An interesting, if frustrating, discussion recently on one of the music mailing lists I’m on. Someone mentioned having seen an old movie and was struck by what he referred to as “dated racism.” A discussion ensued on what sorts of, or even whether, racism might be “dated.” I noted that it struck me as vaguely irritating, and indicative of a sort of fossilized racism, that personal ads almost invariably note race, both for the seeker and the sought. Most people, I suspect, include race in a formulaic manner – just because that’s the format. But it’s exactly that sort of half-conscious persistence that constitutes a certain variety of racism.
Before going any further, I should probably use another word – like say “racialism” – because the word “racism” has become the verbal equivalent of flinging shit. Mostly, this is eminently justified…but one result is that it becomes very difficult to talk about the sort of unconscious racialism I describe above – because people immediately take offense. In fact, on that music list, first people argued that no, that wasn’t racism (as if the notion that qualities are carried along with race other than those that define “race” wouldn’t be nearly a definition of “racism,” objectively, without the invective), and then tried to justify the use of racial categories. (This list, I should mention, is populated primarily by intelligent, humanistic, left-liberal folks – in other words, it wasn’t the Skrewdriver list or anything.)
But that justification, however well-meaning, is a bit fishy. Granted, no one can be forced to be attracted to a person they’re not attracted to (nor should they be) – but imagining that “race” – and any such designation includes people within an enormous range of appearance, skintones, and culture – would be a reliable predictor of attraction either misunderstands the nature of race and intraracial diversity or is, in fact, fetishism. As someone said in the conversation, “if you find blondes 10% cuter on average than brunettes,” that seems a weak reason to rule out someone otherwise compatible with you. And as for that fetishism: while there’s no denying a kink’s reality for the kink-holder, that doesn’t mean that, say, an Asian fetish isn’t racialist. What else could it be? It might – so long as both parties are aware of what’s going on, and don’t have a problem with it – be a relatively nonproblematic sort of racializing, but to pretend it’s simply not racist in any way strikes me as blinkered.
Or worse. If you’re really attracted only to people displaying certain physical manifestations of race, how different are you from Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, demanding the object of your affections get a blonde dyejob? How many people want to be desired primarily as an instance of something, rather than for oneself? (Well, some: see the “kink” passage above.)
But if you’re still not persuaded that the persistence of racial labeling isn’t a bit insidious, consider this: as far as I can tell (as a happily married man, I run into them en route to Max Cannon, or P.S. Mueller, or the latest disappointing “Life in Hell” cartoon), most venues for personal ads categorize them under headings like Men Seeking Women, Women Seeking Women, etc. Given that most people include race, those publishing the ads could also choose to organize them White Men Seeking White Women, Black Women Seeking White Men, etc. What would most people’s reactions be? Probably a snort of disgust at the racism of whoever put those pages together.
And not so long ago, and in a different social realm, ads for employment did list race. But people came to realize that, however strong an influence race might be culturally, the variation of suitability within any so-called race was far greater than any trend observable between races. I have to believe that where relationships are concerned, imagining race as a predictor of success is far likelier to eliminate many more potentially compatible people than filter out incompatible ones – except, of course, for blatant, conscious racists.