Published on March 1st, 2014 | by Vidisha Fadescha
What’s R(ace) Got To Do With It?: White Privilege & (A)sexuality
The following post is written by Alok Vaid-Menon, a queer South Asian artist and activist who has performed and organized with queer movements in the United States, South Africa, Palestine, and India. They currently organize at the Audre Lorde Project. Alok is invested in building queer movements and bodies that resist white supremacy and imperialism and reclaiming our color from the rainbow that stole it from us. If you’d like to read some more of their thoughts check out their political blog: QUEER LIBIDO. __________________________________
In this series of pieces I hope to develop a new grammar to talk about asexuality outside of the ways in which it has been co-opted by neoliberal identity politics. I am interested in reclaiming and developing an analysis of (a)sexuality in our collective efforts toward racial justice and anti-capitalism. These pieces are motivated by an absence of dialogue around asexuality and all of its associated critiques from many queer spaces I’ve been a part of.
The first time I ever saw someone like me having sex was in a spam internet advertisement in India. “Hairy Mallu Boys.” And I may have followed the link. And I may have gawked at the spectacle of it all: brown hairy men fucking each other. I want to tell you about the validation, how affirming it was to finally see someone who looked just like me having an orgasm, but that would be misleading. I was too shocked to feel validated. Too surprised to see a body like mine fucking in this city where my gay Indian friends ask me if I’ve ever slept with a white men because “they are cleaner than us” because they’ve “seen it on porn.”
Growing up in the US I never really saw brown people engaging in public acts of intimacy. From a young age I remember feeling jealous of the Suzy, the Michael, the Patrick and their parents who kissed them goodbye. I remember getting jealous of the Tom, the Dick, the Zach and their parents who hugged when their child scored a goal at soccer games. My parents never touched one another in front of me. In fact, we never really spoke about sex. So I remember always thinking that sex was something for white people. I understood that our parents must have ‘done it,’ but I couldn’t imagine them enjoying it. Pleasure didn’t belong to us. That’s why we moved to this country, right?
When I looked to the media for representation of brown sexual boys all I got were spelling bee champions, gas station owners, and that one guy from Mean Girls – that archetype of the brown boy being forced to overcompensate to compete for the attention of white people. Indeed, the brown body was usually depicted as engaging in emotional, physical, or mental labor for white interests. And as I got older and the other male assigned people around me had voices that got deeper I witnessed the many ways in which they felt compelled to overcompensate – by either adopting the aesthetics of white patriarchy in all of its J Crew JP Morgan finesse or by adopting and exploiting blackness to seem more ‘cool’ and ‘masculine.’ The plight of the South Asian American male lied in his effort to grapple with a culture that did not, and continues to not, recognize his body as beautiful and worthy of receiving and transmitting desire.
Which goes to say that it has always been difficult to fantasize with sexual scenarios that involve my own body because I have never had a reference point for my own pleasure. Voyeurism here becomes less of a choice and more of a position of coercion: feeling like I’ve been set to watch sex occurring, always at a distance. Queerness here becomes less of a destination aspired toward, but rather one dressed on a body without its consent – a type of otherness that is not only about not seeing one’s face reflected on the screen, but about experiencing one’s difference inscribed on skin. Wearing it close and lethal, like a weapon.
Over the years I have stumbled on several words to articulate this distance: gender-non conforming to express an inability (and perhaps unwillingness) to identify with the masculinity I was assigned at birth and ‘asexuality’ to articulate an inability to feel authentically ‘sexual,’ capable and worthy of wanting. But these terms never really felt adequate to articulate that conglomeration of anxiety, power, histories, stories, and paradoxes that come to mind when I think of my gender and sexuality. Like all identity markers they are shorthands we have been prescribed to halt conversation: we can retreat into our identities like we retreat into our apartments not asking how and why we got there, who we gentrified to get there, not being able to have a conversation about how this place will never fit all of our idiosyncrasies.
And this ‘distance’ has been something I have been trying to reconcile for years: how to articulate that mixture of power, shame, desire, and fear that makes me uncomfortable thinking about myself as a sexual body. And, simultaneously, how to challenge the onslaught of dogma from so called ‘sex radicals’ who claim that we have just internalized ‘sex shame’ and that shame is something we can be emancipated from.
So when I talk about asexuality I don’t mean some sort of sanitized model of identity politics invested in being recognized and affirmed (by capitalism) – I’m talking about that distance. That absence of wanting. That anxious condition of not being able to differentiate trauma from truth – that peculiar position of never being able to divorce ourselves from the power that continues to shape our every want, desire, and action.
Why Asexual Identity Politics Isn’t Enough
As a queer South Asian I don’t feel comfortable ascribing the identity of ‘asexual’ to my body. Part of the ways in which brown men have been oppressed in the Western world is by de-emasculating them and de-sexualizing them (check out David Eng’s book Racial Castration). What then would it mean for me to identify as an ‘asexual?’ What would this agency look like in a climate of white supremacy? Can I ever authentically express ‘my’ (a)sexuality or am I always rehearsing colonial logics?
The dilemma of this brown queer body is its inability to see itself through its own eyes. The mirror becomes a site it which we view what white people have always told us about ourselves. Regardless or not of the status of my libido, I’m not sure I will ever feel comfortable identifying as asexual because it seems like I am betraying my people.
I am invested in South Asians and all other Asian Americans being able to reclaim, re-affirm, and be recognized for their sexual selves. I am invested in brown boys and brown gurlz being able to get what they desire. I am invested in the radical potential of brown (queer) love in a society where so many of us grow up hating our bodies and bending our knees for white men. I want to be part of this struggle. Sometimes I get angry at myself for not being able to eliminate the distance, not being able to join in solidarity. To fuck and be fucked, to publically claim and own my sexuality. I understand that there is something (as Celine Shimizu reminds us in her book Straightjacket Sexualities) radical about Asian American masculinities being displaced from patriarchal masculinities rooted in hyper-sexuality and hyper-masculinity and the reclamation of ‘effeminate’ and ‘asexual’ representations of our bodies as a political refusal of the very logics which have rendered those bodies numb.
But at the same there is a difference between theory and practice. Theories don’t matter when you find yourself always defaulted in the category of ‘friend.’ Theories don’t matter when you grow up being turned on by ghosts of all of your internalized shame. Theories don’t matter when you find yourself buying button up shirts and shaving your beard and trying your best to look more white so they will even have the courtesy to look back to you. Why do theories always put the burden of change on the oppressed and not the systems that oppress them?
There is some part of me that will never be able to overcome the desire for ‘more.’ I want to be able to be in a bar and to not just be the object of desire, but a subject of desire. Part of white supremacy as I understand it is the privilege of being a subject of desire: one who can feel in control of one’s desires and one who has more agency to act on said desires. The ‘distance’ I experience around my sexuality makes me often feel unable to be a subject of desire. This distance makes me feel out of control, jealous, and in a perpetual state of lack. It feels like I’ve just internalized white control of my sexuality and my body.
So when I read this piece about how folks involved with the asexuality community feel as if they are post-race I’m pretty well, flabbergasted. Asexuality has always been a carefully crafted strategy to subjugate Asian masculinities. Asexuality has everything to do with race. Which goes to say that what if the very act of articulating a public asexual identity is rooted in white privilege? Essential understandings of being ‘born’ ‘asexual’ and loving my ‘asexual’ self will never make sense to me. In a world that continually erases Asian (male assigned) sexualities I was coerced into asexuality. It is something I have and will continue to struggle with. My asexuality is a site of racial trauma. I want that sadness, that loss, that anxiety to be a part of asexuality politics. I don’t want to be proud or affirmed – I want to have a serious conversation about how all of our desires are mediated by racism and how violent that is. My pleasures – or lack thereof – are not transcendental and celebratory, they are contradictory, confused, and hurt.
I want to envision and build communities where we can discuss and heal together from the traumas inscribed in our flesh. I do not think that declaring an asexual identity is the best strategy for me to pursue this. What I am asking for is an acknowledgment among all people – not just people of color – of the ways in which colonialism has and continues to map itself on our bodies in different ways. My story of distance is only one of the legacies of the ways in which racism has shaped our desires. I do not mean to suggest that all South Asian male assigned people are asexual nor do I mean to suggest that asexual identity is necessary oppressive for South Asians – what I am sharing is the story of a body that has found and continues to find ways to cope. Which means that my ‘asexuality’ can never been seen as outside of the saga of racialized violence against people of color. I want a space where I can claim that with those folks and discuss the ways in which white understandings of relationships, intimacy, desireability, beauty, progress, and happiness have made us always feel a certain sense of lack and how we have built our entire lives constructed around that lack. For me sometimes I feel like escaping from asexuality would mean one way of escaping from colonialism – would mean finally having the ability to self-identify to really know who “I” (whatever that is) am.
The idea of an identity politics around asexual identity scares me in the same ways that any other single issue politics anchored around a (sexual) identity does. It operates in was that are racist, classist, and colonial. It assumes particular bodies with particular histories and particular political interests. What I am calling for is a departure away from asexual identity politics toward a frank conversation of trauma and sexuality. How can we move our understandings of sexual politics away from anchoring them in essential narratives that reproduce biological essentialism (born this way) to narratives that name specific moments of historical and personal trauma that inform our sexualities. Which means that I am not as interested in the words that you affix to your body – I am interested in the journey that it took for you to get there.
What inhibits you still?
What makes you tremble?
What would it mean for you to feel free?
(is that even the goal?)
Alok Vaid-Menon (author) has performed at a wide array of demonstrations, conferences, universities, and other venues across the world. If you would like to host them for a gig, workshop, talk, or something else send them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org Alok is currently on tour with Janani Balasubramanian as DARKMATTER. To see if they’re coming to a city near you check out www.darkmatterrage.com.