Words by Philip Samba


This article is from FS Magazine #164

From my teenage years, I have been met with negative stereotypes. In strangers’ minds, my being black and being very tall, has been equated with me being intimidating, menacing, and threatening.

Those who don’t, or who have failed to get to know me have incessantly assumed the worst of me. What is the ‘worst of me’ that isn’t me? It seems clear to others that I am an unemotional, aggressive, brutal thug, and so being in alignment with all the young black men like me portrayed in mainstream media.

We know those images. They bombard us into submission with their message of how to be and how to perceive a black male, but that couldn’t be any further away from who I am. Who I am is a big softie. Who I am is a young man who believes everyone should respect and be free to express their emotions. Who I am is a young man who is innately not aggressive in any way, shape or form. And now I sigh, because these affirmations of who I am mean nothing. I will still be perceived solely on the basis of how I look, and on the basis of how others interpret that look, and nothing else.

A common experience of being young and gay is to understand on the one hand how society wants us to be, and on the other to reconcile ourselves to how we actually are. The implications of our external expectations and our internal tender sense of self can be a uniquely painful experience that can form wounds that last deep into our adult years. Imagine there being yet another set of expectations on top of those laid down by compulsory heteronormativity. Throughout my school years there was a constant expectation of me from my peers to behave, speak and dress in a way that mirrored that stereotype of an intimidating, hypermasculine black male, which is the me that everyone thought I should be.

The rite of passage to manhood is a hard path for any young man growing up today, but consider the context for a young black boy, particularly if growing up in London: with the number of fatal stabbings in the capital abruptly rising, with teenage fatalities doubling from knife crime and with gun crime rising by 42% last year. Offsetting these brutalising scenarios are the constant pressure to be a man who is defined as being mentally and physically strong at all times, to be the dependable son, brother, uncle when so many men before have failed in being the role models others are so relentlessly imposing upon you to be, whilst at the same time the media is portraying you as someone inevitably involved in criminal activity by default, an image perpetuated by the media every day.

Into this mix, throw in the chronic lack of alternatives, a way of being with a shortage of positive black male role models and it can be especially difficult for young black boys to avoid becoming the very thing others are projecting on to them. For example, a black man in his thirties known for committing crimes shouldn’t really be perceived as a role model to anyone, but he might be considered as such by younger black boys in an area where there aren’t many role models.

Why? Because he is seen as powerful, intimidating, well known, and wealthy – all the crown jewels that unfortunately represent strength in today’s society – his criminal record is seen as a stamp of honour rather than dishonour.

Where are the alternatives to this caricature of black masculinity? It is so important for there to be multidimensional types of men who have negotiated their own brand of masculinity removed from the suffocating enclosures of traditional black maleness, proving that there is more than one singular way to be a black man. Visibility and representation are especially crucial for young boys who may feel confused or like they don’t belong simply for being themselves.

I felt like this. I understand the painful split between who I was and who I was expected to be, and crucially, it really isn’t easy to believe that you can be more than what you were always told you should be. It’s different now but when I was younger there was no one around who I felt was exactly like me, I never saw anyone on TV like me and I wasn’t listening to any music artists who were like me either.

The French Algerian philosopher Louis Althusser (1918-1990) wrote about the social mechanism of ‘Interpellation’, or that moment when, having been programmed all our lives to be a certain way in society according to its expectations, we become that person at the level of ritual and identity.

I can see this mechanism taking effect when young black boys are expected to give into peer pressure and conform because if they don’t it’s not just their masculinity that is criticised and questioned. More painfully it is their blackness as well. They are told “you’re not black if you...” choose to be different in any way. Black boys will shame each other for stepping outside the box but these same boys will grow up and tell their sons they can be whatever they want.

I just knew I could never live up to that stereotype so I chose not to, I remember consciously deciding whether I should change my behaviour to what was expected of me or if I should stay true to myself and behave however the fuck I wanted to. I think I was lucky to have the friends I had growing up, wise enough to make decisions for myself and by myself, become who I wanted to be and not be the person everyone around me wanted to be and honestly, I think my sexuality heavily contributed to my decision.

I spent half my life fighting against stereotypes as a black man but after I came out I was then faced with fighting against more stereotypes as a gay black man. I quickly realised the stereotypes expected of me my whole life had completely reversed.

There appear to be two very limiting binaries of black gayness. A hypermasculine black man or a sassy, effeminate black man. Though there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a feminine man, that isn’t exactly who I am either. I have been told that I don’t look, sound or act gay, which is offensive because it reinforces the belief that black masculinity and gayness are mutually exclusive and insinuates that there is something wrong with me being myself.

I always make sure I correct any inflexible way of thinking. There are also preconceived notions when it comes to sex; men who are typically tops are considered and may even identify as being more masculine than the men who are typically bottoms, while versatile men may be considered as more gender balanced and may transcend the gender role stereotypes associated with identifying as a top or a bottom. The role of top is analogous to the ‘less gay’ penetrator role of the man in straight sex.

This belief is more prominent when it comes to black men because of the way we are fetishised and poorly represented as hypersexual, muscular and sexually aggressive, and to this day we are still portrayed as such in porn now. Being a tall, masculine, black gay man considering yourself as versatile would not be received as the norm.

It appears there are so many restrictions and predetermined ways of what it means to be a black man, the perimeters are very defined and you are punished for stepping out of them. The perpetuation of rigid stereotypes tells us it’s not OK to push the boundaries of what is expected of you and you’re not allowed to be different, but why is it so important to be exactly like everyone else?

We have the freedom to rewrite history, be whoever and whatever we want, ensure we are finally represented accurately and make a difference for the younger gay black men of the future.

I am not stereotypically anything. I am simply me and I pride myself on being different.