Mollena Williams is gregarious, the kind of woman who makes a point of saying, “How are you today?” to the Walgreens cashier. She has a short afro and laughs easily. She works as an administrative assistant and at night, she pens her theater performances. She is also a masochist.
Williams is part of San Francisco’s BDSM community (shorthand for “bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism”). By definition, a masochist receives pleasure from experiencing certain types of pain. By her own account, Williams loves pleasing her partners. That might mean a whipping. It might also mean obeying her partner’s commands or being called a “slut.” Her partners aren’t strangers. Like non-BDSM people, she expects to feel a connection and develop trust—enough to submit to a partner for the hour or the day or the week that they agree to. And she, in turn, expects a lot. Her partners have to be comforting, quick thinking, and treat her like the princess she’s always felt herself to be.
Contrary to popular notions, BDSM is not about abuse. It’s consensual and trusting and people refer to it as “play” (as in “I want to play with you”). The point of BDSM is not sexual intercourse. In fact, when Williams recalls her first experience as a masochist seven years ago, she says she met her partner, a white man, at a bar and “fell in love at first sight.” They made their way back to his hotel. “For the first time I felt someone could see who I really was.” And that was someone who found it erotic to be a submissive to her partner.
In recent years, Williams has added another element to her repertoire as a masochist. She’s begun to engage in what is called “race play” or “racial play”—that is getting aroused by intentionally using racial epithets like the word “nigger” or racist scenarios like a slave auction. Race play is being enjoyed in the privacy of bedrooms and publicly at BDSM parties, and it’s far from just black and white. It also includes “playing out” Nazi interrogations of Jews or Latino-on-black racism, and the players can be of any racial background and paired up in a number of ways (including a black man calling his black girlfriend a “nigger bitch”). White master seeking black slave, however, seems the more popular of the combinations.
Race play is considered on the edge of edgy sex, but workshops on the subject are becoming standard fare at kinky conferences as people like Williams become comfortable with publicly speaking about it. Like any practice making its way into public conversations, the workshops include everything from personal testimonials to theories on why people of color are getting aroused by what some would see as just racism. Like any controversial sexual activity, race play has its critics. In May, the title of a workshop at a BDSM conference had to be changed after protest over the original name, “Nigger Play: Free at Last.” Williams herself has been the subject of several e-mails from people of color who, while enjoying BDSM themselves, accuse her of self-hate and recommend she enter therapy.
But Williams doesn’t seem self-hating. If she is, then she’s pretty darn happy talking about her writing and desire to find a good man. If race play is not about hate, then what is it about? What does it mean for a person of color to be aroused by words like “nigger” or “spic”? For the people that I talked to, it’s made them neither freaks nor Uncle Toms.
Teaching Race Play
There are about as many ways to engage in BDSM as there are theories for why it arouses. For some, BDSM is having your boyfriend yank your hair and mumble a naughty word like “whore” during sex. For others, it is whips, chains and hot wax—all done in public before an audience in a space that ’s been converted to a dungeon.
Psychologists from Freud on down have speculated on BDSM’s appeal. Perhaps the most common perception is that it’s a way of working through childhood trauma. But some say it’s more akin to psychological theater where you abandon your mundane life role (all those responsibilities!) and act like a master or slave, for example. Still, others conjecture that BDSM alters body chemistry or proffers a spiritual connection.
In his coauthored book, Bound to Be Free, Dr. Charles Moser has put out what might be the most sensible theory, calling BDSM just another type of relationship. It’s consensual and erotic, he writes. People find it erotic to act like they have complete control over another person (or pretending that they give up control). It also has its own rules: people agree at the outset what the limits are.
Needless to say there are countless conferences, websites and parties, all of which loosely make up the “BDSM community.” It was at one such conference in May that Mike Bond was to present “Nigger Play,” a workshop on using the word “nigger” as part of race play. But a small public outcry from fellow kinky people, many of them apparently people of color, on several electronic listservs devoted to BDSM resulted in a change to the more demure, “Dancing with the Devil.” Ironically perhaps, people did not seem to object to the content, just to the word “nigger” being in the title.
Mike Bond, who declined a phone interview and answered questions by e-mail, is a masochist. He is a black man and emphatic that race play “is not a message about all of black kind.” He doesn’t suggest that all black folks enjoy what he does, but he says, “I have been floored when people have criticized me by saying [that] not everyone agrees with my fetish. So what? Not everyone likes cheese. ”
During his workshop, Bond told the audience about his own history. He first considered race play when a partner asked if it was humiliating for him as a black man to bow before her, a white woman. He hadn’t thought about it before. “But if that made it more embarrassing, ” he said, “then I was all for it.”
On the panel with Bond were three white women he has played with. They emphasized that race play isn’t about hate. For one woman calling Bond “nigger” was just another bad name that aroused him. But another woman, who is Jewish, said it took time and encouragement to be able to relax with race play.
After the talk came the demonstration: A woman dressed in a business suit and planted in the audience heckled Bond, then grabbed him by the collar and threw him down, all the while yelling about what gave Bond the right to criticize “her people” (rednecks).
As arousing as that scene might be for some, it is downright repulsive for others. Racism was institutionalized as social, economic and legal practices, in part, through rape and the white domination of black sexuality. Chupoo, who is a black woman and declined to give her last name, says it point blank: “I can’t do race play because I have people in my family who had to submit to that, where they had no choices. It’s too close to home for American black people.” Race play makes her think about her grandmother who had to sleep with her employer, a doctor, so that her children could have healthcare.
Chupoo is not anti-BDSM. In fact, for seven years, she’s been a submissive in a master-slave relationship with a black man. So, she’s delighted, for example, when in an erotic context, he calls her a “bitch.” “I can accept other people are able to rise above their sexism,” she says, adding, “The race thing is really a lot deeper. I guess it’s easier for me to deal—he understands that we have a partnership…I feel like my master respects me. I cannot imagine feeling that with someone around race play. ”
Those who engage in race play are quick to say that they keep politics outside of their bedroom (and dungeon). But their own relationships to race are telling. Chupoo sees race as central to her life; Mollena, not as much or not in the same way. Chupoo refuses to do BDSM with anyone who’s white and she says that when someone at a BDSM party ignores her partner, or pretends to not know his name, it’s disrespectful and has to do with racism. For Mollena, it’s most often the other person’s problem, and she’s had relationships with white men. Whatever trajectory brought the two women to these different conclusions, it may also inform what they do in the dungeon, making race play either titillating or disturbing.
The Turn On
Many presentations on race play, if not all, follow a similar format: personal history, explanation of race play, demonstration and time for questions and answers. The explanations vary.
Vi Johnson, the black matriarch of BDSM, has presented on race play at kinky conferences and she believes the appeal is different for each person. “When you’re being sexually stimulated, you’re not thinking that what’s stimulating you is a racist image, ” she says. “You’re just getting turned on.”
So, for some, she says, race play is about playing with authority and for others, it might be humiliation.
Well-known sexuality and SM educator Midori, who is Japanese and German, often presents her theory that humiliation in BDSM is linked to self-esteem. Take the woman who likes it when her boyfriend calls her a “slut,” Midori says. Perhaps the woman internalized the idea that “good girls don’t,” but she enjoys her sexuality. Because the boyfriend sees her in all her complexity, Midori says, when he calls her a slut, “he is freeing her of the social expectations of having to be modest.” That’s different than having some stranger (and jerk) calling you a slut. The stranger doesn’t see the full woman. It’s similar with race play, Midori says. By focusing, for example, on a black man’s body, while he’s bound as a slave, she’s bolstering his own perception of himself as strong and powerful.
Of course, race and gender have a different history. So does that make it easier to play with the word “slut”? Midori tells me to not take it the wrong way but it’s a question of my youth. She’s known women of other generations, for whom the word slut is painful to hear.
Her workshop demonstrations have included full auction scenes mimicking those of the Old South. In them, she is the plantation mistress inspecting a black man for “purchase.” He’s in shackles and “I slap him on his face and push him down on the ground, make him lick my shoes,” she says, emphasizing that she only does the demonstration after the “psychological” talk.
The audience’s reaction? “Everything from horror to sighs of relief to uncomfortable arousal to validation to hooting and hollering, including people walking out.” Midori stresses again that race play is “advanced play.”
Advanced players have had their reservations. Master Hines, a black man, joined the BDSM community in the early 90s. He’s a sadist who’s more than comfortable flogging his white submissive. But with race play, “I thought I’d feel like I was being racist. I thought it was very extreme.” He changed his mind when someone likened it to people playing out a rape fantasy. In that case, he wouldn’t consider that person a rapist because reality and fantasy are different.
While most workshops focus on black and white, every color line is up for grabs. Williams facilitated a workshop in Washington, D.C., three years ago where a Mexican friend helped her. When it came time, she mentioned “wetbacks” and her friend who was sitting in the audience burst out, “What’d you say bitch?” The scene that followed was an erotic struggle, verbal and physical, between him and Williams. When he had her down on the floor, he barked, “Now what? Now what bitch? ”
“Now we stop,” she replied, and they both started laughing and hugging. Williams adds that even for kinky people, the race play is still so new that it’s important for them to know that she and her partners are real friends.
Williams stresses the emotional care in race play. Because it is psychological, “no one knows that you’re hurt,” she says. So, she advises seeing it before trying it and having a go-to person for comfort after engaging in race play. She reminds the audience to think carefully before doing it in public. “You’re putting your reputation on the line —are you prepared for that?”
The Reality of Play
A curious thing about race play is that it is pursued by people of color but often consumed by whites. The BDSM community is largely white, so those watching a public scene are more often white people. The community itself is not free of racism. Chupoo sees this evidenced in the men who approach her. “I get more white sub[missive] men hitting on me than anything else,” she says. They’re hoping she’ll be a big, black dominant woman. “It’s their thing. It ’s their racist fantasies of what black people are.”
Bond has had similar experiences but he and others note that the white people they do race play with are not racists. “Truth be told, you have to get a white woman to like you before you can get her to beat you or call you racial names, ” he says.
However, discomfort in saying the word “nigger” during race play doesn’t make someone racism-free. A related concern is the relationship between the sex industry, much of which operates on race as fetish, and those who do race play. But white men flying into Havana for morena prostitutes reduce those women to racial and gender stereotypes. It’s not a consensual relationship (or any kind of relationship). They don’t have to consider that woman’s needs. By contrast, Williams only does race play with about four people she’s come to trust.
Still it is tricky matter, race play. Williams says that in considering a partner for it, you have to ask yourself, “Do you know in your guts of guts that [racism] is not their point of view?” Even knowing the answer to that, she says, you have to be ready for that moment, that quick second perhaps in which you might find yourself doubting the person’s motives. It’s like wondering if a boyfriend would cheat, Williams says. The moment should ideally pass quickly but if it doesn’t, she says, “Are you ready for that moment?”