This piece may contain content that some readers may find offensive or disturbing. Some names have been changed to protect the identity of our sources.
“Call me a nasty negress,” Kaneisha commands her plantation supervisor, Mista Jim, as she submits to him in an early scene of Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris. The play opened on Broadway in 2018 to a litany of criticism and debate.
To the audience in the theater each night, it quickly became apparent they were watching a “race play” scenario—a form of sexual role-play between consenting adults that centers on racial identity and power imbalance and often involves racial slurs.
And it’s not just the stuff of fiction. Compared with other kinks, race play seems relatively niche. A Pornhub search yields just 109 “race play” results in contrast to 55,497 for “BDSM.” Yet a quick rummage around the kink-focused social networking site Fetlife shows that in 2022, the scene is certainly active.
The disparity is likely down to content moderation on mainstream sites. One user of the Home of Racial Play, a forum on the porn site Motherless, claims that Pornhub removed all of their race play videos because its terms of service prohibit posting content depicting “racial slurs or hate speech” and content that is “hateful, racially or ethnically offensive.”
The master-slave setup found in Harris’ Slave Play is just one example of the sort of dynamic that participants may craft together, based on each individual’s race or ethnicity and thoughts—entirely accurate or creatively stretched—on the race or ethnicity of their sexual partner. Nazi-Jew is another popular scenario.
Whatever the setup, reasons for involvement vary across the board, as do their complexity and contradictions. Some look to channel their biases in a safe environment, while others hope to ease their pain at social injustices through pleasure. Some even believe they can help tackle racism in a small way by tipping the balance of sexual power.
However, even the kink community can’t seem to agree on whether race play has the potential to empower people of color or is another product of the system it seeks to subvert—especially given how easily it’s initiated without consent.
Just ask Washington-based filmmaker and writer Donovan Trott, 37.
“Race play just kinda happened to me,” he says. “I was in bed with someone I’d had sex with many times, and in the middle of it he shouts: ‘Fuck me, you [N-word]!’ I hadn’t dated a white man before, and the first one I started seeing casually called me a [N-word] during sex. I went off sex with white men for a long while.”
In the aftermath, Trott felt shame, but the humiliation eventually fell away as it dawned on him that he’d been violated. And later, speaking to friends, he realized that many gay men of color had experienced similar with white sexual partners.
Of course, the violation can also be experienced in reverse, when a person of color who is keen to engage in race play draws a white partner into the dynamic without prior agreement.
Will*, 36, from Edinburgh, was on the hunt for a Tinder hookup when a cute Pakistani 20-something called A.* swiped right. Before long, Will realized he was in the middle of non-consensual race play.
“It escalated quickly,” he says. “We exchanged nudes, then out of nowhere, the guy asked: ‘And you don’t mind sleeping with a worthless P**i?’ I couldn’t believe it. When I probed, concerned, he ignored me and asked further disturbing questions like: ‘Would you threaten to burn my family?’”
Once Will had pulled A. out of his one-sided role play, he asked him why he was seeking race-based sexual humiliation. A. had no answer.
Two wildly dissimilar Urban Dictionary entries on race play illustrate the schism between the “thumbs-up” and “hard-no” crowds around the fetish. The first insists that “most participating in race play keep things strictly sexual and do not support or advocate racial inequalities.” The second calls it “the only thing worthy of kink-shaming.” The same divide appears to exist in IRL kink communities.
Denton Callander, a sex researcher who studies sexual racism at the Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales, argues that, while race play is reliant on racist narratives, that doesn’t mean it is automatically a racist offense in itself.
“Race play is not the perpetuation of racial oppression through sex,” he says. “In some ways, it is the antithesis of the implicit and explicit ways that systems of racial inequality manifest through our sexual lives. Generally, it’s about taking some deviant behavior or experience structure and incorporating it in a consensual, thoughtful way into our sexual lives.”
Consent seems key to Callander’s argument, setting race play apart from sexual racism. Though not according to Q Darkqwolf (a professional alias), president of New York City’s Folsom Street East kink festival, who believes even consensual race play is problematic.
“Inherently, consent isn’t anything more than an idea those involved in race play use to make themselves feel better,” he argues. “Why are we trying to find loopholes in what’s racist and what’s not? It’s literally on the tin: ‘Race. Play.’”
Unlike A., others have spent time unpacking their atypical fetish. Londoner Olivia*, 56, says that she’s into race play because it allows her to rewrite the narrative.
“Racism exists, and although we’re seeing change, it’s not going anywhere soon,” she explains. “It crops up in and out of the bedroom, or wherever people like to get it on, and I’ve experienced it so many times. At some point, I just thought: ‘Why not open the door to something usually unpredictable and take charge?’ This helps to hobble racism and stops it feeling quite so bad.”
Similarly, Callander sees how people could interpret consensual race play as a means of gaining respite from the racism they face daily.
“For some people of color, race play can be a way of undoing or addressing some of the pain of racism,” he says. “It reveals the ridiculousness of it. It’s about destabilizing and critiquing systems of power through sex, which is well-positioned to do that because it breaks down walls.”
But Q Darkqwolf doesn’t buy into this theory that a person can control these systems. He argues that, like any other fetish, race play doesn’t follow logic.
“Folks are into it because it turns them on,” he says simply. “To politicize race play by suggesting it’s a way to take control of a system which, by design, you can’t have power over, is absurd. I think trying to make sense of it beyond fetish and desire speaks to a misguided and dangerous need to normalize something which wouldn’t need to be if it weren’t inherently problematic or just outright wrong.”
Olivia, for her part, maintains that race play “can’t be wrong if it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Of course, the risk is a natural element of various fetishes, many of which avoid such intense scrutiny. However, kinks can unconsciously hurt people psychologically in ways that ooze, insidiously, into their broader lives.
Trott, reflecting on his experience of race play for HuffPost in 2017, wrote that “when it comes to the sexual fantasies of others, it’s hard to imagine that any white person engaging in race play sees their sexual partner (not to mention POC in general) as a complete equal when they flip that light switch back on.”
Does Callander think white guilt could play some role in any Caucasian penchant for role-playing?
“Yeah, ‘colonize me, baby,’ or something like that,” he answers. “Maybe, but if your intent is to use a person of color to assuage your own guilt about the way in which white people have treated people of color historically, then you’re not thinking clearly about the broader context. The point is not to make white people feel better—although I know it can be easy to want to pursue that because we don’t like being uncomfortable.”
Tellingly, it was impossible to track down any white race play fans to speak in this piece, leaving only the perspectives of those who have wound up the lead in their own amateur race play storyline—through accident or choice. Whether consent does justify race play or not remains contested, but consent is unquestionably paramount when it does happen. Is sexual race play ever acceptable? Ultimately, the answer depends on who you ask, but caution is the safe word here.