by Navneet Alang
So there I was, blissfully happy, sitting next to a beautiful white woman. For some reason, it’s her toes, painted bright red, that stick out in my memory. And if with that I evoke slightly queasy echoes of the fetishistic, then at least I’ve started at the right place.
It was a few years ago now, this improbably idyllic summer romance. That day we were on a beach in the west end on one of those hot, pale Toronto mornings where one’s sense of time fades into the hazy space between lake and sky. We sat like two teenagers who, the morning after a first kiss are suddenly shy, bodies hesitantly brushing against each other. I remember the milky white skin poking out from under her dress and then a sudden burst of perfectly brushed red. Like something from a movie. Like an image cut out of a magazine.
I can only ask you to forgive me these unpleasant, adolescent clichés. I know, quite well in fact, that they are wrong. This is the thing, though: you can spend your life arguing against “objectification” and “Eurocentrism” and still be unsure if you fell so hard for someone simply because of who they were—or because of what they, their looks and the colour of their skin represented. This uncomfortable, unavoidable truth hits home especially hard for people of colour: desire doesn’t care what your politics are.
There’s a perfect scene in Undercover Brother just after the film’s hero sleeps with Denise Richards’ “White She-Devil” character. Returning to the headquarters of black power group “The Brotherhood”, the reaction Undercover Brother receives there perfectly captures the strangeness of cultural desire. Dave Chappelle, playing the militant “Conspiracy Brother”, isn’t betrayed or shocked—he’s jealous. “Was it everything I dreamed of?” he asks, incredulously.
That gap between our beliefs and our desires is about more than just abstract ideas, though. In hindsight, the fond memories I have of this funny, intelligent and, yes, beautiful person are now touched by a kind of melancholy ambivalence. On a warm night weeks after that day on the beach, we were in a bar in Little Italy. At one point, she very purposefully leaned in and kissed me, and for a second I couldn’t breathe, as something electric I’d never felt before raced through me. That wordless thing that happens between people in the sudden, quiet stillness of a kiss—at the time it felt both pure and exhilarating.
Now, I wonder if a lifetime spent as an awkward, unattractive brown man didn’t also come to bear its weight upon the moment. I’ve often assumed I belong on the “lesser” side of certain binaries—white/brown, pretty/ugly, centre/margin—and in that moment it was as if I had leapt across the boundaries between them. It’s then, caught up in those awful hierarchies, that you end up thinking mortifying things like “OMG, she’s a pretty white woman and I am just a lowly, weird Indian dude.” In the perfumed, heavy, July air, under hazy coloured lights and the fog of two pints, history may have pushed its unwelcome way onto a Toronto patio.
We often think culture influences us most strongly in our day-to-day actions. It’s the opposite. It’s the the deep, unknown recesses of our psyches that are most shaped by forces bigger than us. It’s why people spit racial slurs when they get drunk, or yell out incriminating things during sex. The fuzzy line where race touches the id is just one more place where we must confront discomfiting truths.
Things between this woman and me eventually went their natural way. (Or at least, they went the way that to my mind seemed natural.) We barely ever spoke again, and I’m ashamed to admit it was mostly because I kept giving in to those self-imposed divisions. “Why would she talk to someone like me?” I’d think to myself when we’d inevitably see each other, basic decency pushed aside by the baffling, circuitous logic of self-loathing.
It isn’t that looking back I think I was simply someone with a fetish, though. Not only is it not that simple, it would also needlessly reduce what was ultimately a genuine, if fleeting connection. Instead, it’s that I’ve come to find it impossible to extricate race, desire and power from each other, and in that I’m pretty sure I have lots of company. When it comes to the ways in which attraction gets caught up with identity, it seems the best we can do is helplessly remark how artificial these categories are, how constructed.
These silly little definitions—race, colour, beauty—are so empty. They are also inescapable. Years later, they still linger in my memories like ghosts, clouding things—making my achingly bittersweet memories of that summer just that much more bittersweet.