‘Love is not a victory march/It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah’ — Leonard Cohen
My partner of some twenty years is a man who many would consider white. He comes from a Northern European country whose inhabitants only recently became ‘white’ according to the culture and science of race, but using the common-sense of racial thinking he looks the way white men look. What does that mean? He has fair skin. He tans in the summer, but usually only after burning and peeling first. When he was a little boy his hair was white blonde and now it is a brown colour with flecks of copper and grey in it. He has a long torso, as Northern Europeans often do, and relatively short legs (his legs are as long as mine, though I am a good eighteen centimetres shorter than him). He has the kind of body that comes from centuries of living at the northern limits of Europe.
I’ve never had to explain racism to him. I can come home at the end of the day and describe all the micro-aggressions I have encountered without ever having to hear ‘Are you sure you didn’t imagine that?’ or ‘Maybe you just over-reacted’. I’ve never had to explain why I didn’t want to go somewhere because it might be hostile or dangerous for me. I’ve never had to listen to him apologize for his racist friends or family because ‘basically they’re good people’. And none of those things are down to me. I didn’t have to teach him about race or racism because he had already done a lot of thinking about those things before we met. He did not expect me to teach him. He had taught himself and he wanted to be with me, not learn from me or feel good about how tolerant and open-minded he is.
It is difficult to adequately describe how such sheer human recognition of who you are, what your reality is, feels like to a woman of colour raised in the West. It is beyond feeling beautiful or cherished or loved. It is something like feeling free again, except you didn’t actually realize you were imprisoned before that moment.
As I described in Sunday’s post, however, before I met my partner the only discussions I ever had with men were about how fundamentally they could not desire me because of my skin, culture or race. It would be romantic and idealist in the extreme to suppose that one encounter, however sustained it has come to be in my life, would wipe out the effect of all those other encounters, or of all the encounters I’ve had since with all kinds of white men in white spaces. My desires are still colonized, and I find myself drawn to men who, with some part of my mind and body, I know are unable to see me as I am. I do feel that if just one of those men–the men who cannot find women of colour desirable–would nevertheless have to step outside himself towards me, then I would win the racism competition. I would have triumphed over racism with the sheer force of my mind, or my body, or my personality. I know that is absurd, and yet it does shape my desires and encounters with the world. It isn’t borne of love, or even friendly pedagogical desire, but a kind of aggression, towards myself as much as towards the man. Because I have enough self-awareness to know that it is aggression I relate to many men, especially men I find attractive, by containing or effacing myself. I help them in their efforts to erase me, because the alternative would be to insist on myself in a destructive and ultimately self-defeating manner.
Perhaps that is a slightly too stark account of the complicated tangle of desire that arises between white men and women of colour because another reality of those encounters is that I go on finding those men attractive. The young men who told the teenage me that they could never love me were not strangers, they were friends, sometimes good friends, people whose intelligence, creativity, physical grace, and sense of humour, had already made them so attractive to me.
I don’t really know whether it is tragic or romantic that love persists through racism, but the fact that it does is probably because we are all caught up in racialized thinking whether we understand it or not. You can tell yourself that you’re not a racist, you’ve just never dated a woman of colour before; or you just don’t happen to find women of colour attractive (and yeah, that’s a lot of women in the world you can’t imagine as beautiful). You can tell yourself that you’re interested in that man because he’s handsome, he makes you laugh, he makes you think, and you can learn to persistently ignore the fact that he doesn’t seem to have noticed you’re a woman of colour (maybe he doesn’t ‘see’ race). You can tell yourself all sorts of things in order to love and be loved.