Vivek Shraya

Seeking Single White Male: Two Years Later & An Open Letter

7 August 2012

For years, I had this idea of exploring comments I had heard in Edmonton gay bars when I first came out but it wasn’t until the summer of 2010 that it occurred to me to juxtapose those statements with photos of myself “transitioning” to whiteness—blonde hair, blue contacts—in an effort to show how the internalization of racism can manifest externally. Seeking Single White Male was born shortly thereafter.

I was surprised to see the video reposted dozens of times on Facebook and tumblr. Perhaps what I valued the most was also what broke my heart over and over again: the many discussions with/by (queer) people of colour who had heard the exact same/similar statements. Online and in bars. Even in large “diverse” cities like Toronto. Whose responses could often be summarized by “yup.” Resignation that this is just the way things are and always have been. After all, many of us haven’t known anything different. There was also a kind of shared gratitude amongst us that the sick feeling we would have after hearing these kinds of statements every time we were out wasn’t imaginary and was completely valid.

I was also surprised by other responses to the short, varying from apathetic to defensive to outright anger. Here is one that stood out:

i don’t see how most of the comments in the video are offensive. the “must be mixed” comment is probably the most debatable one, but it could very well just be a remark–the guy does have facial features that are predominant in people of caucasian heritage, as opposed to those of strictly indian heritage. i don’t get how not being attracted to certain racial phenotypes is bad. it’s the same as saying that i don’t like blond boys. and, big news: i don’t like blond boys. you can’t talk me into being attracted to them, and it has nothing to do with the “popular standards” of what’s supposed to be attractive. i don’t think anyone is or isn’t attracted to a race as much as they are (or aren’t) to a combination of physical characteristics. there’s nothing racist about that, and it’s not debatable either. i think everyone is subject to similar remarks over things they can’t control. “i wouldn’t date a girl taller than me”, or “if you were a boy you’d totally be my type”, or “your hair looked better when it was longer”. so? sucks, okay, i get it–but who cares? one person isn’t into that, another is. and if it turns out that dating flat-chested girls who wear sonic boxer-briefs is some sort of fetish, so be it. how is that any less valid? who’s to say that the “dark, tall and handsome” package is anything other than fetishism? it’s a physical ideal. we all have one.

This comment, or variations of, is one I hear (and see) time and time again, particularly from white men, when the issue of racism in the queer community comes up. My fundamental issue with comments such as these is perhaps best summarized by the suggestion that attractions/desires are something that one “can’t control.” I think the most naive arguments/statements regarding desire and attraction are ones that do not carefully, thoughtfully consider the way our preferences, for a particular body size and shape, skin/hair/eye colour, height etc, are socially influenced. We aren’t born that way.

This is not to say that our desires are wrong or that we ought to work on changing what we desire, but I think it’s crucial that we at least consider where these desires might stem from and the ways they may be problematic, limiting and harmful to others.

An example: Before my twenties, I would say I was predominantly attracted to other South Asians or white bodies. Is this because these bodies were my “physical ideals”? Or did it have to do with the fact that I grew up in a city where I was exposed to a very limited pool of body types & ethnicities, where there was only one black person in my entire Junior High School? This is a bit of an oversimplification as there are many factors that contribute to desire but it’s definitely part of the framework.

Recently, a friend of mine, a Canadian of South Asian origin in his early 20s, posted the following screenshot of a conversation he was having via a phone chat app:

A screenshot of an online chat session with blue and orange conversation bubbles. Blue: Sexy as fuck bro. Orange: Thank you, and ditto. Blue: Where you from? Look just like 1 of my childhood crushes... Aladdin.. Orange: I'll take that as a compliment. I'm from Toronto. Blue: Where you really from? Very exotic looking. Hot.

I was pained by how closely it resembled text from SSWM, statements that I had heard almost a decade ago when I was his age. Statements that many people make or read as innocent or complimentary. This naturalization of racism feels entirely unacceptable to me, and I believe we all have a greater responsibility to ensure these kinds of attitudes are continually challenged, if not eradicated. I am so fortunate to live in a city where queer and trans people of colour are doing all kinds of great work to fight the kinds of racism that exists in and outside the queer community. But the work has to be shared.

So here is my request: The next time you find yourself attracted to someone, catch yourself doing a double take or staring at a face or a body you find appealing, spend five minutes thinking about WHY you might be attracted to this person. WHY the double take. If this is too complicated to consider, then perhaps start with thinking about what specifically it is about them that you are attracted to and then why you find those qualities attractive. Be honest with yourself.

And maybe the next time you are in a public place, spend another five minutes looking at bodies in general, even the ones you aren’t immediately drawn to. Especially the ones you aren’t immediately drawn to. Then ask yourself WHY. Is it that you just don’t like blondes? Be honest with yourself.

You will notice my request does not contain any shoulds. To reiterate, I am not suggesting that we change our desires but rather witness them, understand them and consider stretching them. These are necessary steps to move forward—to see our desires, truly see them for what they are, so that we may unpack and challenge the various prejudices and biases that might shape them.

Here is another comment that stood out to me.

so what is this video suppose to mean? are you feeling sorry for yourself because you cant find a boyfriend and you think its because you are “brown”? ... how pathetic... white spaces? Dont report this “film” to be a “study” of any kind to represent brown people in the gay community... what this is is more your internal reality... perhaps you are choosing to be in spaces where there is a majority of white people... or maybe its because you live in Toronto... and are facing racism of some kind... in any case, get some pride and stop crying out to others “love me love me”... nothing is more unattractive then that. I mean... you need to get laid that bad or have some major self esteem issues... what a degrading piece of work for an east indian guy to make... I am sorry, but it was just terrible and I hope it gets taken down... cause that certainly does not represent my reality as a east indian gay guy... and I would hate the extra burden of people thinking that this is my reality... I certainly dont need pity in my life.

I include this here to point out that speaking out about the effects of racism can have negative and hurtful consequences, even if it’s your own lived experience. But this can’t be a deterrent. For some of us with racialized bodies, queer and gender non-conforming bodies, staying silent is a luxury we can’t always afford.

So to those of us who experience various forms of racism, I would like to humbly ask you to please keep speaking up, please continue to find the courage to tell your stories. You are not alone.