‘Racism’ and the Unexamined White Mind
Why are so many people so afraid of a six-letter word?
About nine months ago, I wrote a Medium essay titled “Why I’m Done Blacksplaining Racism to Gay White Men.” Nearly five months later, I wrote another essay, for Queerty, titled “Dear white gays: Can you please stop whitesplainin’ your racism to me?”.
If I’ve learned anything about racism since writing both articles, it’s this: We’ve all still got a lot of ‘splaining to do.
Take Morrissey, for example. In a recent interview he said that “racist” has lost its meaning. It struck me as something that only a white person with no firsthand experience of brutal soul-crushing racism would say. And I said as much in yet another essay. So much for quitting that blacksplaining habit.
Today, though, I’m not interested in deconstructing “racism” and “racist.” That’s been done to death. Instead of debating the meaning of the words, I’m trying to understand why so many people are afraid of them. They’ll contort their ideas into all kinds of awkward positions in order to avoid having to face “racism” and “racist” — or worse — having either apply to them.
All racism is not created equal
The average white person likely will never experience racism on the same level that blacks do. So-called “reverse racism” (a term invented by white people and frequently dropped by them), though problematic, doesn’t have the same sting. It doesn’t have centuries of having the upper hand to back it up.
White men who have lived abroad — particularly in Asia and in Africa — occasionally respond to my written and oral expositions on race by citing the racism they themselves have faced when the tables were flipped and they became the minorities. Poor babies. They seem to want to diminish my pain by saying they’ve felt it, too. Or maybe they just want me to stop bitching because, well, everybody’s hurts.
This just proves that they don’t know what I’m talking about when I talk about racism. They don’t know it like I do. They haven’t gotten deep down in the depths of being on its receiving end.
They don’t know what it feels like to be beaten down, literally and figuratively, because of the color of one’s skin.
They don’t know what it feels like to grow up being told you’re ugly, less than, because of your wide nose, big lips, and kinky hair.
They don’t know what it’s like to be confronted with your history — a history of men, women, and children in chains, literally whipped into shape and submission.
They don’t know what it’s like to belong to a country that was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, an idea that didn’t apply to your forefathers.
They don’t know shit about racism.
A white man in Asia typically holds a position of economic and sexual power. He goes for a challenging and lucrative new job. Or he goes to launch a business, maybe a hotel or a bed and breakfast. Or he goes to teach English. Or he goes for adventure. He doesn’t go because he’s forced to go.
I spent years living in Bangkok, and I saw white men exercising their power every day, particularly on the singles scene, where, gay or straight, they reveled in it. Caucasian beauty is idealized throughout Southeast Asia, and drugstores are stocked with enough whitening creams to underscore it.
And white men don’t even have to be handsome to be idealized. In Bangkok’s gay life, farangs (a local word referring to white men of European descent) go to the front of the line. Many locals consider snagging one to be something of a status symbol, and gay white men who go to Asia and put “No Asians” in their dating profiles know it.
A white man in Africa might have a more difficult experience than one in Asia. If he’s living outside of, say, South Africa or Namibia, in a country that doesn’t have a fairly significant white population, as soon as he ventures outside the comfort zone of his four- or five-star hotel, he might be regarded with some degree of suspicion. Side-eye is inevitable.
Given the history of colonialism on the African continent by European powers and the historical Caucasian custom of invade and seize (whether it be land, property, or people), who can blame black Africans for being wary of anyone with white skin?
But again, a white man who is not born in Africa is there by choice. He has safe havens all over the world.
They are not your negros
Several years ago, I went on a safari in the Serengeti with nearly 20 fellow adventurers. The only blacks on the excursion were the tour guide, the driver, and me. After we spent a day in Stone Town, I overheard someone in my group, a gay white man from Austria, complaining to his partner that the locals weren’t friendly enough. In other villages, he said, locals would run to the street to greet our van and pose for photos. In Stone Town, they acted like we weren’t even there.
I wondered how locals in Vienna would respond to Tanzanians passing through. Would they run out to the sidewalk and wave to make them feel as welcome as possible? Of course not. So why did he expect it in reverse? It was like he regarded Africans as attractions and photo-ops and not as actual human beings with concerns far more pressing than making a fuss over the Westerners passing through.
It would be far more constructive for white people to spend less time trying to manage how we react to them or the words we use to explain how we feel about them and more time trying to understand why we feel as we do. When I write about racism, particularly in gay communities around the world, I often hear from white readers (almost always male) who arch their backs and reject what I have to say without giving it any meaningful consideration. Are they afraid “racism” will hit so close to home that they’ll realize they wake up with it every day and sleep with it every night?
But let’s forget about how we respond for a moment and just focus on some of the things some white people say about black people (and other people of color) and how they affect us. Whether you label it “racism” or “preference,” “No blacks”/“I don’t find black men attractive”/“I’m just not into black” sting not because those who say it won’t go black. That’s between them and their hard-ons. Black is beautiful even if they’re too blind to see it.
It stings because it reinforces what white society has pounded into our heads from birth — that we’re less than because of our appearance, that too be white is hotter, sexier, better. Telling me you’re not attracted to me, though hurtful, is acceptable. Telling me you’re not attracted to me (or, conversely, turned on by me) because of my race is harder to shrug off with glib one-liners like “It’s taste not hate in the bedroom.”
Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, the one who wrote the immortal line “All men are created equal,” didn’t actually believe that. In his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, he went into great detail to explain why he thought blacks were inferior to whites. In his estimation, they weren’t as intelligent. They didn’t love as deeply. They smelled bad (as if spending their days performing back-breaking labor would leave slaves smelling like roses).
Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form…
I advance it therefore as suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.
Even when alleged “preferences” work in our favor, they’re still suspect. Jefferson had a decades-long relationship with his slave Sally Hemings and fathered multiple children by her. Did he love her? Did he respect her? She was, after all, his property, and he clearly didn’t have a problem with that.
I think about Jefferson every time a white guy says, “I love black cock.” It doesn’t mean he respects me or that he even sees me as his equal. White desire when it comes to blacks has been shady for centuries, and I’ll probably never not question it.
If that annoys some white people or makes them uncomfortable, so be it. That’s the legacy left by their forefathers.
The roots of racially fueled lust/rejection
Recently, I had a Medium debate with a reader over my essay “Racial Sexual Preference Is Not a Crime.” He expended so much energy trying to justify sexual attraction based on race and blast those who file it under “racism” that I wondered why he didn’t use some of that effort to dig deeper and wonder why sexual attraction is ever contingent on race in the first place?
Color-coded lust and love isn’t reserved only for white people. I’ve met people of all races who are drawn to or repelled by others based on their race and ethnicity. I myself have been excoriated in comment sections for never having had a black boyfriend.
As my brother once said, to be human is to be racist. We all harbor a certain degree of racism, whether sexual or otherwise. I’ve explored my relationship with my own race in several essays, including I’m black and all my exes are white. Does that make me racist? for Queerty and “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Not Dating Other Black Men” for HuffPost’s Queer Voices. Regardless of how others feel about my self-examination (many have applauded my candor; more have ripped me apart for it), I’ve at least been willing to go beneath the surface and crawl through some dark, filthy, uncomfortable spaces.
So even if we’re not going to own either R-word, we can still engage in healthy self-examination and try to understand why we lust and love the way we do.
Taste and preference are both innate and learned. We may have predilections to certain things, but we aren’t born to be attracted to certain standards of beauty. Social conditioning plays a big role, and in a society in which Caucasian beauty is held up as the ideal, we shouldn’t act like color-based sexual attraction is just some accident of nature unworthy of evaluation.
If people devoted as much time to self-examination as they did to debating what is and isn’t racism to avoid having to see it in the mirror, perhaps we could make real progress in race relations. But I’ve found that people focus on semantics, nitpicking over language, when they have no real argument to make.
The words “racism” and “racist” are not as important as the thoughts and actions they’re used to describe. Let’s focus on that and stop acting like they don’t matter because the words may or may not apply.
I have a dream that I don’t expect will ever come true. It’s that the white people who are so determined to defend themselves against everything black people have to say about race will stop trying to manage how we feel and just listen instead. I mean really listen, hard, without thinking of what they’re going to say or write in response.
They might learn something about us. Who knows? They might even learn something about themselves.