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Thinking Kink: The Right to Play With Race

This is the second part of a two-part series on race and BDSM. Read the first post here.

"As often happens, black women carry a double burden, as they are asked to uphold a respectability built on both racist and sexist foundations." - Tamara Winfrey Harris, "No Disrespect" from the Fame + Fortune issue of Bitch

As we discussed in my last post, playing with race in BDSM strikes many as problematic. As a feminist with white privilege, I don't have direct experience with racism in the BDSM community and I can't speak to black women's experiences. However, I believe that if we are tired of the patronizing assumptions that women who participate in BDSM as submissives are disempowered, brainwashed, and somehow "letting the side down," then as Clarisse Thorn says, we also must recognize that it's "pretty damn patriarchal and paternalistic for white feminist theorists to tell [a black woman] that she oughtn't do race play."

Yet critics had plenty to say about Ciara's apparent submission to Justin Timberlake in the video for Love Sex Magic, even though as Andrea Plaid points out, "Ciara and Timberlake negotiated—again, the core BDSM idea of consent–that particular part of the video. He's also not standing as a proxy for all white men and their enslaving fantasies [any] more than she is a stand-in for all Black women wanting to be on a leash." Plaid also reminds us that to assume the submissive is powerless is to fundamentally misunderstand the power dynamics of BDSM. It may be troubling for us to see Ciara reenacting an image that is still too familiar in everyday life—a white man asserting his power over a black woman—however, there is a difference between sexualizing racialized behavior and directly replicating hatred and inequality, and to assume that actors and audiences cannot see this is condescending to say the least. Assuming that Ciara must also be the "bottom" off-camera is patronizing. It's also inaccurate in this case: It was she, not Timberlake, who came up with the idea for the video.

When we see famous women of color playing with sexual power dynamics, the tendency is to assume this must be reflective of what they do in their personal lives (see this previous post on Rihanna), and isn't that problematic? Mollena Williams, BDSM educator and one of few black submissives who speaks openly about her participation in race play, is tired of having history thrown in her face—"I show my respect [for my ancestors] by living fearlessly. I firmly believe the people who fought and died for our freedom weren't sitting on the front lines worrying about how that freedom would be used."

There have been some fantastic ripostes to the demand that black women censor their behavior just because it might make other people uncomfortable. Fierce and angular Grace Jones was keeping it black, kinky, and androgynous in videos such as "Slave To The Rhythm" in the years when black people were rarely seen on MTV—and who can beat "Warm Leatherette" for best kinky song title? Unlikely BDSM spokeswoman Joan Armatrading merrily sang a tribute to erotic violence in "I Love It When You Call Me Names", crooning "I know you're gonna slap my face/ And beat me up over and over again." As we scramble to decipher whether Armatrading is  glorifying the physical abuse of black women, a quick listen to the lyrics tells us that she is actually describing a BDSM relationship from the outside, and taking on its different roles during the song ("He loves it when she beats his brains out...It's their way of loving not mine.")

Armatrading's role-playing tribute is a perfect example of how art is often not real life, or even close. It's also a necessary reminder of how we need to accept that black women—singers, artists, or BDSM performers—are as capable of getting into boundary-pushing roles and then leaving them behind afterwards as anyone else. Recognizing precisely that "it's their way of loving not mine" also reminds us that for some, the thrill of the taboo and delving into what we find scary can be the biggest turn-on of all. Mollena Williams writes that "daring to stare into the face of racism, classism and sexism and discover why they tripped my erotic triggers"* left her more fulfilled as a person, as well as a sexual being. And therein lies the appeal of BDSM that pushes boundaries, race included—it allows us "to play with real, structural inequalities in safe and pleasurable ways: in ways that make such play play."

*This extract from Tristan Taormino's excellent book The Ultimate Guide to Kink. Mollena is also co-author of forthcoming BDSM guide Playing Well With Others.

Previously: Playing With Race in BDSM, Gay S&M in Pop Music, Then and Now

Top image from Wikimedia Commons user Liv_Tyler_Ciara_Malgosia_BelaBottom image from Flickr user ocad123.

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Comments

12 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I think it's also an

I think it's also an interesting reflection of society as a whole not only patronizingly telling black women what to do, but insisting that they stick to asexual or hyper-slutty-sexual roles by hysterically decrying their participation in kink. Well-written articles, thank you.

sigh

Was it like, somehow impossible to find a black woman to write about this?

Typically, the

Typically, the magazine/website/whatever doesn't say, "Okay, we need an article about race and BDSM, can someone write that for us?" Usually, the writer pitches the article, the magazine accepts it, and then she writes it.
So I think what you should be wondering is, why aren't women of color writing articles like this? Why did a white woman pitch it first?

Blog series

The way we do guest blogs here at Bitch is by series because of our limited budget; Catherine pitched a 24-post series to us on feminism and BDSM and this is just one post in that series. Since she's the author of Thinking Kink, she's the author of this particular blog post on BDSM and race (as well 20 or so others). We all agreed that the series wouldn't be complete without a discussion of race play, and that the best way to go about it in this instance was to consult with women of color while putting the post together, which she did.

That said, there are women of color who do pitch and write articles about this topic, and Catherine linked to some of their work in her post.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

I have a problem with the

I have a problem with the disingenuous tone of the article; wouldn't this space have been better utilized to discuss white women's role in fetishization of POC in the BDSM community? It strikes me as a bit glib to say "I'm a feminist with white privilege...and can't speak to black women's experience" and then go on to discuss whether or not they should or shouldn't do race play.

This blog series is about

This blog series is about both BDSM and pop culture, not just the BDSM community (although obviously what goes on in the community has informed my research and writing). In this piece, and my previous piece on race and BDSM, I am looking at how black artists have been judged harshly by both white and black commentators for engaging in racially charged BDSM imagery, and using the criticisms of 'race play' to provide background for this. If you feel I've missed a crucial point in how white people fetishize POC in BDSM in a way that has filtered into pop culture, I'd be interested in hearing this.

In this post and the previous one, I have looked at both the arguments 'for' and 'against' race play, and quoted those who have strong feelings on both sides of the divide. I do not feel that my race precludes me from doing this - as a writer, I feel it's my job to seek out different angles on controversial issues and present them. I'd also like to point out that the viewpoints expressed are not necessarily my own.

Here are some links

Here are some links I found doing a google search:

http://www.racialicious.com/2009/04/03/your-sex-acts-and-partners-arent-uplifting-the-race/#13445279822192,"status":"returning_user"}

http://www.alternet.org/story/20656/sex_and_race_play

http://blackinamerica.com/cgi-bin/blog.cgi?blog_id=199491

I think your point is a valid one. Another blogger here on Bitch has kind of caught my attention, spectraspeaks http://www.spectraspeaks.com/. She promotes groups telling their own story. I would give her a read, I think you would appreciate the message. I am a bit smitten with her.

Thanks for links:

The Racialicious article is the one I've quoted Andrea Plaid from, and the Alternet link can also be found by going to Mollena Williams' website which I've linked to in the piece - she has some fantastic articles on race play.

Black women in the BDSM community who will speak out in favour of race play are very difficult to find. Mollena is one of very few I was able to track down, and has been a fantastic and helpful source for this piece.

I hope other people who feel strongly on the issue of race play will write and publish their own truths. I look forward to reading them.

We're not that hard to find actually

Wouldn't if have been more appropriated for you to write about white women who engage in race play in the BDSM community? It does happen so I'm really curious as to why you didn't write about their fetishization of POC instead of this offensive article. And how is anybody's decision to engage/not engage in race play any of your business? It's not, stop king shaming. A more appropriate article would have been why YOU will/wont do race play.
Also just because a Black woman is a sub to a White dom does not mean that they are engaging in race play.

This article is about BDSM and pop culture

- not just the BDSM community. I am looking at how black artists have been judged harshly by both white and black commentators for engaging in racially charged BDSM imagery, and using the criticisms of 'race play' to provide background for this.

I have looked at both the arguments 'for' and 'against' race play to provide a balanced viewpoint, in this and the previous post, and presented various viewpoints that are not necessarily my own. I'm not sure what you find 'offensive' about this article. I do not think I engage in 'kink shaming' either.

"Just because a Black woman is a sub to a White dom does not mean that they are engaging in race play." I never said it does. However, the fact is such imagery has echoes of race play, and racially charged scenes from history, and some commentators - black and white - have been extremely bothered by this, which is what I'm speaking to in this piece and the previous post.

This is all well and good,

This is all well and good, and I say this as a black man myself. But what about the reverse? White submission to Black Dommes is quite a loud faction in the BDSM world.

Absolutely -

- however I think the difference is that this dynamic is rarely represented in pop culture (and this absence is certainly an issue in itself), nor is it met with such controversy as black femsub to white male dom. However, if I have missed any media examples, do let me know.

In my research I did read an interview with a black female kinkster who said she was sick of being approached by white male subs expecting her to be a fierce, hypersexual domme by virtue of her race. I can see how such stereotypes might become bothersome, but could also be great fun for some.