Image via BBC3 / Porn Laid Bare
“He just doesn’t fancy black girls,” he says, sat across from me over a Spoons panini, two plates of chips and a murky pint of Guinness that’s spilling at the rim. “That’s just his preference.”
It’s 2019, and conversations I thought we finished up with in the early internet age of the personal essay are still going round and round in the IRL sphere, particularly with my white friends. This conversation, with one of my friends who is a white man, happened only a couple of weeks ago, but took me back to an adolescence peppered with similar microaggressions. And it reared its head again on BBC3’s Porn Laid Bare, which this week unpacked racial stereotypes in porn, featuring a frustrating on-screen argument about whether having a racial sexual or dating preference was racist.
Desirability isn’t the be all and end all our social and political struggles – and our conversations shouldn’t become completely absorbed by an obsessive focus on who wants to get with us and who doesn’t. But it’s still a part of our lives like any other, and one that can impact on our sense of self-worth.
And to me, it’s obvious – sexual attraction doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it’s not some innate whim of biology that you have no control over. The medium of porn, and the endemic racism that threads through parts of the industry is a very complicated conversation. Nonetheless, it does a good job of pointing out the fact that images of who is desirable, and how and when they’re seen as desirable, are political and orchestrated.
Maybe the struggle over this stems from the issue of individualising racism – the classic sticking point that brings us back again and again to the defence of I’m not racist. After all, it’s difficult to take a look in the mirror and consider the fact that something that seems so “natural” and instinctual, and is often framed as apolitical, could actually be oppressive and harmful.
Many elements of our romantic and sexual choices are influenced by society. A study by the University of St Andrews found that exposure to online media pushes our attraction closer to stereotypes of masculine and feminine extremes. Another study of perceptions of beauty by Dove found women “in the public domain” are cited by the general public as influencing who they think is beautiful, which can clearly be linked to race and the prominence of eurocentric beauty standards in the media.
Most damningly and specifically, analyses of OkCupid’s trove of dating data in 2009, and again in 2014, found that “non-black” men were less likely to start conversations with black women, and women were less likely to start conversations with black or Asian men. When you consider that similar findings have been reported on other apps too, one thing becomes clear: racial “preferences” aren’t just randomly plucked out of thin air – they perfectly align with racist ideas embedded in wider society.
It’s commonly argued that these preferences are just like having a preference for hair colour or eye colour. But that doesn’t quite hold up, because race is, well, something different. Whilst we could definitely spend some time unpacking the social and cultural connotations attached to those physical attributes, their histories are so distinct to the history of race, it feels undignified to waste word count even explaining it.
But I will point out that the way race is conceptualised has long been hierarchical, and sexual and romantic segregation has been historically enforced as a tool of maintaining that hierarchy. This same issue of hierarchy serves to demonstrate why a person of colour choosing not to date white people is a different issue entirely. It’s not “reverse racism” because it doesn’t fit established patterns of racism and power dynamics. Choosing not to date white people is often a result of experiences of racism and fetishisation.
And many of us have lived it. I doubt the way it can lead us to feel about ourselves could ever translate to say, a white girl with brown hair saying she never felt she could be lovable, sexy, or beautiful because she was a brunette.
Another tired response to people of colour calling out racist preferences is that it suggests men should go ahead and date people they don’t find attractive. But that’s reductive – a knee-jerk reaction to what’s simply a call for introspection and have a think about what might motivate and inform who you’re attracted to; in the same way many people of colour come to do when confronting their own internalised racism.
While it’s laborious to explain this again and again, it can springboard us to a question I’m more interested in: my own and other women and non-binary people of colour’s relationship with desirability, particularly the conversations we have around it.
Should we be striving for the approval of the white gaze? Could I better spend my time removing myself from a framework I ideologically reject, in spheres where people who look like me, and different to me, exist in a way that is more free? Yes, perhaps, but equally it’s not always possible, and it is difficult to completely avoid internalising what we see and hear said about people like us. Even when we do achieve it, it shouldn’t stop us from calling out bullshit when we see it.
It’s possible to move away from the confines of desirability, especially in queer and majority people of colour circles – where there is often less of a reason to hold a stake in it. I personally move in and out of these spaces, with the knowledge that I have some degree of autonomy over whether I care if white guys think I’m hot. I don’t engage with it all the time. But in the times that I do, you bet I’m going to call it like I see it: a “preference” for whiteness isn’t just a preference – it’s racist.