by Tendai Lewis
The idea of colonised desire is rooted in the structural and systemic construction of desire. It’s rooted in systems of meaning that operate within our society. These systems of meaning are oppressive. Desire is an intersecting network of power which decides whether or not you are loveable or worthy. It’s insidious because you think it’s natural; because you think you chose your partners; the porn you watch and that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But the beholder’s been socialised in a white male supremacist society from birth. Our desires, like our identities don’t belong to us fully, they never have. This is even more prevalent if you are a minority.
Desire, like most things in our society, is rooted in colonial discourses and legacy. Through dehumanisation colonists were not only able to bypass the contradictions between Western values, and violence that the colonial process entails, but dehumanisation coupled with violent oppression was used to destroy the native’s ‘sense of selfhood’. The loss of a ‘sense of selfhood’ from the native leads to the internationalisation of colonial discourse. This means that the hierarchy created through colonialism is taken as the natural order. We live with the ramifications of that colonial legacy, and they are apparent even in our desires. The most dominant discourses are those that rely on the concepts of science and the natural order to ground themselves. Desire, like race and colonialism is rooted in a language that centres on naturalness and truth. The feeling you get physically when you see someone you are attracted to means that desire isn’t truly looked at within society as something social. We take it as a natural reaction, something that is innate. However, our stimulants aren’t. Everything's informed by the white supremacist society that we are socialised in.
When looking into my own colonised desires I kept coming back to this idea of wanting to bridge some sort of gap through love and sex.; the idea of being accepted, and of assimilating through relationships. I think what becomes more and more obvious to me as I look into my desires is that the sphere of my interest rotates around gaining a sense of acceptance, and satisfying what is clearly a yearning within myself. White men don't just represent a section of the general public that catch my eye, but a sort of social mobility. Sexual and romantic acceptance become a vehicle of self-validation. In the arms of a white man, I think that some of the issues that I still have, and have had with my blackness are resolved in a way. In that moment I’m still black, but more than just black. I’m that special star. I meet some standard of beauty. I’m not too dark, wide nosed or nappy headed. I’m not loud, rude or too much. That’s the real power that lies in the white male gaze, and that almost transformative power is what I desire. It's not that I don’t find other races attractive, but other races can’t offer that. There’s no consolidation of worth and value because other races don’t set the standard. Desires are shaped around and by straight white cis men, then filtered through the rest of society. Every part of me as a socially aware young black woman should be shook by these revelations. I am, but I’m also deeply curious about what it all means. Does this mean that I can never date a white man without not only questioning his motives (i.e is this just a checkbox I’ve dated a black girl thing), but my own motives? Should I be dating black men as a sort of show-and-tell to myself that, look, I can do it! Every decision I go to make has some sort of weird consequence and meaning.
I think my desires say a lot more about my identity than I thought they did. They say a lot more about how I feel about my blackness, fatness and fatherlessness than I’m probably ready to admit to myself. My desires I’m also learning say a lot more about how I view myself. What sorts of relationships I pursue, and what I think I am worth and deserve. I feel like what I’m starting to learn which may have been obvious to everyone else is that my desires are affectations of my identity. When it comes to sex and relationships I’m wanting to fulfil in others things I like and loathe about myself in the same breath. I grew up a very black, fat and visible body in a very white space. I think that growing up you look for, or expect certain romantic experiences to occur and those didn’t happen for me (until much later on). I watched everyone around me move on in a way that I just didn’t or couldn’t. But on top of that I was rounder and darker than the majority of people around me. And this idea of ‘normal’ affects you when you’re a teen and person of colour because everything you’re not is described as normal. You don’t have a normal name, or normal hair, or normal parents, or a normal body. I knew this, and I internalised this, and white acceptance became important because it was survival in a way. I didn’t have the tools I have now to really understand that I was in an oppressive environment. So, being a token black girl in my white school, white university, white city and to white men has been a coping mechanism almost. Being that token black girl is who I was growing up in Brighton, it's who I was to some extent when I left for university and it’s how I coped. It's how I socialised and how I made sense of my social placing and status. Without that persona, which is probably still part of my personality I feel like I wouldn't have survived puberty, school and university. All those things that force you to find a tribe and place in society. You have to root yourself in something as a young person because that's what adolescence and your early twenties are about I guess. Being well versed in whiteness was social capital for me; it was a way to temporarily escape constantly being the other.
This has clearly manifested itself in my desires. Whiteness and the collection of ideas around whiteness, which for me really centre upon power and the ‘norm’ have trickled into what I want sexually and romantically. To be constantly seen as an other to be constantly defined against a great white background is hard. Because you will always be a black smudge against that. That’s almost where the idea of whiteness for me takes its power. In its normalcy. In this idea that everyone else is different, and you are normal and the basis of the idea of normalcy because you are white. I’m never going to be white, so am I going to have to settle with being with white men?
That’s a terrible thing to come to realize. Because I thought I had moved on. I thought that self love as a black woman was having my afro out and not running from the sun and tagging my selfies #blackgirlmagic. But it’s not, it’s this constant unpacking and repacking of who I think I am. Fanon writes in Black Face, White Masks that black people don’t feel inferior to white people, because to feel inferior is to feel you exist. Instead black people look outwards, looking to consolidate our existences in other people's gaze. I’ve grown up fat and black and engrossed in whiteness looking for validation. Looking for something to let me know that I’m enough or worthy. But how do I wean myself off whiteness? Where are the rehab facilities for self hate via internalised racism? How do I consolidate and satisfy this feeling of unworthiness for myself without looking outwards? How does this translate into my dating life? Because most days I question whether anyone desires me. I feel like as a black woman I enter a room wondering whether anyone desires black women, including the black men. I enter a room wondering whether anyone likes fat woman, including fat men.
Looking into what I desire has told me more about myself and the society in which my ideas around what love and affection were constructed in more than anything else. Decolonising my desire has become about more than questioning why I date white men. It’s become about why I approach love and relationships in a certain way. It’s become about how I view myself, about what this fat black body means not just within society but to me. It’s also become about wondering how to really have true and healthy relationships with others and myself. Because that’s the what I’m really curious about. How do I love myself and others in a healthy way? In a real and sustainable way? How does one decolonise or even strip their desire when they are entrenched in a society that teaches them to desire everything they’re not? But I’m learning, and not in a peaceful and quiet way. I feel like a blister and it stings and hurts but there’s new healthy skin underneath. I’ll just have to keep trying to consolidate my own existence and unpack and repack not just my desires for others, but for myself.