I felt awful. I hadn’t believed my friend when he’d told me he’d felt excluded at an Organ House (OH!) party. Well, I believed that he’d felt excluded. But I couldn’t believe my community had made him feel unwelcome on account of his skin color.
Two more friends who are people of color (POC) had to tell me about their experiences for me to believe that Houston, we might have a problem.
To dig deeper into what POC experience at Organ House parties, our Diversity and Inclusion lead Ivy Summer interviewed various POC about their experiences at Organ House and other Bay Area play parties. I identify as non-POC, and am speaking to a majority non-POC audience. I want to acknowledge that POC will also read this article, and I’m choosing to use the words “us” and “we” to address fellow non-POC readers.
Most POC Ivy spoke to had painful experiences to share about Organ House. We found three main themes. First, many POC sense a monoculture at OH! parties. Second, many have experienced various forms of othering. Third, many POC have felt invisible or rejected based on their skin color. In this article we’ll hear from these POC who kindly shared their thoughts with us, and offer some suggestions for how OH! can do better.
As we hear from POC, it’s important to keep in mind that each speaks only for themselves and may or may not identify as OH! community members. “Please be aware,” Terry* told us, “my experience and recognition of such things will differ from the next person of color. I am a representative of the POC community – yet I am one person and cannot speak for everyone.” Raj noted, “I want to make the point that not all POC have the same experiences in the realm of CNM. I can only speak from my experience as an Indian man.”
We cannot solve problems we refuse to face. Organ House, like most majority-white spaces, has a lot of work to do in order to become a truly welcoming space for non-white attendees. Our mission at OH! is to normalize non-monogamy. But if we do so leaving racism and colonialism intact, we will surely not have meaningfully succeeded.
In the spirit of holistic positive social change, let’s learn from the POC who so generously told us their stories.
We heard again and again that OH! tends to have a certain demographic overrepresented at our parties. “When I describe OH! to others, I say that it’s young, white and techie,” Raj told Ivy. “I rarely see other Asian guys or black women or anyone of Latino descent. I feel very out of place because it’s mostly white people and the folks they fetishize, which is black men and Asian women.”
Bill* said that when he’s at an OH! Party, “I have to act a little more like a white tech bro (relatively speaking), which is not my default way of being.”
Dan* said, “Most people treat me like ‘why are you here?’” at OH! parties.” They pointed to an atmosphere of “This is what we do” and “Only us.” “I feel like at OH! if you don’t belong to the heterosexual white demographic you don’t belong,” Dan* said.
Attending your first play parties can be overwhelming and confusing enough without seeing few people who resemble you. At Juan’s first play party they found no more than five non-white people in the more than 100 attendees. “This made me feel less integrated and like I was not really a part of the group,” they said. They were “already dealing with the layers of nuance of managing a new group, meeting new people, learning and dealing with non-monogamy, managing the nervousness and of being in a play party setting.”
Terry* has more trouble finding common ground for conversation in majority-white spaces. “When I attend events with mostly POC present, topics of discussions seem to be related to family, finances, or work,” Terry* said. “Whereas, at parties where POC are few and far between, the conversations are more challenging to identify with. It illustrates the difference in cultural values and lifestyle.”
Steve pointed out that the poly community has its various “bubbles.” “The bubble I don’t favor is the white, hippy, poly, new age spiritualist – the ones who make loud noises when they exhale,” Steve said. “The paradox of it is that I appreciate people who value connection and relational skills, but there’s a tone of appropriation that feels uncomfortable to me. I’ve only seen white people do this, but I don’t feel like they represent or acknowledge the culture from where it comes from like taking tantra, reiki, Taoism, etc. out of its original cultural context. It feels like they don’t understand the depth of history behind where these things originate.”
Anytime you have a monoculture, you have the opportunity for what social scientists call “othering.” This is behavior that points to or emphasizes the characteristics that set a person apart from the monoculture.
“I’ve had moments at parties where my ethnicity was for certain pointed out in such a way that it made me feel uncomfortable and though they meant as harmless, it made me feel apart,” Juan told Ivy. “It’s the type of thing that one is expected to brush off, because it happens often and groups that don’t think about adding that to their guidelines. I’ve somewhat become desensitized to not saying anything, or awkwardly laughing it off. Women might understand this well, having experienced lewd comments coming from men, though women in the majority have participated in fetishizing or awkward/rude comments to people of color. This tends to happen more in parties where it’s less diverse and a majority of people don’t hangout with people of color in many other settings.”
“When I started out in the play community, I had a hard time,” Raj said. “There’s a perception that Indian men are described as creepy. There’s a lot of work to do to prove that you belong, and it helps when you have a white partner introducing you to other community members.”
Bob* told Ivy he’s had the following experience at least three times. “I’ve played with a white woman at a party, then learned that her partner (a white man) has vetoed her and I having any future play experiences,” Bob* said. “His excuse has been that he’s intimidated by me. In each of these cases, the partner had never made an effort to get to know me or even have a conversation with me. When a white man who’s never spoken to me is ‘intimidated’ by me (and forbids their partner from playing with me) it’s hard for that to feel like anything but racism.”
Fetishization is another type of othering. The line between appreciation and fetishization can be thin and tricky for white people to navigate. One way to differentiate the two is that appreciation considers one’s race as part of their whole personhood while fetishization reduces a person to their race. It’s okay to enjoy different skin tones. It’s incredibly othering and insensitive to make a person’s race the first or only thing you have to say to them.
“By the time I became sexually active, there weren’t many POC in my community,” Ivy wrote. “I’ve always been extremely social and often found myself hanging out with non-POC most of the time, with the exception of another fellow token POC here or there. So, when I used to hear non-POC say things like, ‘I’ve never had sex with a black girl before,’ I felt like sex was somehow going to be something different for them simply due my race. Lately, I’ve noticed that remarks like this make me feel like sex with me is unlike having sex with another human. The reality is that sex doesn’t necessarily differ based on the race of a partner, and these remarks are usually made in a tone that can inadvertently sound like someone’s expecting to have sex with someone outside of the ‘human’ experience. It strikes a chord with me in a negative way because I’m not something other than human – I’m a human being who doesn’t want to feel like ‘sex with a black girl’ is like having sex with a different species. At the same time, when I hear that kind of comment, I don’t feel comfortable directly addressing how it makes me feel, I end up deflecting with humor and trying to forget I ever heard it.”
Micky* said they experienced a lot of fetishization at OH! Parties, exemplified by [big black cock] “BBC” and Mandingo fantasies. “I see a lot of guys submitting to those, because they can get laid, but it is demeaning and hard to navigate,” Micky* said.
Ryoga told us about how for the first year of going to kink and sex parties they attended only majority-white spaces. “While it was cute at first, it got old pretty fast the number of husbands that would come up to me asking me to have sex with their wives,” Ryoga said. “Or white women that would come up and the first thing they would say is, ‘I’ve never been with a black guy before.’”
“I’ve seen folks immediately ask how soft my skin is – and I feel that’s more directed towards my race rather than who I am,” Steve said.
Sometimes othering looks like a refusal to engage in conversations about race or class differences. “I was at a (non-sexual) gathering with a bunch of sex-positive folks, and having a really flirty conversation with a white woman,” Bill* said. The woman had expressed interest in dating, and they started talking about outdoor activities like kayaking. “I mentioned that I had never been kayaking. She was quite surprised, and I had to explain to her that middle-class kids in India didn’t have access to outdoor facilities, especially water activities. I also then mentioned that I perceived water activities even in the US to be primarily a ‘white people thing.’ I could feel the chill fall over the conversation. We’re still friends, but that was simply the end of the flirty vibe. I could almost instantly feel her pull away and the connection break apart. Through incidents like this, I’ve learned not to bring up what being from a lower-middle-class family in India actually means, and how things might have been different for me. White Americans, even self-professed woke ones, get super uncomfortable when reminded of racial and cultural differences, especially when it implies any sort of privilege on their part.”
Bill* has been made to feel like white people see them as “making it all about race” or “has a chip on their shoulder” when they try to talk about race. “I just find I have to be super careful and act like I’m just like them.”
One of the most potent forms of racism at OH! parties is outright rejection. “Unless I seek out specific spaces, I am fairly isolated,” Micky* said.
While rejection is never fun, sometimes people can be needlessly cruel. Dan* spoke to us about sitting in the chairs on the main floor after failing to find anyone to speak or play with. “Numerous times I was asked to leave and/or ask permission to watch scenes. Every time I was asked, I was treated as if I were in the wrong, didn’t know what I was doing, and spoken to as if I were a child. I asked, ‘Why put these chairs here? I know to ask permission to watch a scene. What am I supposed to do when I am sitting here first and people are doing scenes in open space?’ To which I got a blank annoyed stare, and the person walked away.”
In contrast with OH!, Bonobo Tribe is a sex-positive community whose leadership has included at least one POC from its inception. Raj told us he got to speak with other Indian men at a Bonobo Tribe party about feeling invisible. “It’s especially noticeable when a white guy joins a conversation with way more ease than the Indian men who were in the conversation before him. I was negotiating a flogging scene with a partner at their first play party, and after I turned around, a white guy had approached my partner to recommend a different white guy instead of me. This kind of thing happens frequently.”
“As an Asian man, I want to be strong, attractive, in charge,” Steve said. “As a man, caring, kind and gentle doesn’t make me less of a man. It’s an interesting balancing act for me.”
POC can also feel like they have to prove that they’re legitimate and trustworthy by putting on “white face.” This kind of “code switching” is common among POC in majority-white spaces. “I need to be cautious when I talk about my background, like where I grew up, establishing my credentials, and ultimately establishing that I’m a successful person in my career and kink alike and that I’m someone worth talking to,” Raj said.
How OH! compares to other parties
One thing that really struck us is how differently POC feel at OH! versus other parties. Steve has DJ’d OH!’s parties four times and Express Yourself, a Bay Area POC-only play party. Steve felt Express Yourself “was a much more welcoming experience,” Steve said. “People came up to greet me. Everyone is there for the same reasons, like solidarity and being in a room of different types of people of color. As a DJ, I noticed folks were dancing at this party. Folks were encouraged to meet one another and share why they came out that night. It was powerful to know that the space was reserved for POC only.”
“At POC and Bonobo parties there is a culture of maturity, welcoming, and acceptance,” Dan* said. “People are generally kinder.”
“I experience more of [a racism] barrier at OH!,” Raj said. “It definitely feels less diverse from Bonobo.” They stopped going in late 2019. “If I were to go to an OH event in the future, I’d want to see a lot more people of color. I’d like to be in a place where I find it as easy to connect with people everywhere as it is at Bonobo events.”
On POC-only spaces
The need for POC-only play spaces came up again and again, among mentions of the POC-only spaces like SOUL and Express Yourself.
“We need our own spaces, which means we have to create and/or patronize those spaces,” Linda* said.
“My experience at POC-only play parties has been amazing for me,” Raj said. “I didn’t even know that I needed it, but I did. SOUL and Express Yourself took a while to get heated up but they’ve taken off and they’re so much more fun, even when I don’t play with anyone. There’s much less performing I need to do in order to connect with people. When I go to the black and POC kink events, they’re full of people who are young and smart, and people who would be a great fit at OH, but I wonder why there’s such a divide. When I go to an event that’s majority white, there’s a mask I feel that I have to put on, which ends up being more work.”
For Ryoga, Express Yourself was the first time they’d even heard of POC-only play spaces. “It wasn’t until I went to Express Yourself where I can honestly say it was the first time I actually felt comfortable.”
“I haven’t found the need to censor myself in POC spaces as much,” Bill* said. “People seem to just ‘get it’ a lot more, even if they are from a different culture (black/Asian/Hispanic etc).”
Ideas for improving the POC experience at OH!
Hopefully these firsthand experiences can help white people at OH! understand some of the ways we can (mostly unintentionally) create and foster a monoculture, “other” POC, and reject or make POC feel invisible.
While understanding is essential, it’s not sufficient. Here’s a friendly reminder that I’m using the words “us” and “we” to address the non-POC readers here.
First, I believe that we need to understand that racism is a self-reinforcing problem.
Racism is not intentionally hating people based on their race. Racism is much more subtle and pervasive. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the culture we inhabit. Racism is the mostly unexamined beliefs and power structures that center and favor whiteness.
Racism is a monoculture wherein white people shut down conversations about race and discriminate in who we play with (or even talk to) based on race, ensuring that we don’t recognize that monoculture or its impact on POC. Racism is a self-perpetuating cycle. White people don’t see racism until POC tell us it’s there. But POC can’t tell us when they aren’t there and we aren’t listening. Antiracism requires asking POC about the ways racism impacts them and then taking active measures to mitigate that harm.
And listening when people tell you what’s real for them. Juan said that while they now make a point to call out racism when it happens, it’s “easier said than done, since as a person of color that can be seen as aggressive if not done in the right way. Educate your white friends and lovers, and point out loud, when appropriate, that people of color are beautiful. I think this doesn’t happen enough in polyam communities where there is less diversity.”
“What white people can do is become more aware of stereotypes around fetishization, cultural appropriation, and begin challenging their related preconceived notions and assumptions,” Raj said.
Diversity helps us become aware of our own stereotypes. “I have had experiences where I encounter folks who make assumptions about me based on my race, what I’m wearing and how I speak,” Steve said. “They often realize I don’t fit the stereotype pretty quickly.”
“The cultural differences and lifestyle when compared to those of the majority is a massive contributor to what I bring into play-spaces,” Terry* said. “I have made tons of new friends since being a part of the play-community. They have helped me explore pleasures I would not have known to be pleasurable. Also, they have a mutual goal to bring sex-positivity to the POC community.”
“If I were to give advice to a POC entering the poly world, it would be this: Reach out and connect with the other people of color in that community,” Steve said. “Non-POC can empathize and listen, but they won’t understand from your experience.”
OH’s leadership takes the time to discuss diversity and inclusivity in every weekly meeting to continuously create opportunities and a space for its members to push their boundaries, learn and grow from what its majority white community has historically called “uncomfortable conversations.”
Antiracism requires us to examine our own racism, which can be extremely uncomfortable. Remember that racism isn’t a one or zero: racist or not racist. It’s a set of structures and beliefs which require ongoing confrontation and dismantling. When you see an opportunity to proactively include POC in a space, whether it’s inviting them to join OH! or just to join your conversation, take that opportunity. When discussing race, remember that POC experience race differently than you do and treat the subject with care and compassion. And when POC talk about their experiences, listen with an open mind and heart.
If you have other thoughts or suggestions on how to make OH! a more diverse and welcoming place, please let us know in an email to email@example.com.
* Most people who spoke to us chose to remain anonymous. I’ve assigned them fake names, indicated by an * and they/them pronouns.