Keeping with the subject of the racialised notions of beauty that we are all socialised into discussed in Dan’s last post, I was struck the other day when, on my walk home from work, I overheard a conversation between three trendy-looking black female students, maybe aged 20 years old or so.
Sistah 1: … I’ve been through that phase of saying, “I want my child to have that hair and those eyes but …”
Sistah 2: … But I couldn’t be with that guy with the blue eyes …
Sistah 3: … Exactly, there’s too much of a culture clash …
I was sorry that I was in a hurry and couldn’t linger longer to hear how the conversation ended but I felt I’d probably heard enough anyway. See, I’ve participated in similar conversations over the years – from a variety of different angles.
With family (when I was growing up), the conversation around what being married to a white man might be like had sometimes featured the note: “but wouldn’t you be freaked out if, in the middle of the night with the lights out, you found his glowing cat eyes staring at you?” With friends, at school, white guys typically didn’t “step up to” black girls. They certainly had the opportunity as our (albeit primarily white) girls’ school interacted quite a bit with our brother schools. And, for my few white peers who dared, having dated or simply gone out once with a black guy was a novelty of distinction – not something done seriously but for experimentation and often to shore up their “non-racist” credentials. Although my black girlfriends and I rarely found ourselves in interracial relationships, we nonetheless grappled with the political and social implications of such, as well as the potential culture clash that the girls I overheard were discussing. This grappling carried through to university where we also reflected on what it might be like for our children if they were to be born of such mixed bloodlines and heritage.
The thing that stands out most from these girls’ discussion is the implication that a white guy had asked one of them out. Indeed, when I discussed it with a very close African-American girlfriend of mine, that was what stood out to her too. The reason it was positive for both of us is well-represented by remembering the most unexpected conversation I ever was privy to on the subject of attraction to and dating people of other races. (This was a year or so before I met Dan). This girlfriend and I were conversing with two white, South African male friends. We were, admittedly, very startled to learn from our friends that they didn’t look at black women “that way”. They could find perhaps Asian women attractive but that was about as far as they could see themselves venturing across the racial-romantic line. Both have since married wonderful white women.
I suppose what I found most shocking about what they said was not actually that they weren’t attracted to black women – though that no woman in the entire race had caught their attention certainly took me aback – but rather specifically that they didn’t look at black women “that way”. Rightly or wrongly, I understood this to mean that the guys didn’t really see black women as women because they were black; the guys’ perception of black women ended at their being black and could not therefore extend to attraction because their blackness somehow made their femininity invisible. This could be a natural consequence of these South African guys’ growing up in a society where interracial attraction was deemed anathema and black-white interaction was largely confined to the servant-master relationship, by law. And, while I am grateful for the trust my friends showed us in sharing where they were so honestly, it stunned, and even hurt, to hear it.
In response to Dan’s blog post on beauty, one friend (a blonde married to a lovely blonde) asked whether it is racist if he is only attracted to blondes. Obviously, a complex question, which Dan and I have spent some time in pondering. However, I think my leaning can be gleaned from my reaction to what my two white male friends shared, above. I think that if one is able to say that – simply because of phenotype or race – one wouldn’t be attracted to (any) women in a phenotypic or racial category, that is a sign that there may be a race-issue there. (I wouldn’t yet go so far as to call it racism because I think racism is more deliberate than that. But might it bear seeds of racism or express the kind of informal/subconscious racisms that still pervade society?) Consciously or not, by dismissing an entire category of people on the basis of their genetically-based and hence immutable characteristics, one is arguably not seeing their humanity – which is attributed, at least in part, by seeing people of all races as disaggregated and understanding them to be complex and individual. The risk is very real then of believing that they are not people who one could possibly be attracted to – and what does that say about how one values those women at a moral level, what does it say of what one thinks of their moral worthiness of one’s affections?
Yes, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, but what does it mean when in the eyes of the beholder beauty is confined to one category of people or specifically excludes certain categories?
Don’t get me wrong: all of the friends mentioned are dear and loving people – they have treated me with respect and we have related meaningfully in our time. I hold them in very high regard. However, asked, I must answer honestly that I do not think that they are immune to latent racial struggles. We all have them (we are imperfect beings socialised in an imperfect world, after all). I therefore don’t mean to suggest that I am immune to racial struggles and hence morally superior simply because I am married to a person of a different race; I see nothing inherently wrong in marrying someone of the same race. It is only that Dan and I (through a series of exposures which we look forward to unpacking in due course) were better able to see the option of interracial relationship as plausible and find someone who made it irresistible. For us, the path to interracial marriage was by no means straightforward. And we too continue to make sense of and try to reconcile our love for one another as individuals with our differences as people whose opposite racial identities stare us, and the world around us, in the face. That is, afterall, the reason for this blog.