Exploring the controversy of race play as a kink

By Maya Khamala

It can be enacted in various tropey forms: a black servant being denigrated by a bitchy white woman. A Latino man being tied up and called names by a white man. A black woman being “sold” at a sex slave auction. While all of these and many other racially supercharged scenarios are absolutely horrendous in reality, for those who’ve found arousal in something known as race play...they can be hot, simply.

But how simple is simple when it comes to race?

Controversial much? 

Race play is a subset of BDSM where the power imbalance in question is rooted in the races of the people participating. Typically this presents as people of color role playing as slaves with white people role playing as masters, or Jewish people playing prisoners, for example. Although the idea that someone on either end of the role play equation might derive sexual pleasure from such reenactments (which their very own ancestors often endured in real life), is understandably confounding to many. Yet on the Fetlife fetish website, race play has hundreds of groups dedicated to it- and thousands of fans. There are real-life places known as “Plantation Retreats” where people into race play engage in mock slave auctions and group sex. But even in the fetish scene itself...race play can be pretty controversial.

Dissecting the “why” behind race play 

Master Dominic, a professional dominant and sexual education expert has given much thought to why people enjoy race play. “The taboo nature of it is certainly a big aspect,” he tells, “It can be a relatively simple ‘pushing the envelope is sexy' sort of thing, or it can come from a place of internalized racism … The latter takes much more consideration, empathy and communication to navigate.” 

The idea that race play—along with many other sexual fetishes—can be invaluable tools for exploring deeply ingrained emotional issues or traumas is a popular one. Master Dominic explains: “People turn to sex and fetish to process and own something traumatic or troubling, and whilst I absolutely think that they are completely within their rights to do so, you do need to try to dissect it a little so there’s an understanding of the context and the need … It can be tough, for sure, especially when one of you is not part of an ethnic minority … So yes, it is part of the BDSM spectrum in a lot of ways and it shouldn’t be gasped at or judged. Nobody should be policing how anybody else relates to and expresses their race, heritage, gender identity, or sexuality. It’s theirs to own and express as they wish.”

Mollena Williams, who blogs at The Perverted Negress, has participated in race play both for her own pleasure and at kink conventions as a demonstration. She told Jezebel she's in a relationship with a "sort of white" man (he's part Native American), wherein she's the slave and he's the master. Although she acknowledges that people are going to look at them and see "a white man kicking around a black woman,” she views her ability to consent to such a relationship as "a mark of how far feminism has come.” For Williams, her decision to play a slave is an expression of freedom, and her view runs counter to the common conflation of race play and racism.

While the kinds of tasks Williams does for her partner are often mundane (i.e. comparison shopping for a new printer, doing laundry, making a meal, running errands), she explains that these tasks actually give her time outside of her own “headspace,” and that she couldn't be in such a relationship with just anyone. "I have to really trust that person, and they have to have an intelligence that outstrips mine, whether they're smarter, have greater emotional intelligence, or are more stable and grounded than me." She also has to be in love. When she's choosing a partner for race play scenes or performances, she avoids anyone who claims to be "colorblind" or not at all racist, as such people tend to lack in self-awareness.

S., a former sex worker, told Jezebel that he was doing a service by engaging in race play. As someone who had engaged in nonconsensual racialized sex, S. came to use consensual racialized sex work as a way of moving past that experience. As he saw it, by giving men who wanted to racially humiliate someone a way of doing so safely and consensually, and without violating the person on the other end, he was ultimately preventing real racial abuses from happening to others. "Lots of people have these racialized fantasies," he says. "They just don't know how to talk about it, how to find people who are into it, and how to engage with it in a way that at the end of the day is respectful."

Seeking race play as a white complicated

Now if navigating race play as a person of color isn’t complicated enough, what about if you’re a white person with a penchant for racialized sex? Is that really hunky dory? Or is it just racism cloaked in anti-oppressive theory? S. described a white man he once met who explained his interest in race-play: for him, racialized sex is a way to "exorcise" racist feelings, to "get the feelings out while getting off.” Meanwhile, Master Dominic posits “white guilt is something I’ve seen often too, and so it can stem from there … Historically, and still today, white people hold most of the power. So it makes sense that, in a previously negotiated scene which doesn’t cross any participants’ limits, it lends itself to a powerful dynamic between the oppressor and the oppressed. Again, this does not make you a freak or a racist piece of shit, but you need to be prepared to be uncomfortably honest with both yourself and your partner about where the interest comes from … Accept and acknowledge that it’s an evocative topic and you’re likely to get hit with an attack of guilt or confusion about it at some point.” The acknowledgement of blurred boundaries and inevitable confusion = wise words indeed. 

Bottom line: no matter what color your skin is or why you think you want to engage in race play, don’t do it before you’ve given it real thought and you feel very ready. Be sure to try it out with a partner you trust and respect, and one you can discuss it with thoroughly beforehand. The spectrum of human experience and sexuality truly runs the gamut, and there are startling few blacks and whites for us to cling to with certainty. One thing seems certain: where there are consenting adults with the will to explore uncharted territory (and no harm done), self-knowledge often presents in abundance.

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