Dating White, Dating Brown

Eds. Note: This is a response piece to “Why I Don’t Date White Men” by columnist Tanzila Ahmed

Deonna Kelli

Deonna Kelli

My 13-year-old son, an Afghan-American, recently commented that his white mother only likes brown men. That is an interesting thing for a son to say about a mother so white that she looks like she poops pumpkin spice. Plus, he hasn’t seen me with any man other than his father. I asked him to clarify, and he said that “as long as I’ve known you – 13 years – most of the people you associate with are not white.”

That observation isn’t exactly true; my son’s maternal grandparents are white, of course. I have several white friends. Yet, his statement was interesting as he is beginning to actively identify as a person of color at the same time his mother is attempting to negotiate the complex realities of being a divorced white Muslim woman looking for love.

What my son doesn’t know is this: I had a white boy fetish after my divorce.


I found my eyes wandering towards bearded, tattooed boys, the kind I might have coveted as an undergrad. After two decades of Islam, twelve years of marriage, and a world primarily non-white and only partly Western, I desired a retreat into middle class whiteness because I imagined it would feel less complicated. I wanted a dollop of vanilla America with a side of soymilk and kale quinoa salad. (The most delicious looking white men hang out at Whole Foods between 8-9 pm.)

I wasn’t looking for pasty pink boys necessarily; I was rebelling against what I perceived to be the cultural strictures of Islam. And, I was also attempting to examine whiteness as a cultural orientation in an effort to locate a new direction for myself.

This was all great fun for a while. How lovely to know that white boys liked me. How reassuring to hear that other Muslim women had endured a White Boy Phase too. How liberating to finally realize that there were large parts of myself I couldn’t bring to the table with these men, even if I could pass as high functioning in the white world.

Not that I dated a great deal; I’m not really a “dater” anyway. Yet, the white men I dated came with conditions: one told me his Texan father didn’t like Muslims. Another admitted that I was an ocean too deep. The tipping point was the guy who told me I had to choose between Islam and my relationship with him.

What I told my son is: I prefer culturally fluid men, and these usually aren’t white boys. The reasons for that aren’t related to white self-hatred or Dolezaling my identity, but to real issues of cultural hybridity and awareness after two decades of being Muslim and spending some of that time in the Muslim world.

Corn-fed white American men often have little sense of what it means to be Othered. They will never taste the fear or rage when a neighbor calls the police because your brown children are walking around the neighborhood the day after you moved into the best part of town. Most white men don’t have to worry about being interrogated at the airport, being shot unarmed in the street, or having someone publicly suggest you should be killed or deported because of your faith. Most white men and white women don’t fear sending their children to school on the anniversary of 9/11 because the class bully has been coming up behind them bellowing a poorly pronounced “Allahu Akbar.”

There are massive parts of white America that cannot understand how much fluidity is involved in daily existence, in negotiating family dynamics in a non-white and Muslim household, as well as the larger cultural and political realities that bleed into your every day that other people experience only as headline news. A majority of white America doesn’t see the interconnectedness of those things. When you have to budget money to send to your family abroad – this is a non-negotiable—they will ask, “Can’t they just take care of themselves over there?” Then there is the kind of whiteness that suggests, “That Ahmed kid should have known that you can’t just take a homemade clock to school.”

I thought I could overlook these things, make adjustments. Until I realized that I couldn’t.

***

Let me be clear, because I know assumptions will be made: having a preference beyond white men isn’t about fetish or brown dick. Goodness, people. In my case, this preference is about slippage. No pun intended. If you are someone who is Othered in any capacity, you know about slippage.

Culture is slippery, and marginalized people (POC, non-heterosexual, or gender queer, etc.) have to slip and slide a lot, codeswitch in and out of cultural spaces that are invisible to most white folk. Few white people have any real sense of what it is like to live in and between multiple cultural spaces (or genders or sexualities), even if or when liberal sensitivities speak to these realities.

It is challenging to find a white man who does not automatically see whiteness – the cultural aspects and the privilege – as an unquestioned, default metanarrative. Honestly, it is hard to find one who even agrees that whiteness itself needs deconstructing.

They do exist, but they are rare creatures. It is scary as hell for most white people to deconstruct their identity because most have no other default. Without whiteness – and corresponding Otherness – those invested in and benefiting from whiteness cannot imagine an identity beyond it.

There are white male converts to Islam who successfully engage the slippage. Some take Islam as an opportunity to check their privilege. Others become Muslim to assert their white privilege into Islam. Some get lost in a manufactured Arab/Desi identity with high riding shalwar kameez and a shiny ethnic name as accruement. I haven’t met a lot of white Muslim men I would consider as a partner, in part because I don’t have access to huge numbers of single Muslim men of any background. At 42, my age is a challenging one for remarriage, in general. And, the truth is, the few humble white brothers I’ve met are married to women of color, and I understand why.

***

My son’s comment arrived a few days before Loveinshallah.com published Tanzila Ahmed ‘s essay, “Why I Don’t Date White Men.” Tanzila is a Bangladeshi–American activist and one half of the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast. She has dated white men, but after reflecting on issues around race, class, and intersectionality, she arrived at a personal conclusion that white men no longer make the cut when it comes to who she gives her body and her heart.

I appreciate her reflections. I get it.

Tanzila’s essay hit many nerves because she tapped into a bigger issue, in my opinion: whiteness as a cultural institution is increasingly contested, and such things are sometimes felt most profoundly in the space of love and companionship. There are those who welcome the dismantling while others find it frightening.

Many of us still have a lot of baggage to unpack.

The essay served as a mirror for readers to confront their internalized attitudes regarding race, identity, class, gender, and love. I saw freak outs from white women in relationships with brown men because it highlighted their personal insecurities around their whiteness. Some men of color tried to mansplain why Tanzila shouldn’t talk about this stuff in public. One South Asian male friend emailed me his response: “Like, I just don’t get it. I date white women. What is wrong with that?”

Nothing is wrong with anything. Love and companionship are complex and nuanced, and everyone has a right to make personal decisions that might come off as overtly political, even nonsensical, to others.

Many, many women of color expressed that the essay echoed their sentiments – even when they had white partners. Some people of color accused Tanzila of reverse racism, of essentializing whiteness, or of harboring deep insecurities. These accusations are unfair based on a personal essay that clearly was not a manifesto on how or who you should love.

If Tanzila were a Tamir saying, “Hey, I don’t date white women, and here is why,” there would be celebratory applause for a brother keeping it real, taking care of his people. But here was a woman of color declaring that she rejected the white gaze when it came to matters of the heart, and that caused many to lose their shit.

Tanzila put her personal spin on a topic that is already cultural fodder when it comes to race and dating. I appeared on an NPR segment that discussed race in the context of online dating. Across the board, Asian American women are most likely to get a message from any man while African-American women are least likely to be sought out. If such layers of racial sexualization exist in the normative online dating world, then issues of intersectionality present real currencies in offline relationship realities.

These dynamics seep into relationships, and many have no incentive or knowledge on how to negotiate such things.

**

Whiteness is a thing in America, and one can’t talk honestly talk about race without interrogating it.

I think people get hot over these issues because whiteness is crumbling.

America is slowly becoming less celebratory of unquestioned whiteness as cultural spaces are infused with increasing complexity. Demographically, America is becoming less white, and so is the cultural ethos. Of course, certain white people want access, to claim even those smaller but growing spaces. The recent scandal in the poetry world where white poet Michael Derrick Hudson used an Asian name to appear “more publishable” suggests that white men sense their words are less interesting. Segments of white culture are holding on tighter because the cultural goods that once gave meaning to whiteness are less clear. Donald Trump and Glenn Beck offer two terrifying yet apt examples of how certain aspects of whiteness are becoming absurd, even desperate, in attempts to remain culturally relevant.

So if a woman of color – or any woman – suggests that she isn’t interested in white men, it might be more than a personal preference; this might signify a cultural shift.

I understand that matters of the heart can be inexplicable and subject to an alchemy that often defies logic. I’m open to that kind of magic. But, I need a man that won’t be freaked out by an Allahu Akbar. Even better, I’d like a man who is brave enough to show up for my complicated, messy self and slip in right next to me on that prayer rug.

Read more by Deonna, here.

Deonna Kelli Sayed is a published author and digital storyteller. She is a recipient of a 2013 North Carolina United Arts Council Regional Artist Grant and a 2015 Wildacres Writing Residency. Deonna’s work is featured in the forthcoming anthology, Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminist and Why We Stay. You can be part of her badass world on Twitter and Facebook.


3 Comments on “Dating White, Dating Brown”

  1. I wanted a nanny who isn’t freaked out by allahu Akbar . If we need that much from someone taking care of our child and who works for us. What about a life partner.

  2. Hibiscus says:

    This part resonated with me the most:
    “Culture is slippery, and marginalized people (POC, non-heterosexual, or gender queer, etc.) have to slip and slide a lot, codeswitch in and out of cultural spaces that are invisible to most white folk.”

    I am South Asian and have recently been trying to explain to some of my Caucasian friends the complexities of my culture because they are very interested but sometimes have a hard time grasping certain ideas or how common they might be. I never imagined to say, ‘These cultural practices exist, but they are invisible to you.’ That word ‘invisible’ has given me a new way to explain complicated aspects of my culture. Sometimes I try so hard to make my culture visible and the practices understandable for those who to know more, but maybe they just need to look through a different lens to see it all.

    No idea if this post makes sense. But thank you for writing a beautiful essay and giving me so much to ruminate on.

  3. […] Eds. Note: Read columnist Deonna Kelli’s response to this piece: “Dating White, Dating Brown”, here. […]