The Yale prospectus is a catalogue of New England eye candy: ortho-perfect smiles, windswept bangs and the fading tans of Cape Cod summers. Flipping through the pictures as a high school senior, Sarah X was smitten. She blushed at Brooks Brothers blazers. She swooned over taut limbs in Ultimate Frisbee action shots.
Once she arrived on campus, however, none of those blue eyes gazed in her direction.
Sarah is Latina. At Yale, she has been disheartened, like many other minority women, by the white, blonde and skinny female ideal from which her phenotypes exclude her.
The rarity of interracial dating at Yale, and across America, is unsurprising. As a country and college, we are extremely self-segregated. When it comes to relationships, similarity is a powerful aphrodisiac, whether it is physical likeness, shared beliefs, values, social class, education or culture. So as long as our society is racially divided, dating will be also.
There is nothing racist about a racial sexual preference; people are often attracted to physical and personal characteristics that belong, typically, to particular ethnic groups. However, we have all grown up in a profoundly racist society. Racial preference becomes problematic when we conceive our personal relationships through this prejudiced lens of economics and power.
At Yale, Sarah felt that the white men she attracted were drawn often to the “exoticism” of her Latina looks. Today the word “exotic” evokes coconut bikinis, belly dancers, geisha girls and Turkish harems — a transnational, hyper-sexualized female “other.”
I recommend Googling “exotic” if you’re in the market for a personal lap dance, Brazilian swimwear or a mail-order bride.
When a dating preference is based on a racial stereotype the cross-racial object is reduced to a collection of essential, sexualized qualities. To “like Asian women” is to have a preconceived, generalized idea about what it is to be an Asian female — as a result, 30 percent of the world population is homogenized. These individuals can sometimes feel pressure to play into the racial stereotypes they believe determine their attractiveness.
Our notions of desirability are still embedded in histories of oppression. The long idealized innocent, docile and domestic woman is, essentially, an eroticized indentured servant. Racism became institutionalized, in part, through the domination of non-white sexuality. Now flyby strip clubs and X-rated Web sites reflect our society’s bigoted sexual myths. Pornography’s stock characters include the well-endowed black man, the petite, submissive Asian woman and the Jezebel.
The media not only perpetuates certain racial fetishes, but also places an overall premium on whiteness. Because Western values are globally pervasive, status, and therefore desirability, is conferred by a light skin tone. It is no surprise that America’s greatest female black icons — Halle Berry and Beyonce — and Latina beauties — Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek — have particularly light complexions.
Freshman year, Sarah realized that her attraction to clean-cut Anglos was the result of some un-politically correct parental wisdom. From a young age her family had advised her that marrying someone of lighter pigmentation would ultimately improve opportunities for her children. In order to be fully accepted into American society, her parents told her, if subtextually, that skin color must be gradually, generationally bleached.
This hierarchy of hue often exists within minority communities. In America and around the world, skin color is closely tied to perceptions of class and wealth. Telenovela starlets are usually blond, while skin-whitening products have achieved popularity in Southeast Asia.
In a Ross study of Internet speed dating, 17 percent of black women in America indicated a preference for a person of lighter complexion. This number is over twice as high for black men. The disparity is no shock; standards of beauty are always more stringently imposed on women and the white Western media dictates these standards. This is compounded by the idea of “race treachery” — a disproportionately female concern.
There is often pressure within historically oppressed minorities to preserve their culture through intra-marriage. This is especially significant in the African-American community, whose collective identity was so brutally and systematically stripped by the institution of slavery. Women may experience greater race traitor pressure because they consider themselves the last defenders of the black family or, perhaps, because of the lingering memory of the sexual violence committed by white men against female slaves.
Intra-racial marriage often isn’t reactive, but in fact born of racial pride and a preference for non-white beauty. This, however, runs counter to the mainstream ideals extolled by the American media.
Minority women are left in the most difficult dating position. They are, in general, more inclined to date within a pool of same-race men, which, at least at Yale, is already small.
Yale, thankfully, is a more progressive, enlightened environment than the rest of the country. Students here are more likely to be seen as individuals than be defined by a race, religion or nationality. These racial divisions, however, still persist. Hopefully, one day our world will move beyond sexual racial prejudices. But in the meantime, I hope that Disney’s first animated film featuring a black princess (“The Frog Princess,” to be released in 2009) won’t be horrendously offensive. She’s an indentured servant to a white woman in New Orleans with a voodoo priestess fairy godmother. So … fingers crossed!