Our latest Exclusive is an essay by Namwali Serpell with illustrations by Lauren Tamaki. This story is co-funded by Longreads Members and published in collaboration with Topic, which publishes an original story, every other week. Sign up for Topic’s newsletter now.
White men, white men, white men. They’re everywhere these days. Young ones leering, old ones Lear-ing. A white man sent me a message on a dating app the other day—an initial parry, if you will, a hello—about his penis, my fully-clothed photo, and my presumed “submissiveness.” An older white male colleague once told me he didn’t understand the “ontological difference” I had experienced in being a brown woman. The same man sexually harassed me for three years. There are white men to kill left and right. It would be so much easier to hate them if I hadn’t loved one from birth.
My father is a white man. In my country Zambia, where he moved as a young Brit eager to conduct research, he’s called a muzungu. He met and married my black mother there in the sixties. They made brown me, and my two brown sisters. We moved to the States in 1989. Maybe it’s because my family was already mixed, or because we now lived in the American suburbs, but it never felt weird to me to date white guys.
As a teenager growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in Baltimore, my crushes were always on white boys. My first kiss was with a white boy. I lost my virginity on my sixteenth birthday to another white boy. (That night, at my fancy birthday dinner, he had asked me why black people are always so loud in public. An early sign of trouble.) My first true love, my college boyfriend, was half-French, half-Egyptian. He looked uncannily like the pharaoh Akhenaten. His skin color so resembled my own I would occasionally mistake his hands for mine in bed. He didn’t know he wasn’t white, though. Once, visiting him in Paris, I said, “We’re the only black people on this train,” and he said, “I’m not black, I’m French.” Bien sûr.
He broke my heart and since then, all of my real relationships have been with white men. After a while, even my parents began to tease me about it. I take after you!, I’d say. White men choose me!, I’d say. Sometimes I claim the right to reverse-exoticize white men. If I “look like Cleopatra,” as one young naïf told me in college before our first kiss, why can’t I enjoy the way a pale cheek blushes in the cold of spring or the heat of passion? Or the way a hazel-blue-green-grey eye sparkles when I crack a joke? Or the pure reek of privilege? Envy can be an aphrodisiac. So can resentment. But my Jungle Fever has become more embarrassing and troubling to me recently. After all, I don’t choose to be friends or to have flings only with white men. Why do I always end up in relationships with them?
I can divide my white men into my European lovers (Greek, Italian, British, French) and my American boyfriends. The affairs with the Europeans are always sharper and brighter, another weather entirely. My intensity and pugnacity seem more palatable to them, or less threatening. Those affairs never last. Perhaps their Europeanness makes them seem temporary—they’re bound to go home—and keeps me from falling in love. I fall in love with the Americans, though, stupidly. I have loved several versions of white American men: the dreamboat, the rebel, the intellectual, the artist. After a while, I start to hate who they all seem to want women to be: easygoing, forgiving, domestic. Then I hate myself for trying to be that way. Eventually I hate them for wanting me to be anything other than myself in the first place.
Loving white American men is like eating melon—it is exactly what I want until I put it in my mouth and recall its insistent, aggressive blandness. Even when they are cruel, they are casual. One white man told me that before me, he’d always found black vaginas “kind of disgusting.” Another made a joke about me being like “a bitch in heat.” The one I thought I’d marry said he couldn’t love me because I was a “downlooker” and he was an “uplooker.”
The very worst thing a white man ever said was nothing. We were visiting his family, sitting around the kitchen table, talking about urban wildlife: possums, cougars, squirrels, that sort of thing. His stepsister told a story. Her boyfriend had been hanging out in their backyard when he suddenly shouted to bring the shotgun outside.
“But it was just a raccoon.”
What had he thought it was?
“Oh,” she said. “A black man.” She turned to me, “No offense.”
Heat in my ears, I looked down at my plate, intently cutting a carrot. The conversation moved on. His mother apologized later, in private. My boyfriend explained on the car ride home why he couldn’t say anything. This was new family—his mother had only just remarried—and he didn’t want to start a fight. He was the “wokest” white guy I’d ever dated. He wrote punk songs about Palestine, short stories about Mexican kids. One time we went to a wedding between a black woman and a white man. I opined behind my hand that it felt super white—a Penguin Classics theme? No Electric Slide? My boyfriend lost his shit. Said I had insulted his friends, wouldn’t talk to me for hours, made us leave early. I am their wrong fruit too. I am exactly what they want until I am not.
When race keeps intruding into your romances, you start to wonder why. You look for patterns. I used to think the problem with white men is that they want control, a childish and obvious hankering. They’re used to it, socialized to seek it. But over time, I started to believe that the problem is that they’re unformed, shapeless. White men have had nothing to battle against or fight for; their identity is this amorphous default. They ooze around, taking up space. They manspread and mansplain. Even the ones who know better mandream on the sly. It always breaks my heart when I get wind of my white boyfriends’ secret fantasies: to rescue, to rebel, to rule. Every single one of them wants to own a motorcycle. It’s all so boring. It’s all just history.
My father hates motorcycles. He is a different sort of white man. He often points out our mutual interest in being marginal where we live—he in black Zambia, I in white America. But is it the same? He chose to be marginal, to marry a Zambian and become one. I am mixed race, an immigrant, different wherever I go. I do not have a choice. I have, however, chosen to date white men. Have I swallowed some idea of their superiority? Do I just take greater interest, greater pleasure in discomfort? Is this my inheritance, my lot in life? It feels more complicated than that. Maybe the question should be: Why do white men choose me? I am light skinned, educated, middle class. I seem like a winnable game, my difference just enough of an obstacle to make the surmounting fun. Among the services I offer to white boyfriends: a built-in comfort with whiteness; skillful code-switching; and free lessons in what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.”
Du Bois saw that self-consciousness about race as pathological, but he also called it “second sight.” It can be addictive. Maybe there’s a form of interracial desire—a mutual one—that isn’t reducible to Jungle Fever, or performative wokeness, or kinkified Jim Crow, or even some atavistic keening for genetic diversity. I think it might have to do with the desire to be marginal at home. To be woke is also to be awake. Race relations are so electric in America—the color line like a live wire. To confront this kind of danger and difference in love all the time can be thrilling, for both people. I worry, though. To offer my brownness to white men is still to grant them the only experience that they are denied by definition. To love a white man is to put yet another thing within his reach.
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Namwali Serpell is a Zambian writer and associate professor of English at UC Berkeley. Her first novel, The Old Drift, will be published by Penguin Random House in 2018.
Lauren Tamaki is a Canadian illustrator living in Brooklyn. Her clients include The New York Times, Penguin Books, GQ Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and Lucky Peach.
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