I encountered the above question in the Guardian newspaper today. It is a question that has preoccupied me for a while, although I have never sat down and written down my own opinion as to the answer. The question has been on my mind before. Once, when I was working as a University student a while ago, a white woman that I worked with told me, in a casual way, when we were discussing dating, that she would date black and white men, but she would never date an Asian man. Being an Asian man myself, I wondered back then why she was only discriminating against one group of men. I wondered to myself if she was racist. Reflecting back on this after a while, my answer would be that she was racist. Because in my opinion, having a racial preference when dating someone does make a person racist.
The objection to this viewpoint is immediate, if not convincing. The argument would go as follows: the personal is not political; the attraction we feel for others is somehow spontaneous, mysterious and random and has no greater meaning – the implication is that desire cannot be ‘forced’ into any particular framework; the aesthetic choice that a person makes about a potential partner is ‘purely aesthetic’, etc. (I ignore the argument that we are somehow ‘naturally’ attracted to our own race – this is pure ideology which uses pseudo-science to secure its own position, as though humans had no culture and were not social beings.)
To me, all of these above arguments are unconvincing. Firstly, the assertion that the personal is not political is wholly false. We live in a culture and almost everything we do or say has an audience of family and friends. Each of us is a political player in our own little microcosm of the social universe. In this little microcosm of the social universe, the partner we select is an expression of our own identity, in not very subtle ways. Hindus speak of two bodies, one life, Christians talk of two souls united. The partner is seen as an expression of ourselves, part of us. One of the reasons people date is because they are trying to find a missing part of themselves, someone to complete the puzzle of life. Hence, identity is crucial in finding a partner. Our partners express our identities and convey this idea to others – the audiences we all have in our family and friends and society at large. The celebration of Valentine’s Day is just one expression of the idea that relationships are public and political. Another would be when we seek the approval of our family and friends over our dating and marriage choices. The whole community in our microcosm of the social universe is involved in dating, which is not an individual process. Indeed, the solitary individual acting out of spontaneous and unconstrained attraction is a myth.
Secondly, the idea that attraction is spontaneous is a form of primitive, magical thinking. Desire is carefully coordinated around certain vectors in any society. That which is considered beautiful at any moment, is carefully selected and proclaimed. There is always the hierarchy of beauty – in the west, we have the annual list of the 100 hottest women, etc. There is always a certain type of beauty which is considered the best and which is admitted into the circle of meaning by a society. An obvious example of the racial undertones of this kind of selection and admittance into the privileged sphere is the applauded beauty of Aishwariya Rai, supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world. In India, where she is from, only the minority of women have fair skin and blue or green eyes like her. The valorisation of these attributes is part of a self-loathing against darker skin and brown eyes which is conditioned by Western influences, but which goes back to the Aryan conquest of India. There is nothing ‘mysterious’ about the attraction that Indians feel for Aishwariya Rai, the supposedly most beautiful woman in the world. The fact is that desire is forced into a particular framework every day. It is not spontaneous or mysterious or ‘free’.
Lastly, the argument that some people make is that aesthetics are devoid of any political import. This argument, to any scholar of the humanities, immediately sets of warning lights. Beauty and aesthetics are intimately concerned with the reality of power and the bodies of those who wield that power. What we choose as beautiful is a political choice every time. Only the uneducated and inexperienced reader of life would make the argument that what we choose as beautiful is only individual.
Like the writer in the Guardian, I see certain racial types as having a host of associations made around them, which unconsciously or consciously condition the types of bodies we find attractive. And the reason why I hold this belief? When I was a child, I found the Chinese or Japanese type the most attractive, telling my parents that I wanted to marry someone from these cultures when I was older. Yet, as I matured, and the exoticism of the oriental eye and the desires made around this complex receded as my mind was subjected to other, outside influences (not totally, it has to be admitted). It is education and experience which shows us that all bodies can be attractive. However, I know that my own desire is not free from cultural conditioning – hence I find slim, athletic women with large breasts and longer legs more attractive. This type is not ‘natural’ – it is conditioned by the Western and Indian media which has surrounded me since I was a child. Real women very infrequently fit the ideal which I have in mind when I think of a potential partner. Desire is always sculpted by others, even when it seems most individual. The woman that told me that she could never desire an Asian man, in so many words, was telling me that she was a racist.