by Dr. Herukhuti
This is the first article in a three-part series on interethnic (what is usually imprecisely refereed to as interracial) sexual dynamics.
Desire. For many of us, desire is a braising pan searing us with the heat of our lusts and then leaving us simmering in our juices as we deal with the, often awkward, always vulnerable dynamics of human social and sexual relationships. Desire is never apolitical because power, as in the power (or lack thereof) to achieve the aims of our desires, and privilege, as in the privilege (or lack thereof) that comes with society catering to one’s desires—supplying supportive conditions, consumer goods and services, or other people as commodities for consumption, make it possible for some desires to flourish and others to be deferred like the dreams Langston Hughes referenced in his, now, classic poem Harlem.
There are people in our world who cannot afford or who have learned to know better than to experience desire, theirs or those of others, in simple, solely benign ways. Survivors of childhood and adult rape, people who have lived through sexual harassment, and people who have experienced hostility or violence because of their desires, for example, recognize that desire is not socially neutral. It carries a valence, charge, and, therefore, a thermodynamic potential.
In the United States, as in many other parts of the world, when desire is commingled with social cleavages such as racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, classism, etc., what bubbles up in our social consciousness and personal storytelling can be quite ugly, brutal, and painful. You may have heard terms like snow queen used to describe men of color who primarily/exclusively desire men of European descent; dinge queen used to describe men of European descent who primarily/exclusively desire men of African descent; and sell out used to describe women and men of color who primarily/exclusively heterosexually desire people of European descent.
Michael Sam and Derrick Gordon
The high-profile sexual identity disclosures of college athletes Michael Sam and Derrick Gordon brought seemingly ubiquitous joy across LGBT ethnic lines. But when media representations of the desires these two Black men have for men of European descent surfaced all hell broke loose on Black social media among heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual men and women. White LGBT folks were unbothered, many of them oblivious to the messages Black folks were reading into the representations of these young Black men’s desires.
Having attended the University of Southern California, which has a huge athletic program, I was not surprised that the first publicly homosexual Black student athletes would also have partners who were racialized white. I remember hearing stories from the Black student-athletes with whom I went to school about coaches discouraging them from hanging out with Black students who weren’t student-athletes or participating in the Black student cultural life on campus. I remember the discussion among Black students about the USC Helenes.
According to Wikipedia, the mission of the Helenes is “to support the University community. As the official hostesses of USC, we will strengthen the Trojan Family through acts of volunteerism, hospitality and service. United in sisterhood, the women of Helenes will honor tradition, rise to contemporary challenges and strive to build a vibrant future for our organization and for our University.” When I attended SC the group was mainly composed of blonde-haired, blue-eyed female students. In the Black student community, they were especially known for one aspect of their commitment to “volunteerism, hospitality and service:” helping the mainly male student-athletes with their studies, life management, and such. The scuttlebutt was that, among certain students, the helping relationship often bled into sexual relationships.
The social sexual culture of student athletics has put African-American male student-athletes and European-American female students together, as lovers, for decades. Therefore, how surprising is it that the first African-American male student athletes to publicly acknowledge having same-sex desire would experience that desire, at least in part, toward men of European descent? College athletics is a plantation system, especially in relation to African-American student-athletes, that mimics the slave plantation system of the pre-Civil War South. Recent events such as the publishing of William Rhoden’s book Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Black Athlete and the decision by the National Labor Relations Board that student-athletes on the football team at Northwestern University are employees of the university corporation entitled to take a vote on whether to unionize have shed more light on an athletics system in the United States steeped in tradition, wealth, and ideology as deeply as human servitude was steeped in tradition, wealth, and ideology before the abolition of slavery.
Is it possible that within a system, like collegiate athletics, in which your Black body is commodified into a commercial product for the wealth of people of European descent that you can become habituated to accepting, even embracing, the white gaze? And is it equally possible for someone else within that same system to reject and be repulsed by the white gaze for the very same reasons? If desire is never apolitical, neutral nor solely benign, then could it be possible to desire people who by their own location in the power hierarchy of the society affirm or resist the structural inequalities with which you confront on a daily basis? Is it possible for you to take and experience pleasure from your acts/decisions in that regard?
The relevance of those questions is not restricted to student-athletes or athletes and other performers. The earth is encased in a system of structural inequality i.e., imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy that exists as a layer of the social atmosphere—affecting everything within its environs. Therefore, all of our desires in that context should be critically considered.