In Spring of 2011 I wrote and performed a poem “Tryna” expressing and owning up to my internalized racism and how it shapes my desire.
After performing this poem for the first time I had several queer people of color approach me and tell me in private that they, too, shared similar desires for whiteness, but had never felt comfortable articulating it publically. Curiously enough many of my white queer friends avoided eye contact with me after the poem and never brought it up again. Every time I perform this piece I get similar reactions.
In this piece I want to share my personal story of internalized racism and how this was and continues to be linked to my queer identity. It is my goal to use this piece as a starting piece for a collection of essays on race, queerness, and desire. In subsequent posts I want to address, in more detail, questions and strategies that I raise here.
Gay identity as a tactic of white supremacy
The mainstream gay narrative includes a story that begins with trauma, abjection, insecurity and ends with liberation, visibility, and confidence. We are asked: When did you know? When did you first figure out? And we respond with the stories they want to hear: we tell them about screaming “I’m gay” outside in the middle of the night, we tell them about sneaking looks in the locker room. But we do not tell them about the first time we were called a nigger. We do not tell them about how we refused to speak our native tongue at home. These stories, they elide histories of racial trauma that are not ancillary, but actual central to the construction of our queer identities. I want us to revisit our self-narratives and think about the role of race in their construction. I believe that race is, actually, always already implicated in these stories, even for white people.
I have always been attracted to whiteness. I remember in kindergarten I would develop crushes on all the white boys in my class – those white boys who came from rich families with mothers who ran the parent-teacher organizations, those white boys who played little league baseball and joined Boy Scouts.
These were the days I would go home and ask my mother why we didn’t go to church. I would tell my grandmother to stop wearing saris and put on pants instead. These were the days I’d ask my parents why we weren’t like other families: why we didn’t eat steak for dinner, and watch football, and do the things that normal families do. Growing up I always felt inadequate and embarrassed by my brownness and my Hindu/South Asian culture. I would willingly attend Christian youth groups with my white friends and feel so much validation in their acceptance.
This attraction was, and continues to be, always about power. I wanted to be white so desperately because that meant I would finally be normal, finally be accepted. I admired the white boys in my kindergarten class because they had power, they had respect, they were beautiful.
At first I didn’t have the language to understand my feelings of Otherness and inadequacy. It was only after 9/11 that I was able to understand that I had a race. I remember it vividly: on September 12 my mother told me to be careful at school. My middle-school had an assembly in the gym. We were all instructed to wear white and blue and we gathered and sang the national anthem. I remember singing as loud as the rest, and I remember feeling part of something bigger than myself. I didn’t really understand what happened, but goddamnit I knew that I was American. I knew it in the same way my Hindu temple knew that it was a good idea to put an American flag on the back of our t-shirts: “God bless America / we will never forget September 11.” After the assembly a white classmate came up to me and asked me, “Why did your people do this to us?” And for the first time I felt the burden of brownness.
The truth is, at some level, I began to believe everything they said. I began to believe that I was not an American. I began to believe that my people were wrong. I began to believe that my people were ugly.
Coming into consciousness of my brownness occurred at the same time I began to come into awareness of my same-sex desire. It’s impossible for me to divorce these narratives – they have been, and will always be – interrelated. The boys I began to fantasize about were the same boys I wrote love letters to as a child, were the same boys I wanted to become so desperately. The boys – the men – I was sexually attracted to were the very white men who made me feel ugly, made me feel insignificant, made me feel worthless.
Awareness of my homosexuality arrived at the same time as consciousness of my racialization. In some ways, my homosexuality worked as a mechanism of my racial oppression and contributed to my feelings of racial inadequacy. Now, the very white men who degraded me felt sexy to me. My desire shackled me to white supremacy. As much as I wanted to love my brownness, my culture, my otherness – I became even more drawn, tantalized, and attracted to whiteness. As much as I resented and was bruised by the racial trauma inflicted by the white men around me, I found myself deeply attracted to them. I found myself accepting their insults, their stereotypes, their racialization – justifying it with my attraction to them.
When I ‘came out’ and began to consume gay discourses – pornography, blogs, movies, etc. – the depictions of gayness reified whiteness. Queer characters were almost always white, gay porn almost always included white men – unless it was explicitly marked as interracial or racial/fetish porn, etc. At first I didn’t mind this. In fact, I enjoyed it; I found these depictions of whiteness incredibly attractive. Now that I look back on it, consuming these discourses, coming out as ‘gay,’ and organizing within a traditional ‘gay rights’ framework made me happy because I felt like I was becoming white. Being ‘gay’ being part of a ‘gay’ community gave me an opportunity to escape from my race, gave me new connections to whiteness, new ways to intimately embrace it and experience its validation. As I began to get more involved with mainstream gay life, I found myself feeling less brown. I used language and identity-frameworks that were inaccessible to the South Asian community I grew up with (and was okay with that, because at least my white friends accepted me). I went to parties and political gatherings with mostly white people. I stopped talking and thinking about race, and fabricated a de-racinated narrative of queer oppression to fit in, to be part of the community.
Racial Fetishism Within Queer Male Communities
Originally I thought that identifying as gay and participating in gay communities would make me feel more legitimate, more desirable, more affirmed by structures of whiteness. However, I soon realized that queer communities actually inflicted some of the most severe racial trauma for me.
My first significant relationship was with a South Asian woman my first year of high school – before I started actively identifying and participating in gay/queer communities. We shared our experiences with racial trauma, our experiences as diasporic South Asians, our anxieties about our Hindu religion in our small town and I began to develop erotic and romantic feelings for her. Our subsequent four-year relationship was perhaps the most important development in my project of racial liberation. Through her I began to feel beauty in brownness. Looking back, I was less attracted to her gender, and more attracted to her race. Typical heterosexual narratives that suggest that men enter relationships with the ‘opposite’ gender and rely on a difference model did not align well here. Rather, I was attracted to her because of our mutual sameness.
In all of my subsequent relationships and interactions with (white) men, I have been unable to experience this sense of solidarity, of kinship, of sameness. Mainstream narratives of homosexuality conceptualize it as ‘same-sex’ desire: we hear stories about how men know how to please other men better because they have a penis. We hear how same-sex relationships are more functional because both parties “get one another.” These narratives, as is the case with most gay narratives, do not map well on queer of color experience like my own. All of my relationships with (white) men have felt much more conflicted, racially charged, and based on a paradigm of ‘opposites.’ Embracing a white male body never feels comfortable, natural, same. It feels foreign, exotic, opposite.
As I began to participate in white gay communities I recognized that what attracted to me to these boys – what had always attracted me to whiteness – was its difference from me. Whiteness was a commodity, a property that I didn’t own and was systematically denied. I wanted to be with white guys because I was attracted to the power, to their foreignness, to the thrill of difference. I found myself turning down incredibly charming and political queer boys of color, because I just didn’t get the same power trip, the same attraction to them. I found myself pursuing the most problematic, the most racist and obnoxious white boys, just because their otherness was that desirable.
My early and uncritical experiences with white men reminded me that I can never have access to this cultural capital, that I will always be brown, no matter how much queer communities profess to be ‘one.’ I began to realize the extreme racism and colorism that governs much of queer male life: the lighter you are, the more attractive you are. The darker you are, the more likely you are to be friend-zoned.
The majority of the times I found myself incredible invisible to the white queer gaze. I met white boys with dating profiles: “No Asians / No Fems.” Sexual racism like this was rarely as explicit, it manifested itself in more silent and pernicious ways: always being the ‘friend’ and never anything more, etc. When I would confront my white queer friends about why they didn’t date other boys of color they’d often say things like: “I don’t see race – get over it, it’s not important!” And though they would often profess liberal and anti-racist politics, they would still only sleep with and date other white men. When I began to meet white queer men who were or experienced intimate relations across the color lines they would often say that race wasn’t central to their desire or relationship. The idea was that being gay already involved transgressing one taboo, why not jump over another?
Those white queer men who did express interest often articulated it in ways that were just as problematic, just in a reverse direction. One white boy told me that he had always wanted to be with a brown man. He told me that I felt like a real man. And, at the time, I loved it. For the first time in my life I experienced validation from the very body that taunted me growing up. When he embraced me I felt like America taking me back again, I felt worthy, I felt normal. In that small encounter I experienced a tremendous range of trauma and emotion. I performed my race – in its most bastardized forms – for him so that I could obtain his acceptance. In subsequent relationships I experienced similar hyper-fetishization – experiences where my brownness was central to a white man’s attraction to me. It manifested itself in sometimes subtle ways – comments on my rugged masculinity (gesturing to histories of associations with bodies of color and primitive animality), cloaked racist sayings like all South Asians are so sexy).
In all of these experiences – the ones where I was hyper invisible and hyper visible – one theme remained constant: I was always reduced to my race. My race was the primary basis of my desireability or undesireability. I never was able to enter interactions where my race was not salient – the paradigm established was that I was always the one with ‘the race,’ while whiteness remained unmarked, uncontested.
Thus, ironically, even though I expected my homosexuality to integrate me into a community that made me finally feel part of something bigger than myself again (after becoming an outcast in a post 9/11 nationalist American), I actually began to feel even more brown, even more violently racialized.
After severally racially charged experiences with white men I found myself in some of the deepest and most visceral racial trauma of my life. I found myself predicating my very self-worth, my integrity, on validation by white men. It didn’t matter how many people of color were attracted to me, only white guys counted. It didn’t matter to me how successful I was in school or how wonderful of an activist I was, only validation by white men could make me happy.
The Limits of Queer Epistemologies: Ways Forward
I soon recognized that the ways I, uncritically, desired whiteness were destructive to my political and emotional liberation. I began to read a lot more critical race theory, post-colonial theory, and think much more about white supremacy and how queer projects are complicit in it. I am now committed to decolonizing the intimacy I participate in – to disarticulating my attraction from the imprint of my oppression and envisioning alternative and radical ways to feel, relate, and engage with whiteness.
I am extremely skeptical of the race neutrality of the majority of queer/gender/sexuality desire. I strongly disapprove of the way that queer communities and individuals organize, fuck, art, envision, and grow together in ways that don’t address racial difference. My experiences with internalized racism have given me the privilege to see how race can actually become central to our desire and politics. Here are some ways that I’ve been thinking about this:
1. Our Sexual Identity Frameworks are already racist. We need to stop relying on a framework of sexual identity that anchors our attraction to ‘sex.’ Currently the only way that we think of sexual identity is in terms of what gender/sex’s we are attracted to. The only discourse I had access to growing up told me that I was “gay” because I was attracted to (some) men. However, it makes no sense for me to identify as ‘gay.’ Identifying as gay would mean that I am a man attracted to other men. But the truth is I am not attracted to all men. I am attracted to a very particular type of racialized, classed, gendered, etc. masculinity. Current frameworks of sexual identity assume that ‘men’ and ‘women’ exist as stable categories and elide racial and other differences among men and women. The assumption here is that all men look the same, which is obviously not the case. Using this framework, white man can identify as gay but still only be intimate with other white men. Gay becomes a way in which we can cloak our racisms, rather than make them central to the way that we articulate our desires. We need a more complex way to relate our sexual proclivities and histories to one another. We need a language that acknowledges the multiple vectors that we come to fetishize. In my case, my desire and identities have been more oriented around race, than sex/gender
2. Our sexual desires themselves are already racist. As a queer body of color I have not had the privilege to disassociate my attraction from my oppression. The people I am most attracted to are the people I have been told to be attracted to. Our society – through media, and other discourse – valorizes particular expressions of white and masculine identity. These images have been ingrained into me to the point that I often have to question whether I am attracted to an individual for them, or for their whiteness - whether I am attracted to an individual, or a system. I am troubled by a paradigm that locates minority bodies as the only bodies that experience attraction this way. The fact is that all desires are implicated within racist, classist, colonial, etc. systems and circuits of desire – it’s just for some of us this is more salient. We must think critically about the nature of our desires and how to contest, unlearn, and re-imagine them.
3. We need to talk more about the relationship between white supremacy and sexual politics: I have shown how my body of color has been implicated in a project of white supremacy. It is important that we move beyond a framework that suggests that white people are the only people who can be racist. The reality of the situation is that most of us are white supremacists. White supremacy is a pervasive, totalizing, and dominant ideology that becomes bolstered by all bodies – not just white bodies. I want us to think more about what our queer movements and radical sex movements are doing to contest white supremacy – or, rather, how they are becoming (or have always been) complicit with this ideology.
4. Attraction as already fetishistic: I believe that fetish-oriented models of sexuality are a way to allow us to talk about internalized racism and other prejudices in relation to our sexual desires. Inspired by queer psychoanalysts like Tim Dean, I’m interested in re-imagining all desire as fetishistic. What this means is that we are not born predisposed to any particular attraction. Rather, we develop our attractions. (ie the penis is not inherently attractive, it becomes attractive). This process of becoming attractive occurs within a white supremacist, patriarchal, prejudiced culture in which particular fetishes become normalized (ie white heterosexual intimacy) while others become seen as perverse (foot fetish, racial fetish, etc.). Talking about our desires as fetishes is productive because it helps us remember that our desires are protean, able to shift, change, and respond. It reminds us that we experience desire as individuals – that no group-oriented terms like ‘gay’ (or even queer people of color) can adequately describe the specificity of our desire.
5. Gay rights/advocacy is not a queer project. Within a narrow-issue gay politic, I could excuse myself of my internalized racism and focus on my same-sex intimacy as already inherently radical. This isn’t sufficient. I think the power of a queer project lies in its ability and acknowledgement that our desires are political and that our intimacies are microcosms of the Revolution. A queer project involves unlearning our identities and attractions, disarticulating our racial fetishes and allowing ourselves to be attracted to all races. A queer project makes us be more critical of the way that we have conflated homosexuality as inherently transgressive. Isn’t predominant attraction to men or women implicated within structures of sexism and patriarchy? Queer desiring men need to think more about how our lack of attraction to women is related to and contributes to misogynist interpretations of the female body. Queering our desires involves opening ourselves to new types of intimacies, new types of consensual pleasures, with all types of identities. We are not yet queer, we aspire to queerness – and as part of that project we have to learn how to expand our desires and make them more empathetic, embracing, and radical for all.
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