The plus-sized supermodel, Tess Holliday, told The Guardian newspaper, “Black men love me.” This sparked an online firestorm, leading her to issue an apology and try to offer more context to her statement. Holliday’s comments reminded me of comments that I frequently heard in Brazil while doing qualitative research on black-white couples. I am currently writing a book comparing black-white interracial couples in the U.S. and Brazil. In the book, I compare race relations in both countries from the perspective of family formation and interracial marriage. I interviewed black husbands and their white wives as well as white husbands and their black wives.
What I found in Brazil was more of the reverse of Holliday’s comments. Many white wives spoke about how they find black men attractive. They often used the term negão, which directly translates as “big black man”, but can also mean “black men” in general. They often described black men as comprising the physical “ideal man” of tall, dark, and handsome. Of course, by being black, it was implied that these black men were dark. Almost all of these women (as well as the black women who had dated black men in the past) described black men as alto, forte, lindo: tall, strong, handsome. Their voices often lingered on those syllables, thick with the sentimentality of past loves. This was entirely unexpected since none of the U.S. white wives whom I had interviewed spoke in those terms.
This appreciation for black men relied on what the sociologist, Orlando Patterson calls an “ethno-somatic norm”: ideas about what members of an ethnoracial category look like. For these respondents, Brazilian white men were of largely Portuguese or Italian descent, therefore they were short with hardly any muscles. In contrast, black men were tall and muscular, like their African ancestors. White women sometimes mentioned the more racially ambiguous morenos, who were neither black nor white, yet also handsome, but often collapsed them into the category of black men. These stereotypes did not allow for the true variation that exists among members of any ethnic or racial category, but it was a social fact that my respondents used to give meaning to their lives.
Several white wives discussed their preference in terms of black men being hot (whereas, presumably, white men were not). They relied on age-old notions of blacks being more sexual than the average Brazilian. Some of them even referenced black men’s larger penis size, which made sex more enjoyable for them. They also described how opposites attract and that they could not help themselves when it came to black men. To the delight of many white wives, they were uncontrollably attracted to black men. They would repeat the dictum that I heard so often: “Adoro negão.” “I love black men.”
Women in Brazil were very open about their racial preferences in romance, in comparison to U.S. black and white wives, who never mentioned this. In the U.S., only one woman whom I interviewed discussed her preference for black men (and their sexual organs). She was not white, rather a self-described multiracial. We drank alcohol during our interview, during which she revealed how much she liked black men and spoke to me as though I were in on the secret of their larger private parts.
I sometimes wonder if the U.S. white women whom I had interviewed would have said the same thing had alcohol been involved. But they did not. U.S. white women did not engage in any talk about racial preferences in romance across the life course. This may have been a result of their lack of previous experience with black men: very few of them had dated black men before they married one. The U.S.’ much smaller black population and extreme levels of segregation mean that even if white women did have a preference for black men, they have less access to them than white women white women in Brazil.
When talking specifically about their black husbands, Brazilian white wives talked about falling in love. They talked about how their husbands were good partners, good fathers, and were caring and affectionate. Their preference for negão seemed to exist on a different plane from the everyday realities of marriage. As one woman told me, when teased by friends about liking negão, she replied, “No, I like MY negão.” Desires for black men seemed to have little to do with the process of settling down with their black man, even if it was part of the initial attraction. Nevertheless, their friends and families still used the discourse of “adoring negão” as an explanation for and description of these white women’s interracial relationships.
Coming from a Puritanical society in which sexuality is not discussed with strangers made it uncomfortable for me to hear these women discuss their preferences for black men. Rather than being an “Angry Black Woman” who resented white women for their seemingly easy access to black men, I felt much more like the “Uncomfortable Gringa”, since in Brazil, gringa is a term that refers to all foreigners, regardless of color.
Also, slowly rediscovering Christianity as a religious practice meant that I was not sure how to feel about these interviews. My “virgin ears” were unsettled hearing other women talk about their preferences in sexual partners. In addition, I was used to U.S.-style “colorblind racism”, in which racial preferences are rarely discussed out in the open. Only one white woman had ever told me directly that she preferred black man, and she was a friend, not a stranger like the respondents whom I interviewed.
I quickly had to overcome this discomfort to understand how these women saw their lives. Much like anything else, practice makes perfect. The more often that I heard women talk about their adoration for negão, the more I got used to it. And I heard it often. My eyes stopped widening when I heard white women discuss their preferences for negão. I no longer froze when respondents told me about how quente or hot black people are naturally. Instead, I became used to nodding to compel respondents to keep talking as well as laughing when my respondents laughed. I explained to myself that their racial preference and stereotypes were just that: theirs. This helped me to build a shield up against the micro-aggressions of hearing racial stereotypes repeated in which they were the willing “victims” of black male sexuality. After a while, I was able to ask pointed questions about this desire and its relationship to their actual husband. They were often unable to explicate what drew them to black men, but they knew what they liked.