From where does the question “Where are you from?” come? More importantly, where is the question going? And how can we send it swiftly on its way? The answers may be both ideological and inescapably libidinal.
Living in England while not being white means I am frequently asked where I am from by people I have just met. I have a simple answer, London being where I was born, where I mostly grew up and where I currently live. Occasionally this answer satisfies my interrogator; after all it is consistent with my accent, and usually my current location. More often it does not, due to its failure to offer an explanation for my melanin content. There follows a variety of euphemistic questions I find difficult to answer. The most common: “Yeah but I mean where are you from originally?” nonsensically assumes people begin in some fixed place some vague time before birth, as if tracing ancestry leads to a stationary point rather than a proliferation of branching narratives. “What is your background?” is similarly difficult to answer, as my various erstwhile affiliations and occupations cast but dim and indirect light on the brownness so very much in my foreground. Recently at a dance class a fellow dancer asked, “Where is your blood from?” I was too taken aback to say that I manufacture my own in my bone marrow. Instead I mumbled something about being “a bit of a mix.”
When I was younger I assumed it was incumbent on me to compensate for the confusion inherent in the question by preparing a standard answer efficiently designed to satisfy any curiosity and ameliorate any discomfort occasioned by the presence of my unaccounted melanin, while taking up as little time as possible (after all people don’t want to sit through my whole family history now do they?) and ensuring I escape at least the most unequivocally inaccurate categories, e.g. Arabic or Italian. It has taken significant effort to overcome instinctive politeness and realise I have no such obligations but a duty creatively to resist this epistemic violence.
One might generously say “Ah but these people are just being friendly, curious, interested to learn more about you.” Well, of course getting to know people often includes swapping all sorts of stories about each other’s pasts, family histories, etc. Indeed I enjoy talking to friends at great length about my extended family connections, delving into stories many of which include various migrations. This kind of curiosity, this sharing of stories is not what I am talking about here: impertinent questions from a relative stranger. We would not expect a polite introduction to include questions about the class background of our grandparents, their professions, causes of death, etc. so why should we expect to answer strangers’ questions about our ancestors’ migration trajectories?
Anyway, I learnt long ago that most people asking do not want a long story in response. They are not really curious to discover something unique to you. They are not interested in the particulars of the unfolding sequence of displacements and conjunctions that begat you. They just want to slot you into one of a few pre-existing categories, and if your answer to their confused, presumptuous question is too complex you find yourself categorised as at best extravagantly exotic and at worst obfuscatory, even dishonest.
One arena where the question is asked particularly frequently is Grindr, an iPhone app that some men use to arrange assignations with like-minded others in their vicinity. Grindr chat tends towards efficient informality and dispiriting coarseness. I find many men open conversation with “Hi. Where u from?” and show their impatient dissatisfaction with my “London” answer very plainly. These conversations are usually brief.
Now, many Grindr profiles obviously exhibit a superficially familiar kind of racism. I’m referring to those who choose to use the very small space available for self-description for: “No blacks. No Asians”, “Black or mixed race guys only”, “Only like white dudes”, etc. as if guarding the entrance to a segregated American diner. These notices are superfluous as a filtering device for physical appearance since pictures are invariably exchanged. Of course, these users are not primarily trying to prevent men to whom they would not be attracted from wasting their time. Very little of either party’s time is wasted through a swiftly rejected Grindr message and seeing the profile pictures of most of the men advertising their racist dating criteria would immediately disabuse anyone of the notion that these men are in danger of being swamped by unwanted (or indeed wanted) propositions. Rather we can speculate that they get some kind of kick out of inflicting the humiliation of pre-emptive rejection on their chosen subgroup, elevating their self-perceived power and status. These men are not engaging with Grindr as a neoliberal arena of consumerist transactions, self-branding, and materially motivated competition. Rather, they exhibit highly negative reciprocity, in which triumphing over others is the point of competition.
So far, so simple… I’ve dealt with the performative power trip of negative racial discrimination on Grindr. Now finally I get to what I really want to talk about, i.e. the fantasies of the Other involved in “positively” racist sexual desire. A few months ago I kept going a Grindr conversation about my “background” far longer than usual out of curiosity to see what could be achieved by trying to reason with my interrogator. My curiosity came from having recently read this excerpthttp://spitzenprodukte.tumblr.com/post/39178444989/two-quotes-on-politics-and-homosexual-desire from Guy Hocquenghem’s “The Screwball Asses” which discusses the predilection of certain white middle class Parisian men for sex with working class Arab men and asks “what hides beneath this artificial appropriation of the primitive?” I was still thinking about how “the sexuality of the queers speaking to us in this text demands racism as a particular form of exogamy.” I reproduce here the entirety of the Grindr conversation for completeness and then make several observations. His words are in blue on the left, mine in orange on the right, and sometimes typing delays meant we were responding out of synch.
Much could be commented on this. I’ll pick out what’s most interesting to me.
First, there is the way his “curiosity” is incompatible with any notion that I could be free to self-identify. While maintaining a superficial politeness, his refusal to accept anything I say is unrelenting. He blames “shame” for my failure to agree with him about who I am. The mendacious apologies for making me “upset” are immediately undermined by the continued insistence that I know I am somehow being dishonest: “Just answer”, “Ok U know the meaning” etc. His belief in my dishonesty is due to his total conviction that he already knows the essential truth about me: variously described as “Arab”, “Middle East” or even a “connection with the desert”. This amounts to an imposition of hierarchy in which I am subject to his knowing, powerful gaze. I am humiliated in my very resistance.
Second, he justifies his argument with not only confused evolutionary theory and stories about “Vikings”, but also the state’s legitimation of bureaucratic racism through “ethnicity” questions on official forms: “When u have to fill form u tick what”. This is worth noting when we think about the ideologies those forms perpetuate, while claiming to serve only equal opportunities purposes – as if in a racist society the bureaucratic recording of racial categories without explicitly repudiating their essentialism could actually reduce discrimination!
Third, he rejects the term “racist” on the grounds that his discrimination is positively in favour of my presumed race. [Recent research has shown how “positive” racial sterotyping is both more insidious than explicitly negative stereotyping, less self-policed and more likely to lead to negative discrimination:http://www.peerreviewedbymyneurons.com/2012/12/05/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-positive-stereotype/ ].
After complimenting my “beautiful skin colour”, he explains he was hoping I would say, “Yeah I’m from a sexy place… more than England”. His desire cannot subsist only on my visual image. It needs my complexion to be sutured to a particular fantasy of my “race”. One could speculate on the content of the orientalist fantasy in which I was struggling not to play a part. Perhaps it includes a virile, chauvinistic masculinity perfumed by the kind of Persian femininity mocked by ancient Spartans; a baking Sun firing quick passions, while the pressure of Islamic taboos makes illicit lust yet more ardent.
Just thinking about it feels like self-abuse. I prefer to take shelter in the abstraction of Lacan’s theory of how fantasy structures desire, enabling it to spiral in on an object. I’ll try to explain briefly:
The Subject needs some fantasy of the (lack in the) Other in order to experience desire as having a particular symbolic object(ive). This is not like Plato’s idea that we seek the good in others that we lack in ourselves. Rather, we are constituted as subjects by our total lack of substance. What we can observe of ourselves necessarily appears ephemeral and nonessential as we get sufficient distance from it to see it. What is “Real” in us appears as hidden behind a veil, but there is nothing behind the veil. The veil is the Real; it hides only the emptiness behind; it hides itself, the lack of any guarantee of consistency. Another way of putting this is that we are not constituted as substance but only by position, defined only as unable to see ourselves, just as eyes cannot see themselves. However, we have the sense of not being pure empty Subject but also having an inner nature, a hard kernel of object inaccessible to us but in us more than our conscious self. This hard kernel is created indirectly through fantasy. Our fantasy of the lack in the Other is ultimately a fantasy of the Other’s desire for us as an object that can fill that lack. We see our hard kernel reflected in the desire we fantasise the Other as having for us. This fantasy precedes and structures our desire, which can only be iterated and never satisfied because the Other is no all-encompassing “Big Other” but only another incomplete Subject just as incapable of perceiving our hard kernel as we are of his.
So… it appears to me that my Grindr interlocutor needs a fantasy of my “race” in order to imagine himself as the object of my desert passions. The problem is not about his objectification of me, but rather his subjectification of me in order to objectify himself. This is the paradox of contemporary racism, which insists that people “self-identify” according to a phantasmagoric scheme.
I disappointed myself by finally getting angry at the end with his smug “I knew”. It produced the feeling of something precious having been forcibly ripped from me. I wish I had been able to resist the temptation to prove him wrong, my pathetic, hopeless attempt to reverse the direction of humiliation, as if what really mattered was whether I actually did have Arabic ancestry or not. Finally, I should emphasise that I have had similar conversations both on and off Grindr countless times. The only thing atypical about the conversation analysed here was how long we both persisted with it.