In this feature interview in The Guardian, the highly celebrated model Tess Holliday said a lot of great things about body acceptance, a few questionable things about daddy issues, and one really unnecessary thing about black men.
In reading the profile, I was bobbing along enjoying the description of the beautiful Ms. Holliday rocking a location shoot that presented challenges in the form of changing weather and passers-by. Ms. Holliday, being photographed outdoors and scantily clad, is described as literally stopping traffic, and the writer details how she's enduring what sound like both comments and street harassment.
Then I heard an internal record scratch as I read of "an African-American guy, middle-aged, [who] said something appreciative as he walked by."
I wondered why his race needed to be pointed out in this context, as it immediately read to me like further demonization of black men as the only perpetrators of street harassment. We’ve been here before.
Then I read on, to see that the writer had wisely included the descriptor because Ms. Holliday follows up this apt response to street harassment -- “What do guys think they’ll achieve by yelling something? They’re like: ‘She’ll love this, I’ll definitely get her number,’” with that old chestnut, “I do admit that black men love me. I always forget that, and then I come to a black neighbourhood and I remember.”
The writer takes care to describe her as having “admitted” that black men love her “with some satisfaction,” following it up with, “And no one quite knew what to say.”
Whether the interviewer’s editorializing suits your tastes or not, I was grateful for it, as it helped me deal with with the level of discomfort I felt at that statement about black men. The awkwardness in the moment matched my displeasure at reading it, to at least one person who was present.
I continued reading the extremely in-depth feature, empathizing with serious trauma from Ms. Holliday's past, but also disagreeing with her assessment that "life is shitty" and her rhetorical inquiry, “Don’t we all have daddy issues, though?” in speaking of initial difficulties in her relationship with her fiancée. Still, I believe I understood where she was coming from, as influenced by the treatment she describes receiving from her own father.
I want to celebrate Ms. Holliday as a successful woman in her industry. I especially want to celebrate her as a successful model whose dress size has been reported as a 22 in a tragically fat-phobic industry.
But that "black men love me" thing sticks in my craw. I don't know her personally and I'm always hesitant to really mind who someone is sleeping with if they're not sleeping with me, and yet this interview takes great care to show us the white man that Tess loves as her actual romantic partner.
Ms. Holliday might have exclusively dated black men before the fiancé we meet in this profile; I don't know. Who she sleeps with/loves/etc. is none of my business. But here she is doing an interview for a major publication, discussing the man she loves. To have the sole mention of a black man here as a street harassing negative presence, (rendered more so by Ms. Holliday's response than the author's description of the interaction, by the way), as juxtaposed with her describing her white male fiancé as “so hot” and a prized combination of a “nice guy and a hot guy” is disappointing.
Certain white women of size have publicly been speaking and “joking” about black men loving their size for ages. Some of them appreciate it, some resent it, and frankly I don't care if whole marriages are built around it; at best, it is reductive in lumping a whole group of people together as being attracted to one thing. And more often than not, it is flat-out dehumanizing in reducing the black men in question to flesh-fueled predators, and often includes implied misogynoir, shadily letting black women know that "to them you're just fat but they love my jelly."
We’ve seen it with the (self-named) Snowbunnies on Twitter, and although I didn't read anything in the Guardian interview that could allow me to reasonably accuse Ms. Holliday of taking it to this level, when I've told certain white women that I salute their relationships with whoever they're happy with but I'm bothered by the distillation of the men of my community to this one lascivious thing, I'm told I'm just “mad” they don't want me.
I won't even dignify that with a reply.
Here's the thing: Black men who like women tend to like...women. And all kinds of people like all kinds of other people. Whatever individual preferences operate within that intentionally vague framework are valid, but when we perpetuate one idea of a whole group of people based on the characteristic of race, that's…well, that’s exactly what I fight against. I need people to stop thinking of black people as a monolith in any context, regardless of how cute they think it is or if it gets them laid.
I am not alone in my negative reading of the comment, to the extent that an apology was issued on Facebook:
Alright. I already allowed for the likely scenario that Ms. Holliday was just recounting her experience and didn't mean to set apart or malign black men as a whole, but rather I wanted to address how this speaks to a large and ongoing problem. I do take issue with her apology indirectly implying that she was somehow caught making offhanded comments, as opposed to being aware that she was being interviewed by a major publication. And maybe she doesn’t realize that pointing out that “the team included two talented black women” comes off a bit like “Hey I have black friends” here.
But mostly I’m left with that same desire to uplift the humanity of black men. I’m also saddened that black women are not afforded the in-depth profiles and metaphorical time at the podium like this to begin with; and our similar missteps are met with disproportionate hate and retribution, not room to publicly learn and grow.
So often, black men are reduced to either the figures attached to a big black dick that you're curious about, or those harmful beasts on the street calling you like cats. Or threats in general. Where is the space for a black man to be human? And why is it so often a white woman saying publicly, "Black men love me"?
So much of white feminism and mainstream reportage is insistent upon removing race from conversations in which it is needed if we're going to address disparity in any functional way, all too quick to speak over a #BlackLivesMatter with a hearty #AllLivesMatter. Yet when the topic is large white asses, black men are mentioned like the two are peanut butter and jelly.
I’m not going to speak for any black man, let alone ALL black men, but I'll speak for myself: I love black men. And I know that is a group large enough to include heroes and assholes and everything in between.