Aaron Philip Clark explains how to recognize when you are being culturally and ethnically objectified.
It’s well-known that Los Angeles touts itself as a cultural melting pot — a liberal Mecca with a thriving culture of art, music and film. It’s a place of sophistication and forward thinking, and where the only societal pressure is to be the hippest version of you. People are free to date whomever they like, and most onlookers won’t give a second glance. Having lived in the South where interracial dating is still taboo, LA is in direct opposite. I have had the pleasure of dating women of various ethnicities. What I look for in a woman has always been substance and depth. I’ve always been attracted to a woman who has something to say and isn’t afraid to say it. And in my life, these women have come in various tones and shades.
However, like with anything, there is a less appealing side to what talk show host and radio personality, Wendy Williams, calls “the swirl”. On three occasions, I’ve dated women of European descent — most recently, German. She was a sweet, attractive and pleasant woman. Though we had our disagreements and ultimately a failure to sustain what we had, we ended things on honest terms. Yet, there was always an elephant in the room. She always seemed apprehensive to introduce me to her friends with the exception of her roommate. Once, as we sat in a Mexican restaurant near her hometown, a young white woman she recognized approached us. They greeted each other quickly and without introduction, the woman left and my date seemed relieved she didn’t stick around. I didn’t bother asking who it was, since it wasn’t my business, but it was strange.
She would later explain she had no black friends, and limited friends of color. Out of curiosity, I once asked her, why that was? She didn’t really know, but she assumed she just spent time with people who were mostly like her. I found it odd. Living in a metropolis like Los Angeles, I had grown up with friends from all ethnic backgrounds, and I realized how much of a gift it was. I learned so much about other ethnicities and cultures. I learned to see the beauty of humanity; tolerance was imprinted into my upbringing. My parents had a diverse group of friends as well, and I remember as a child thinking that’s how friendship should be — a melting pot.
In a later conversation, she explained she had dated black men before, but nothing serious had materialized. Her friends thought she simply had “the fever”, and that it was more of a phase she was going through since she could never stick it out with a man of color. She assured me that wasn’t the case; instead, she felt she could only see herself marrying a black man. Every now and then we’d have conversations concerning race and identity. She didn’t know much about black history, and rarely shared any tidbits about growing up German. We never attended cultural events in the city, or ventured into neighborhoods that predominately had an ethnic make-up other than white. She lived in the valley, and much of our time was spent there. Looking back, I realize there were times she was clearly uncomfortable. It made me wonder, was I that edgy accessory? Was I the equivalent of getting a tattoo or a piercing in an unexpected place? Was it a case of fetishization and rebellion?
I remember in high school how certain girls from prominent white families would take a black boy to the prom. It was seldom that they would date them for longer than a month, but for the prom they were showcased in photos with the star black athlete — the award-winning wide receiver, the basketball playing MVP, the captain of the wrestling team. Sure, one could say girls just like athletes, but it was peculiar.
I’m an eternal optimist and a racial deconstructionist. I believe racism will only be eliminated when great distinctions in color no longer exist — similar to what was broached in the National Geographic article, “Changing Faces: What Americans Will Look Like in 2050”. But I’m also a realist and understand the nature of people — some like to experiment, and LA is a great place to do it without facing judgment. However, there is something inherently racist in doing so. I faced moments where I felt less like a person and more like “the non-threatening black guy she was dating.” She once said, “From your voice on the phone, I’d never guess you were a black person.” This wasn’t so alarming since I’ve heard it all my life, and I’ve actually mastered sounding ambiguous on the phone — it’s helped me land job interview after job interview. Yet, it still bothered me. What is talking ‘black’? It’s a concept I’ve never gotten. I’m college educated with a master’s degree, so sue me. I read books, sometimes a book a week. Am I an anomaly? I don’t know, but I sure feel like one sometimes. It all boils down to cultural understanding and experience. I don’t think the girl I dated was a closet racist. On the contrary, I think she saw race in America as something that could be shelved and perhaps not really dealt with. After all, people can connect over music, films, food, books, etc. But there will always be that elephant in the room, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.
I believe people should date others not because of their racial identities, but because they find them interesting. But if you are going to participate in “the swirl”, just be sure you’re dating someone who has a true interest in your culture. Since it’s a component to identity, someone who has no understanding or interest in learning about where you come from, may have an even less interest in really getting to know you on a deeper level.
I’d like to think these issues are going away soon, but I think they are here to stay for a while. Misunderstandings and stereotypes are traps, and if they burrow their way into a relationship it will prove to be disastrous. More education is needed and an even greater willingness to expose our ignorance to each other, especially if love is at stake. For those participating in the black and white “swirl”, for your next date, skip the romantic comedy and check out “Dear White People”. It might be just the thing that lets that elephant out of the room.
Good luck, Dreamlanders!
This article originally appeared on The Dreamlanders.
Photo credit: Zuerichs Strassen