By Dr. Herukhuti
This is the third article in a three-part series on interethnic (what is usually imprecisely refereed to as interracial) sexual dynamics. To read the first article in the series, click the link here. To read the second article in the series, click the link here.
It is usually easier to talk about the desires of other people than to talk about your own. Talking about our desires undresses the emotional self we learn to keep clothed, shielded from the vulnerabilities of affective nudity. As long as we keep the focus on the desires of others we don’t have to trace the genealogy of our desires or take responsibility for them. Our desires can remain unexposed and unexamined.
I am an African born to two families of the descendants of African people who Europeans brought to the United States, enslaved, captives for the purpose of economic exploitation. My maternal grandparents met in the Black communist party. My parents were members of the Black Panther Party. My paternal grandmother, born the child of sharecropping, country folk, still lives in the federal housing project I visited as a child, the one she in which raised my father, fifteen years her junior and his three younger brothers. She and my uncles were the only consistent link I had to that side of my family as my father remained in self-imposed exile during my entire childhood.
Single White Female
By the time I left for college, I already had three years of my own experiences in social justice organizing, continuing the legacy of my parents and maternal grandparents. I applied to the University of Southern California because one of my mentors, Sufi mystic and Jazz musician, Genghis Nor encouraged me to study “in the belly of the beast to learn how the world of white people runs.” I had not heard of ‘SC until he suggested it. I had, by that time, known desire. Since I was very young, I had experienced and expressed desires for females and males. All of them were people of African descent.
The white female students I met at ‘SC during my freshman year confirmed, in my opinion, everything that mainstream media told me white, middle class females were: sheltered, ignorant of the world outside of their bubble, overconfident about how much they mattered in the world, and unconscious of how much their protected status was a function of the control white men had over the world. I knew my proximity to these young women was solely based upon my conditional status in the world of privilege as a student.
While I knew at least one other male student of African descent who enjoyed explored the sexual opportunities our proximity afforded us, my exploration stopped well short of anything beyond conversation. One night he invited me to join him in the apartment of two single, white female students. As the conversation progressed, I could tell, based upon the cultural references and their ideas, that they came from privilege.
I decided to have some fun and told them I was the son of an ambassador. It made sense to them since I, a Black male student, was not a student-athlete, was smart and could follow along with their cultural markers. I even reminisced about attending concerts at Tanglewood and riding the Shinkansen with daddy to solidify the illusion. The fact that I did have those experiences, just not with my father, is a story for another time. Once I got bored with toying with the girls’ ignorance, which happened fairly quickly, I left.
During a resident advisor training retreat in my sophomore year, I became attracted to one of the other trainees. The circumstances are a blur now. But I remember her being of European descent with skin that appeared scorched by the sun over a long period of time. I remember the training being emotionally intense. The organizers hired a team of diversity consultants to facilitate a series of difficult dialogues and courageous conversations about difference, power, privilege and access similar to the ones I would later facilitate for groups as an organization development consultant. One night during the retreat, we went to sleep spooning in the top bunch of her bed in the crowded dormitory room of thirty or so other trainees. We stopped speaking soon after returning from the retreat, maybe a week, month or semester. I don’t remember.
The Emperor Has No Clothes
Over a decade later, I decided I would have sex with a white dude. It was a revolutionary act. I knew I harbored a resistance to having sex with white men, which was rooted in how I saw their place in this racist society. I associated the promulgation of imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy with them. I associated the white gaze with them. I associated the exploitation of Black bodies with them. In effect, white manhood had become a thing larger than I could hold or carry if I was going to be free. So I had to kill white manhood as I had known it. It had to become powerless, at the very least, inside of me.
So, during a business trip in Washington DC or maybe it was Santa Barbara, I had sex for the first time with a white dude. I confirmed that the world would not end by me having sex with a man of European descent nor would I be necessarily compromised by it. For the most part, men of European descent do not erotically compel me and I no longer possess a sexual resistance to them that can hold me hostage. I am free in that sense.
At the Border
For the last seven years, I have worked at a small, low residency, liberal arts college in the northeastern United States. The majority of our students are women of European descent. When the head of the department at that time, a lesbian woman of European descent hired me, she instructed me that sexual relationships between faculty and students was not permitted, sexual relationships among faculty were not permitted and the administration would discourage visits by faculty spouses or partners during our eight- to ten-day residencies on campus. I would find out a few years later that I was the only faculty member hired before or after me that received that speech. Even more surprising was learning how hypocritical that statement was coming from the head of our department.
She is no longer with us. She left but not before working to fire me, punish me, and tame me for as she put it “feeling as though she had nothing she could teach me.”
The interethnic borders of desire that line our campus are quite visible to me. I navigate them very consciously, strategically making space for me to exist in ways that allow me to work in an environment in which we are at times very self-congratulatory about our liberalism and at others so awkward incompetent in our ability to grapple with difference. I don’t close my office door when I meet with students. I have found an excuse to leave a classroom when I arrived early to class and was alone with a female student of European descent. I have been told that a student experienced me as imposing while I stood at a distance in our theatre space, which was converted out of a large hay barn.
I joke that I am actually much smaller in real life. In real life, my life in which people actually see me without the veil of whiteness and the perception of blackness coloring how they perceive me I am not as large, take up as much space, or as imposing. I am as human and vulnerable as any other. I am not the black brute or angry black man characterized in popular media as early as D. W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation.
At the borderlands of interethnic desire, I have learned that people of European descent, regardless of their gender, sexuality identity, class, or age, can project all kinds of hopes, fears, lusts, and curiosities onto me. The consequences of those projections have tangible, material consequences for me as a professional and human being. When a lesbian woman of European descent imbues your black cisgender male body with her own lusts for flesh, transgression and rapture, you learn the complexity of interethnic desire is beyond the language we currently have available to us.
I close this third and final installment in the series as I opened it. 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. This goes for my desires and yours.
One thought on “The Color of Desire: Interethnic Border Crossing (Part 3 of 3)”
Thank you Dr. Herukhuti, I respect your willingness and ability to bring out some truths about desire and found myself exposed while reading this piece. It feels unjust to have unexpressed or unexamined desire. I suppose that is where the awkwardness comes from and much more. I am angered at how you have to maneuver space and power and recognize myself in your experience. Your observations around desire and it’s relationship to privilege leave me dumbfounded at those that have lived 3 lifetimes and those who aren’t living at all. I feel we have to intentionally feed our own desires if we are to really feel or be awake to life.