Preferences Aren’t Inherently Problematic — But They Sure Can Be

So it appears that people don’t understand that there is a difference between saying “Racism and other forms of oppression can and do influence the way by which some people experience, express, and act upon their attractions” and “Having preferences is problematic! No one should have preferences ever about anything!”

To be abundantly, absolutely, and definitively clear: I was saying the former rather than the latter. I am speaking directly from experience as someone who has been on the receiving end of race-based preferences with problematic influences, implications, and manifestations.

Let’s start a long long time ago on a dating site not so far away, when and where my profile said that I prefer white men because I enjoyed the skin tone contrast as well as, and I quote, the idea of “playing the exotic brown temptress.”

Regina George from Mean Girls smiling smugly and saying

I said it because I had yet to meet any men who actually thought the exotic brown temptress was a real thing. I had the good fortune of attending a very ethnically-diverse university in the city of my birth, a place where classism was rampant and rife but overt racism wasn’t tolerated. I thought racism was a joke and no one really believed it anymore.

The white males of OkCupid soon rectified my error, flooding my inbox with such delights as the following.

  • From wannabe hippie Burning Man aficionados, requests to teach them Kama Sutra
  • From actual hippies, salutations along the lines of “Namaste, goddess”
  • From white supremacists, demands for fellatio*
  • From the average-type dudebro, invitations to be a checkmark on their exotic-race-I’ve-fucked list
  • From the aggressively-geeky, questions about why I didn’t message them after looking at their profiles since we had so much in common**
  • From the self-described kinky, surprise that a non-white woman is open to non-vanilla exploration and speculation as to my subsequently diminished prospects on the Indian marriage market
  • From the older and well-traveled, “compliments” along the lines of how inherently not-boring I am compared to “average”/”normal”*** women

I ended up removing “Indian” from my profile and leaving that box blank (which has led to obnoxious levels of speculation as to my ethnicity). I still date mostly white men due to a combination of factors (I’ll speculate upon and address them in a future post).

These examples might seem exaggerated or only of men beyond the pale, but plenty of these men didn’t see the problem with what they said to me and thought of themselves as liberal and open-minded for considering a non-white woman.

There is nothing wrong with having preferences in dating and sex. There is absolutely something wrong with projecting racist generalizations onto people and excuse the exercise as mere expressions of attraction. It’s not difficult to treat people as individual human beings rather than some collection of stereotypes who exist to arouse you with their exoticness. Those who exhibit racialized preferences, if they want to be conscientious and forward-thinking rather than promote racism and bigotry, should examine the ways in which they think of and communicate with those they desire.

* Upon quizzical follow-ups regarding why their hatred of people of color didn’t extend to our oral cavities, reminders that I would drop to my knees, suck the dick, swallow the semen, and be booted out before anyone could know or see that I had the honor of having sexually serviced the white phallus in question

** Their profiles always and nigh invariably expressed deep-seating yearning for willowy pale redheads, so I assumed that my fat brown ass was precluded

*** Upon questioning, they meant “white” women

Main image via.

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Preferences Aren’t Inherently Problematic — But They Sure Can Be
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20 thoughts on “Preferences Aren’t Inherently Problematic — But They Sure Can Be

    1. 1.2

      Why why WHY do you and so many others to whom someone has signaled that they do not want to interact insist on ignoring that and demanding non-consnsual interaction? If Henia had blocked you, following her to her blog to post a petulantly defensive, passive-aggressive complaint would be harassment (and stalking if it continued). Don’t do that. People don’t owe you their time or attention – don’t bother them if you think they don’t want to interact with you. With internet-based communication, there are literally billions of other people to whom you could be talking who might welcome the interaction.

      Anyway, word to the OP. A racist cultural context makes things that wouldn’t be problematic in a harmonious utopia potentially problematic by injecting nigh-inescapable power dynamics into otherwise-innocuous interactions (this is ultimately why “color-blind” racism is an issue: ignoring race means ignoring those very real power dynamics which means likely treating someone in a marginal position unfairly). Same goes for living in a sexist culture, a homophobic culture, a rape culture, etc. Racialized sexual attractions are one such area: even in cases where the specific ways in which racialized attraction is experienced and expressed in ways not experienced as harmful by the people involved, it’s inflected by racist social norms and systems of meaning.

      Gendered sexuality runs into similar problems in a (hetero/cis)sexist society – while we obviously can’t demand people be attracted to genders to which they are not attracted, those attractions have all been shaped in some way by sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, and the general forms of how gender is normatively constructed.

      To go off on a bit of a tangent (which, case in point, serves to make the conversation about White people, though I’m hoping in a helpful and supplementary rather than derailing fashion), I think this contributes to e.g. White defensiveness in conversations about privilege, especially combined with a call-out culture. Because of how racism codes interactions, I think there can indeed be situations in which any action taken by a White person (and sometimes even existing in a given space as a White person) is necessarily going to be problematic in one way or another. White people thus sometimes rightly feel like they (we) can’t participate (or can’t participate non-problematically), but instead of simply accepting that they (we) don’t belong in some spaces/conversations, a lifetime in a culture that tells us we have a right to always be present and heard prompts entitled, defensive reactions. While it might defensively be described as “reverse racism”, it’s really just a function of regular old racism – it’s a way in which Racism Hurts Whites Too (in a relatively trivial way). My response these days to complaints about something like ‘safe spaces’ that exclude someone or affirmative action programs or whatever else people like to label “reverse racism” is to tell the person to work to eliminate the need by attacking the root problem of racism. The reaction provides useful clues about whether the person is a resentful bigot or a well-meaning potential ally who simply hadn’t been exposed to a perspective or model that made the issue click for zir yet (as a White person, I enjoy the privilege of being able to do so without being especially woried about a violent response). I don’t think the solution is for people to try to accommodate White entitlement, rather it’s to push White people to get the fuck over their (our) entitlement, generally speaking (to some degree it might be a judgement call based on the specific circumstances and what one hopes to achieve).

  1. 2

    Jacques -How about stalking a stranger, who you pestered on twitter? What does that make you?

    Yes I know to the OP. After the belittling objectification of an insufficiently grateful brown person(snark), then comes the excuses for obnoxious and entitled behavior. The favorite is take it as a compliment.

    What about people who say they have an ethnic fetish? Is that ever not problematic?

    1. 2.1

      In general I’m going to say always problematic because it’s reducing someone to a sexual object. I always get a bit twitchy about people saying they have a fetish for a specific type of person, they seem to always end up proving that they don’t see the object of their fetish as a real person.

      1. Lilandra and Noadi: how about “it’s sometimes problematic in a wider context”? How about “the problem is not with the preferences as such, but – possibly – with what you do with them, with the way they function in your life”?

        Noadi:

        In general I’m going to say always problematic because it’s reducing someone to a sexual object.


        Treating this literally, I would be curious what sort of sexual attraction wouldn’t be problematic to you. Is there any?

        (The thing is that treating this literally, we would end up with “I’m sexually attracted by your personality” as the only admissible option. Well, are we really prepared to claim that anything short of this noble and demanding state of mind (hmm, let’s say it’s a state of mind and not of … something else!) is problematic? )

        they seem to always end up proving that they don’t see the object of their fetish as a real person


        Do you think there is a difference in this respect between an ethnic preference and (say) a preference for a particular color of hair or a body type? Is it your experience that people falling initially for a figure or a pretty face also end up proving that they don’t see “the object” as a real person? Or perhaps these cases are somehow different?*

        Years ago, when I met for the first time my future wife, I liked her face and her hair a lot. I’ve always had a weakness for pale, dark haired women, and the attraction was undeniable. However, at this early stage I knew very little about her personality, so initially the attraction was mainly physical. I strongly suspect that such situations are pretty typical – very often we start with not much more than a physical attraction. Do you see this as problematic?

        *My own experiences with this are close to nonexistent and I sincerely do not know what to think. Perhaps the difference is that in the case of ethnic preferences, cultural reasons and stereotypes (as opposed to personal histories) prevail? Perhaps a preference for (say) dark skin very rarely resembles in this respect an innocent preference for strawberry ice cream? I just don’t know.

  2. xyz
    3

    Thank you Heina! And I hope this exanple makes things clear to those who’ve only thought of this issue on a theoretical level.

    I’ve been shocked out of naivete by my experiences dating MoC as a white woman. Especially with my current partner, who is Black, people project this fetishism onto us as a couple too. In their eyes either he must be racially obsessed with “winning” a white gf, I must be racially obsessed with having an “exotic, sexual” Black bf or both, or WORSE ideas about how we must like certain kinds of “race play.” It’s ridiculous.

    1. 3.1

      xyz. It’s sad how many people assume things like that

      We have a number of interracial marriages in my family, and I wonder how many of us are looking for those with a different appearance from our parents and relatives?

      1. xyz

        I couldn’t really tell you – I think that slow changes in media visibility and more inclusive beauty standards play a role. For me, I simply have lived in a diverse area and had a diverse circle of friends/acquaintances for a decade now, so it was never a conscious part of my dating choices. I’ve always liked men who are kind and fun to be around, and men who, like me, are immigrants and/or share a sense of being new to this place and culture. I also have a vague preferred body type but I’m not obsessed with that. So my dating choices have always included both white men and MoC.

        Some of my friends have a “type” in terms of looks/phenotype far more than I do, but like Heina says, that becomes disturbing as soon as one decides to peg it to stereotypical racial characteristics IMO

  3. 4

    From the aggressively-geeky, questions about why I didn’t message them after looking at their profiles since we had so much in common**

    ** Their profiles always and nigh invariably expressed deep-seating yearning for willowy pale redheads

    That’s a interesting phenomenon. I assume the redhead thing is because a preference for blondes is coded in a certain way, and the aggressively geeky are deliberately rejecting that (but without any actual understanding of what they’re doing).

    1. 4.1

      I think you’re onto something with that. As a (somewhat bitter) nerd girl, it was darkly humorous to me that nerd guys were making a big show of rejecting narrow mainstream standards of beauty only to fall starkly in favor of a standard of beauty found in an even smaller subset of the population.

      1. That was a source of my disillusionment with a lot of geek culture these last few years. Much of the dudebro/ jock bullsh!t that many geeks wanted to get away from was/ is still present in geek culture, it’s just the setting that’s different. It was never a counter to the toxic mainstream ideals geeks were often harmed by (at least it never became that if such was ever the goal) and it largely resulted in a simple exchange of trappings. Magic cards and PvP raids replaced sports and keggers and, in this instance, the haughty blonde cheerleader was swapped for the mellow redheaded gamer girl.

          1. Yep! This Gone Girl quote has made the rounds many times but I still think it’s worth bringing up.

            Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

            Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”

      2. xyz

        I’m a redhead, and yes I agree. It’s odd, I have no real idea where it comes from (are they after Mary Jane Watson or something?) and I’ve never found it charming. Also, redheads ARE mainstream in terms of many white beauty standards! It’s not exactly a stretch is it?

  4. 5

    This strikes me as such a hangover from race as a taboo in our society, the aftershock of which is now racism being a sort of taboo, both of which are charged with sexual power, merely from being taboo. I suspect the entire “preference” issue gives some people a sexual charge in and of itself, which becomes self-reinforcing. That is, “me only liking people of type x is sort of racist, which is wrong, which makes it even more powerful.” I apologize for the word salad, but it’s something I consider a lot without coming to any particular conclusions. I can, however, heartily recommend “Seeking Asian Female,” a documentary about just what it sounds like. It’s not entirely untroubling, and definitely skin-crawling at moments, but worth a viewing.

  5. 6

    Living in Japan, I learned to never date a Japanese guy who stated, “I only like/date/am interested in foreign girls.” Inevitably, they had an image in mind of how I should look, talk and act, and when those expectations weren’t met they didn’t like me, not one little bit. It was as though they thought they should be able to mold me, and when that didn’t happen, it was somehow MY fault.

  6. 7

    “I AM AN IMPORTANT PERSON AND YOU WILL HEAR MY MEDIOCRE OPINIONS, SILLY WOMAN, YOUR AGENCY DOESN’T MATTER TO ME”
    – every worthless entitled male internet stalker

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