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 How race plays a dynamic role in S&M culture (4189 hits)
By Lori Adelman
1:39 PM on 03/29/2011

When imagining someone hurling racial epithets at you or treating you like their slave, you may be more likely to picture a Klansman than a partner or lover.

But for those who engage in "race play", being called the n-word or role playing the scenario of a slave auction does more than conjure images of hooded men and hateful rhetoric -- it also turns them on.

"Race play" or "racial play" is generally described as engaging in any type of BDSM (short for "bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism") or kinky encounter that specifically incorporates the racial identity of the people engaging in it.

The act could involve both real and assumed racial identity, including racial role playing, and is not limited to the racial identities of the people involved.

Those who choose to participate in "race play" choose to consensually toy with racial perceptions, attitudes, and history as part of their BDSM experience.

The setting, context, and actors for such race play can vary greatly, as it can with any sexualized encounter. But some common examples of race play include role played interactions between a white master and a black slave, a "Mandingo" black stud and a white woman, or an intra-racial interaction between people of different skin tones, ethnicities, or tribal affiliations. It could also extend beyond black and white, relating to any racialized identity or scenario.

Mollena Williams, internationally known BDSM educator, writer, and Leather Community Titleholder (she was Ms. San Francisco Leather 2009 and International Ms. Leather 2010) suggests that "most people have fantasies related to being overpowered or dominated, but in the case of the BDSM community they simply turn it up a notch."

Indeed, BDSM themes and images populate our pop culture psyche, even if they're not always recognized or accepted as such. While touring last year, for example, Jay Electronica boasted that "all women enjoy being choked during sex" as part of a rumored bet between him, his DJ, and Nas for $20,000 . And Rihanna recently released a video "S&M", which featured shots of her donning latex and tying a man to a bed (It was restricted by YouTube and banned in multiple countries).

What's the appeal of talking about or engaging in BDSM play, especially in the public eye? And what happens when you add race play to the mix?

Williams, a black woman who identifies as feminist, says for her part that she used to think of BDSM as something that only gay white men did, and worried that there might be something wrong with her when she began to feel interested in it. But she soon came to terms with her own desires and fantasies.

"People ride rollercoasters to simulate an experience," she said. "While they may enjoy the sensation of being carted up to dangerous heights and dropped with a rush back down again, they don't actually want to fall hundreds of feet at high speeds. Instead, they desire the sensation, the idea of it, not the reality of it. Race play is the same way for me."

Viola Johnson, famed leatherwoman, activist, and author who is fondly known as the "Mother of all Submissives" also makes a point of separating the reality of racism from the fantasy of race play. In her essay "Playing With Racial Stereotypes The Love That Dare Not Speak its Name", she says "I know the reality of the not-too-distant past when the cavalry tortured Native Americans, the Nazis exterminated Jews, and masters oppressed and slaughtered slaves. But that's the reality. [In contrast] Leather is an eroticized fantasy, and in that fantasy I can have it any way I want....In this case we have left reality on the other side of the leather door. In no way have we downplayed the historic bitterness of the past; we have just chosen to keep it in perspective, and outside of the scene."

At the same time, Johnson acknowledges that not everyone will desire to engage with these kinds of fantasies, and that different people will have different reactions to race play and the activities contained within it. "Some may find an ethnic slur or scene humiliating and walk away, but others may find the same word or words exhilarating or empowering. Both are right. We each set the parameters for our own sexuality."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Williams, Johnson, and others who engage in race play have faced criticism -- both from the general public and by other members of the BDSM community -- for their race play. But for Williams, these condemnations are misplaced, and stem mostly from three main misconceptions about race play and those who engage in it.

The first and most common misconception she cites is that engaging in race play is some sort of manifestation of self hatred; that the reason she might engage is because she secretly hates being black. But Williams seems to prove this theory wrong almost immediately, both in her words and her actions. "For me, claiming my sexuality is as important as claiming my racial identity. It's not separate from being black. It's part of who I am. It doesn't make me less black or more black. If I had shame around my racial identity, would I be talking to thousands of strangers about it? That doesn't make sense," she declares. "It's our right to explore our desires. To the outside world, these things might seem like potential sites of oppression, but the way they are enacted in someone's life can be completely empowering."

Another misconception about race play is that it serves as an excuse or validation for white people or members of a dominant race to engage in actual race-based hatred or racism. Williams describes receiving criticism from other people of color in the BDSM community for "encouraging racism in her partners". She describes a general sentiment, even paranoia on the part of black people that "there are legions of white people who are chomping at the bit to role play racism and re-enslave black people."

In fact, Williams strongly denies that her partners are racist, and that her race play activities act as a trigger for white people or gives them permission to be racist. "My partners are very secure in who they are," she says. "There actually aren't a lot of people who are comfortable engaging with me in this way, but when they are, it's because they are secure in who they are and what they desire, not because they're driven by a racist agenda towards black people."

A third common misconception Williams cited about race play is that it only relates to black people, and specifically to the humiliation or degradation of blacks. In fact, race play as a term refers to an incredibly broad and diverse group of scenarios, activities, and dynamics, including the possible role-played domination of a black person or people over members of another race.

In an interview at Racialicious.com, Williams elaborates on a number of additional scenarios that could fit under the umbrella term of race play: "How about a captured Iraqi prisoner tortured by Marines? Or a Sinn Féin extremist being interrogated by a rogue SIS agent? Or a dark skinned Indian person avenging themselves on a lighter-skinned higher-caste individual? North [and] South Koreans...The only limit is your imagination...We as black people have not cornered the market on oppression."

With the continued evolution of sexual mores and the gradual but steady debunking of common myths and misperceptions around BDSM and race play, will race play and the role of people of color in the BDSM community begin to face greater acceptance in the mainstream? Williams believes so. She acknowledges that it's historically been hard for any group, black people included, to accept any kind of sexuality outside of a hetero-normative model, but points to gains made in acceptance around homosexuality, for one, as promising.

As for those who still have doubts about the legitimacy of race play and the people who engage in it, Williams encourages them to get the facts, review their history books, and open their minds. And if all else fails, they should focus less on her actions and more on their own: "Make sure you are getting yours!" she encourages. "I don't care what it looks like, as long as it's consensual. That's part of the freedom our ancestors fought for."

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Tuesday, March 29th 2011 at 3:51PM

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[ "Make sure you are getting yours!" she encourages. "I don't care what it looks like, as long as it's consensual. That's part of the freedom our ancestors fought for." ]

I'll second that!! But I don't know about the Race Play stuff. That sounds kind of freakish to me. I'll leave that to Rihanna.

Tuesday, March 29th 2011 at 4:58PM
Jen Fad
"Everyone has to work out their on salvation with trembling and fear."
Tuesday, March 29th 2011 at 5:37PM
((Lol)) You got that right because a slave being beat is definitely going to be trembling with fear. Yike!!
Wednesday, March 30th 2011 at 12:39AM
Jen Fad
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