One of the most insightful articles I remember reading during undergraduate anthropology was by an English literature scholar examining western fascination with the ‘exotic other’. He described how the white tendency to fetishise and ‘study’ colonised populations was driven not only by the need for expanding markets at the economic level, or the need for greater territory and military prowess at the political level, but also by sexual desire for the exotic at the psychological/unconscious level. Indeed, he suggested that cross-cultural interaction and influence during the colonial moment (which is ongoing in many parts of the world) spreads through a limited number of ways – namely, language and sex (I can’t remember if he included trade). He often referred to colonial anthropologists and geographers who were well respected in their home countries and professional fields, despite of (or because of?) their wide-ranging sexual relations with ‘the natives’. Such sexual desire for ‘the natives’, according to this writer, was underpinned by a sense of adventure and conquering the unknown, and a drive to realise and strengthen one’s own civilised whiteness and identity by saving the exotic other from the dark throes of savagery.
Thankfully, ALL the people he referred to were male and white. In fact, the entire article was about white male sexual desire and how it is indulged through colonial relations and the western missionary/saviour complex.
Phew! thought the starry-eyed humanitarian in me. I’m not white, I’m not male, I don’t have a penis which can hide my brain when it doesn’t want to work, or a libido that can be titillated by a brown-skinned girl in a coconut bra. So my desire to help all those dark people in all those poor villages is not at all related to white colonial sexual fantasy and an unconscious saviour complex, right?
Ummm…wrong, according to my therapist.
To backtrack slightly, L and I are having some pretty major issues right now as he goes through a rough patch. To deal with all of this, I booked myself into a counselling session, because I don’t really know what else to do besides cry tears of frustration and slam all the doors in the house until they disintegrate into cracked splinters. (Oh, and blog).
The therapist took one look at my situation and saw western-wannabe-humanitarian-meets-black-boy-in-distress. She gently explained to me how, sometimes, people with a human services orientation meet somebody ‘interesting’ and initiate a relationship with that person not for who they are, but because of who they represent, because of all the potential in them to change. Or, more accurately, the potential in them to be changed (i.e. be saved). She reminded me that “He is not a project; he is not a member of population you are interested in studying; he is a human being who can only help himself”.
Yup, thanks for reminding me that my partner is a human being.
Forgive my sarcasm. I just can’t help but feel completely misunderstood and patronised. I know she was well-meaning and concerned for my welfare, but implying that I am with somebody for all the wrong reasons and that I am incapable of loving somebody outside of my professional and academic commitments, is hardly conducive to healing. And the more sinister implication that I am with L only to realise an aspect of my own identity (western saviour to this ‘traumatised’ black boy) was absolutely devastating.
(I guess my therapist, if she ever read this, would read a lot into my defensiveness here. But whatever).
I fled that counselling session and am yet to get up the courage to go back. Maybe if she had asked questions about how we met, how long we’ve been together, the nature of our relationship and how we feel about each other, she would have realised that I am acutely aware of this dynamic. It took me almost 3 years to agree to go out with L because I wanted to make sure my feelings were genuine. I would never have been that careful had he been a white guy; I would have plunged into the relationship, ‘given it a shot’, and sorted out the issues later. Yes, I treaded water carefully because of his personal and cultural background, even tolerated things that I would not have tolerated had I been with the guy-next-door. But ‘giving way’ in such a relationship (where there is an imbalance in racial privilege, at least publically) – or even BEING in such a relationship in the first place – does not automatically call into question one’s basic reasons for loving their partner.
These thoughts have arisen in response to a great conversation amongst South Asian intercultural relationship bloggers about balancing their ‘gori’ identity with their partner’s culture. Some, like Sara at A Little Bit of that Too, went through a stage of enthusiastically courting South Asia. Others have never felt the need to embrace their partner’s culture so enthusiastically.
Adding my two cents worth, I commented on a number of posts that I would never overtly embrace the markers of L’s culture, or even directly express interest in the cultural differences between us. If I did, L would think I was just being a middle-class, confused white person who doesn’t truly understand cultural difference at all (and worse still, a try-hard white person because I’m not actually white: trying to be white by trying to be ethnic!). On the back of his interactions with westerners here and in Africa, he very much associates this fascination for ‘other cultures’ with white fantasy and colonial exoticisation (in Australia, it’s certainly true that most people’s perceptions of and questions about Africa are based more on personal ideas/fantasies than on any real knowledge of what life is like over there). So, if I expressed interest in his culture, for him it would be more about me using it to explore an aspect of my own identity (Eat, Pray, Love style), rather than actually understanding where he’s coming from (even though I LOVE learning about other cultures, and from my perspective it’s about understanding others as well as myself). And in so far that I have the privilege, education and resources to make such dips into another culture to ‘discover myself’ and ‘have a spiritual awakening’, yes, the process is inherently exploitative and tinged with racism. In the extreme version of this argument, embracing Africa would simply be a tool to solidify my own sense of self as an enlightened cosmopolitan westerner (the ‘trying to be white by trying to be ethnic’ thing isn’t a joke).
A lot of this stuff also comes from my own experience of fielding ‘culturally sensitive’ comments and questions from people in Australia who, despite their good intentions, come across as infuriatingly ignorant. But it’s best not to get started on this…
Until now I have felt just a wee bit smug populating the blogosphere with my clever commentary. The “I’m so enlightened and cosmopolitan and suave that I don’t even have to embrace another culture to prove my enlightened-cosmopolitaness” type of smug.
Then I remember how hurt I felt when my own motives for being with L were bluntly questioned. And how angry I felt when we were typecast into a saviour/other script that, at least in my mind, ran with the more extreme points of the exoticism and colonial desire argument; without once acknowledging all the love, frustration, joy and anger that goes on between us as two people, independent of any historical and psychological meta-narrative we may fall into.
Having spent much time at university examining patterns of racism, exoticisation, white fantasy and colonial guilt in western culture and politics, it’s been easy to project these same patterns onto other people’s intercultural relationship experiences, based on this-or-that post which I just happened to read. What’s been harder, I’ve discovered from hurtful personal experience, is to let go of my assumptions and understand people’s experiences from their point of view rather than my own.