What's your type?

You can’t give a response to “What’s your type?” without having to answer to race.

The usual responses I hear include personality traits (like “funny,” “laid back,” or “intelligent”), facial hair attributes (such as “clean-shaven” or “five o’ clock shadow”), and occupational affiliations or interests (for instance, “someone who likes to cook” or “not a lawyer”).

But then things start getting tricky. People try to dodge the question of race by talking about skin tones: “light-skinned,” “dark-skinned,” “brown-skinned,” or “caramel complexion.” They worm around being explicit by mentioning attributes like “blue eyes and blonde hair” or social circumstances like “someone from the hood.” And my all-time favorite circumvention? Straight up without being straightforward: “Someone who looks like me.”

Sometimes, though, people try to be honest: I had a friend begin listing personality traits, interests, potential job positions before glimpsing around and, with his eyes low, moving his lips only oh-so-much to produce in the quietest little whisper, “White.” Why, I thought, should he keep his confident answer to himself? Why are we afraid to proclaim our preferences (and I do believe they are preferences, as opposed to orientations) if we are so, it seems, stubborn about them?

I don’t think I knew how concerned people were about the race of their mates until I went to college. When I was growing up, my parents would indeed make flabbergasting comments about the racial make-up of my friends; I am Asian, and most of my closest acquaintances were black, with a sprinkling of every other race and ethnicity to boot. They would advise me to be careful about whom I hung out with, that I should work more to find a group of friends that reflected my roots. Sometimes, my sister—much bolder than I am—would tease my parents: “What if I came home with a white boyfriend? What if I came home with a black boyfriend?” My mom would shake her head, release a touch of nervous laughter, as if to say, “Why would you say such a thing?” Certainly, I thought, this was a generational gap. My parents were simply too old-fashioned to understand my teenage ideal of a post-race dating society. I would need to go to college to be with peers who would understand.

Surprisingly for me, college provided me with the opposite of my expectation. Same-race relationships pervaded most of my small liberal arts community—so much for being liberal, I thought. “What’s your type?” was more rhetorical than inquisitive. In a social scene dominated by Greek life, I found that most whites dated whites, most blacks dated blacks, and everyone else needed to figure out if they were “more white” or “more black” to see where they would fit in. White European or Australian international students, for example, had for their dating pool both the larger white community and each other; a young Asian woman from the hoods of New York, on the other hand, gained street credibility among black students and was able to socialize in that world.

I remember noticing but two attributes that helped students transcend the prison of mate-racing: language and sports. Students who shared an interest in speaking a language—Spanish comes especially to mind—bonded with other students who also spoke the language; here, race played second fiddle to the assumptions of heritage or cultural awareness that came with linguistic talents, whether by birth or high school AP class. Similarly, students who played the same sport on separately gendered teams achieved camaraderie through practices and long-distance conference tours. While this forged a handful of interracial relationships—frequently between a black student and a white student—this also caused interracial-related drama: Why should a white student take a perfectly good black student out from an already limited black dating pool? Why would a black student give up mating options within his or her race for someone who represented the dominant Man?

From my experiences in college and beyond, I’ve found “What’s your type?” to be even more twisted in gay circles. I tend to fit responses I hear into two extreme poles: there’s almost always white, and there’s almost always fetishist. At one end, there fits the aesthetic type sold to us by Abercrombie, American Eagle, JCrew, Armani Exchange, and the rest of the big brand names: white, usually muscular, men. Yes, okay: sometimes there are tokens. But almost always: white. This is what people end up seeing on most of the major porn networks: Sean Cody, Randy Blue, Corbin Fisher—if it’s popular in gay porn, it’s probably white. On the other end, “What’s your type?” gets very specific: Asian. Thin Asian. Latino. Hung Latino. Black. Dark Chocolate. On this side of the spectrum, minorities become desired because they’re, well, minorities—but specifically, minorities with a certain typed physical presence. Men value them explicitly for everything that supposedly comes with being their race or ethnicity; behaviorally, this may come to obedience, machismo, or strength. While the most popular gay pornography sites may not celebrate these ethnic caricatures to the extent that they sell whiteness, searchable porn databases like Xtube drip with clearly-labeled fetishist options, creating categories like Asian, Black, or Latino. Easy access to whatever color—and stereotyped culture—that you want. The cultural baggage is important: if you fit the color but not the trait, then maybe you won’t be as popular among these ethnicity fans. Or, maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll come off as mixed and straddle two potential ethnic markets—if you can pass as mixed white/black, for example, you might be viewed as a mate with training wheels for someone who wants pure white or pure black. No matter what, though, you still seem to be defined by your relationship to these umbrella categories of primary racial colors.

Obviously, as both my dating and pornography options demonstrate, my teenage dreams of a post-race mating scheme didn’t quite play out as I had imagined. I think, however, that that’s a good thing. Years later, the idea of concocting a colorblind world is not only naïve, but also dangerous; not acknowledging that there are differences in treatment and perception simply based on the color of one’s kin is the absolute ignorance of, well, the history of the world. And to think that love, dating, and attraction are immune from these prejudices—or, worse, hide those beliefs with cushy syntax and fancy hints—is to simply perpetuate this post-race fantasy.

I’m not saying that we should assertively proclaim our mating preferences and publicly narrow our options down to our gut’s raced reactions to “What’s your type?” But what does need to happen, I think, is for us to say, “Well, this is my type…” and then it follow-up with the very personal acknowledgement, “And this is probably why…” For many of us, that will be a hard thing to do. It forces us to shed a thin beam of light on the tightly-stacked structures cemented within our social selves. And even more uneasy is the feeling of, “What now?” after we see what’s been built inside of us, oftentimes without our permission at all. I do not know where we go from there. I do not know what to do with the rubble that unsettles when we realize we’re programmed against our will to love who we love. Our responses to “Why?” will not take care of that; they do not justify what we do, but they do, at the very least, do something. “Why?” steps us toward a more productive conversation than one about the pinning down of necessarily (and, I still want to believe, unnecessarily) essentializing characteristics and markers.

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