Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, Part I: Princesses and The Brown Girl's Dilemma


I'm a 23 year old Sinhalese woman in Minnesota by way of Dubai by way of Sri Lanka. I am a Womanist, and part of my womanism is figuring out how to be in solidarity with my transnational sisters worldwide. I'm a daughter, a sister, a partner and a writer. I'm a brown girl who knows Shakespeare by heart and devours anything Toni Morrison. I believe in radical, revolutionary living and loving.  I blog at Irresistible Revolution.

Yesterday, I came across an article on Racialicious about erotica writer Kama Spice. Kama talks eloquently about the power of women-centric erotica, and how she uses writing to heal from the wounds of sexism and racism. I was so intrigued after reading that I immediately purchased her novel 'Tia's War' in e-book form.

See I was always a fantasy-oriented gal. As far back as I can recall, I would indulge in these elaborate fantasies centered around me and my latest celebrity crush. I would be a beautiful warrior, an exquisitely anguished elven princess or a Jedi with long rippling hair. But when I took a Women's Studies class in college, I was introduced to a term that functioned as the proverbial light-bulb on my long time fantasy life: white-normativity. White normativity refers to a collection of processes whereby many of us are socialized into accepting 'white' as the norm, as simply and neutrally human. In every single one of my fantasy worlds, I had imagined myself as a white woman. In retrospect, I don't find this very surprising. Fantasy is, after all, about escape, mental pleasure,and the idealized re-imaginings of our desires in a world where we have the ultimate control over how those desires run their course. What were my desires then and how did whiteness function as a receptacle? As a short, average-sized brown girl with bushy hair and thick eyebrows, with a penchant for toting hefty volumes of Shakespeare about school, I was far from the pinnacle of what was considered desirable. I would consume literature by Keats and Shelley, Lawrence and the Bronte sisters, and I would seethe with a passion and romantic desire that never came to fruition in the real world. I wanted the perfect love, the most unadulterated passion, and in order to get those things I instinctively conceived that I would have to become the most perfect, unadulterated woman: cis, white, fragile, blonde and able-bodied.

What does any of this have to do with Kama Spice and erotica? EVERYTHING. Like almost everything else in our post-colonial reality, 'fantasy' is often code for white people in white worlds living heroic lives we can all (supposedly) identify with. To this day I can thoroughly enjoy a well-crafted romance novel if the characters are at least somewhat believable, but look up historical romance or fantasy/sci-fi romance, and what are we inundated with? Lots and lots and lots of creamy-skinned women with long silky tresses, their bosoms heaving against velvet gowns. And that doesn't even touch on the erasure of queer desire and bodies from what we understand as conventional fantasy/romance.

I'm a strong believer in the power of fantasy; I think a robust fantasy life provides us with the ultimate safe space - our minds - within which to enact our desires, imagine their consequences, and test the many facets of our individual sexualities. In fact, one only need look at runaway corporate successes like 'Twilight' to recognize the power of fantasy. But it is the ultimate confirmation of hierarchy, that 'fantasy' is coded as white, cis and heterosexual and that those social identities are consumed by millions in a taken-for-granted context of ultimate desirability. In describing the power of literature, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie talks about "how vulnerable we are in the face of a story". How vulnerable we indeed are, within the raw and often unexamined spaces of our subconscious where desire lies hidden and hungry.

Now there may very well be folks for whom imagining themselves in a different racial body is not at all tied to real-life issues of self perception; I'm merely pointing out that for me, and I suspect a substantial number of others, equating the privileges, the immutability of whiteness with happiness and fulfillment, is all too often but a dark mirror of our everyday lives wherein our flesh-and-bones coded identities of brown or queer or disabled or trans painfully shape how we walk through this world. If we are not safe from the encroachment of ideologized, colonial whiteness into our most intimate selves - that space between dreaming and waking when we dare to look our desires naked in the eye - then how do we arm ourselves to face the realities of a neo-colonial world?

Between ivory princesses and Nordic elf-queens, the dark female body exists as the Other, the negative against which the construction of ideal (white) cis-womanhood - innocence, fragility, desirability- are culled and constructed. A simple glance at the signifying differences between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel in Disney's latest venture, "Tangled' illustrates this quite well. If one purpose of fantasy is providing escapism from a flawed world, it is absolutely necessary that everyone has tools to construct a fantasy world where they can be affirmed for everything they are, including their race. As we walk through a world where whiteness, thinness and cis-genderism is worshipped, for many of us, fantasizing about a better life where we are whiter, thinner, and more 'normal' is the insidious deepening of psychic wounds that eventually catch up with us.

And while writers like Frantz Fanon and Gloria Anzaldua have created trailblazing work based on decolonizing our psyches, Kama Spice and writers like her are doing the same invaluable work in an arena that's often reviled (especially in white feminist circles): pop-culture. You see, the dilemma for most white feminists is whether to reject or accept a cultural landscape where a particular form of white womanhood is predominant. For women of color, the struggle goes much deeper, as we must validate our own womanhood even as we must recognize the erasure of that womanhood in cultural sites that many of us enjoy or grew up with. We deserve an equal place at the table of fantasy and play and romance, and we deserve to own and nurture our desires free from colonialities that exploit our longings in order to perpetuate white heteropatriarchy.