Exposé and Common Tales
Because I believe that the magnitude of this subject matter is so important, please permit me, in this second installment of Race, Attraction, and Cognitive Dissonance, the opportunity to flesh out and create a more contextual and deliberate container, and in the interest of clarity let me begin by sharing a number of passages from one of my favorite life-mirroring essays by Reginald Shepherd where in, at one turn he describes being black and at the next turn, being gay:
The burden of my identity has always been the burden of not being white. Growing up, I was always, in my mind and in many of my social surrounds, the one who wasn't white; even now it is difficult to think of myself as a "black man," an identity not determined by lack. I live between worlds, to employ a cliché, more drawn to one than to the other but belonging to neither. Call me an individual by necessity. Too often my identity has been an absence, a list of the things I was not or a list of the things I should not be. I was the wrong one; wrong lips, wrong nose, wrong self.
I've had since childhood notions, negative each one, of what it is to seem black: to look black, to talk black, to walk black, to dress black. Need I list a stigmata any further? For me, as a child, to be black came to mean to be those things, to do those things, to suffer those things. Contrary images seemed very far away: Martin Luther King I knew, and he was dead.
Growing up, I knew what black people were like (doesn't everyone, black and white, whatever they're willing to admit?), and I knew I wasn't one of them, I wouldn't let myself be. Black people were ignorant and they were criminals and they couldn't even stick together, not like those white people...Black people were dirty and didn't comb their hair and had street fights and died young: the statistics proved it (and they still do). Worst of all, they were poor and they always would be. Too many people seemed to mistake me for one: the black kids who knocked my school books out of my hand when I got off the bus, the Italian kids up the street who threw vegetable crates on my head and called out, "Hey chocolate milk!" because I was walking on their turf. Those kids were too young to be left at home alone.
The process of reconciling myself to each of my societal identities has and has had much to do with how and to what extent those around me bring the two together and keep them separate. My feelings about men are too entangled with my feelings about white men, and my feelings about white men too entangled with my feelings about white people, and about black people, especially black men, for me to be very clear about their genealogies or their boundaries. How to determine how much is racial and how much is sexual when the two are so entwined that they are in practice identical? I cannot, either, separate any of the above feelings from my feelings about myself, about myself as a black person, or about myself as a black man: all three of them quite distinct to me. I was black before I was consciously sexual, but I was sexual long before I had the words for sex or race; and when did I become "I"?
Is my desire for a beautiful man a desire to possess that ultimately validating prize, the white man; or is my desire for white men a desire to possess the ultimate validating prize, the beautiful man? How can I separate them when whiteness and beauty are equated in my society and in my mind, when my definition of one inevitably encompasses that of the other?
In the gay "community" especially, being, having, and seeming (that is, appearing, and we are obsessed with appearances, of ourselves, of other men, of things, of ourselves and of other men as things) are the holy trinity, three essences with one substance, or perhaps, frighteningly, three substances with one essence. How much of wanting another man is the desire to be that man? So many gay men love not men but the idea of masculinity: their desire is not for any individual man but for maleness as an ideal, exactly that which defines them as other and lesser. This perhaps contributes to the promiscuity so many gay men pursue, because no particular individual can embody an ideal, or not for long, whereas that one (the one across the bar, the one you don't know yet) may well be everything you ever wanted, everything you ever needed, manhood itself.
How much of wanting to be with another man is the desire to be seen with him? If I am seen with a beautiful man, not only am I thus one who can acquire a valuable prize, but I am by the same operation (as a man with a man having it both ways) transformed into such a prize myself, sought after and acquired by the man I am with. And of course if I in particular am seen with a beautiful man, a white man, then in my own mind and the minds of those around me, around us, I am thereby one worthy of beauty, of whiteness. By being seen with him, I am made an honorary white man so long as I am with him. Suddenly I am part of the community. Suddenly bouncers stop carding me. (I am not making this up.) So by being with him I have him and by being seen with him I manage almost to be him. Almost and not at all.
It's strange how much more willing white men become to approach me or be approached by me once they have seen me with another white man: if I like one I must of course like them all. The reverse is true as well. Often when I have once seen a white man with a black man, that white man becomes more attractive to me, simply because he has thus entered the realm of the possibly available: if he likes one he must of course like them all. Unfortunately, I am not black enough for some; nothing cools the ardor of some white men "attracted" to black men more quickly than a large vocabulary. Then again, this is Boston; I have eyes. The great majority of the black men I see in the clubs are with white men, and far too many of the white men in the clubs look at me as if to say, "I couldn't sleep with you. You're black." Or they desire me merely because I am black (surely I have a large penis, don't we all?), reject me because I'm not black enough. The circle is vicious indeed, and the stereotypes are not all on one side. To the same degree that I am seen as a "black man" and certain assumptions are made thereby, I see those men as "white men" and make a number of similar if opposing assumptions.
I say to myself that if I had a lover, some handsome literate blond named Troy or some beautiful Italian painter named Gaeten with whom I'd have everything in common, everything but that, I could be happy. Happy and someone else, free from the burden of being myself, black but no longer having to suffer for it, never having had to suffer for it. I could step up and claim my prize, or rather he'd step up and claim me, choose me and make me real at last, like the hand of God picking out the chosen who live in grace. When the Jews were in Egypt the saving mark was drawn in blood. I've dreamed of finally being "myself," relieved of the baggage of my history as a member of an oppressed caste, relieved of my too-frequent self-despisal by the beloved's blond approbation.
The Special AKA sing, "If you have a racist friend, now is the time for your friendship to end." I have a friend like that, a friend I call desire. Sometimes I don't know where he ends and I begin. Sometimes I wish I could forget his name, but it sounds too much like mine.
"On Not Being White"
by Reginald Shepherd (1986)
My Story - Attraction Follows Acceptance
I believe that the greatest way in which we change the lives around us is through our stories. Most of all my writings are borne out of my own lived experiences; the words I use, the stories I convey, the metaphors and parables I provide, all stem from my perception about my own world - my own life. Fortunately, I do not stand alone in my story. Although several aspects of it are different than others', my experience has proven that the overriding theme of this story of my attraction is shared, mimicked, and mirrored countless times across the community of African Americans (AA's). The theme is often that attraction followed acceptance and that acceptance was not given from other members of the AA community - birds of a feather do not always flock together!
For the sake of credibility, continuity, and transparency (I have written elsewhere on this site about not being wholly accepted by AA's) allow me just a brief moment to share my tale.
This rejection from those that looked like me was akin to small deaths spanning several years. These statements spoke continuously of how I was not "good" enough. I lived between worlds, as it were - yet belonging to neither. And in my childhood mind, not having a reference for a joyful way forward, I made a decision to cut off these "people" - my people. This decision has had lasting affects on my sexual attractions. I was accepted more by white people than those who shared my skin tone and I can honestly say that I learned more about racism from blacks than I ever did from whites. And in keeping with my own rejection, my sexual attraction followed where I was most accepted.
Attraction often follows acceptance.
My story is not altogether dissimilar from Reginald's, which is not all too dissimilar from many other AA's I have spoken to over the years. But I dare say that this is a taboo that many of us rarely speak of or bring into the light of day out of shame, fear, and further rejection.
Why all this matters!
"But, Garland," I hear you say, "why does all this matter? Why does it matter who I'm attracted to - one person versus another?"
This is a legitimate and valid question. And my answer is buttressed by a strong notion that our racial-sexual attractions are inextricably linked to some social injustice, discrimination, prejudice, stereotype, past trauma, hurt, or the like. As in the case of my and Reginald's story, it was our rejection and our differentness from other AA's that acted as the catalyst to our attraction to whites. (I strongly encourage the reader to read Reginald's entire essay, as it will give greater light to the formation of his sexual attractions.)
Part I of this series, that patterns create systems. Allow me to flesh it out using a twist on an Euclidean axiom, (Euclid was an Ancient Greek Mathematician and known as the "Father of Geometry") The Transitive Property of Equality that states, "Things that are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another." We know it most commonly as "If A = B and B = C, then A = C." Instead of "equals," let us use the word "define" - to make up or establish the character of something.
We all know that patterns don't happen within a vacuum - uninfluenced by external forces, people create them, in short, because it tends to make our lives easier and more manageable. This is neither good nor bad. So a part of the axiom is that people create patterns. And we have already discussed how stereotypes are patterns beyond mere coincidence.
So what does all this have to do with whom one racially-sexually selects? Let me illustrate what I have come to believe is the quintessential progression from People to Patterns to Systems - how, over time, people (those with power to define and create patterns and systems) almost inevitably become the victims of those patterns and systems they defined and created. While you progress through the axiom list, keep in mind the vicious circle that comes into view if we apply just sexual-racial selection as a system all it's own, racked with all the trappings that system entails.
- If people define patterns and patterns define systems, then people define systems.
- If people define systems and systems define patterns, then people define patterns.
- If patterns define people and people define systems, then patterns define systems.
- If patterns define systems and systems define people, then patterns define people.
- If systems define people and people define patterns, then systems define patterns.
- If systems define patterns and patterns define people, then systems define people.
Systems of injustice abound. This is common knowledge. It is also common knowledge that some systems that tout equality often have loopholes and cracks in which entire swaths of the societal fabric fall through. What we also know is that different cultures, classes, ethnicities, races, etc. create patterns that form a shared experience and common language (as it were) in order to solidify and cement a sense of community and belonging. I am, at this moment, not making any judgments about what is a good pattern or a bad pattern. I am merely illustrating a generic point. Having said that, however, (in the context of race and attraction), patterns tend to often follow very strict racial codes and boundaries. Hence we get, "Black folks be like..." or "What folks be like..." or comedy sketches about crazy things that predominate groups say or don't say, do or don't do. We have all fallen victim to judging a group of people by their overarching communal patterns.
Now let me illustrate, from my own life, how using stereotypes/patterns to racially-sexually select (or discriminate), only reinforces systems of injustice that so many of us are tirelessly trying to change, undo, or replace not realizing that we are secretly, ignorantly, and often subconsciously playing our role in maintaining the status quo by racially-sexually selecting based on overarching communal patterns. What is changed legislatively does not correlate to what changes the heart. (The gays, unlike the blacks before them, and the women before them, are soon to realize this.)
I was wrong. I couldn't have been more wrong! As Yoda once told Anakin (the future Darth Vader) upon their first meeting, "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering!" And this, is how systems are born. And we all know how this story ended and the pain and destruction that was left in its wake.
More about that in Part III.
The Breakdown - Coming Full Circle
I negatively discriminated against a group of people based on past experiences with them and therefore I defined them by the patterns they had created for themselves in part influenced by the systems of injustice they lived in. I participated in sustaining a system that defined them a certain way based on patterns that many of them created in order to cope with the system. I then shunned them, walked away, and deemed them "untouchables" and racially-sexually selected them OUT of my pool of sexual partners. At the time it was an unconscious decision. But how many of our decisions that once started unconsciously later became decisions we fully supported in the light of day?
Could it be that who we decide to have sex with and the reasons behind those choices say more about our political views of justice and equality than we are willing to admit?
Albert Memmi in his book appropriately entitled "Racism" states very succinctly that "a deep awareness of a situation is the necessary condition for appropriate action within it." This, is why I am writing this blog. The only way to stop stumbling in the dark and hurting ourselves is to turn on the light. Let us turn on the light!