars, about the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, about literacy tests and the power of the Klan. It is something more visceral and real to read from Ways. Hughes captures the absolute devastation of racism. The pain and danger of interracial relationships jumps off the page at the reader. “The Violin” does this well (if you haven’t read it, check it out here).
The other thing that has always stayed with me was the exhibit by the MoMA of lynching postcards. People use to take pictures of lynchings, print them on postcards and mail them to each other (if you want to see this, check out Without Sanctuary – obvious trigger warning). The concept that someone, enough people, would buy and mail pictures of murdered people and mail them repulses me to the core. Seeing dozens of these hanging on the walls of MoMA was beyond horrifying.
So, back to race play. The first Black guy I dated confessed after a few months that he had a secret fantasy about being called racial slurs while we had sex. I knew this would be somewhat problematic for me as racial slurs do not fall from this tongue too easily. However, this was something he wanted to try so I figured I could give it a go. I had to practice for weeks before I tried it the first time. I would practice in the shower saying the nastiest things. When I finally tried it in bed, we had been going at it for a good 20 minutes. The entire time I had been working up the nerve to say a certain phrase I had been practicing. Honestly, I paid very little attention to the sex because I was so in my head. I gave it a try. I could barely whisper the slur but it rocked his world. That was not enough to make me comfortable with it.
Now, I have done all sorts of stuff sexually. This is one of the very few times I finished feeling dirty and guilty. I tried another couple of times but it was awful for me. I couldn’t do it. Too many years of teaching too much about the poison of race in American and too many images filled my head to make this type of play a possibility to me.
A couple years later another Black guy was over on a date. He saw the various whips and floggers on the back of my door and asked if I would use one on him. Now, I have taken a big White guy to his knees crying with these instruments and liked that. The idea of hitting a Black man with one of these tools was just too much for me. The history, the images of lynching, the collective unconscious understanding of this power dynamic and I could not do what I was being asked to do.
I was upset enough to call a Dom I know and had to talk though it. He asked if this was racist on my part – I c