Ok, so maybe the Indian guy on the bus didn’t put it that bluntly to L.
But he did put it pretty bluntly.
L and I started going out towards the end of 2007. NYE o7 was one of our first ‘proper’ dates. That morning I’d missed a flight from interstate back to our home city. Catching the late plane instead, I rushed from the airport to meet L around 10 pm. Now I usually feel very uncomfortable in make-up and jewellery, but those first few dates I did make the effort to look nice and dress up (a bit). So that night, running from the plane to the train to the bus in my jeans, red hoodie and old sneakers, I wasn’t feeling particularly glamorous.
As it was too late to find a quiet, romantic hideaway by the time we met up, L and I crammed into a bus heading towards the waterfront for a view of the fireworks. An Indian guy was sitting in front of us and he struck up a conversation. We started with the usual questions: “Where are you from?”, “How long have you been here?” etc.
One thing that always alarms me when speaking to South Asians – despite having a South Asian family myself – is how quickly a ‘general’ conversation becomes inundated by questions that are considered highly personal by western standards. To give this guy some justice, he had very recently moved from India and I know over there it’s not necessarily rude to ask questions like, “what visa do you have”, “how old are you”, “are your parents strict with you?” This last one always irks me when I’m with L because we are obviously a couple and the underlying question really seems to be, “because if they’d raise you as a good Indian girl you wouldn’t be traipsing around with a black guy”.
Or with a white guy. I’ve had hotel staff in India directly ask me if my parents raised me strictly and – grrr – whether I’m a virgin (!!) when I’ve checked in with white male friends. Obviously no good unmarried Indian girl would go to a hotel with a white guy and therefore I’m a whore. I’m not ok with this, but at least when it comes to comments with white guys the insult’s on me. With L, with a black guy, there’s the added, “how can you even stand being with this guy” attitude. L and I once had a south Indian man, at a church BBQ, ask us whether we’re going out, ask if my parents are strict, and then say proceed to tell us that his daughters are ‘good girls’ who will only marry Indian men, “not from Africa or anywhere else”. Geez what a way to be insulting and racist. (Fortunately L is not as sensitive as I am to such South Asian comments, otherwise I doubt he could stand being with me).
But I’m ranting and digressing. Back to the guy on the bus. There I am trying to have a romantic NYE with L, not feeling my best-looking, when this guy asks L with a smirk and head waggle, “Have you ever slept with a white girl?”
Mate, I’m right here.
Clearly I don’t fit the ‘hot’ white beauty ideal (an ideal so impossible most women – black, brown, Asian, white and beautiful – struggle to meet) but can’t you hold your tongue? Firstly, it is insulting and makes me feel completely inadequate. Secondly, seeing you’ve just implied I’m a whore for being with L, it goes beyond double-standards to ask if L has slept with a white girl, and then tell us victoriously that yes, he has claimed the prize. Shut up.
As we’d just started dating and were kind of nervous around each other, L and I never spoke about it at the time. But lately I’ve been thinking more and more about beauty standards, probably because I’m on a bit of a downer with my self-esteem and most days feel puffy-eyed, grumpy and ugly. So I asked L last week what he’d really thought about that guy on the bus. It took a bit to prod his memory – L didn’t react to the guy as harshly as I did. But he admitted that when he first moved to Australia, he also found white women desirable. “If you’re from Africa, or India, or anywhere really, you’re taught to find white women attractive. They’re all over tv, in the media, in the magazine. It’s not unusual he thought like that. I wouldn’t take it personally” – easy for a guy to say – “And it’s not just men. Even women in those places are taught to strive for white features. Look at all the skin whitening creams all over Asia and all the hair straightening products in Africa”.
It’s the mainstream beauty ideal men are taught to desire and women are taught to emulate.
There are obviously all sorts of beauty ideals and fetishes out there, all kinds of things we’re taught about desiring the exotic other. L’s line is, “maybe migrant men are excited to be in a country with heaps of white women when the first come, just like white guys might be excited to be in Thailand or Latin America or somewhere, but I think everyone gets over it pretty quickly. You realise people are just the same”.
I’ll just go with that then.