My Lighter Features Grant Me Privilege but People Still Fear the Black in Me
What does it mean to desire and to be desired? Desire may evoke images of romantic relationships, close friendships, crushes, or one-night stands. However, the politics of desirability exist as the manifestation of racism, colorism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and fatphobia within our intimate, interpersonal relations. Consequently, our desires often center people who embody or exist in proximity to whiteness, gender conformity, able-bodiedness, and thinness while disregarding those who do not or cannot adhere to these privileged social positions and body types. The valuing of these social positions -- and their related physical representations of skin color, facial features, and hair type (among other qualities) -- has emerged from the legacies of slavery and colonization, and the institutionalization of Eurocentric standards of beauty and humanity. The ongoing and ever-present uplifting of these physical features has led to the concept of “pretty privilege,” which demonstrates that desirability politics not only affect intimate relationships, but impact overall quality of life.
As someone who is multiracial, Afro-Puerto Rican, queer, and non-binary, I have straddled the line between desirability and undesirability, and the privileges and experiences of oppression attached to each. I’m a person of color but mixed-race, Latinx but Black (and Black but Latinx), and trans but not a binary gender. I have light skin and loose curls, a thin body type with curves in the “right places,” and I am often read as a gender non-conforming cis woman. My race, gender, sexuality, and physical features are ambiguous, and this tends to afford me (relative) safety and desirability. In queer and trans communities of color, this may manifest as more positive attention and support than other people who do not or cannot embody the ambiguity that I do.
Though desirability is relative -- and the embodiment of my race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality invokes discrimination and oppression in a broader sense -- I recognize that within queer and trans communities of color, I occupy a privileged position.
Considering my own interpersonal relationships, how desire is (or isn’t) expressed to me is influenced by my ambiguous positionality. I exist in close enough proximity to whiteness, thinness, able-bodiedness, and (as a result) overall pretty privilege to warrant desire; but I am simultaneously far away enough from whiteness, gender conformity, and heterosexuality to be deemed “unapproachable” within and outside of queer and trans communities of color. Most notably, racial and gender stereotypes about Black people, Afro-Latinx people, and trans people have contributed to my “intimidating” image. While those close to me will express my “softness” and “sweetness” (their words) completely unprompted, acquaintances or newer friends will reveal that they thought I was intimidating when first meeting. This has carried over to both romantic and friendly crushes. I have often found out about others’ desires for me through third-parties, anonymous notes, or long after the admirer has moved on. These situations in addition to my relationships, friendships, and hookups would suggest that while I am desired, there is some discomfort in approaching me and voicing these desires.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how desirability politics have contributed to my exoticization and the removal of my agency in potential friendships and relationships. I try to believe that everyone has good intentions in these situations, but desirability politics tend to go hand in hand with objectification and fetishization. This objectification, in conjunction with racist and transphobic stereotypes, impacts the way I experience being desired; it results in lost opportunities (for all parties) for friendships, relationships, and honest communication about desire. These situations can reduce my own agency and my ability to pursue affirming relationships of all kinds, and can lead to dehumanization if I am only seen as an object to be desired or acquired.
My looks and how I am perceived by others can never be disentangled from my lived experiences and how people project onto or desire me. Working on this article has pushed me to have open, honest, and vulnerable conversations about desire and desirability politics. I’m still reflecting on my own desires, and interrogating my reluctance to approach other queer and trans people of color that I’m attracted to or want to be friends with.
Queer and trans people of color, myself included, are no exception to internalizing and perpetuating anti-Blackness, colorism, transphobia, misogyny, ableism, fatphobia, and yes, even homophobia. Consequently, we are not free from the biases that construct people who are Black, dark-skinned, trans, women, disabled, and/or fat as intimidating, unapproachable, or undesirable. Self- and community-reflection on desire and desirability politics are necessary to truly honor our love for one another. Desirability politics limit genuine interactions, foreclose the possibility of friendships and relationships, and prevent community-building.
Queer and trans people of color, individually and in-community, need to abandon desirability politics as we work to dismantle white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. In doing so, we can build a world in which our humanity, worth, and love no longer rely on hierarchies of power and oppression.
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