No blacks allowed. No gays may live here. Asians not welcome. We would never think of condoning this sort of behavior, yet when it comes to sex and dating we have no problems with it. We may say that it is just a preference, just a matter of attraction. The same arguments were used for the lunch counters and the drinking fountains in the jim crow south. What are our real reasons? Have we really examined these beliefs? Why are we attracted to the people we are attracted too? These are very complex issues and questions. There are no easy answers. I do not wish to tell anyone what they should do or what they should say. I only want to challenge us to examine our long held beliefs, our preconceptions and consider what we say and how we say it and the affect it has on others.
When I began my journey in my Gay Male Relationships class we spent a good deal of time discussing the types of men we would consider dating. One of the lessons which I took from those exercises was the ways in which we limit ourselves, the restrictions we place on potential dating prospects before we have even met them. I remember someone in class saying, “it’s a miracle we ever find anyone to date.” Although race and ethnicity did not come up in those discussions, they really are just one more way of limiting ourselves.
As we know, race has no genetic basis. No one characteristic, trait, or gene distinguishes one so-called race from another. The very concept of race is a modern one. It did not exist as a way to categorize people in pre-modern civilizations. In fact, race is a construct whose basis is rooted in the foundations of the United States. In the beginning of the colonial American era race as a construct did not exist. Natives were seen as savages, the native populations divided themselves by nations, slavery was based on religion (if you were Christian you could not be enslaved). When Pocahontas married John Rolfe it created a scandal in the English court, not because Pocahontas was an Indian, but because she was a princess, royalty, and Rolfe was a commoner. The concept of race evolved over the closing decades of the seventeenth century as a way to justify the enslavement of Africans. With the signing of the Declaration of Independence a contradiction arises. How can we claim that all men are created equal and have enslaved peoples? Rather than abolish slavery, the course chosen is to justify slavery by the “nature” of the enslaved. Thomas Jefferson is the first to suggest, in 1781, that Africans are innately inferior. As late as the late nineteenth century, not all Europeans were considered white.
Since the concept of race is such an American idea, so tied to our beginnings, our concepts of liberty, our economic well being, the very building and expansion of our nation, is it no wonder that race and racism are embedded so deeply in our society as to seem imperceptible? We would all like to believe that racism doesn’t affect us, that we treat everyone equally but do we? Are whites aware of their place of privilege? We can if we wish arrange to be in the company of people of our race most of the time. We can avoid spending time with people who we were trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust our kind. If we should need to move, we can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which we can afford and in which we would want to live. We can be pretty sure that our neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to us. We can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that we will not be followed or harassed. We can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of our race widely represented. These are but a few of many examples of white privilege we tend to take for granted everyday. Even more important then being aware of our privilege, how much of that privilege would we be willing to give up?
We can try to justify our racism by claiming it is merely attraction or preference, but if race is purely a construct, one whose very genesis lies in the foundations and formulation of our nation and society, and permeates everything we know and are taught from childbirth, can we be sure? As Dwight A. McBride explains in "Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch,"
1 The particular and prevalent experience of American racism (with its deep roots in the institution of American slavery) permeates virtually all aspects of American life and culture.
2 Because of this legacy of white supremacy and its persistence in the form of white American racism, the notions we have evolved of what stands as beautiful and desirable are thoroughly racialized. Indeed, even our ideas about aesthetics in the broadest sense are shot through with racial considerations that render attempts at depoliticizing them impossible.
3 By showing that race permeates the sanctity even of desire, we demonstrate, once more, race’s saliency in American life and culture.
A claim which will often arise when attempts are made to politicize desire are cries of the policing of desire. Since race is such a pervasive factor in our national discourses, it seems it would be foolish to remove the question of politics from any discussions we have around desire.
In “The Gym Body and Heroic Myth,” John DiCarlo postulates, “These bodies outwardly represent a kind of wealth, a fullness in which a person has the means, discipline, the work ethic--and the leisure time--to perfect his body. It is a clean-cut, middle class body, symbolizing the final embourgeoisement of the gay community and its related aspirations. . . . The values of the marketplace rule the central circles of gay life, perhaps to a disturbing degree, where the body is advertising and 'knowing the price of everything’ is a main principle of doing business.” What we are really doing when we eliminate entire groups of people based on the notion of preference is acknowledging our participation in the gay market place of desire. We can see this marketplace of desire at work where ever we look, we are constantly bombarded by images of what is considered “desirable.” Of course, the question of race, class, and power is tied up in these images. Who benefits and who loses by that which is put forth as marketable, as desirable? When one considers we are a nation where racism is taken for granted and privilege goes unacknowledged, these questions gain even greater significance.