“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”
The saying is usually used to rightly denounce anyone claiming that something or someone is objectively attractive. The phrase highlights the subjectivity of desire – that what turns us on, what we sexually crave and romantically long for not only differs from one person to another, but is also shaped by the specificities of who and what we are.
Rarely do we seriously investigate what forms the eye of the beholder, or better, what world forms the beholder. We seem to take the composition of our desires to be coincidental. But it isn’t a coincidence that incest porn or porn consisting of buff black men and pretty petite white women is immensely popular on the internet. Nor is it a coincidence that many white people swerve people of color on dating apps like Tinder and Grinder. It certainly isn’t arbitrary that after 23 years of Rainbow Nation jingoism, interracial couples capture curious and sometimes dismayed or even resentful glares in public.
In a popular culture and neo-liberal climate that idolizes our ability to fashion our own destinies, partly through continuous designing and managing the self, to suggest that something as clandestine as sexual and romantic desire is not totally under our control, is blasphemous to the cult of individualism. We forget that so much of our lives is beyond our control. We forget that we are thrown into existence, and as we grow up we begin to find ourselves entangled in networks of relations (families, communities and cultures) and somewhat confined within structures (church, school and state) that press upon the malleable material of our minds, whether we want them to or not.
“It’s a just a preference ok? You can’t force me to be attracted to black women”
People who make those statements rarely ask why; why does your desire discriminate? Asking why reveals, and it can be an uncomfortable insight, that desire is both constructed and conditioned. The subjectivity of desire not only means it’s relative but also that it is subjected to certain forces.
I carried a heavy shame within in me throughout most of high school. Densely veiled below my naïve non-racialism, existed a prejudice: I thought I wasn’t attracted to black men. Here you may ask in bewilderment, “But Andile, aren’t you black?” I was then and obviously still am now. Self-hatred is a contradiction, it is a disorientating mockery of reality but it’s a reality that is inhabited by many black people. My “preference” wasn’t rational or even based on my relationships with black men. My preference was conditioned by a gay “community” that rarely saw black as beautiful and a straight world that shunned black homosexuality into non-existence. Black men in my adolescent mind, and men of color in general, were platonic friends and desexualized strangers, and almost never objects of desire. Specifically same sex desire.
Interrogating the reasons for my long stay in the sunken place, I realized that growing up I had no Moonlight, no Paris Is Burning, no black equivalents of Troye Sivan or Zac Efron and very few faces surrounding me that looked like mine. Whether in GQ magazine, romantic films, Disney teen comedies or porn videos, male beauty, in its ideal form, was white. Developing and nourishing an attraction to black women on the other hand, never posed a challenge. Images of Halle Berry, Raven-Symoné and Beyoncé remained vivid and visceral for me as a teenager. Television and film allow black women to be beautiful, within certain restraints of course. The light, caramel hue of black women who supposedly symbolize the pinnacle of Nubian beauty isn’t a coincidence.
Seldom framed as sensual or sexy, black men in South African and American television, while I was growing up and in our present cultural moment, were thugs, gangsters, old wise men, angry cops, token coconuts, aspiring athletes or comedic relief. To see black men hug, hold hands, kiss or admit a desire to sleep with one another; such images and stories were an impossibility in my mind.
More than the racism within media, I and countless African men exist in cultures that harshly condemn same sex relationships and enforce a corrosive conception of manhood. It wasn’t too long ago when Zulu people had less rigged notions of sexuality and gender. Sadly, with the militarization of the clan by King Shaka and the devastating storm of Victorian era Christianity, in a few decades were morphed into a prudish and conservative people.
Tenderness, sensitivity, gentleness and affection are not qualities to be admired in a Zulu man – often they’re ridiculed. It isn’t uncommon to hear Zulu women humorously bemoan husbands and boyfriends who don’t know how to be romantic. Then there are the not so funny sights and stories of men numb to the emotional needs of their children. Unsurprisingly, such a construct of masculinity can never allow for the accommodation of romantic love or sexual relationships between men. Absent from the realm of media and invisible in my cultural universe, male black bodies, and those beings within them, were to me dull and barren planes where desire’s development had been arrested by my indulgent voyage into the white world (and the conditions of the institutions within that world).
I use the word ‘indulgent’, to imply an awareness that my “preference” was morally depraved and beyond the redemption of reason in its irrationality. For anyone to say they won’t date or hook up with an entire race of people, means that they are making grand and definitely baseless assumptions about millions of human beings they have never met. The assumptions are often based on racial myths and fantasies that we’ve allowed to imprison us. No reasonable person takes issue with others having certain tastes, inclinations, fetishes and preferences, a problem arises when such interests are conditioned by a society where white supremacy, homophobia and sexism are a part of its fiber.
Unjust economic relations play a significant role in forming our romantic and sexual preferences in SA. Young white people, many born free, swipe right on the Sibusiso’s and Lerato’s of Tinder, I suspect, because often the only black people they’ve consistently interacted with were their maids, gardeners, tellers, cleaners or petrol attendants and so their sexuality is nullified in these positions of servitude. A healthy relationship and or sex life with those ones does not consider equal, is impossible. Then there’s the undying myth that black people, men specifically, have an insatiable, barbaric appetite for violence and a biological disposition to rape. This nonsensical fear is dehumanizing and so eradicates a lot of romantic/sexual possibilities between white and black folk.
There are situations where dating or sleeping with people of other races becomes more complicated than it already is. I know of a few black women who are reluctant if not outright opposed to dating white men. This isn’t founded on some hatred for white men and white people at large but rather their experiences with white men, which have resulted in the feeling that white people/men do not recognize nor respect their dignity. Cultural differences, which are often tightly intertwined with race, also create obstacles to sexual and or romantic differences amongst people. Preferences which are motivated by a reasonable wish to avoid disrespect, embarrassment or emotional labor that yields no fruit, is to me justified and ethical.
An exceptional ability that we possess as humans, is the capacity to not only be conscious of the systems and structures which coerce us and the myths and fantasies that trap us, but our ability to break such barriers and transcend destructive thinking. My use of the word destructive may seem melodramatic but I firmly believe that destruction, of oneself and others, is the true cost of racism – or any prejudice. When I believed and sometimes said that I wasn’t attracted to black men, what I and what so many actively ignorant people are doing, was reducing the intricacy of human beings, effectively diminishing them to things that played certain roles. The failure to see other people as people, who are as layered and detailed as you, not just in categories like “slut” or “kaffir”, is at the filthy basis of bigotry. Secondly, without knowing it, those who use their desire to discriminate squander their own possibilities for love or just a really good hook up. In other words, out of willful ignorance and unfounded fear, they say no to life.
Desire is largely conditioned but it can also be constructed, to respect human dignity and allow ourselves to enjoy the experiences we have with others.
***Zulu is an undergraduate political science student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and currently running a blog that deals with issues of identity that concern “born free” South Africans.