Sexual Racism Isn't a 'Preference' — It's Systemic

by Naveen Kumar

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday August 11, 2021
Originally published on July 30, 2021

Sexual Racism Isn't a 'Preference' — It's Systemic
  (Source:Getty Images)

Is he just not attracted to Asian guys? Does he have a thing for brown men? Does the attention I do (or don't) get from other men have to do with my skin color? Am I experiencing racism at all, or is it just part of the game?

Many queer men of color may recognize these questions that run through our minds on a loop. We've been told we are or aren't someone's "type" and read between the lines. We've probably heard men say they "like what they like" and the rest is in our heads.

But the idea that sexual desire might be understood as mere preference — like a favorite ice cream flavor — is reductive to the point of risking absurdity. "Just a preference" is a familiar and reflexive shield for what experts call racialized sexual discrimination (RSD), or sexual racism.

"Just a preference" might be tossed off in Grindr profiles, next to "no Blacks or Asians." Or in private messages, as public statements of discrimination have grown less socially acceptable, particularly over the past year. In either case, the intention is clear — to dismiss any accusation that one's sexual desires can be an expression of racism.

Sexual racism refers to how racism plays out in the realm of sex and dating. Scholars researching the subject stress that it isn't separate from racism more broadly but rather a way of considering racism in a specific interpersonal context with unique dynamics and consequences.

Expressions of sexual racism, which can range from categorical rejection to fetishization, hinge on stereotyping and judging someone's racial characteristics above considering them as an individual. Researchers suggest the impacts of sexual racism can take an especially harsh toll on mental health, since sex and dating often find people in heightened states of vulnerability.

"Being subject to constant rejection or objectification when you're trying to find an intimate partner can cut a little deeper" than an off-hand racist remark from a stranger, for example, says Ryan Wade, Ph.D., assistant professor at University of Illinois School of Social Work, where he studies racialized sexual discrimination.

"When we think of racism in a macro sense, we're talking about the social, cultural, and political power structures that serve to keep certain people on top and subjugate others," Wade says. "RSD is influenced by those macro structures, but manifests in a more interpersonal context."

In other words, our sexual desires are shaped by the same social forces that uphold and more broadly perpetuate racism. From the diversity of our peer groups to the images we see in media and porn, many outside variables impact whom and what we value as attractive.

At the same time, logic and eroticism are unnatural bedfellows. Our innermost desires can feel innate, and questioning them might even seem counter-political. Isn't the movement for LGBTQ rights about freedom of desire? If a woman can't simply choose to be a lesbian, how much agency might she have over what races of women she's attracted to?

Experts make a clear distinction between sexuality — being born gay or bisexual, for example — and race-based value judgments, which result from socialization. Recognizing this distinction, and reflecting on how individual desires have been shaped by systemic racism, is essential to any broader efforts toward an anti-racist culture.

Race-Based Attraction is a Learned Behavior

(Source: Getty Images)

The dominance of white beauty ideals in the west and elsewhere is pervasive and well established. From highbrow Hollywood films to Internet porn, standards of attractiveness have long prized Anglo features and white skin, in addition to extreme fitness and a narrow range of body proportions.

[READ: Can the Gay Adult Film Industry Solve Its Race Problem?]

"Eurocentric ideals are pervasive in every form of media, so we internalize that as beauty," Wade says. Some of that same media also "propagates stereotypes, and encourages objectification and exotification of that which is outside of your group," Wade notes.

Determining the basis of attraction is a tricky prospect and far from a science. The extent to which each of us internalizes cultural messaging may depend on how we're raised and what sort of role models we have around, among other factors. But the context and consequences of a culture that exalts whiteness are clear.

"When you look at the patterns of racialized attraction and discrimination in the context of sex and romance, it's a profound pattern that tends to privilege white people above all other groups, in terms of their attractiveness," says Denton Callander, Ph.D., research fellow in social psychology at Columbia University where he studies sexual racism.

The term "preference" tries to negate the context in which our desires are shaped and expressed. "The problem with that word is that it seems to obfuscate the idea that our preferences come from somewhere," Callander says. "They don't just spring into thin air; they are shaped and formed through our experiences, our history, the way we're socialized, and so on."

Among the many media that hold influence, "porn, in particular, plays a huge part in shaping how people think about sex," Callander says, especially in the absence of sex education for young queer people, for whom porn may be the sole source of information. As studies have shown and previously reported on EDGE, porn can perpetuate damaging stereotypes and narrow sexual scripts for people of color.

Distinguishing which aspects of our desires are intrinsic versus learned is likewise slippery territory that can't be explained by science alone. But sexuality has long been commonly understood as innate, while racism in its many forms results from socialization.

"The best available evidence today is that sexual orientation has a biological component to it or a physiological one," Callander says, acknowledging a wide range of variations in how sexuality plays out for every individual. "But race does not; there's no evidence of biological underpinning in our racial desires, which suggests they are fluid and could be changed."

From Fetishization to Rejection, Sexual Racism Takes Many Forms

(Source: Getty Images)

One Scruff profile might read "no Blacks or Asians," while the next calls "Latinos to the front of the line" — both are clear expressions of sexual racism. Sorting based on racial stereotypes or associations, whether we characterize them as positive or negative, demonstrates racist thinking.

"Our brain relies on stereotypes to make decisions about a complex world, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," Callander says. But certain willful blindness comes into play when stereotypes supersede consideration for individuals. "To say, 'I'm not attracted to Asian men,' what you're really referring to is your stereotyped idea of a group of people that number over a billion," Callander says.

Racial stereotypes carry all manner of associations and value judgments. These are built into "certain cultural and sexual scripts we internalize" that shape our desires, explains Wade. That could mean, for example, casting Asian men as submissive and feminine, and Black and Latino men as dominant, well endowed, and hypermasculine. Such associations have a long history in the U.S., tied to broader systems of labor exploitation, immigration, and policing. That's why scholars consider the roots of sexual racism to be structural and systemic, even as its consequences play out on an interpersonal level.

Expressions of sexual racism, from rejection to objectification, can be clear as day or insidiously subtle. It's easy to spot someone who spells out bigoted views online or in your face, and it may even be easier to dismiss them, too.

"I just look at that as ignorance, and that's where they're at in their awareness," says Tilden Todd, 45, a life coach who is Black.

Not receiving any type of attention, positive or negative, from potential partners can be tough to pin on race alone. But studies have shown, for example, that dating app users have consistently rated Asian men less desirable than men of other backgrounds. Experiencing that lack of engagement, and wondering how much it has to do with your race, is more subtly distressing than outright rejection.

Recognizing race-based fetishization can feel less obvious. But for some on the receiving end, it's instinctual.

"You can always tell the difference," Todd says of whether a guy is interested in him as an individual or objectifying him based on stereotypes about Black men. "It's the energy and the way they come off," he says, in addition to whether they seem to have expectations about his body, and in particular about endowment. "It's always been a turn-off," he says, of feeling reduced to specific traits.

"There's a very fine line between feeling objectified" and appreciated for who you are, says Kevin Wong, VP of communications at The Trevor Project, who is Chinese American. "I think that line is different for everyone." He recalls another queer Asian friend posing the question, "Why does it bother us so much that people might devote their entire love or casual sex life to Asian people? We are a beautiful people."

It's not an easy question to answer and indicates the sort of mental gymnastics that navigating sexual racism can entail. From facing overt rejection to wondering whether you're being seen as a collection of stereotypes, sexual racism has proven consequences for mental wellbeing.

How Experiencing Sexual Racism Damages Mental Health

(Source: Getty Images)

Researchers point to the importance of examining racism specifically in the context of partner-seeking because of its severe potential impacts on mental health.

"When we go looking for love and sex, we are often in a heightened state of vulnerability, so to face racism in that context can be particularly daunting," Callander says.

"There's a rawness that makes the words hurt even more," says Claire, 33, a finance executive who is Black and asked to be identified by a pseudonym. "There's something about being in that vulnerable state when you have someone talk down to you; it hits in a way that it doesn't when you're rushing through your day." In fact, several sources said they faced far more casual racism in the context of sex and dating than in any other part of their lives.

That's due in part to the infrastructure of online engagement, where data sets replace people, visual sorting reigns, and consequences for bad behavior feel less immediate. In a study specific to online environments, Wade and co-author Gary Harper identified manifestations of racialized sexual discrimination and their adverse impacts on the mental health of gay Black men they surveyed.

White superiority, where whiteness is positioned as the hallmark of desirability, whether in profiles, images, or messages from other users, was associated with depressive outcomes among Black men. Rejection by white men actually didn't much impact the Black respondents' mental health. But rejection by other Black men had significant negative impacts and led to higher scores on depression.

"Eurocentric beauty ideals affect everyone," Wade says, "people of color internalize that too." Experiencing rejection by racial peers or other men of color who've internalized white superiority can be especially damaging to mental health. There may be a sense of lost solidarity or the feeling that someone is rejecting a part of themselves too, or that the system has gotten the better of everyone.

"You kind of expect a white guy to say, 'I'm not into Black guys,' Todd says. "But when you hear Black guys say that," the implication can seem to be "'I don't like my own race,'" he explains.

The worst mental health outcomes came from erotic objectification or perceiving that one was desired solely based on traits associated with race, like 'BBC' (big Black cock), for example. Feeling objectified led to both higher scores of depression and lower markers of self-worth. Fetishization in a sexual marketplace otherwise dominated by whiteness may grant non-white men sexual participation if that's the desired end goal. At the same time, "that could come at a cost to psychological health," Wade notes.

Being cast as an object may be worse than not being seen at all. Feeling seen as an individual, regardless of race, is the ideal.

Self-Reflection and Remaking the Standards of Engagement

Kevin Wong
Kevin Wong  (Source: Photo courtesy of Kevin Wong)

Understanding sexual racism as systemic, and recognizing how it plays out among all who perpetuate and experience it, are essential to addressing its impacts and working toward its dismantling. For people of color, sharing personal experiences with discrimination among racial peers can be the simplest and most impactful way to cope. "It can almost feel like a release or like a catharsis," Wong says. "We equip each other with language to express how we feel, and there's power in being able to name or describe that feeling."

Researchers in the field want to see more structural interventions, including how virtual partner -seeking is organized. Standards of social engagement on apps like Grindr and Tinder evolved through group-led behavior and developer incentives to keep users online. Could they be redesigned with attention toward social justice? Wade suggests that apps may need to see a benefit to their bottom line in order to act. He also notes that user-policing of racist behavior, as with screenshots of Grindr exchanges circulating on Twitter, demonstrates a shift in what's considered socially permissible.

Desire is messy — and people hate prescriptive arguments about sex. "The legacy of queer history is that we hold very tightly to the ideals of sexual freedom; it's something that we fought hard for," Callander says. "But if systems of racism are working through my sexual desires, am I free? Or am I just reproducing systems of inequality?"

Of all the intervention work and commitments to doing better in recent anti-racist movements, examining the basis of our attractions is the most intimate place to start.

"We go through so much already being discriminated against in the LGBTQ community; we don't need to do it to our own," Todd says. "Why does love have to have a color?"

Naveen Kumar is a culture writer and editor whose recent work appears on, The Daily Beast, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times.