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Growing up black and gay: Tired of being different (17 min read)

This is a personal story about racism and how it is to grow up black and gay in a white man’s world.


There is a common misconception that I haven’t experienced racism or that it hasn’t affected my life. I’m university educated, I have a great job, I travel the world, and I enjoy my life. I’m lucky in lots of ways. I’m also very lucky with the beautiful chocolate colour of my skin I was born with, but not with the problems it has brought.

I’m not writing this for the sake of sympathy or to be the source of the last tissues in your Kleenex box – it’s all about awareness and understanding.

As a child, my grandmother would always tell me. ‘Stay away from those white kids, they ain’t nothin’ but trouble’. At first glance, even to a bright-eyed, naive child, this sounded racist. What I failed to understand is that having been born in the 1910s, the majority of her encounters with whites were terrible.

My grandmother wasn’t racist – she was genuinely afraid for my life. She always taught me that in a white man’s world, you must always present yourself at your best – otherwise, they’ll treat you like nothing. That’s the reason we couldn’t leave the house without our clothes ironed. My shirts were so starched they could stand up on their own. My hair was always brushed and oiled.

News flash: Contrary to popular belief, I do have hair, it just doesn’t look like yours – and I must put oil in it to keep it healthy. We learned to ‘talk proper’, never stay out after dark, and for god sake, NEVER steal anything. This was all preparation for the realities of a harsh world that little Rob had no idea actually existed.

School

I first started really noticing this in my school days. I spent my very first years in a very rough part of the South Side of Chicago. I had little interaction with whites except for my second-grade school teacher.

When we moved to a little white enclave called Beverly, in a nearly majority-black south side Chicago, I began to have white friends. Many of their parents wouldn’t let me or my sister come over, as they didn’t want blacks in the house. We had friends who did take us in and stood up for us. They shielded from the terrible comments they received from their neighbours and friends.

My mother remarried a Texan and as Texas offered better opportunities than Chicago at that time, we moved to Dallas. I started attending a nearly all-white school. My peers liked me, but they always made me feel aware of my skin colour. ‘Rob, you speak correctly, you don’t sound like the other blacks’. ‘Rob is my black friend – but he’s not really black, so he’s cool’. ‘Rob is black, but he’s actually smart like us!’ Excuse the nerdiness, but we’d often play Star Wars role play games. I was NEVER allowed to choose another character except for Lando Calrissian, the black one, while my friends were able to be Darth Vader or even the coveted Luke Skywalker. This was particularly annoying because I never loved that movie series and that stupid fucking role play game even less.


Junior high and high school were troubling. I’d always enrolled in advanced education classes, so by default, my peers were all white. Not that black people are not smart – the systemic racism in our community sadly has a huge impact on education. But I was black. Never fit in with the black crowd because I didn’t have much interaction with them – so I found acceptance in the white crowd. “Acceptance”. I never fully fit in here – because of my skin colour and because of my economic background.

My white friends were wealthy – they’d never consider themselves to be so – but to me, they were filthy rich. I had to get jobs from the minute I turned 14 so that I could keep up with their lifestyle. This way, I could join them at Starbucks for a Frappucino. I could go shopping with them and buy the latest Abercrombie wear. I never got a pair of Doc Martens as they were too expensive, so I had to buy sandals that looked just like them. I listened to their music. I even dyed my hair blonde once, which looked terrible, but all my friends did it at the time, so why shouldn’t I? I had slowly begun to push my own heritage aside for the sake of fitting in the white man’s world. I feel ashamed that I had to do this, but also had I not, I am 100% positive I would not have the success that I have today.


Before I became big gay Rob, I tried dating girls. My first girlfriend was white. It ended terribly, as terribly as a three-month, kissing-only relationship can end. She slipped me a note in 4th-period science class when I broke up with her. It said ‘I knew this would happen if I went out with a black ass nigger like you”. Those words stung me so badly that I have repeated them in my head for nearly twenty years. This wasn’t just some racist off the street, this was a person who for a short period of time, was willing to share their life with me, get close to me, and potentially, even puppy love me.

I showed this note to my sister, who fought all my battles, and she immediately got her crew to intimidate the girl. This escalated and we both ended up at the principal’s office. I, the victim of a hate crime, surprisingly found myself in trouble. It ended with us both having to apologize to each other and ‘just be friends’. The fact that I had to apologize to my aggressor for making her feel uncomfortable for spewing hatred at me, was a very loud and clear message that her white life was more valuable than mine.

When I got back from the principal’s office, my white buddies immediately moved on while I still burning inside. To add fuel to the flames, one said ‘So Rob, who will you date now? There’s not a whole lot of girls that will date black guys though’ as if I were worthless and ignoring the fact that girls of colour, who would happily date a black guy were not even considered to be ‘girls’ in their eyes. In fact, I knew for a fact they didn’t really even consider people of colour to be relevant.

One evening at my friend’s house, like out of an Americans high school TV Netflix series, he decided to rank the most popular people at school by group. We discussed so many people, however, when I started mentioning people of colour, he drew two big circles off to the right side of the paper. One was for the blacks, and one was for the Mexicans. He said they didn’t count. Out of scope.

Years later, a beautiful girl transferred to my school from a small East Texas town. It was nearly love at first sight. We hit it off, so well, we were nearly obsessed with each other. I didn’t realize I was still figuring out my sexuality at the time, but in some shape or form of it, I loved her. Dating her, however, was not even an option. I could barely be her friend. It’s hard to maintain a friendship when the parents barely allow you to step foot in the house. They were horribly racist and they made it very clear. We talked on the phone every night, but outside of school, our interactions were always in secret. We sat in my car and chatted for hours. Sometimes, she’d have to duck her head if other cars passed by so that people from the community wouldn’t tell her parents.

We even had to take the same job at Sonic Drive-In, an American fast food joint, so that we could spend more time together. I actually went to her house once when her parents weren’t there. I tried to play it cool, but I was scared shitless. If they walked in to see a black man with their daughter, this could have led to the end of my life. Recent events will tell you that black people have been murdered for doing far less. Although we went to the same school, took the same advanced calculus classes, worked the same job – her parents made it clear that I didn’t belong anywhere near them and even worse, her.

All of this before the age of 17. Imagine the emotional scars on a child who grows up thinking they are worth less than everyone around them.

University

I enrolled in Texas A&M University at a young 17 years old. Texas A&M is located in College Station, Texas and has the reputation of being the most conservative public university in the States. The smart kids from liberal families go to University of Texas. The smart kids from more conservative families go to Texas A&M. I’d gotten a scholarship to attend, and they had an excellent Russian language programme which aligned with my future CIA goals, so I jumped on the opportunity.

Many people, including friends, accused me of having it ‘easy’ because I’m black and got many scholarships because of my colour. Sure, this may have helped for some minority-based scholarships, but it’s not like I sat on my ass and filled out a form and received thousands of dollars. I worked very hard to graduate with honours from high school and maintain consistent high grades. I also had to compete against some white people, whose parents were college-educated and had all the luxuries of study time – not having to work since they were 14 years old because money was never an issue.

What position do you play

In my first weeks at university, one question kept appearing in normal conversation. ‘What position do you play?’. For non-Americans, this refers to American football. People, without me, even having opened my mouth, assumed that I had only been able to get into school because I played for the university team. Everyone else was asked ‘What’s your major/What are you studying’. I didn’t get this, not at least at the beginning, because why else would a black person be at university if not playing sports? These accusations were so hurtful – even when I had reached the first step of the ‘American dream’, my accomplishments were always met with doubt and lingering question marks.

If you know me, to say I love a good party is an understatement. In my college days, every Friday and Saturday night, I was out. This wasn’t always easy. Unlike my white friends, I had to ask a number of questions to take precaution before I’d go to a house party. Who is there, where are they from, how many people, do they know I’m coming, etc? I had two main worries here.

The first is that someone at the party would get stupidly drunk and make a horrible racist comment. Also, many people at my school, especially at their own houses were armed. I had to be on my best behaviour while at a random house party. Don’t talk to someone’s girlfriend, don’t break anything, don’t argue. It was especially hard to do when I heard the word ‘nigger’ being thrown around casually. I couldn’t react as I’d make them angry, so I simply just sat there. The one time I did react? I was chased off of someone’s property and told to take my ‘nigger ass’ home. He said he had a gun. I didn’t stay around to verify it.

The second worry? Even if there were no racists at the party, what if the police showed up to catch us drinking underage? If you’re white, the answer is, just run! I knew from an early age that running away from police, for me at least, is a death sentence. That wasn’t an option. I’d have to stay around and take the consequences – but even the thought of being alone with the police as my white friends fled was terrifying. I partied, but every party was a gamble.

Drunk people say what they really mean. I was at my friend’s house one evening, a very good friend, so I thought, and we were watching tv while knocking back some beers. It was actually a news broadcast about Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. The broadcast was about how people needed help and was desperate as the federal government offered little assistance, but of course, the news quickly shifted to some of the lootings that took place. His brother walked in and asked what we were watching. My friend, half drunk and not realizing I was next to him, I suppose, quickly said ‘Nothing, just a bunch of niggers stealing shit again’. This is a buddy of mine who I had known for years. I know his family, we worked together. He couldn’t possibly be racist, right? He had black friends. You never know what people think or say in private. That day gave me a glimpse into his reality.


Some years later, when I finally decided to come out as gay, I began to start looking for men. Online was the most logical place, given that I knew nothing about gay nightlife. I created a profile and began to browse – excited to finally be my true self. Having spent most of my adolescent years in white communities, my perception of attraction was skewed. The popular boys always were tall, white, blonde hair, blue eyes, so naturally, as I began to date, I wanted this as well. They did NOT want me. If they didn’t clearly state it on their profile, ‘NO BLACKS, NO ASIANS‘, they made it clear in a private message. An immediate block was actually the most polite rejection. To them, it was taking the time to message to say ‘Sorry dude, I don’t date blacks’.

I only really saw two extremes in the dating world. ‘No Blacks’ or a ‘Blacks Only’ policy, which really was more of a fetish than preference. The ‘Blacks Only’ crowd had no interest in dating, they wanted to first confirm my penis size and then proceed to ask me to do crazy things to them that I shouldn’t write here.

I started going out to bars instead, alone, because I didn’t have any gay friends. I overheard two guys talking about another black guy in the bar, who was stupidly handsome. Model gorgeous. They said ‘Wow, if I had to fuck a black guy, I’d pick him’. HAD to, as if it were a horrific act that you’d only do if obligated. Didn’t make me feel so good – what about normal me? Did I have to be white or look that model gorgeous if black to be accepted?

Argentina

Because of this, I didn’t even realize that some people consider me attractive. I didn’t realize this until I moved to Buenos Aires and went to my first gay club – where boys were literally, literally, throwing themselves on me. This attention felt great originally, but when I realized I was just a novelty, something that most people wanted to take a ride on, like a bicycle – this obscene amount of attention became annoying. Wonderful for a quick shag with a beautiful curly-haired Argentine, but good luck finding anything long term.


In fact, Argentina was a mess. The racism was so blatant that even coming from America, it shocked me. I’ve been even told that I was too dark, so I should buy some bleach at the supermarket to clean myself off. Funny joke, right? Argentines have a very twisted sense of humour. I found no humour in this.

London

In Europe, things were different. I am very happy to have lived eight years in London, the ONLY place in my life where I have not woken up every day and face the world as a black person. London is so multi-cultural that everyone blends in, at least in my experience. This is not to say that the UK does not have its problems with racism. I just never really penetrated into the white British community. Most of my friends were international.

I will admit, I have no idea what actual British society is really like. But from my little Mayfair bubble, life felt really race free for eight years. And when I say race-free, I don’t actually mean that. I heard a number of racial slurs and experienced many micro-aggressions and acts of prejudice, but compared to what I have experienced previously, handling those problems was a walk in the park. Get that.

Germany

Now, I live in Germany. By far, the whitest society I have ever lived in. Although racism here isn’t as blatant, living here has been one of the most difficult challenges I’ve had to face. Because of my skin colour alone, I will never fit in here. I simply do not look like everyone around me. For those of you who wonder how this can affect you, imagine that everywhere you went, the supermarket, the post office, a friend’s house, the cinema, etc that you were the ONLY white person. Blacks everywhere. White people tend to make remarks about the number of black people in a place when one group of black people show up – imagine how they’d feel if their entire surroundings were black. This is what I feel on a daily basis.

Culturally speaking, Germany is so, so far away from the south side of Chicago. No one understands my music, my culture, why I may do or act to situations differently. The fact that I never grew up with classical music or the opera makes me feel uncultured. Germany is all about fitting in, not standing out and being a member of the collective society – it’s very challenging to do this when you’re a big, black American.


Here in Germany too, just like in the rest of the world, people cross the street when I walk behind them. And they stare as if I were some unidentified walking object. Women grab their purses when I walk by them on the sidewalk. People still ask me to verify my identity when I’m in white spaces, such as my tennis club, or sadly, even my own apartment building.

Perhaps, these things may seem trivial, but it is exhausting to deal with this on a daily basis. Imagine having to change your walking patterns in order not to scare the lady who’s walking in front of you. Imagine how you’d feel if someone grabbed their purse and held on to it for dear life when you passed, only to find turn around and find out they let it go when the perceived danger is over.

Imagine being asked to verify yourself countless times at a club that you’re a paying member for. This is daily life. And no, you cannot justify this by saying that this happens to everyone and people are just being cautious. When I have someone by my side, even my big tall ex-boyfriend who can often pass as a giant, no one blinks an eye. When I enter the MY tennis club with white guests, no IDs needed for either of us. While people may not hurl racial slurs at me, they make me feel different, every single day of my life. I am not them.


There’s a nightclub in Berlin called KitKat, which is one of the greatest experiences one can have in nightlife, in the whole world. I’ve been frequenting this ridiculous, but magical place for years. They changed the door staff last year. One time, in line with a friend of mine, waiting to get in, the bouncer approached me and literally pulled me out of the line. He said that I looked like a guy from last week that was ‘aggressive’. He showed me the picture – the guy was black, but he looked nothing like me. I mean, very different. ‘But he has earrings, like you!’. News flash – so do a lot of other black men. This was humiliating as he did this in front of everyone in line, including my friends. I don’t know why I went back to this place.

Two more times, I treated aggressively by bouncers and thrown out. They still insist I am this guy. No one at the door has the willingness or ability to see the difference between two human black faces. One time, I wasn’t let in – I came with other black people. The last time I was thrown out, I was mocked for speaking ‘bad German’ and being ‘too aggressive’, in response to being thrown out of my favourite place that I’ve supported for many years because of mistaken identity.

When I described this to my friends, some of the closet people in my life, no one wanted to accept it. ‘The guy is just an idiot’ they said. ‘Not everyone is racist’. ‘Just go back, go early so there isn’t a line’, ‘But the club is so fun’, ‘Maybe you did look like him, to him at least’, ‘Were you being aggressive?’ ‘How drunk were you?’. All of this and more.

I decided to boycott – also in hopes that others would join me. Not a chance. Everyone saw this as a ‘thrice’-solated incident but took little time to think about the emotional impact this had on me. The fact that no one really seemed to care (except for the lovely DJ – who gave me an invitation to speak to the owner – hurt even more. You see, when you experience these aggressions your whole life, this is not isolated. This is another sad reminder that race will follow you wherever you go.

My last comments

I don’t always talk about racism in my life and how it’s shaped me. Mostly because I feel that no one wants to listen – except for other black people. With other black people, we discuss this daily – not to bring the issues to light, but more to describe our experiences living with these aggressions on a daily basis. It’s a sense of comfort to be able to compare experiences as we face the world at the same time.

If you have never felt uncomfortable in your skin any day in your life, you will not know what it feels like. Stop telling black people what is racist and what is not. Racism isn’t just a simple hatred towards black people. If it were that easy, then we’d only have a few racists in the world. It’s much deeper than that.

It’s being treated as if you were less of a human being, not a part of the crowd, simply because of your skin colour. If at any time you’ve avoided walking by black people, denied an Airbnb request as a host because the guest was black, joked about a ‘sketchy’ looking person who was doing nothing except for standing near you while being black, considered sleeping with a black person for fun but never dating them, told a black person they played the race card too much or was overreacting, or can’t understand why these issues are so heated today, please try to educate yourself on what racism actually means.


People equate this to discrimination against gays. It’s not. I am by no means downplaying any other struggles. This is just different. Being a member of both the black and gay community, I can speak to both. Being black is something you can’t hide. You can’t hide in your own skin. Your simple presence makes people already prejudge you, consciously or subconsciously from the moment you present yourself.

I don’t want to riot, I don’t want to loot, I don’t want to steal, I don’t want to inflict violence on others. All I want to do is be guaranteed the same rights to feel safe, protected, and most importantly, just be treated like any other human being. I’m tired of being different.

@WhereInTheWorldIsRobButler

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