Under the Skin

Published in Silence and the Word. Note: I reworked this rather long essay into a much shorter poem, also Under the Skin. You can read that instead, if you like. 🙂

What has occasionally caused me concern regarding my sexual past is not the number of lovers I have had, nor the types of relationships. It is true that my mother is not happy that I am still unmarried at thirty-two. She is even less happy about the fact that I am living with one lover, yet am involved with two others — and yes, everyone knows about everyone else, and we’re all fine with it. At this point in my life, my mother just wants me to get married, to marry anyone — anyone male, at any rate. Which is a funny turn of events, given that for quite a few years, she would have hated the idea of my marrying the man I now live with — after all, he’s white. Not Sri Lankan, not South Asian, not even brown-skinned. He’s white as white can be, a European mongrel; his last name is even Whyte. Remembering those lost years, the screaming phone calls, the not-speaking over my dating him is painfully funny now, when all she wants is for us to get married and settle down into something approaching normalcy. I never thought his skin color mattered; what mattered was that he was someone I loved. That was true for everyone I dated (or just slept with) — skin color wasn’t an issue.

Unfortunately, skin color has become an issue. In the last few years, between writing a series of Sri Lankan immigrant stories and studying post-colonial criticism in grad school, I’ve been forced to actually think about skin color and ethnicity and race — all aspects of my life that I have dealt with mostly by ignoring them. This is surprisingly easy to do if you’re an upper-middle-class South Asian with a doctor for a father and no accent. I was born in Sri Lanka but came to the U.S. at age two; I grew up in a white Polish-Catholic neighborhood in Connecticut, and perhaps because there were so few brown kids at my school and they didn’t know quite what to do with me, the white kids mostly treated me as white. Which is a comfortable way to be treated, so I cheerfully went along with it — I didn’t even notice it, in fact. At sixteen, when fooling around with a neighborhood boy in my parents’ basement, I wasn’t thinking about the color of Tommy’s skin, or mine — I was much more concerned about the fact that Tommy had somehow managed to talk me into taking my shirt off where my parents could catch us. For most of my childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, when I left my parents’ house, I tended (tried) to forget that I was brown.

College inevitably raised my consciousness, and grad school even more so. In fact, I found that it was surprisingly fun, studying post-colonial lit.; as a non-white person today, a significant and validating space is marked out for you in the literary world. I read Edward Said and indignantly realized that I, I had been Orientalized — or at least my great-grandparents, living under British rule, had been, and surely that counted? I read Gayatri Spivak, discovered the subaltern, a de-privileged person effectively barred from the academic conversation by barriers of race and class and language, and wondered in what ways I could be perceived as subaltern. (Very few, I eventually determined.)

I considered my place as a first-generation immigrant, as a hybrid — certainly I had grown up in Connecticut feeling lost, betwixt and between, on the rare occasions I was forced to think about my ethnicity. I had eaten curry for dinner every night instead of pizza, but that was minor — after all, most of my grammar school friends had been eating pierogies. The real difficulties emerged in the sexual arena — when I wasn’t allowed to date, or even go to school dances, it was difficult to ignore the fact that my parents had had an arranged marriage, and wanted the same for me. In the adolescent American world of dating and teen sex culture, where was I supposed to fit in?

I lived a dual life in the first years of college — dating white people, having sex, and lying about it to my parents. Before long the lying got too annoying, and I told them everything (even about the girls), but that didn’t actually solve the two-worlds problem; it just moved it to a different arena. The family pressure to marry a brown-skinned man became more intense, and I handled it mostly by dating more white men, avoiding calling home, and moving further and further away from Connecticut. I particularly enjoyed the freedom of dating white — with brown men I was always afraid that anything we did would get back to my parents, in detail, and would be gossiped about in the small, close-knit Sri Lankan community. White people, for the most part, seemed blessedly free of such complications — in a sense, one of the things I loved about them was their apparent lack of constricting culture — that appearance perhaps a function of the privileged place they held in American society. White people could do anything they wanted, whereas brown people were tied into a morass of responsibilities and duty to their parents, their families, their culture. It was exhausting.

Mostly, I dealt with the ethnic problem by ignoring it. But when I finally started thinking about these issues in grad school, it seemed like there must be a better way to handle culture-clash problems than to just pretend they didn’t exist. I wrote an essay examining my hybrid nature (part brown, part white) for a class, and got an A. I started obsessing over my non-white aspects — ironic, considering that I’d done my best to ignore them up until that point, getting as far away from my cultural heritage as I possible could. I even ended up in Utah for grad school — talk about white!

So there I was, living in Utah and obsessing about skin color, and also obsessing about sex (which I do a fair bit of the time). I started thinking about the people I’ve had sex with — and was shocked to realize that they were all white. Okay, so I’d had brief encounters with one or two South Asians, but anyone I’d spent any time in bed with had been white — and most of the brief encounters had been too. I started to think about it. . .and then I started to fret about it. I had just spent semesters pleasurably ranting against the white male gaze, exoticization, dreams of domination and a lost colonial heritage. Why had all those white boys (and a few girls) been interested in me, after all? Should I be worried?

I wasn’t totally blind. I did realize that the picture I was considering raised far more questions about me than it did about them. Why had I been so exclusive in my desires? What was I looking for, in all those pale bodies? Those were the real questions. But I wasn’t ready to just dive right in there. I needed to start with inquiring into their desires, their reasons and rationale, and then sneak up on my own. This stuff isn’t easy. And besides — I was curious what they’d say.

I sent out an e-mail to several old and current lovers. I realize that this is not the approach that most people would have taken, and I hesitated briefly before sending the letter out, wondering, perhaps, if I were presuming too much on lingering affection and friendship. But in the end, I sent the letter, full of impertinent questions. I asked people whom I had lived with, people I had dated for months, people I had thought about marrying, and people with whom I had just had lovely one-night stands. I mostly asked men, though there were a few women in the mix. Ten people responded in detail; a few responded briefly, saying only that the questions didn’t seem relevant to them, or to their relationship with me. Some didn’t respond at all.

I am grateful for those who did respond, and for the sake of their privacy, I have changed their initials. Of my ten respondents all were male, except for GD. Several people were hesitant to answer these questions, worried about why I was asking them, worried about how I’d respond to their honest answers, worried about who else would see their responses, and judge them. If you’re a good liberal, it can be extremely distressing to consider the ways in which your own attitudes, your attractions, and especially your sexual desires may be racialized. It isn’t equivalent to being a racist — but it can feel that way. I do believe that everyone who responded tried to be as honest as they could be in their answers, but I’m also sure that for many of them, it was difficult to get past the fear of being perceived as a racist, just for admitting that race/ethnicity/skin color may have (unconsciously) factored into their desires.

For the record, not a single response, not even the ones which admitted that race may have been a factor in their desire for me, made me feel in any way damaged by my old lovers. Rather the opposite, as you’ll see.

Question 1. I’ve never had sex with anyone who had darker skin than mine, oddly enough. When you have(had) sex with me, did you ever think about our skin tones? If you did, what did(do) you think about them? Does the contrast appeal to you or excite you? Did it ever bother you?

Some claimed that they didn’t notice, or barely noticed my skin tone:

ES: I can’t say that skin color ever had much of an impact on my feelings about you.
GD: I definitely noticed the differences in our skin tones (especially when at one point, we held our arms against each others’), but the experience…had the same emotional quality as comparing hand sizes…

These seem similar in their response, or at least in their assessment of their response, to those who responded only by claiming that these questions didn’t really apply to them at all. I could have written back, questioning this response; I am not sure if it is possible, in modern American culture, to not notice skin tone, to not have it influence cultural and aesthetic judgments. Were they merely hiding from themselves the possibility that in choosing to date a brown-skinned girl, they had traveled into politically problematic waters, set loose on a raft of dark desires?

Perhaps they were hiding the truth from themselves, but I found myself unwilling to press them further; there was a good chance that they would simply continue to deny any relevance in my questions to their situation, and in the end, what right did I have to claim that they were wrong? I can’t claim to have any objective lock on the truth, any certainty — and even if their perception of color-blindness is an illusion, a self-delusion, it’s a lovely one in its own way, a dream of sanity and wholeness. Who am I to try to tear it down?

Besides, there was plenty of meat to consider in other responses:

EL: I enjoy the differences, between my skin tone & someone else’s, as well as between the various tones of various lovers I’ve had. I find the contrast pleasing. I find the contrast between my skin tone & paler white women pleasing, too. “Excite” is probably too strong a word.
WS: Well, you have a lovely skin color. . .I was surprised at the contrasts in the coloring of various kinds of skin, areolas, lips, and nails. I noted it as part of your beauty, and part of the unique traits each new lover shares. . . .

KP: I did think of our skin tones, I always loved the contrast and the contrast never bothered me. I have always found your skin tone strongly appealing.

While these of my lovers did notice the contrast, and enjoy it, they appeared to do so in a fairly value-neutral way; as a purely aesthetic point of interest, much as one might appreciate the plane of a man’s stomach or the curve of a woman’s hip. Interesting, perhaps, but hardly problematic. Again, I could have pushed them further, asked if it was only the aesthetic contrast at work, if there might be some deeper (colonialist) reason why the contrast excited them, a buried awareness of the history of oppression, of white men taking their pleasure from non-white women. That should have been a disturbing thought, an upsetting one, when considering people I had once allowed intimate access to my body (and in some cases, my heart). Most people would find it creepy, at least, to discover that a sexual partner was experiencing a racialized fantasy while they were making love. But what surprised me, when I considered those possibilities, was that I didn’t find it creepy — in fact, I wasn’t distressed at all by the idea.

Rather than being disturbed by their answers (and their potential for darker undertones), I found myself quite pleased — and realized, in that pleasure, that I had been disappointed by the previous responses. That was the real reason why I hadn’t been interested in pressing them further — because I didn’t want to hear those old lovers insisting, in more detail, that my skin color hadn’t attracted them. It was becoming clear that I actually wanted my old lovers to admit to a desire based on my darker skin color — but why? Why did I want them to desire the differences?

DA: With you, the dark skin, and especially dark nipples, were a turn-on because they connoted “exotic”.
Ah, and here was a thrill, a rush. It pleased me, that he found me exotic. It turned me on, to know that he found my dark nipples exciting. I wanted more of them to respond that way, to exoticize, to objectify my body. Unfortunately for me, instead of finding more exciting evidence of my intoxicating difference, I was reminded of my assumptions.

RT: Although I’ve had sex with a few people with darker skin tones than mine. . .most of the people I’ve slept with had lighter skin: 1/4 Sicilian is still on the dark end of the category of “white guy” . . .So most of the time, when I notice skin tones, it’s because mine is darker, which I (and several of the women I’ve been with) have always found sort of appealing; there’s still something erotically charged about dark hands on white breasts, and dark hips pressed against creamy ones.
I was no longer the dark-skinned one — he was, and the erotic attention wasn’t being directed at me at all — it was focused entirely elsewhere, on the white woman. (In fact, when I thought back, I realized EL has made a similar comment, but I had blithely ignored it, in my pleasure at EL’s response to me.) I felt deflated, uninteresting. But I kept reading, and RT redeemed himself:

RT: With you, the feeling was different. Part of it was simple aesthetic pleasure in the contrast; my tan arms against your darker ones, your glossy dark hair spilling over my hips and legs, the sweep of your chest and belly down to our black pubic hair when you rode me. I found our skin together incredibly appealing, I think because it played into two related sets of fantasies: submitting to a sexually vigorous man (or woman), and dominating a dark-skinned woman.
Ah, and there it was — dominating a dark-skinned woman. The others had aroused me, but this one, the post-colonial bogeyman of many interracial relationships, cranked the heat up. If my lovers had imagined, as their white male bodies bent over my supine dark female body, that they were the colonialist, the oppressor, free to take their pleasure as they chose — how charged that moment must have been! I took pleasure in the dominant/submissive energy of that image — but even more, I reveled in the sheer force of forbidden desire. In his words, my fantasy was laid out, bare and vulnerable for all to see — a dream of tremendously powerful desire, powerful because it was so very wrong, desire tangled up with twisted race relations, with a warped cultural history of violence, and of course, with a particularly perverse male/female power dynamic as well. This admission was what I had been looking for; what I had hoped my lovers were feeling all along.

I had asked nine questions in my survey — surely more than needed to answer a simple question. I hadn’t just wanted to know that they had desired my dark skin — I had wanted to know exactly how, why they had desired me. I had wanted to understand the way their brains worked, to dwell on what they saw when they looked at my naked body. I had wanted details.

Question 2. In general, do you find people with darker skin to be attractive? Or, more precisely, do you think a darker skin tone is ever a factor in how attractive someone is to you?

As we’ve established, I had no interest in those who said no, it didn’t matter. Others only noted that they preferred tan skin to pale, and pointed to current cultural conditioning in that regard. Undoubtedly an accurate assessment of their own desires, but not what I was looking for. My attention fixated on those who respond positively, who admitted to a fascination with darker skin.

KP: Yes I do find darker skin attractive.
RT: Yes, this is certainly the case: except for redheads (whom I certainly find attractive), I find darker skin attractive in women. People who are very pale look sort of unhealthy to me; among white women, I like tan ones, and I certainly find darker skinned women of other racial groups very attractive.

Those were the answers I had been looking for. The answers that I had been (unconsciously) expecting, the ones that had led to my asking questions like these:

Question 3. If you answered yes to the previous question, is darker skin just one of many features you find attractive (like red hair, or blue eyes, or large breasts)? Or is it more than that for you? Is it a strong enough factor that you could call it a fetish?

Question 4. If it isn’t a fetish, do you have any other fetishes? If so, what?

My respondents were, understandably rather reluctant to claim that their desires fell into the category of fetishes — especially since I’d been unclear about my definition of fetish. What they didn’t understand, and what hadn’t been evident to me when I was designing the survey, was that I really was looking for a particular set of answers (the peril of every survey-designer). I wanted my ex-lovers not just to desire me, but to strongly desire me, as a brown-skinned woman. To desire me even to the extent, or especially to the extent, of the fetishized object. That was why I was asking the questions in the first place, why I’d wanted to write this essay. I wanted to hear them admitting that they had desired my brown skin.

Which leaves me with the question of why I wanted that. It could have been a racial/ethnic thing — that I had political reasons for wanting them to admit to their subconscious colonialist desires. In someone else’s essay, that would undoubtedly be the reason for asking the questions. But I come to a different conclusion — that the primary motivation was vanity.

Like many other people, I am insecure. I am perpetually wanting to lose weight, to dress better, to walk down the street and turn heads. More than that — I want to be desired. I want men to get turned on when they walk by me, to have to turn away and adjust their crotches. I want women to cream their panties at the touch of my skin, the smell of my hair. I want to be the object of desire, up on a pedestal, an untouchable perfect icon — and then I want to be dragged off that pedestal and ravished. I am a reasonably attractive person, young and healthy, but I am certainly not any kind of sexual icon of ultimate desirability. I know that. And yet, I don’t want to know that. I want to be the fantasy. And if there is any area where I can hope that there is something that sets me apart, that makes me a little bit more sexually attractive than I should be, it is in my color of my skin. (And of course, this little mental game would never work with a dark-skinned man, be he Hispanic or Asian or black. Another reason why I started with the white guys at sixteen, and stayed with them.)

In writing to my old lovers, in asking these questions, I wanted to hear that they had found my skin beautiful, desirable — ideally, that they found it incredibly, impossibly desirable, an unmanageable fetish. And of course, in writing to them and asking them (in the guise of an academic essay about race/sex politics) to consider why they were once attracted to me, I was undoubtedly hoping to arouse some spark of desire again, to prove to myself in their responses that they wanted me, on some level, still. To seduce them, all over again. I owe them a small apology for using them so.

There probably was a South Asian insecurity complex at work as well — it is the East Asian woman who is generally held up as the exotic target, the ideal of fragile femininity. The South Asian woman may come from far away, but aside from a certain association with the Kama Sutra, she has relatively little erotic weight for white culture. In contrast with the East Asian woman, the submissive geisha, I felt like a second-class exotic, barely exotic at all. And if I weren’t exotic, then I would have to rely on my own separate, unpoliticized attractiveness — hardly a reliable fallback position.

And wasn’t there an even larger attempt at seduction in progress? I drafted this essay and showed it to my classmates, my teacher. I wrote it to send out to editors, who might publish it, and then put it in front of readers. And in this essay so far, I have dwelt on my skin, have even gone so far as to tell you flat out how others have praised it (and my hair — let us not forget the long black hair, which serves to complement the skin, at least, when it is not a fetish object in itself). I have shamelessly attempted to seduce my readers as well, to co-opt them into this selfsame project of assuaging my insecurities, of reassuring myself that I am sufficiently attractive, sufficiently desirable.

Question 5. If you fetishize anything — does it bother you that you do? If so, in what ways?

Question 6. Does it bother you that I’m asking these questions? If so, why?

Question 7. Are you at all worried that I’ll think less of you if you admit to fetishizing/objectifying my skin?

Since, by and large, my old lovers didn’t claim to fetishize, they had little to say in response to these questions. Should I be bothered by my own desire to be fetishized? When I first framed these questions, I was thinking in terms of politics, of potential damage. Post-colonial politics would tell me that as a woman, a South Asian, a feminist and a good liberal, I should be disturbed to find myself admitted a desire to be exoticized, that this is allowing myself to be co-opted into the oppressor’s imperialist project. But I cannot find this desire in myself disturbing, except in the embarrassment of admitting to such vanity and insecurity.

I am too aware that this fantasy is only a fantasy, one which bears a certain weight, a sexual charge lent it by a dark period of history. It is possible, even likely, that I would resent such a fantasy if it came from people I did not care for — these fantasies of exoticization and the dreams of colonial domination, are safe primarily because I do know these people. I trust them to keep any such fantasies in an appropriate mental space, and to not allow them to infringe overmuch on our interactions outside a sexual arena. If I felt that any of these white men actually felt they had a right to dominate me and my brown body in the world outside the bedroom, if I believed they thought less of me, as a person, because of such fantasies, then I’m sure my reaction to the whole idea would be very different.

Frankly, I’d want to slap some sense into them.

I could try to avoid engaging with such fraught material at all, but I find it more rewarding, personally, to take what pleasure I can in it, even to (carefully) play with the power dynamics, push them further, and see where they take me and my lovers (and while I have talked primarily about race/ethnicity in this essay, I would apply the same argument to what I find even more fraught issues of gender politics). I admit, engaging with such dangerous material poses risks, and is certainly not the approach for everyone — but it is the only one which feels honest for my own sexual life. I am tired of ignoring issues, problems, desires, and hoping they go away. And despite what some may argue, it seems na à ¯ve to imagine that such a subtle internal sexual exploration can in any way legitimize or justify actual discrimination or oppression in the world.

But even if I can justify my own deep desire to be exoticized (or, if not justify it, at least be willing to work/play with it), can I justify my racialized attraction for others?

Question 8. It is almost certain that at least in part, I desire(d) you *because* of your pale (to me) skin. Did you know that? Does/did it bother you that your skin color is/was a factor?

Question 9. Does it matter *why* your paleness is a factor in my finding you attractive (i.e., pure aethestics vs. American cultural conditioning vs. South Asian desire for whiteness aka colonialist remnants vs. the appeal of difference, etc. . . .)?

I did desire their white skin, because, as I’ve said above, it allowed me to indulge in the fantasy of being the exotic Other, the object of desire. Undoubtedly for other reasons as well — because white skin is a cultural norm for beauty, and I am in part a product of my American culture. Even more, because as I mentioned earlier, dating white was simpler than dating brown-skinned men, since it doesn’t come with the same cultural weight, the expectation that dating will inevitably and quickly lead to marriage. And I admit, I probably even desired these men, when I was young, because it would upset my mother. I desired my lovers’ bodies because they were white, even if I didn’t realize or acknowledge it at the time. And for the first time in this essay I have discovered something I find upsetting — because as it turns out, it upsets some of them:

EL: I never really thought that my pigmentation had much of anything to do with why you were/are attracted to me, so that is news to me. Does it bother me? I suppose it depends on the reason(s). Certainly the notion of being reduced to set of physical characteristics (or one particular one) is not an appealing notion. Just as I don’t want to objectify people, I don’t want to be objectified myself.
WS: I have noticed that you almost avoid dark male lovers. I have noticed that you have had levels of conflict over the years about your “Sri Lankan” and family identities with your sexuality. . .Does it bother me? It makes me feel weird. . .

I find it distressing, the idea of myself with racialized desires, as someone who might make decisions of the mind and heart based on what should be irrelevancies, like the color of skin. I find it hard not to feel like a racist, just as many of my old lovers, when I first sent them these questions, were distressed to think that I might consider them racists in their responses. I am particularly upset that these people I have cared for might now feel injured, damaged, seen as less than themselves, as a result of my openly exposing my desires to them. I want to protest, to explain to them that I never thought less of them, never saw them as only icons, representations of a desired ideal.

I would argue that racial aspects are not the only elements in my attraction, or the most significant. When I think back to these people now, I do not simply picture their white skin. I remember everything else that aroused me as well — the curl of GD’s silky hair, the strength of EL’s hands, even the faintly possessive look in RT’s eyes when he finally had me undressed — which remembering now again makes me want to laugh — but in a good way. Fondly. I remember the aspects of their personality that made me desire them, and care for them — one person’s shy vulnerability, another’s sweet openness, a third’s impetuous and delightfully greedy assault on my body. If their whiteness was a factor in my desire for them, and I admit it was, it was not the deciding factor.

RT: I’d hate to think of your attraction to me coming from some buried core of discomfort with your own racial identity. But even this works out to a big maybe . . .if being attracted to whiteness was your (possibly subconcious) way of working out internal issues of South Asian-ness vs. white culture, and it helped you to do so, I don’t think it would be a bad thing (or even would bother me).
WS: There are an awful lot of factors beyond a person’s control as to what they find attractive in others. . . .Does your attraction to my feature of paleness bother me, no… Not as long as we have, and have had something more, even if it grew out of such a desire. You don’t need to be concerned about my perceptions of you, or your fetish — I am and have been only concerned so far for you as your awareness of the workings of your mind/libido may end up disturbing you.

I did desire my lovers’ white skin; I even fetishized their white bodies. But rather than seeing them only as caricatures of themselves, I claim that I did see them, as themselves, entire. That any racialized notions were an overlay, an occluding mask, perhaps, but one which never disguised the people I knew in all their desirable particularity, in the height of their bodies, the smell of their sweat, the fleshy curves of stomach and hip and thigh, all of these at least as vital, immediate, and imperative as the color of their skin, if less fraught with social consequence. All of these bodily markers, in the end, were far less significant than the words they said, the way they touched me, or asked to be touched, the truth of whom they were.