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.

<p> 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.


 <p> 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.


<p> 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.


<p> 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. </p>



 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. </p>

<p> <strong>Teaching Race Play</strong></p>

 <p> 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. </p>

 <p> 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.


 <p> 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.


<p> 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. </p>

<p> 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



 <p> 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


 ” he said, “then I was all for it.” </p>

<p> 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. </p>



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).</p>

<p> 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.


<p> 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.


<p> 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.


 <p> <strong>The Turn On</strong></p>

<p> 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.


 <p> 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


 ” she says. “You’re just getting turned on.”</p>

 <p> So, for some, she says, race play is about playing

with authority and for others, it might be humiliation.


 <p> 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.


<p> 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.


<p> 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. </p>

 <p> 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.” </p>

<p> 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.


<p> 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?


 <p> "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.


<p> 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?”</p>

<p><strong>The Reality of Play </strong></p>

<p> 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.”</p>

<p> 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. </p>

 <p> 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.


<p> 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?” <br /></p>