Through the Looking Glass—Internal Racism and Desire: A Migrant’s Perspective from Australia
by Arjun Rajkhowa
Within my first few weeks at university in Melbourne, I made friends with a fairly diverse group of students, among them a Greek-Australian girl, a Brazilian guy, an Arab-Australian girl, and a Vietnamese girl. We were all, initially at least, residents of the same college and we often spent time together. I suppose the fact that we lived in close proximity to one another was our glue. One day, the question of “attractiveness” came up, followed by a discussion of the attractiveness of various people on television. One of them stated, quite bluntly, that she did not find any of the darker-skinned men on television attractive. This caused some discomfort, as well as evident amusement, and we dropped the subject soon after. But I was curious, so I brought up the topic once again on a different occasion. The person who’d said that remained quite forthright about her feelings: she simply did not find dark-skinned men attractive. I Googled Denzel Washington on my phone. Him? No. I Googled Stromae. No. I asked her if she considered any of this even mildly problematic. To my consternation, she only said no. She did, however, concede that her notions of beauty were coloured by her background, and anyone who wasn’t fair was still possibly attractive, just not to her. During dinner another night, she said that her parents had warned her against “getting involved” with a dark-skinned man. They had absolutely proscribed any such possibility. I laughed about it then (since my confrontational questioning had already failed), but pondered its significance later. To her parents, racial considerations were paramount. Those other (equally value-laden) categories of “intelligence,” “success,” and “worth” were overshadowed by the importance of “race” (and its accompanying implications for “beauty”).
Now, I realize that these notions might be deeply confronting to a lot of people. I ought to explain that they did not shock me terribly because I had already encountered them many, many times before. In fact, Indian culture is rife with color prejudice of a somewhat more magnified degree. “Fair” and “beautiful” are used interchangeably and matrimonial advertisements, which still exist, have for eons fetishized fairness. Even a cursory glance at Bollywood or the Indian television industry reveals the extent to which fair skin is prized in Indian society. Most actors, actresses, and models are rather pale and many of them endorse skin-lightening products (essentially bleaching agents). Domestically, the skin-lightening industry (a segment of the overall cosmetics market) is worth half a billion dollars and has an annual growth rate of 18%.
Only in recent years has this historically constituted and hegemonic valorization of fair skin been challenged. Now people are more aware of the oppressive impact that the equation of beauty with fairness has on a predominantly dark country; however, much really depends on the extent to which people are willing to self-interrogate and the reality is that most do not think about their attitudes, choices, and assumptions critically.
I remember reading a spate of online articles last year about racism on dating websites. Those articles were alarming, as well as reassuring—alarming because they exposed a new manifestation of the intractable problem of racism in society, and reassuring because they offered intelligent and incisive critiques of it. I had only recently arrived in Australia, and found my self-conception challenged in unexpected ways—I hadn’t until then had opportunity to reflect on my ethnicity as a determinant, let alone the most important determinant, of my sexual identity. The discussions made me terribly self-conscious and apprehensive. I felt like I had been wrenched out of complacency and thrust into a hostile situation. The strange thing was that I hadn’t (yet) had any first-hand experience of it and had barely even considered the prospect of dipping my toes in the waters of the dating pool. Nevertheless, just the fact that sexual racism existed, and its imagined proximity, put me ill-at-ease and precipitated a crisis of confidence. Reflecting on it now, I recognize my naiveté as wishful thinking, as a kind of escape from reality. I should have been perceptive enough to expect, in spite of my westernized upbringing, a challenging transition to a different culture and society.
My growing acquaintance with the literature on race relations and sexuality has, over time, changed my understanding of the subject in important ways. What interests me most today is the internalization of sexual racism and thus its perpetuation at the hands of the “excluded.” How do we, as people of color, contribute to the dominant mechanisms of exclusion? How do we reinforce existing hierarchies of desirability? How are we complicit in the discriminatory practices that we have already identified and critiqued?
Internal racism amongst gay men has of late been scrutinized and critiqued quite effectively. Hierarchies of desirability are said to be much more entrenched and their impact on individuals more pronounced. There have been quite a few important discussions about the role of social media in promoting set standards of masculinity and in normalizing racialized desire. In Melbourne, I once came across promotional material from a group for gay Asian men inviting interested individuals to a discussion on interracial relationships. There were two sessions planned. What immediately struck me was that both of those sessions were on “White/Asian” relationships. In their particular realm of imagined possibilities, there was little scope for interracial configurations that did not involve White men.
It is this erasure, and inordinate emphasis on one set of desires and possibilities, that most interests me. And these observations serve only as the starting point of my questioning. These questions stem from an attempt to deconstruct my own experiences and to better understand my status as someone undeniably implicated in the whole social structure underpinning racism. I believe every person of color is implicated in it, consciously or unconsciously.
Sometimes utterances that betray internal racism are almost indistinguishable from other “innocuous” statements. One day, a friend of a friend of mine, who is an international student (of Asian background) studying preliminary English in the city, came up with something that I believe falls in this category. She said, rather agitatedly over coffee one evening: “I don’t understand why so many beautiful Aussie [White] boys date so many ugly Asian girls.” She was particularly perturbed about a couple she had seen in a restaurant a couple of hours before. She went on to explain that most Asian girls were “beautiful” as well, but she had seen far too many couples with “mismatched” levels of beauty. What most exasperated her was the fact that these were young and handsome guys, and hence, in her view, not “one of those older men” who had to “settle” for less. She described her astonishment with great gusto. To her, the subject was both amusing and extremely vexing. Our common friend and I listened attentively. By way of background information, I may add that she is a rather slim and pretty girl, and lives in the city with her Australian boyfriend. It is hard to convey the exact sentiment, but she expressed in an indirect way a certain disdain for these partnerships and particularly the “ugly” Asian girls in these partnerships. She accentuated her point by suggesting that such girls in [her home country] would have a very hard time finding a boyfriend. Underlying all of this was an unmistakable racial hierarchy and the place of various ethnicities within that.
W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folks called internal racism the “double consciousness,” while Stuart Hall described it as “the ‘subjection’ of the victims of racism to the mystifications of the very racist ideology which imprison and define them.” Others such as bell hooks have described it as a “secret,” a reference to the reluctance of scholars, as well as people of color, to confront and discuss it openly. My own understanding of internal racism has been greatly informed by the work of Karen Pyke, a contemporary American sociologist. In 2003, Pyke and a colleague, Tran Dang, conducted extensive interviews with second-generation Asian Americans and found a startling degree of intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic racism. In a 2010 study, Pyke analyzed the manner in which “internalized racism undergirded many Asian American women’s accounts of romantic preference for White over Asian American men.” Narratives of the “self” often reveal the intricacies of the unconscious processes that determine our choices and perceptions of others. They also reveal the ways in which we are implicated in the same mechanisms of exclusion that we criticize as the handiwork of others.
I remember that at least one of the articles I read last year specifically addressed the question of self-presentation on online dating sites. To me, the most interesting (and disturbing) examples were those of Asians who, while identifying themselves online as such, stated that they did not wish to engage with other Asians. They offered the same reasoning—it wasn’t racist, they argued, they just happened to find White people more attractive. One article mentioned an Asian man whose profile stated that he didn’t want to even make friends with other Asians, let alone date them. Another described the negation of other people of color as something akin to an intuitive process. The latter article focused on the author’s own personal transformation and the dissolution of the psychological barriers that had all his life obviated possibilities of romantic engagement with other Asians. Self-narratives that emphasize one’s distance from others of the same ethnicity are often reinforced by social encounters. These experiences tend to corroborate, albeit in an inverted manner, negative self-assessments. For instance, in Australia I have been told countless times that I “don’t look Indian” or that I “don’t sound Indian.” Many conversations have commenced with guesswork regarding my ethnicity (Middle Eastern? South American?). This emphasis on distinctiveness or difference awakens that dormant conception: the undesirability of being identified with our ethnicity.
No doubt internal racism is a byproduct of colonialism and post-colonial cultural transformations. In this sense, it is necessary to see it as a phenomenon that’s inextricable from “external” racism; however, it is also necessary to acknowledge the personal agency that undergirds it. This presents inherent problems for many (mostly American) scholars. By focusing on internal racism, some argue, there is a danger we may forget that all racism stems from essentially the same root. While I generally agree with this, I have come to believe that this position neglects to address the significance of one’s own choices. It is a deterministic position that blames social circumstances for what are essentially personal decisions. I would rather scrutinize my own agency, attitudes, and practices. External social attitudes certainly serve as the basis for internal racism and must, therefore, also serve as the starting point of any analysis, but the ultimate focus ought to be on transforming oneself, and this necessitates looking critically at the values one chooses to embody.
Chang, J. 2001, ‘The truth about gay Asian men,’ Model Minority, viewed 17 April 2014, http://www.modelminority.com/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=152:the-truth-about-gay-asian-men-&catid=37:dating&Itemid=56.
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1989 , The Souls of Black Folk, Penguin, New York.
Erbentraut, J. 2010, ‘How can gay Asian men conquer internalized inferiority?’ Edge Boston, viewed 17 April 2014, http://www.edgeboston.com/news//news//109662/how_can_gay_asian_men_conquer_internalized_inferiority?_
Hall, S. 1986, ‘Gramsci’s relevance for the study of race and ethnicity,’ The Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 5–27.
hooks, b. 2003, Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem, Atria, New York.
Pyke, K. & T. Dang. 2003, ‘“FOB” and “whitewashed”: identity and internalized racism among 2nd generation Asian Americans,’ Qualitative Sociology, vol. 26, no. 2, pp. 147-72.
Pyke, K. 2010, ‘An intersectional approach to resistance and complicity: the case of racialized desire among Asian American women,’ Journal of Intercultural Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 81-94.