By Navneet Alang
It’s funny now that I think about it, but the first girl who I remember as, like, “a girl” was named Karen White (spoiler: she was lily white). In part, she sticks out in my mind because when we were 9 or 10 at Goodmayes Primary School, she would always dance with me at school discos, which mostly now makes 34 year old me jealous of my own childhood. But beyond the pity dances, I also remember her because I often wonder with a bit of guilt: why was it Karen White, and not some Gurpreet or Jaswinder who sits in my memory?
Still, when I think about the various images of female beauty I remember from my childhood – mostly Samantha Fox and that busty cop from Police Academy – they were obviously blonde and white. It’s as if before I ever had a chance to ‘think about race critically’ or ‘become conscious’, the circulation of a particular ideal of beauty had already worked its way into my mind. So maybe because of that, it was Karen White who first caught my eye. Maybe.
But suppose my desire were somehow only ‘switched on’ after I had become aware of race and racism? Would I then have forced myself to only be attracted to South Asian women, or whatever ‘group’ I felt was right? Of course not. Not only is it ludicrous – desire doesn’t fit in a box like that – it also flies in the face of our belief in treating people like individuals.
Yet, it’s here we land on a sticky point. On the one hand, we believe that dismissing someone as a potential partner based on race is strange because it limits our choices by relying on some traits that are a terrible indicator of compatibility. Certainly, there are issues of having a mutual culture, but millions of interracial and intercultural marriages across the world prove that they are by no means insurmountable. Moreover, you simply can’t help who you’re attracted to. And yet, and yet… getting back to Karen White: If our desire is in part constructed by our relation to the public sphere, mostly in ways we’re not really conscious of, then it’s almost as if it’s something beyond our control. And given that attraction and desire are such personal things, what do you do when you find yourself mostly attracted to people of one or two ‘groups’? To wit, if we don’t control our desire, is it racist to not be attracted to someone because of race?
I feel like there are two equally important answers to that question and, erm, they are “No” and “Yes”.
No because attraction is subjective and personal and no-one – not even you yourself – can dictate what and who you desire.
But yes because desire isn’t entirely personal: it’s quite possible that not being attracted to someone of a certain race is not because of personal taste, but because those tastes are a product of evaluating a certain type of beauty over another. If sexual desire is partly unconscious and influenced by many external factors, then there’s always a chance that the racism present in society at large has worked its way into individual ways of thinking. When we say “it’s just my taste”, it’s possible that the statement is entirely true and at the same time, unwittingly propagating racism itself by reproducing prevalent ideas about what is and is not attractive.
What this all really highlights, however, is that if attraction on a personal level is just that – personal – on a social level it’s a much bigger, more complicated issue. In a society in which simple non-white representations of beauty – let alone ‘non-normal’ ones – are still relatively rare, it’s hard to simply dismiss individual tastes as only ‘individual’. Just watch this devastating trailer for Dark Girls, a movie about the prejudice and self-esteem issues women with dark skin, for a heartbreaking glimpse into the issue.
There is so much to be said about race and desire – part of which involves Raj in Big Bang Theory – but all I’m really trying to say here is this: if the question is “Is it racist to not be attracted to someone because of race?”, the answer is mostly “yeah, probably”, but also an unhelpful “it’s complicated, and you may not be totally to blame”. The central issue, however, is how race, skin colour or culture get judged as a marker of beauty or desirability in the first place. After all, though it’s possible Karen White was just nice and cool – maybe there was something else going on, too.
This post is part of the Ethnic Aisle, a group blog about issues of race and culture in Toronto and the GTA.