It’s obvious that racist attitudes in love and sex are rooted in structural racism, and yet people tend to (and maybe prefer to?) personalize it: “Oh, it’s just my preference”…
By Jaime Woo
Recently I was asked for my dream celebrity threesome. A flurry of names popped into my head: Idris Elba! Patti Harrison! Gael Garcia Bernal! Kade Gottlieb! All great choices, but in the end I had to whittle down my choices: Harry Shum Jr., whom I’ve crushed on since he premiered on Glee’s fourth episode, and Ludi Lin, recently of Mortal Kombat and the 2019 Black Mirror episode “Striking Vipers.” The visual of Harry, Ludi and I – maybe after a long bike ride, sweaty in our gear.… I had to stop writing for a spell just to recover from the thought of it.
The first Mortal Kombat film came out in 1995, as did the Sega arcade game Fighting Vipers, which the Black Mirror episode’s title nods to. I was in high school, and the celebrity who soaked up a lot of my attention was Chris O’Donnell, who personified peak twink as Robin in Batman Forever. The year before it was Brad Pitt, in Interview with a Vampire; the year after, it was all about Leonardo DiCaprio, dripping wet, in Romeo & Juliet. Can you say “trend alert”?
There’s no denying the magnetism of these men, and yet my tastes back then ran a tad same-y. Growing up in the suburbs outside Toronto, they were built in the same vein as the jocks and student council presidents of my high school. Like many ’90s kids, I grew up watching the puckish Zack Morris on Saved By The Bell, whose blond hair evoked the same desirability as Marilyn Monroe, Farrah Fawcett and Pamela Anderson.
Thinking back, I remember very few crushes on men of colour even though I myself am of Asian descent, and if you’d asked me why, I’d have confidently said, “I just don’t find them that attractive.” Imagine how silly I would have felt knowing that Mark-Paul Gosselaar is biracial with Indonesian heritage. Speaking with Jimmy Fallon, the actor quipped, “People don’t know that Zack Morris is half-Asian!”
What’s interesting is that I internalized the idea so strongly that I believed it stemmed from within. The feelings seemed indisputable: looking at one type of person aroused me, while looking at another didn’t. What would it mean to not be able to trust my own sense of attraction? It would take a handful of years to reboot my ideas around attraction, and then many more after that to understand how societal norms informed the perceptions I absorbed.
Many of my Asian friends and family would date people of Asian descent, and, in my 20s, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be asked (by Asians and non-Asians alike) why I didn’t. At first, I’d get defensive, feeling like I was doing something wrong, and then I switched tactics and tried to play it off as a joke. “I wish I was lucky enough to be attracted to Asians, but I’m just not!” At some point, though, I had been asked the question often enough to actually consider it. Why didn’t I find Asian men attractive?
It didn’t feel satisfying enough for me to simply file it as “just a preference.” After all, preferences have to come from somewhere. I love Motown music because growing up I listened to it nonstop in my parents’ car, and to this day whenever the Supremes or the Temptations come on, my heart swells. The music reminds me of those idyllic childhood days. I’m frugal because my grandparents came to Canada with near-nothing, and their penny-pinching snaked through my parents and then to me.
That doesn’t mean we’re devoid of free will and are simply making choices based on our histories. However, it’s equally unwise to ignore that we are the sum of our experiences. If I didn’t understand what it meant for my grandmother to be a poor, racialized immigrant, I might dismiss her tendency to worry, rather than seeing it as an intelligent response to the uncertainty she faced in Canada – and how, given that she helped to raise me, that habitual worry at times has seeped into my own behaviour.
Our upbringing can literally make us see things differently. One of my favourite facts to learn this year was how the Russian language distinguishes between light blue and dark blue, making them distinct colours, similar to the way English speakers separate pink and red. Would we say that the difference between pink and red is a personal preference, or is it wrapped up in our cultural understanding of the world?
Without inspecting the forces that have shaped us, we can mistake external influences for our own. It’s only been in my 30s that I started to examine how history shaped my early lack of desire for people who looked like me.
Anti-Asian sentiment reaches far back in Canada to the 1880s, during the time of migrant labourers working in BC on the railroad, extending to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923. For Chinese people specifically, it wasn’t until the introduction of the points system in the mid-1960s that immigration became more accessible. It’s necessary to ask: what does it mean for a group of people to face such antipathy in a nation, and how does that trickle down to those living under its laws?
It was a similar story down south. “Yellow peril” forced the creation of Chinatowns, and led to the lynchings of Filipino migrant labourers, as well as hate crimes against the Japanese during both the Second World War and in the 1980s, when the American automobile industry suffered from increased competition from the likes of Mitsubishi, Honda and Nissan. I didn’t know any of this growing up, but there’s a throughline of Asian immigrants not belonging that I understood every time I was told to go back where I came from.
It took me much introspection to understand that this antipathy was not directed just towards me as an individual, but to anyone who looked like me. It was systemic prejudice – and when I reflected on how it wasn’t just specific people of Asian descent I lacked desire for, but an entire category of people, that’s when it clicked. I had to confront that I was upholding a belief that wasn’t my own, because there’s no plausible reason why anyone should write off the appeal of literally billions of people.
An enlightening separation is between exhibiting racist behaviour and being a racist. No one wants to be viewed as a racist, so much so that many of us will label how our desires are shaped by a racist culture as just a meaningless preference. It’s embarrassing to acknowledge that something like who we find attractive can be manipulated. But it was freeing for me to realize that living under a racist structure means I will reflect some of that through my actions –the key then is to work to actively dismantle that structure.
Once I let go of that embarrassment, it opened up a world of possibility. I began to examine how I felt about other racialized groups, about body types, about disabilities, about age, about expressions of femininity and masculinity. It made me realize how much I had to gain by letting go of a fixed mindset around desire.
It didn’t happen overnight. How could it, when I was bathed in those noxious ideas for decades? In shedding those oppressive ideas, those “preferences,” instead of feeling less like myself, I feel like myself more than ever – and I like myself more than ever. And should Harry Shum Jr. or Ludi Lin come calling (or Idris or Patti or Gael or Kade or Mark-Paul or Dashaun Wesley or Kanoa Igarashi or Jacob Collier or Flume…honestly, the list is long!), I’m ready.
JAIME WOO is a writer based in Toronto, focusing on the intersection of technology and culture. He’s best-known for his Lambda Literary-nominated book, Meet Grindr, dissecting how the design of the infamous app influences user behaviour.