Today a friend told me that she feels put down when I talk about my lack of white privilege in dating, because I have beauty privilege, and that’s just as strong a force. Now, I’m not going to take part in the Privilege Olympics, the combination of privilege and context makes many situations incomparable, but I do want to talk about the concept of beauty and attractiveness for me as a mixed race, heterosexual woman.
First off, either end of the spectrum. There are times when men find my ethnicity appealing because it is familiar to them and there are times when men find my ethnicity unappealing because it is unfamiliar to them. In my experience the former has often been culturally South Asian men, the latter culturally East Asian men. I’m talking about the South Asian guys who have approached me, followed me, acted as if they are entitled to my attention and company. I’m talking about the East Asian guys I have met through my work or studies who I have been interested in and who have made it clear they don’t consider me a woman because I don’t fit their image of what an English woman should look like (white, thin, preferably blonde with light eyes). There have obviously been many, many exceptions to these examples; I’m not talking about them right now.
It gets more complicated when you bring my class and background into this. I grew up in a middle class white area and no comprehension of my colouring, so being considered attractive by a middle class white men is what I expected and, at points, needed in order to consider myself attractive. Over the years I have discovered that middle class white men will not look at me if there is an equally attractive white girl of any class around to look at instead. Please don’t try to tell me I’m mistaken, or being unfair to those poor boys – being acknowledged or ignored for my skin colour is a part of my life, hence the first question of so, so many people: “Where are you from?” Listen to my accent and you’ll KNOW where I’m from, but I’m pretty sure “near London” isn’t the answer you’re looking for.
The best part is that if a middle class white man does seem interested in me, I am incapable of being simply flattered and appreciative; instead I am only cynical and suspicious until the guy in front of me has proven himself innocent. Innocent of what? Well, there are two major alternatives here: either the guy ‘doesn’t see race’, which is fine for a night but means any relationship would involve me explaining or even defending my frustration with a world that does see race; or the guy does see race, and he likes it, the more ‘exotic’ the better. What’s that, you grew up in England? That’s okay, baby – being a hot Asian is in your BLOOD. (Yes, that is an actual line I have been given. I’m sure you can imagine how beautiful that made me feel.)
There is, of course, a third possibility: that a man of any class or ethnicity and I make a connection as humans, are attracted to each other and start a relationship based on personality and compatibility. He understands to an extent the significance of my race in my life and is willing to listen to me vent about the negative sides of that, but it neither drew him to me nor kept him from me. And that’s a wonderful thing, but remains completely separate from the fact that in the worlds of random encounters in clubs, bars, even walking down the street, I am very often overlooked in comparison to the attention I imagine white women of similar looks would receive.
I don’t want any more street harassment, what I get is bad enough, but there have been times when I’ve been quite keen to go home with somebody for a night and my so-called beauty privilege has got me nowhere. I could be wrong about this, but I presume that at least part of the reason is because these men assume we will have less in common than my skin colour indicates, because colour and culture are still so tightly linked in a lot of people’s minds whether they acknowledge it or not. It certainly is in my mind; I still tense up when I walk past a man with South Asian features because I wonder if he’ll approach me, even though the last time that happened was a few years ago and he could be as British as I am while a white man could be Eastern European. It’s ridiculous, but instinctive by this point in my socialisation.
And all of this affects the relationship I have with my colouring. When explaining my ethnicity I make sure to tell people that my mother was only born in a different country, she doesn’t have any of that cultural baggage to be intimidated by. “You wouldn’t know she wasn’t born here if you spoke to her on the phone!” is a common line. I play up my features in conversation, make a game out of guessing my family background, find ways to compensate for not being thin because “everything about me is big and round like my large, dark eyes; I’m just in proportion,” a common line I used when introducing myself to people on the internet when I was younger. Sorry for the chubby tummy, I’ve been given compliments on my eyes and boobs so focus on those instead! Sometimes I am exoticising or objectifying myself, and sometimes apologising for myself, but I always, ALWAYS end up wondering how much of his attraction to me has to do with my unusual appearance, and how much has to do with acceptance that my English accent, name and background have won me.
From my point of view, the beauty privilege I may have starts to exist when people can hear my accent and ceases to exist the moment I go to a different ethnic context, like East Asia. My cynicism about the connection between my supposed beauty and my non-Caucasian colouring and features never goes away. And here’s the real point I want to make, before I get emailed with “But I’m fat, what about that?” or “Hey, try being in a wheelchair!” because I realise that I do have a certain amount of conventional attractiveness and the privilege that comes with that, and frankly, I have it a lot easier than many. However, I am not suggesting for a moment that having white privilege means you automatically have it better than me in the dating game: it just means that until you go to a different ethnic context you don’t have to even consider that your colour may be the reason you have it better or worse.