Sexual racism refers, broadly, to a tendency of choosing sexual partners on a discriminatory basis, starting from their perceived racial identity. The term has been in use since 1976, when Charles C. Stember defined the phenomenon as “the sexual rejection of a racial minority, the conscious attempt on the part of the majority to prevent interracial cohabitation.”
The question whether sexual racism is actually racism has been the core of research ever since, with sociological and cultural studies often being challenged by the complex notion of desire. Sexual or romantic attraction, desire, or preference are often invoked to explain instances of discrimination. Desires and their acceptability, however, are constructed every day, either by the intricate makeup of marketing and advertising, or by sedimented social and cultural knowledge, seldom free of prejudice and racism. In this sense, we ask: can our cravings and preferences be racist, as they are informed by timely definitions of acceptability, desirability, and normalcy?
The ties between sexual racism and manifestations of masculinity are apparent, as we still witness residues of colonialism at work in contemporary society. Knowledge of black male sexuality evolved from an inherently violent process of extending phenotypical features (colour of skin, origin) to a determinant of identity, thus politicising gendered blackness. Traced back to the early days of the American slavery system, this abusive way of making sense of racially encoded difference was perpetuated, rooted in a colonial frame of thought which naturalised the gapping relation between the “civilized us” and the “barbaric them.”
This barbarism went on to be ascribed to a mode of being, which included a mode of being sexual. Lynching of black men in America often involved physical castration, a symbolic elimination of the perceived sexual prowess of black men. Further production and circulation of images of these broken bodies turned physical violence into cultural violence, instituting aggressive modes of looking. The image of the black male body became a trope of visual culture, a stand-alone element in the racialised discourse on black masculinity and sexuality, often rearticulated at the level of collective memory, either to reinforce or dismantle stereotypical views inherited from the grand narrative of American racism – slavery.
The imagery of black masculinity as manifestly or latently savage was intensely used in political and mediatic discourse of the 1990s, surrounding, for instance, the 1994 passing of the “three strikes” law under the Bill Clinton administration. The infamous Central Park jogger case of 1989, when five black men and one Hispanic man attack a white woman, refuels, under mediatic over-exposure, racially encoded fear. Consequently, the term “super-predator” became the label of choice when discussing criminality and systemic violence of inner city (black) neighbourhoods. Violence, crime, savage sexuality are again substitutes for identity.
Today´s online gay dating communities contribute most poignantly to a similar process of normalising discrimination by enacting a language of rejection on a racial basis. Profiles joined by statements such as “No Asians,” “No Hispanics” or “Only blacks” continue a line of stereotyping that seems to reflect inherited conceptions rather than unconscious desire. Robert Mapplethorpe´s Man in Polyester Suit challenges the tendency to hyper-visualise black sexuality as overly virile, using an interplay of seeing and being seen. The phallic presence of the subject references a post-colonial type of gaze, restrictively centred on the penis as an object of ritual, fantasy and culturally defined desire.
To reject or to exclusively prefer sexual partners based on perceptions of their racial origin, and of further implications of this origin, are equally discriminatory, generalising and violent acts. Regardless of the apparent sense of empowering black men by acknowledging their sexual prowess within a cultural milieu of acceptability and desirability of this prowess, it is still a form of aggression, since this acknowledgment rests on a tragic history of objectification and racism, deeply engrained on the very surface of the black male body.
Words: Elena Stanciu