Decolonize your desire

Small shifts can change culture for the better 

Written by Chiara Nonni

In 2016, playwright and philanthropist Jeremy O. Harris wrote an article for Vice titled Decolonizing my Desire where he discusses growing up in predominantly white spaces and how those experiences affected his attraction to men. Harris relates the tokenism he felt as a Black man conforming to white culture with the colonial structures inherent in North American culture. He speaks of the struggle of finding his own body desirable after growing up in an environment where desire toward whiteness was culturally ubiquitous. 

While this may sound somewhat abstract and heady, there is an important lesson to be taken from Harris’ piece. While he was able to analyze and interpret his feelings of desire and how they relate to both his identity and the history of his people, that is a tall order for many others to consider

Analysis of the structures of our desire is a great thing to think about, particularly since it bleeds over into many other aspects of life. What we are attracted to can be attributed to our own individual personalities but it is also the result of our community values, and the structures and systems that are in place. Decolonizing your own desire means thinking about what or who you are attracted to and considering why you feel that way and what may have conditioned you toward these preferences. 

Colonialism is considered by some to be an historical event; something far in the past that bears little resemblance to where we are today as a society. The reality is that the colonial structures of the past play a huge role in our current culture. European ideology, as a result of international political control through colonialism, is inherent in North America today. Those biases, including white supremacism and prejudice introduced by colonialism remain in the present, even though there has been significant progress. 

Though the work in addressing these issues can seem daunting, it's important. Addressing internally who you desire and why may open up insight into other emotions you feel or judgements you make while navigating the world. It may even reveal insights into your own sexual self, and how you perceive yourself as a sexual being. It is an observation into empathy and how our culture has conditioned us to internalize biases in how we desire one another sexually. 

Author Delia Gebrial discusses these ideas in her work Decolonizing Desire: The Politics of Love. In it, she describes her own experiences as a woman of color: “A series of small lessons learned through film, television and personal experience, accumulated to the eventual understanding that people who look like me cannot be the subjects of love. If lucky, we can be objects of fetishisation but that is very different to being perceived as lovable.” 

Gebrial states that historical interpretations of those under the rule of colonization still maintain their hold on us to this day. “We can find many of the origin stories of contemporary racial grammars,” she says. 

Because colonists were more interested in the value of bodies as opposed to personhood, and they worked hard to maintain these racialized ideas, we can see evidence of colonial ideology today. The hypersexualization of Black women, for example, can be related back to the imprisonment and display of Sarah (Saartijie) Baartman, commonly known as the “Hottentot Venus.” European fascination with Baartman’s naked body informed supposed “scientific” ideas regarding African sexuality and promiscuity. Today, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “Black women face high rates of intimate partner violence, rape and homicide. Black girls and women also experience institutionalized racism; they are disproportionately punished in school, funneled into the criminal justice system after surviving physical or sexual abuse, disproportionately subjected to racial profiling and police brutality and incarcerated at rates far exceeding their share of the population.”

This through line of colonial thought to modern action displays the power of this grim history. As much as society wants to leave this history behind, we have to review and understand the coded social value that is the result of colonial rhetoric. And this is simply one example of many. Orientalism, homosexual erasure and perverse scientific fetishization of people of color by colonial Europeans has resulted in a culture that upholds able-bodied, heterosexual whiteness to be the ideal. 

The persistence of these structures of desire is harming you no matter your race. If you are a person of color, are queer, are disabled or just don’t look like the traditional beauty standard we have all been fed since birth it's likely that you have been prevented from achieving sexual wellness — however that looks for you. Colonial ideologies inform who is worthy of desire and who isn’t, but the truth is that we all are worthy of desire from others and desire from ourselves. Breaking these down is the first step to decolonizing your desires. 

Speaking of which, cultivating desire for yourself is a great way to start investigating the influences that inform your preferences. What do you find sexy about yourself? What don’t you find sexy? Why? Are your preferences simply that? Or, are they influenced by popular culture and can they be considered fetishizing? 

A quick word on fetishization: as described by Janice Gassam Asare for a recent article, “Fetishization can be thought of as the act of making someone an object of sexual desire based on some aspect of their identity.” In fact, preferences toward different identity groups can often reinforce harmful stereotypes, leading to the strengthening of other stereotypes of that group. Asare notes that fetishization can often seem complimentary but has roots in colonial structures that uphold Eurocentrism as the ideal. Fetishization is still a judgement and bias against a particular group, following a similar pattern to other racist behaviors though it seemingly moves in the opposite direction. 

Research into the politics of desire and its influences is another great exercise. Reading books or articles and watching documentaries can help provide historical context to how you feel about others and yourself. Entering these spaces from a curious perspective is also helpful. Know that even these little steps are small ways of changing culture for the better. Increased mindfulness and intention with your words, thoughts and actions is a way of breaking these harmful patterns.

Of course, this issue is incredibly complex. We encourage you to do your own research, both externally and internally. Be open to learning from history and analyzing within yourself. Your current or future partner may thank you for it. You may thank yourself for it. Decolonizing our desires doesn’t mean that you can’t have preferences, it's a way to understand the influence of your preferences and may allow you to open yourself in a way you haven’t before. 

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