Navigating attraction: Preference or Prejudice

Recently, when asked to talk at an all-boys private school on equality, diversity and inclusion; the discussion with the group of, mostly, white young men turned to the question: “is it racist not to be ‘into’ (or attracted to) black women/men, or is it just a preference?” Following this conversation, and a similar one with a similar school on the other side of the country not one week later, it became apparent that this needed to be unpacked and, if possible, resolved.

As we ask questions of our sexual attraction, we need to remain conscious of our historical context. We know that South Africa (like so many countries) has a long history of racialised classification and discrimination. In 2019, we find ourselves in an era where we are desperately trying to move past our internalised prejudices while also grappling with the ways in which they remain insidiously embedded in our societal frameworks. We cannot assume that ‘sexual attraction’ is not entwined with toxic notions of white superiority and black inferiority.

Attraction is complex, multi-faceted, and not fully understood. Our seemingly ‘innocent’ preferences, those things we consider to be pleasing to our senses, are actually deeply influenced by our societal frameworks. The inputs that govern our sexual attraction range from biological factors, to models of intimacy we observed during childhood, sexualised behaviours and images available to us, our traditions, fashions, social status, religion, politics, leisure interests, intelligence, family ties, and so on; in a seemingly inexhaustible list. At a minimum understanding, however, attraction is underpinned by something that we find valuable, or see as valuable. That which we see, or have been (un)consciously taught as ‘being valuable’ must be the starting point in exploring the above question of preference vs prejudice.

A simple image search of the word ‘beauty’ on Google yields few women of colour. Of course this is not because women of colour are not beautiful, but because they are not being positioned as beautiful. This positioning in mainstream media serves to distort, support, and influence people’s ideas of beauty (what they see as valuable) – with the equation of ‘white’ with ‘beautiful’ continuing to be accepted by many.

Whether or not we want to accept it, what we see as valuable is inextricably linked to historical practices of race classification, superiority/inferiority, and the ascription of value and privileges to certain groups of people. Our history of race-based value still exists within our society and continue to influence what we believe to be of value, or attractive. As a further complication, and not fully expanded in this article, is the influence of societal and familial pressure, shame and stigma associated with inter-racial relationships, also born from our history of ascribing different value for different races. If from a young age we are influenced to believe that inter-racial relationships are bad, not as harmonious or socially unacceptable as homogenous relationships are, this absolutely affects who we would be “attracted” to, when we understand that humans view attraction as the precursor to partnership. By “cutting off the attraction”, we limit the potential, future hardship and shame and rejection we fear we would receive from our family and society.

In a world that has historically devalued black and brown beauty, to say that one’s attraction is purely a preference without prejudice allows us to side-step the discomfort of having to internally reflect upon whom we ascribe value. Further, it allows us to reject the fact that all of us, regardless of race, have, to differing degrees, digested the historical narratives of who is valuable, beautiful and worthy and who is not.

When it comes to race, beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder, free from external influence and manipulation. To those out there reading this, recognising prejudice doesn’t have to mean accusation and leaping to one’s own defence. Nor does it necessitate the internalising of guilt and shame at holding such beliefs. Recognising these prejudices is an opportunity to check ourselves – it is a first step to thinking a little, listening a little, and transforming.