I met Kelli and Ashley a week before San Francisco pride. Kelli was originally just attracted to my stage show, but when she saw the small upside-down triangle tattooed on my right hip, she just had to get a private dance. She wheedled Ashley into joining her for a couple’s dance and I was struck by how sweet they were to each other. A week later, we would run into each other at the SF Dyke March and start a slow, gradual courtship.
Fast-forward five months, and I was in their bed lying between the two of them, feeling blissed out in a post-sex haze. I was half-heartedly listening to one of Ashley’s stories when I heard the phrase “exotic eyes and coloring like you.” I stiffened and suddenly wanted to be anywhere but where I was. It wasn’t the first time that Kelli and Ashley — two white women who identified as socially liberal — had been oblivious to a racist fumble, nor were they the first white partners to have made me feel so deeply uncomfortable. But they were the last.
Before Kelli and Ashley, I had been subjected to white partners telling me that because I’m half-white, they thought of me as “normal — not as a person of color.” I was dismissed instead of comforted when dealing with racism from outside the relationship and my white partner would often bring me around to social gatherings to give themselves a liberal street cred of sorts. At best, white partners had simply been silent whenever race came up, neither opposing my views nor offering meaningful support. After several years and many relationships, Kelli and Ashley were the last straw: I decided to stop sleeping with or dating white people indefinitely.
When I voice this decision around white friends, they almost invariably take offense and ask why I wouldn’t simply educate white partners instead of cutting them out completely. Even though I disagree with them, I can see why they ask this. What they often don’t see is how utterly exhausting it is to be a woman of color in our white supremacist society. They don’t see that if I took the time to educate white people whenever they said something ignorant, I would have no time or energy left over for myself. Dating a white person means putting that much more energy into the partnership and likely being insulted and invalidated at my most vulnerable.
The first time I slept with a person of color, the whole experience felt bewilderingly extraordinary. I realized I had been bracing for him to speak over me or racially fetishize me — it never happened. Instead, we bonded over mutual experiences as ethnically mixed and racially ambiguous people — we were even able to joke about it in a way that felt healing and revitalizing. Even though we remained casual fuck buddies, it felt worlds more intimate than anything I’d had with a white person.
After that first person, I started questioning why I had previously only slept with white people. I realized that I had internalized society’s Eurocentric beauty standards and held many a problematic thought myself. I had associated whiteness with success, trustworthiness, innocence and ultimately desirability even in the face of abuse committed against me by those I held in such high regard.
Learning to confront myself when I dismissed the attractiveness of someone of color eventually led me to address my aversion to my own face and body. I began to take a better look at the features that made me an “other.” I still struggle to realize that the hair I had been told was gross, the nose I had been told was too large, and the eyes I had been told were “wonky” aren’t things that are objectively wrong with my appearance — they just aren’t white.
Not every partner of color has been perfectly supportive or unproblematic, but at least I understand where they’re coming from and can sympathize with their struggle: I know that they’re also being harmed by their internalized racism. But when a white person takes advantage of privileges that shouldn’t be afforded to them, they’re reaping the benefits of the system at a cost to myself and other people of color.
There are probably white people out there who make decent, affirming partners to people of color. But, I know that the chances of that happening are low enough that the risk isn’t worth it. Despite the white people offended that someone would dare to not date them, I remain adamant: Y’all can’t colonize this pussy.
Trixie Mehraban writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].