This essay is the second in a collection of essays I’m writing on race and sexuality. In the first essay I discussed how we must begin to think about how constructions of race and white supremacy are central to even our most personal sexual desires. In this essay I want to back-track a bit and outline the framework I am using to grapple with these questions.
I can’t tell you how many times my friends (of all races) have told me to “get over” my white fetish. They resonate with my plight and understand where it comes from, etc., etc., but they point it out as an obvious site of contradiction in my politics and activism. They establish a timeline – Okay so I understand you grew up in a conservative town, but now you’ve been out and away for a long time…isn’t it getting better? The parameters are set: we begin at internalized racism, self-hatred, and longing for whiteness and we are supposed to ‘end’ at radical self-love and for other people of color. They tell me to try things out with boys of color, “experience what I am missing out on.” When I even bring up the possibility of finding a non-problematic white person, one who, in fact, contributes to my project of racial emancipation I am often shot down.
It seems – as it often does – that progressives have found ourselves in a bind.
As soon as we articulate our racialized desires, we are told to get over them because they are problematic. In the true spirit of liberalism – we present a compelling critique without meaningful alternatives. Yes, I agree, that it would be absolutely wonderful to experience desire for a boy of color – hell – for women, for people of all genders, races, ethnicities, abilities, etc. The fact of the matter remains that there is a large distance between the utopian politics I can entertain intellectually and the body I have been implicated with: a body that messes up, desires confusingly in contradictory ways, a body that finds it nearly impossible to love itself completely.
In this piece I want to grapple more with the project of emancipating desire and what that entails. The question “When are you going to get over it?” I think is the wrong one considering the epistemology it is derived from. This question is symptomatic of a particular way of understanding sexual desire that often denies the material reality of our bodies – bodies that find themselves located within violent differentials of power, bodies that experience race, gender, desire in intricate and multi-faceted ways.
Beyond That’s Problematic! Developing a language of critical attraction
What strikes me when my friends tell me to “get over my racial fetish” is the assumptions at work about the elasticity of some sorts of desire and not others. These same queer friends get offended when their parents, their church, their government tells them to “get over” their desires and be straight. What becomes interesting here is how particular types of desire – often types of desires that don’t fit well into ones understanding of normality and propriety – are seen as fleeting, protean, malleable (racial fetishisms, pedophilia, etc.).
Let’s think about the mainstream strategy of the gay and lesbian movement here. In its plea for acceptance, gay and lesbian people market (and I use this word intentionally) their desire as essential, static, and uncontestable. Same-sex desire gets depicted as a fixed mode of being, a “born this way,” an innate characteristic of a body. In this strategy of acceptance and adherence to a homosexual/heterosexual sexual binary, gays and lesbians delegitimize other types of desires and modes of relating that do not align well with this narrative. The argument becomes: “we as gays and lesbians are legitimate because we are not pedophiles, not drug addicts, not racial fetishists.” We become legitimate because our desire is inborn, it is domesticated, it is private, it is married.
What gets lost in articulating these identity-based claims? Who must be put down in order for gays and lesbians to experience ascendency? What kind of (racialized) bodies must be outcast from the nation state for gays and lesbians to be incorporated into the national imaginary?
When people used to tell me to “get over it,” I would respond, “I can’t – this is just who I am!” My response – as a delegitimized sexual subject – was to retreat into the parameters of essentialism and therefore respectability. It was to make a claim that I have no agency, no control over my desires and that this was just the way things are.
What I’ve since realized, is this gesture constitutes a serious dismissal of a radical and transformative introspection of desire. In accepting essentialism in all of its seductive rhetoric, we ignore the ways in which we actually do have agency, the ways in which we actually do have control over our desire. In accepting essentialism we position our desires as impenetrable (no pun intended), and thus don’t even attempt to question them. In saying that I was “just this way” in the same way that my queer people of color friends would tell me that my attractions were “just racist,” I precluded any possibility of critical self-investigation and development. I accepted my desire without problematizing it and having to ask the more important question, the question that I think motivated my friends remarks: How are you reconciling your white fetish with the Revolution?
What becomes continually apparent is we do not yet have a way to talk critically about our desires and how these yearnings are actually central to our process of collective liberation.
I can’t tell you how many activists I’ve met who leave their politics at the doorstep and engage in erotic and affectual relations un-critically, seduced by the semantics of ‘love’ and ‘lust.’ Indeed – blithe acceptance of sexuality is becoming increasingly characteristic of liberal spaces: we create ‘safe spaces’ in our organizations where we allow people to self-identify with tokenized identities that are becoming increasingly comfortable to (neo)liberalism: LGBTI(ETC). Yet the ‘safety’ of these spaces often eliminates the possibility for meaningful critique: we cannot interrogate the white gay rice queen (white man who predominantly sleeps with Asian men) about how he exercises his racial privilege as part of his queer identity, we cannot question the class privilege of certain queers in the room who are able to have more access to sex (with their iPhones, their cars, their money for club fees). With an increasing culture of ‘human’ and ‘LGBTI’ ‘rights,’ we have seen a blanket and uncritical acceptance of sexual minority ‘identities,’ but not yet a serious engagement with practices, and how those practices (by sexual minorities themselves) can reify other systems of oppression.
While I do not mean to undermine the importance of these safe spaces and do not mean to dismiss continuing (extreme) manifestations of sexual prejudice, I want to raise the point that I don’t think we’re going far enough – I don’t think we have yet thought seriously enough about the need for ourselves to think critically about our sexual, erotic, and affectual desires and how they might be antithetical to our larger projects of liberation. Not only have we pushed far enough, we have not developed the language necessary for such an endeavor.
In our increasingly ‘queer’ movement – ironically – the only models we have for serious attempts to shift and interrogate our desire are provided by right-wing conservatives (for example: Evangelical Christians who send their children to gay-reparative therapy). We have increasingly abandoned the radical second-wave feminist spirit of women who chose to be lesbians politically, women who theorized heterosexuality as a mechanism of patriarchy, women who practiced asexuality politically as a way the hetero-patriarchy infused in all sexual encounters.
As Lisa Duggan has written about in the past (“Queering the State”), Right-Wingers and Queer Theorists are the only ones who talk about sexuality as a socially constructed and contingent phenomenon. Thus, as progressives, we don’t have a way to encourage critical introspection of desire without aligning ourselves with people who, certainly, would be opposed to our political envisions. Duggan suggestions that we need to shift the debate and stop speaking about ‘sexual minorities’ as individuals with fixed identities, but rather talk about sexuality the way that we talk about religion: as a sustained commitment that certain individuals choose to participate in/with. Indeed, as Duggan notes, (neo)liberal tolerance for ‘religion’ views it as a comfortable mixture of choice (an individual chooses to be spiritual yet it is a choice that is not delegitimized) – and identity. It is a choice that is respected as being intentional, focused, and dedicated.
I find Duggan’s suggestions promising. We need to invest more in our (a)sexual desires: study them, discuss them, deconstruct them, think about how we do (or do not) situate them in our politics.
I want to envision a critical self-engagement with our desires that is not conservative, hegemonic, imperial, or dogmatic. I want to call for a politics of thinking about want more holistically and how realizing ‘want’ without critiquing it can have adverse consequences. I want us to think about our sexual desire as a process much like our academic intelligence. We need to learn about what turns us on, why it turns us on, how we feel about it. This process – like any other absorption of knowledge – is collective: we must encourage being called out, questioned, and not retreat into the domain of identity politics and subjecthood (but I’m gay…you don’t understand). We have to be able to speak confidently and justify the exercise of our libido.
Reconceptualizing Liberation: Beyond That’s Problematic!
When I ask for all of us to think critically and shift our desires, I don’t want to be in the same camp as the Evangelicals. I don’t want to locate all agency in the individual (you can get over problematic desire yourself) at the cost of the system (the system constructed your desire). We don’t have a way to address the complex interstices of ‘individual’ and ‘system’ and this significantly stalls our capacity for transformation For example: My friends tell me to get over my (individual) desire and I responded by blaming the (system).
At the end of the day we are problematic bodies living in a problematic system. We ambition, we yearn, we dream to escape it and unfetter our desires. However, we find ourselves restrained, shackled, domesticated by the very system we are trying to dismantle. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we desire ethically and politically within such a problematic world: how do we acknowledge the violence of our desire, but still get off on it?
Radicals throughout the years have posited particular states of being and modes of relating as the panacea – a phenomenon that has become quite ubiquitous in queer communities. We hear people who practice radical polyamory condemn people in monogamous relationships for “buying in the system.” We hear gays and lesbians call out bisexuals for choosing an opposite sex partner, we hear genderqueer activists yelling at transsexuals for wanting to “pass” and therefore “reinforcing the gender dichotomy.” While, yes, I agree that there is some grain of truth to this: chances are a same-sex couple of the same race will be gawked at more on the streets than an opposite-sex couple of the same race and therefore – yes — we need to acknowledge the relative privileges we all hold, etc. However, what often gets lost in this debate is intentionality.
My issue with the rhetoric of “get over it,” is that it draws a linear trajectory from ‘abjection’ to ‘liberation’ and locates these affects within particular types of relating. Furthermore, such rhetoric focuses on a capitalist understanding of ‘results’ being the only indication of ‘progress.’ Bodies of color intimately connected to whiteness are always necessarily constructed as self-hating and antithetical to racial justice whereas bodies of color loving other bodies of color are always necessarily constructed as liberatory, radical. This rhetoric also demonizes bodies that demonstrate hyper-racialized fetishes in a way that I find troublesome. In haling those of us with white fetish, Indian fetish, insert racial fetish as “problematic,” other progressives are able to excusive themselves from any serious engagement with the racial construction of their own desires. It establishes that the ‘fetishist’ is the only one with problematic desire, the only one with fetishes, the only one who needs to work on their desire. It establishes the domain of racial fetish as only for a minority of people, not for all people.
I don’t think we can afford to locate ‘liberation’ in ‘abjection’ in particular ways of relating or being: in doing so we universalize our own individual perspective (a gesture that, as I need not remind you, was central to the white (settler) colonial project). As bodies implicated within systemic violence – I don’t think we can afford to focus on product-oriented thinking (being completely liberated from white supremacy), instead we must focus on the process, the cultivation, the exercise of our desires. What I suggest we do is draw more of our attention to intention: how are we thinking about our desire in the big picture? Or more specifically and personally, is this white boy contributing to my process of radical racial emancipation? How do I reconcile my attraction to white men within my larger anti-racist and anti-colonial political agenda? How do I see whiteness as an institution and as a body politic fitting into the revolution I envision?
This is one of the many things I find promising of queer ways of conceptualizing sexuality. ‘Queer’ — as a movement, a politics, an aesthetic — incorporates all those who are thinking critically and intentionally about their desires in order to challenge systems of heteronormativity, white supremacy, (neo)colonialism, patriarchy, etc. Queerness requires us to recognize that there is not one path, not one mode of politics, not one type of liberation: rather we need multiple, diffuse strategies to contest dominant power. A white straight couple isn’t necessarily “part of the system,” if they are perpetually finding ways to complicate society’s assumption of their relationship, finding ways to organize around the social and economic privileges they have been afforded for radical transformation.