What’s R(ace) Got To Do With It?: White Privilege & (A)sexuality

by Alok Vaid-Menon

In this series of pieces I hope to develop a new grammar to talk about asexuality outside of the ways in which it has been co-opted by neoliberal identity politics. I am interested in reclaiming and developing an analysis of (a)sexuality in our collective efforts toward racial justice and anti-capitalism. These pieces are motivated by an absence of dialogue around asexuality and all of its associated critiques from many queer spaces I’ve been a part of.

The first time I ever saw someone like me having sex was in a spam internet advertisement in India. “Hairy Mallu Boys.” And I may have followed the link. And I may have gawked at the spectacle of it all: brown hairy men fucking each other. I want to tell you about the validation, how affirming it was to finally see someone who looked just like me having an orgasm, but that would be misleading. I was too shocked to feel validated. Too surprised to see a body like mine fucking in this city where my gay Indian friends ask me if I’ve ever slept with a white men because “they are cleaner than us” because they’ve “seen it on porn.”

Growing up in the US I never really saw brown people engaging in public acts of intimacy. From a young age I remember feeling jealous of the Suzy, the Michael, the Patrick and their parents who kissed them goodbye. I remember getting jealous of the Tom, the Dick, the Zach and their parents who hugged when their child scored a goal at soccer games. My parents never touched one another in front of me. In fact, we never really spoke about sex. So I remember always thinking that sex was something for white people. I understood that our parents must have ‘done it,’ but I couldn’t imagine them enjoying it. Pleasure didn’t belong to us. That’s why we moved to this country, right?

When I looked to the media for representation of brown sexual boys all I got were spelling bee champions, gas station owners, and that one guy from Mean Girls – that archetype of the brown boy being forced to overcompensate to compete for the attention of white people. Indeed, the brown body was usually depicted as engaging in emotional, physical, or mental labor for white interests. And as I got older and the other male assigned people around me had voices that got deeper I witnessed the many ways in which they felt compelled to overcompensate – by either adopting the aesthetics of white patriarchy in all of its J Crew JP Morgan finesse or by adopting and exploiting blackness to seem more ‘cool’ and ‘masculine.’ The plight of the South Asian American male lied in his effort to grapple with a culture that did not, and continues to not, recognize his body as beautiful and worthy of receiving and transmitting desire.

Which goes to say that it has always been difficult to fantasize with sexual scenarios that involve my own body because I have never had a reference point for my own pleasure. Voyeurism here becomes less of a choice and more of a position of coercion: feeling like I’ve been set to watch sex occurring, always at a distance. Queerness here becomes less of a destination aspired toward, but rather one dressed on a body without its consent – a type of otherness that is not only about not seeing one’s face reflected on the screen, but about experiencing one’s difference inscribed on skin. Wearing it close and lethal, like a weapon.

Over the years I have stumbled on several words to articulate this distance: gender-non conforming to express an inability (and perhaps unwillingness) to identify with the masculinity I was assigned at birth and ‘asexuality’ to articulate an inability to feel authentically ‘sexual,’ capable and worthy of wanting. But these terms never really felt adequate to articulate that conglomeration of anxiety, power, histories, stories, and paradoxes that come to mind when I think of my gender and sexuality. Like all identity markers they are shorthands we have been prescribed to halt conversation: we can retreat into our identities like we retreat into our apartments not asking how and why we got there, who we gentrified to get there, not being able to have a conversation about how this place will never fit all of our idiosyncrasies.

And this ‘distance’ has been something I have been trying to reconcile for years: how to articulate that mixture of power, shame, desire, and fear that makes me uncomfortable thinking about myself as a sexual body. And, simultaneously, how to challenge the onslaught of dogma from so called ‘sex radicals’ who claim that we have just internalized ‘sex shame’ and that shame is something we can be emancipated from.

So when I talk about asexuality I don’t mean some sort of sanitized model of identity politics invested in being recognized and affirmed (by capitalism) – I’m talking about that distance. That absence of wanting. That anxious condition of not being able to differentiate trauma from truth – that peculiar position of never being able to divorce ourselves from the power that continues to shape our every want, desire, and action.

Why Asexual Identity Politics Isn’t Enough

As a queer South Asian I don’t feel comfortable ascribing the identity of ‘asexual’ to my body. Part of the ways in which brown men have been oppressed in the Western world is by de-emasculating them and de-sexualizing them (check out David Eng’s book Racial Castration). What then would it mean for me to identify as an ‘asexual?’ What would this agency look like in a climate of white supremacy? Can I ever authentically express ‘my’ (a)sexuality or am I always rehearsing colonial logics?

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