Exoticism and Tourism: Black Bodies and White Gazes
“He’s cute,” I said, gesturing towards a bronzed Panamanian guy with a head full of dark, wild curls standing off to the side at Iguana’s Surf Bar.
With a quick glance over her shoulder, my friend turned back to me and said dismissively, “Oh, him? He only likes white girls.”
Over and over again I heard this in Bocas.
Usually, this doesn’t bother me. I’ve never solely dated black men, but I’d grown accustomed to their advances and attention in spaces that didn’t often reaffirm non-white standards of beauty. Meaning that even though the white guys in D.C. looked right passed me and rarely held the door when I walked up, there would always be a black man to catch it and give me a knowing nod.
In Bocas del Toro, however, things were flipped. Tourist season brings a steady stream of European backpackers and gringos with few reservations. Disenchanted with their own materially rich but lacking lives, Bocas becomes an exoticized place that runs on “island time” and the idealized Afro-Caribbean and indigenous culture are packaged as being “intact” and "authentic" for foreign consumption. As part of this consumption, the local people become servants in one way or the other to make a living (tour guides, waitresses, street vendors, prostitutes, etc). They're exotic props whose culture can be appropriated through faux dreadlocks, lifestyle oversimplified over a joint and a few yoga poses, bodies fetishized as forbidden pleasures, and lives commodified for tourist photos. Intertwined in this experience, some white women want to “go black and never come back”, at least until Daddy’s money ran out. They wanted to sleep with black men as an act devoid of sentiment, but ripe with historical significance.
A portion of the Afro-Panamanian men in Bocas are often willing participants in their own exoticism*, turning it into their opportunity out of poverty. They woo the white women, fucked them, and turn some blonde's 3 week vacation into their visa to Europe, Canada, or the U.S.- a meal-ticket out. Even though her economic power truly dominates the relationship, a big black dick will make her change her plane ticket. If a mixed baby comes out of that union, his chances for being taken care of as well improve tremendously. Mixed kids are soooo cute anyway.
“Jose (not his real name) just got a visa to go to Sweden because his girlfriend decided she wanted to go home and have her baby there. She knows he’s got that German girl in Bastimentos, too, but she doesn’t care, “ I overheard a Russian girl telling her friend.
In places like Bocas del Toro, Puerto Viejo, Cuba, Brazil, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, the Western quest for the "exotic" has altered Afro-Caribbean and Latin culture. People have learned that re-appropriating their role as the "exotic lover" in some random white person's Eat Pray Love fantasy increases their possibilities of securing a better future.
This exoticism and exploitation manifests itself on the dance floors and in the bedrooms of Bocas. The more "afrocentric" (the longer the dreadlocks or the bigger the afro on a black man in Bocas), the more likely it is to find a white woman beside him. He's a living affirmation to her friends and family back home of how anti-establishment and sexually liberated she is- a perfectly melanin-ed prop for her Instagram photos. It's a cycle that plays out over and over, leaving less-lucrative relationships with black women for when the tourist season drys up.
And, while some of the black men in Bocas are looking to be "saved", some of the white male expats and tourists are looking to do the "saving". Mistaken for a local, I see firsthand how the perceptions of black women as sexual and erotic objects manifests. More often than not, I’m photographed or my hair is touched without my permission by tourists who want to say they’ve now experienced the “real Panama” and the appeal of exotic people and places. These white men do not hesitate to saunter up to me on the dance floor, faces red and sweaty, unaccustomed to the Caribbean heat, decades of beer and hard liquor causing their paunch to protrude over their belts. They say a few words in Spanish about what they own here or there and flash a hundred dollar bill pointedly when they asked to buy me a $5 drink. They are eager to participate in the sex tourism and exploitation in the Caribbean that often places old white men as the benefactors of young black and brown girls using their bodies as a means to help entire families achieve economic security. I know the stereotypes: black women have an insatiable sexual appetite; our big black asses make you momentarily forget that you actually don't like black people.
Abroad, they're free to live out their Heart of Darkness fantasy now that the kids are all grown up. "How come you speak such good English," they'd ask, a bit embarrassed and disappointed when I declined their advances. After a while, I've learned to avoid the spaces where the gringos will have access to me, not only as a way to avoid their advances, but so as not to have to see the hardened stares of the young black women vying to participate in patriarchy and prostitution.
I don’t know why it was in a local club in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica where I’d finally had enough of either not existing to black men because the color of my skin didn’t immediately signal a one way ticket to the land of milk and honey, or only existing for the sexual pleasure of wrinkly old white men. I had been dancing all night with Francisco, a guy so flamboyant that he threw his hands in the air and announced to me, “I’m gaaaa-ay,” as if he wanted the entire world to hear. I smiled and responded, “Cool,” as we continued to dance. The club was so hot that the party spilled out onto the street. A few Afro-Costa Rican men stood to the side, laughing and drinking beers.
I’d been declining to dance with the old white guys that kept sending me drinks all night, holding out for a local guy while enjoying Francisco's company. We were cooling off from a dancehall set that had left us all gleaming with sweat underneath the night sky when an Afro-Costa Rican girl sauntered through the crowded street with a group of white girls and one Hispanic* girl. This girl was stunning; she was so beautiful and walked with so much confidence that it seemed that the sway of her hips brought a cool breeze with them. Her hair spiraled up into an afro that framed her caramel face like peacock feathers.
The local guys had not approached or even looked at me the entire night, but surely they couldn’t ignore her. She had turned heads, mine included, when she walked by and stopped with her group a few feet from where I was sitting. Finally, a guy broke out from the group- tall and handsome, flashing a smile that lit up his dark complexion. He sauntered over to the group, brushed passed the afro-ed girl and went straight for her pasty companion. That was all I could take. I left the club- and Puerto Viejo- soon after, tired of this neo-colonial mating ritual that I had become privy to.
A follow-up post on the reactions I've received can be read here.
*Exoticism is the romanticization of the racial, ethnic or cultural Other, yet the simultaneous oppression and exploitation that occurs with it.
** "Latino" is not a race but rather a designation for a diverse racial and ethnic groups from Latin America and the Caribbean. Thus, I've used the U.S. census term "Hispanic", which is often (problematically) associated with lighter-skinned, white, or mestizo Latinos in place of a more appropriate cultural marker.
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