Month: August 2014

Race and sexual competition: Some initial thoughts.

Please don’t read this as a rant!

I really don’t want this article to sound like I am ranting but I have a feeling some may well read it as such. If this is a rant, I will try to make it as psychologically and socially informed as I can… I feel the need from the get go to make a couple of disclaimers: one, I have nothing against interracial relationships. Two, I do not harbour any particular resentment against White women or any other group of human beings for that matter. There is absolutely no but on the way to qualify these statements. The felt need for such disclaimers may become clearer within the rest of the article. As one may be able to gather from this short introduction, interracial relationships will be touched upon in this article, particularly the Black man-White woman dyad. Nonetheless, beyond these, I hope to ponder upon wider potential relational issues between White women and Black women. Essentially, the question I wish to reflect upon is this; do we carry some unspoken ‘baggage’?

The source of my inspiration…

Grazia published an article on racism a few weeks ago. Racism through the eyes of a White woman who was in essence describing how being in a relationship with a Black man had awakened her to the reality of racism. In her own words ‘Racism didn’t happen in my world until I fell in love with Raymond’ (some people at this stage might feel the urge to reach for a bucket; it was hard for me to continue reading her article after this point too). To give the author some credit and the benefit of the doubt, she was tackling a sensitive subject and was speaking candidly from her perspective and experience, let us assume and; in all probability her article would have been subject to much editorial control. All the same, I am always pleased when discussions about racism take place.

To see an attempt at broaching the subject seriously within the pages of a mainstream glossy magazine was quite satisfying, initially. Sadly though, the article went on to trivialise a number of important issues, some may argue; in the interest of increasing access to the debate, necessarily so. However, the use of stereotypes and clichés may be more difficult to defend. Let’s start with the illustrative picture; which itself was intuitively discomforting. It made me stop, look closely and unpick what it is I was having a hard time dealing with as it was not instantly intelligible to me. Upon paying closer attention, I started to get a sense of what I was reacting to. Here is what appears on the photograph (the actual photograph of the couple).

The illustrative photograph

The photograph is quite powerful and rich in symbolism. There is a Black man who is dark-skinned and looks quite ‘buff and rough’: he’s got a shaved head, he’s obviously muscly and well-built and got tattoos on display. He is looking directly at a White woman, I would argue covetly. His love interest is a much smaller (appearing about three time smaller actually on the picture) White woman who has been physically positioned at a much lower angle than him evoking sexual submission (again, I would argue). The symbolic domination of the Black man is reinforced by him appearing to have a grip on her arm evoking control or force. The White woman stares directly into the camera lenses rather than at her love interest. There appears to be a slight squint in her eyes and her lips seem firmly and unnaturally close.

There is no obvious display of affection, tenderness or sexual interest in her body language or within her gaze. The Black man makes no eye contact with the camera (he is staring at her) and therefore his gaze escapes the viewer’s scrutiny. Arguably, this creates a sense of mystery. That his eyes are firmly fixed on her, positions the woman on the picture as the coveted object, the lust object. One of the messages being communicated indirectly here is: the Black man wants the White woman. The parties’ sexual interests are not portrayed as reciprocal or of similar intensity yet, in terms of attractiveness, the man and woman are on a par. The image consequently stereotypically strips the White woman of her agency and thus reinforce both the discursive notion that Black men are after White women and to some degree, the expectation of sexual passivity and submission in women.

Defiance or scorn?

I can also perceive a degree of defiance and/or something of an air of arrogance in her facial expression. Of course the possibility that I might well be projecting into her and potentially imposing an unwarranted interpretation because of my own prejudices must be considered. I am open to this eventuality. Nonetheless, the themes within the following passages from her article seem to illustrate exactly what I picked up from the picture.

‘I’ve also experienced reverse racism when I was recently out with a friend of a friend, who is black. At first she was really friendly, but when Raymond arrived, she became cold and withdrawn…

‘Yet I’ve got a message for all the haters… you’re not winning. Far from having a negative effect on our relationship, experiencing racism as a couple has only made us closer’

‘They acted as if I was doing something rebellious by going out with a black guy’

There is much that is problematic in the above statements, from the misconceived and trivialized conceptualisation of racism to, in my view, the distasteful appropriation of Black slang terms in the context of the article. But what I will focus on here is the loaded portrayal of Black women as ‘haters’, envious of White woman’s supposed ‘grip’ on Black men (allegedly though here implicitly, due to Black women being White women’s subordinates in terms of beauty and femininity). Anyone with an IQ above 50 would probably know that Black men, men or just people in fact, are not objects/property which can be stolen or guarded and that of course, for the overwhelming majority of happy couples today both parties are willing and consenting participants. Human beings have feelings and free will, well at least to some degree.

Femininity, masculinity and sexual competition.

A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to empirically establish Black women as less than. Is it any wonder that in a world still dominated by eurocentric beauty standards, that portrays White women as the epitome of beauty and femininity and on the other hand Black men as hyper-masculine and as the most virile beings on earth, that both groups would naturally be attracted to one another? Of course that is not to say that other factors bear no influence, we are complex creatures… Nevertheless, from a societal perspective their mutual attraction makes perfect sense and indeed, Black men-White women couples seem; of all possible gender and ethnicity combinations, the most frequent interracial pairing. There is something that seems quite symptomatic and revealing in the social construction of Black women as envious and bitter.

Something that is often difficult to put a finger on or to name. Something which possibly gets played out when some White women who despite (or perhaps due to) being in relationships with Black men, treat Black women with contempt. The same something I suspect that made a fellow White student (with a passion for Black men) only feel the need to describe the most graphic details of her sexual encounters whenever I was around (we were not friends and hardly spoke, if at all, outside of these x rated group conversations). Perhaps also the same something which made my attractive (and educated) sister; and a number of Black women; wonder if they should commit to dressing more modestly than their co-workers and be unnaturally unassuming at work lest they triggered negative responses by behaving in the exact same way as White women and/or, by not conforming to tacit expectations of inferiority and, as a result threaten the implicit (and internalised) social order.

The baggage of the past

In therapy, I have repeatedly been asked, what it is like to be an attractive Black woman and I have consistently avoided considering the question. It has for long felt too awkward to discuss. It seems I have learnt that physicality is one of the unspoken dynamics not to be unpicked but which influences both racial and gender relating and thus most aspects of the social and psychological. The behaviours of the White women described above are not consistent with behaviours that someone assured of one’s superiority, attractiveness or relationship would display. Quite the opposite. They may actually reveal that Black women are believed to hold more power than is usually conceded. Although, various interpretations could be proposed and indeed the potential sexual competitiveness of women may offer an explanatory framework (women have after all been socialised to view each other as competitors for ‘the scarce male’) in the constructed social hierarchy, a woman who is Black, attractive, confident (and educated) may create discomfort, for some, simply because she disrupts expected power dynamics. She’s moved from her (hierarchical) ‘place’.

It is well accepted that on-going constructions of Black men have historical (and imperialist) origins. Thus, it is interesting to note that from a historical perspective, Black women have often been positioned as the sexual rivals of White women as White slavers and colonizers have commonly kept Black women as concubines, mistresses and/or sexual servants throughout history and across continents. The patriarchal and oppressive context of such relationships is naturally of central importance (as of course, rape and sexual exploitation was in fact what was taking place here). Still, one may wonder about the (unconscious?) lingering of such historical baggage which may be reinforced by the on-going over-sexualisation and devaluation of Black women; in terms of White Woman- Black woman relating. Such dimensions may add further complications to the dynamics and the way we see each other.

Thank you for reading.

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