Op-ed: A Meditation on Racism & Desire

Devon Yee

Inspired by Alondra Contreras, Zuhra Amini, Kendra Winchester, Chanel Knight, Bonnette Ishimwe,  Samarah Uribe Mendez & Mickey Shin & their Power & Privilege panel, The Racist Rom-Com at Whitman.

[Note: All the examples I use in this piece are either things I’ve heard first hand or stories I’ve heard from other POC. These are then also tied to historical examples.]

[Content warning: racism, slavery, rape]

This is what I mean when I say your desires are racist.

My sister and I were back from college for winter break. We were talking about racism and desire as we do, telling stories of the sh*t we’d heard:

“I’m attracted to Whites and Latinos. But not Blacks; I think they’re scary. Wait, is that racist?”

<Yes. Most definitely racist.>

“It’s not that I wouldn’t date brown women, I just don’t prefer them.”

<Also racist.>

“He [a mixed-race black man] definitely has a type. Tall, blonde, athletic, blue-eyed. [White.]”

<That’s racist.>

To which my white parent said: Devon, that’s so stereotypical of you. You can’t crawl into someone’s mind and determine what is or is not racist.

I said: That’s not how I understand racism. I wouldn’t be able to crawl into someone’s mind and detangle what is or is not racist. Racism is interwoven in everything. Racism is deeply personal, entangled with desire, and all other ways in which we live our lives. It is not necessarily a conscious choice. And even if racism is unconscious, it does not excuse it. If you think that it is your personal preference that you’re most attracted to white people, I would ask you to reconsider. Take seriously your desires are racist, part and parcel of white supremacy.

If you grow up in a place like I did, such as the Bay Area, with many people of color, and you’ve exclusively dated white people (or as a white person, exclusively dated brown people), maybe reflect on that. Who do you think is beautiful, and why?

What do you think of when I say “beauty”? Do you see Michelangelo’s marble David, or Venus de Milo? Beauty as it is portrayed historically is usually European. Who is loveable? Film and media today celebrate beauty as white, or at the least, largely white. Has this slipped into your psyche? I, along with other women of color, would argue it has. At their Power & Privilege panel, Alondra, Zuhra, Kendra, Chanel, Bonnette, Mickey, and Samarah commented on the hypervisibility and invisibility of brown women at Whitman. We as women/non-binary women of color are strong, smart, and beautiful. Perhaps we want to share this with someone else. Common experiences of invisibility within the dating scene, or being seen as fuckable, but not dateable, are not reflections of individual shortcomings. This is not a problem of people not putting themselves out there. The problem is that brown women are not seen as dateable. And many brown men “prefer” white women. Why? White supremacy? The whiteness of beauty? These problems are systemic, reflecting racism within the particularity of Whitman, a small, mostly white liberal arts college.

So I will elaborate on racism and desire. What does this mean? Do you [white person] have “jungle fever”? Think that it would be really hot to have sex with a black person? Why do you think this? Are you turned on by the idea that black people are “savage”? Or subliminally excited by the rape of black women by slave masters? Have you [white sorority woman] speculated on black men’s penis sizes, sexualizing black men? When you do this, you are playing into the portrayal of black people as other than human, animals. Have you [white person] commented on black women’s butts being really big? You continue the legacy of human zoos, exhibiting Sawtche, a light-skinned Khoikhoi woman. She, as people might say today, had a “big butt.” She was paraded around Europe as the “Hottentot Venus” to an incredulous white audience as animal to be touched and raped. White people, the bodies of people of color are not yours to be undressed, inspected by a white imaginary.

Do you [white man] find Asian women especially attractive? Perhaps you have an Asian fetish. Perhaps your desires are influenced by the sexualized stereotypes of Asian women in films: a “Suzy Wong,” submissive and passive, wanting nothing more than to fulfill the fantasies of a white man or a fearsome “dragon lady,” manipulative, powerful, and very beautiful. Are you just not “into” Asian men? Perhaps the feminization and demasculinization of Asian men has percolated into your mind. Have you described people as “exotic”? Latinas as “spicy”? We, as people of color, are not food for your consumption.

This isn’t exhaustive; I’m sure there’s more. Just stop. Examine yourself and your desires. They very well may be racist.

Just as I’m racist (and by this I mean deeply implicated in racism), so are you. The ways in which we are complicit may be unexpected, requiring digging and introspection. We are all works in progress, embedded and implicated in racism. If you think you’re “woke,” you’re not done. You don’t get a free pass on white supremacy. You’re not exempt from racism and other isms; you must continue to reflect on your implication in white supremacy. And reflection must be paired with action. White people, please stop asking POC what you can do. First listen. You do not drive resistance and liberation, but you absolutely have a stake in undoing racism.

I do what I can to disrupt. But I might not have the perfect thing to say, or the perfect delivery. If you critique my delivery, my anger and frustration and necessarily emotional response, you miss the whole point. The point is disruption, not that it be perfect and well-articulated. When I say your desires are racist, this should not be understood as a personal attack or critique of character. It is personal, but don’t take it personally. We’re all implicated. And we should know the specificity of the ways in which we are embedded within racism so that we can hold ourselves accountable.

If we say nothing, do nothing, we uphold racism. Make the structural personal. How do we contribute to white supremacy in the ways we love or do not love? In the way we date or do not date?  Our desires are not our own. Take seriously that your desires are racist.