The first time someone commented on my “unique” hair and complexion in the club, I rolled my eyes and laughed out loud. No doubt it was meant as a compliment, but I thought it funny someone could make such a surface level comment. Born and raised in Canada, I didn’t view myself as different or foreign from any of my peers. But what was left of the small, self-conscious preteen part of me almost basked in the comments. Freshly legal me accepted it- my thick hair and tan complexion were a part of me, so their validation added to mine overall. Feeling desired can be fun, even if for the wrong reasons.
On subsequent occasions, I grit my teeth. Though I considered my appearance to be an integral part of my identity, I realized those addressing me considered it to be the central part of my identity. Where are you from? Do you speak any other languages? I just love your name. You quickly get tired of trying to politely deflect these advances, knowing full well that your white female peers would never be approached for sex like this. Worse still, this would never be seen by my male peers as a legitimate method of ‘wheeling’ a white girl. And yet, most of my ethnic friends will tell you that their ethnicity has been used as a conversation starter, usually more than once.
From where I’m at currently, this is just some mildly irritating anecdotal evidence of what it feels like to realize that despite crossing all the boxes on paper, you can still represent ‘the Other’. These interactions are a slight on individual agency- someone else is defining your identity for you.
I’d be lying if I said variations of this only happen to coloured girls. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard girls around me say “I’m really into black guys” – to have all of her friends laugh in response. Do a quick web search on “female sex tourism” and it’s quickly evident that this obsession extends across generations. Though it may be concealed as “romantic tourism”, underlying Western notions of race have shaped economic and sexual exchanges between western women and men in Latin and Central America and East Africa for decades.
“It is the young black male body that is seen as epitomizing this promise of wildness, of unlimited physical prowess and unbridled eroticism. It was this black body that was most “desired” for its labor in slavery, and it is this body that is most represented in contemporary popular culture as the body to be watched, imitated, desired, possessed. Rather than a sign of pleasure in daily life outside the realm of consumption, the young black male body is represented most graphically as the body in pain”
-Bell Hooks, Eating The Other: Desire and Resistance
Regardless of where you were born, your family background, your personality, your political viewpoints: if you have coloured skin, you quickly learn that this is what people will notice first. You quickly learn that uniqueness can be commodified, that this might be how you’re defined sexually. And it makes it that much harder to sift out fact from fiction, genuine interest from curiosity.
Desirability is often considered to be subjective. Realistically, deeply held (and usually concealed) views of race still structure our perceptions of beauty and desirability. Fair skin, straight hair, minimal body hair. My preteen self had a rigid notion of what constituted beauty- one that I eventually learned many of my “ethnic” friends shared. Only recently have we collectively decided beauty norms need a good reshaping- I can now buy a “nude” shade that actually matches my skin tone, and white girls everywhere are proudly embracing their body hair. More on that at a different time.
The first time someone commented on my “unique” hair and complexion in East Africa, it felt off. I smiled and said thank you, you have beautiful skin too. It was a ten-year-old girl telling me she wished she ‘had skin like mine’.
Unlike being in Toronto, it’s impossible to forget how my appearance factors into daily relations here. If I go to the market or walk along the side of the road, I stick out like a sore thumb. Everything about me from my skin, to my tattoos, to my hair, to my clothes, marks me as “from away”.
One of the girls I lived with last year described it like being a celebrity. It goes in stages like this:
- Initially flattered, excited to meet new people.
- Taken aback, realizing that you’re an interesting novelty more than anything else.
- Sad, in reflecting upon why it is exactly that you are a novelty, and why everyone really wants to shake your hand and touch your hair.
- Frustrated, at everyone else for not respecting your privacy, personal space, and feelings as a human being.
- Frustrated, at yourself for being so privileged and for feeling frustrated at all.
(** Reaching stage 6 is highly unlikely. More likely: repeat Stages 3 through 5 ad infinitum)
“Uniqueness” is still what people notice first. But instead of being commodified, it’s put on a pedestal. Politely deflecting sexual advances is still tiring, because you still know that if you had a different skin colour you wouldn’t be approached this way.
The experience is multilayered- beyond appearance there are facets of my identity which further separate me from the norm around me. Being unmarried, alone, not being fluent in the local dialect. Not being fluent in any Indian dialect. Being physically smaller. Being a woman –where men manage a fair portion of daily affairs. Occupying a unique position of privilege happens to come with a unique position of vulnerability, wherein having male allies is essential.
In Pat Calpan’s essay “Learning Gender” she describes how as a young woman starting fieldwork in Tanzania, she sought an ungendered role in her work. Seeking to ensure allyship and a good working relationship with men in her community, she projected a “neutral” version of herself. Part of this centred on a western notion of female autonomy: being an independent, single, career-minded woman, was a central tenet of her identity. This meant that though the women around her were her close friends, she regarded the women and structure of gender relations in East Africa as different and separate from her own life. She goes on to describe how over subsequent visits to Tanzania her views on gender and it’s social role changed significantly, as she also moved through motherhood, her marriage, and her career in Britain.
Young Pat is relatable. Despite a hard-earned belief in being an independent badass bitch, I catch myself seeking to project a more neutral, less noticeable version of myself. I catch myself trying to mask parts of my identity out of guilt. I catch myself struggling to reconcile my Toronto-grown conception of female professional autonomy with how I am perceived as an unmarried western woman in the village. A nagging feeling of dishonesty, of having two conflicting identities, is on a consistent low buzz. And another nagging feeling: “when women lie, we lend credence to age-old sexist stereotypes that suggest women are inherently, by virtue of being female, less capable of truth telling” (bell hooks, all about love: new visions).
I won’t ever be able to separate my identity from my current environment, nor from other people’s perceptions of my identity. Nor can anyone. I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to have complete agency over their identity. But. In the words of Sartre: freedom is found in the ability to mentally interpret one’s own life for oneself, to define oneself and create one’s own values. I’m fortunate to have male and female allies whom I respect and trust, and who I share values with. In my view- for the time being, that’s the best I can do.
I like to wear long sleeves to cover my tattoos (one of the best and worst things about tattoos is that they are permanent). Mine are: a snake/thuol (sure sign of witchcraft), “l’enfer, c’est les autres” (more fire truth by Sartre), and half of a quote by Beckett. In full-
La fin est dans le commencement
Et cependant on continue.