Under the Skin, 2004

I sent an e-mail to my old lovers
to long-term relationships,
brief flings,
one-night stands.

Most of my old lovers are white.

I asked them questions:

“When we had sex,
did you think about my skin,
the contrast with yours?”
“Did it bother you?”
“Did it excite you?”

Some didn’t answer.

Some who did answer
said only

“I can’t say that skin color
ever had much impact
on my feelings
about you.”

or

“I noticed the difference
in our skin tones,
but the experience
had the same emotional quality
as comparing hand sizes.”

Is it possible
to notice such a thing
and not care?
Is this a world
where white skin can touch
dark skin, and not have it matter?

I wasn’t sure I believed them.

 

Others said

“I was surprised at the contrasts
in the coloring of skin
areolas, lips, nails.”

“I always loved the contrast.”

“I find the contrast pleasing.”

“You have a lovely skin color.”

Is there anything wrong
with such statements?
Is there cause
for concern?

They appear purely
aesthetic. They practically
proclaim — no racial
fantasies here!

But that was why I’d asked
the questions, wasn’t it?
To find out, when their bodies
were moving above mine,
if they were living a colonial dream;
white men, taking their pleasure
from a brown woman.

A disturbing idea,
a betrayal of intimacy
and affection.

I wanted to know
what they had been thinking,
feeling, when their white hands
moved across my brown skin.
That was why I’d asked
the questions,
wasn’t it?

Then one wrote

“The dark skin, and especially
dark nipples,
were a turn-on
because they connoted
‘exotic.'”

I found
that it pleased me
when he said that.
It turned me on.

I wanted to hear him say it,
wanted them all to say it,
to admit that they
had desired my brown skin,
had indulged those racial fantasies.

I wanted them to exoticize,
to objectify my brown body.

I liked it when they described

my tan arms
against your darker ones
your dark hair spilling over
my hips and legs”

and

“the sweep of your chest and belly
down our black pubic hair
when you rode me”

I liked it when they admitted
to fantasizing about

“dominating a dark-skinned woman.”

I can hear
I fear
the quick judgment —
internalized racism!

She wants to be put down
to be abused
by the white man.

A race traitor;
collaborating in her own
oppression.

 

I am insecure
perpetually wanting
to lose weight
to dress better
to walk down the street
and turn heads.

What I want
is 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 icon of beauty
and then I want
to be dragged off that pedestal
by the force of their desire
and ravished.

 

When I wrote to my old lovers
and asked these questions
I wanted to hear them say

“I found your skin beautiful
desirable
an unmanageable fetish…”

I didn’t expect them to say it.

I felt like
a second-class exotic
barely exotic at all.

It is the East Asian woman
who is exotic
fragile femininity
balanced on tiny bound feet.

My skin is brown
my feet are not bound
and most white men
have never read
the Kama Sutra.

I felt betrayed by all those answers
I received,
that claimed they did not
find my skin particularly erotic
due to its darkness,
did not find me
particularly exotic.

If I weren’t exotic,
then I would have to rely
on my own separate
unpoliticized
attractiveness.

Hardly a reliable
fallback position.

 

Should I be disturbed
by my desire
to be desired
to be objectified
and exoticized?

Have I allowed myself
to be co-opted
into the oppressor’s
imperialist project?

I am only embarrassed
to admit to such vanity,
such insecurity.

These fantasies
of exoticization
these dreams of
colonial domination
are safe
safe enough
because I trust
these people.

I trust that they know better,
that these white men
white women
have more sense
than to actually believe
they have a right
to dominate me
and my brown body
in the bedroom
or the world outside.

I am tired
of ignoring desire
and hoping it will
go away.

Desire sneaks up on you,
it surprises you
when you aren’t looking.

When I framed these questions
and e-mailed them out
to my old lovers
I thought I was writing
an essay
about politics
about race and sex
and oppression
and damage.

But in writing my old lovers
and asking them to consider
why they were once attracted to me,
I was not motivated by ethics.

I was motivated by insecurity
by sexuality, by desire.

I was hoping
to arouse some spark of desire in them,
to prove to myself in their responses
that they wanted me still.

I was hoping
to seduce them
all over again.

 

And here I am
trying to seduce
you as well.

In telling you this
I have dwelt
on my skin
have gone so far
as to tell you
how others have praised it.

And my hair
the long black hair
which once fell to my ass
which complements the skin
when it is not a fetish
in itself.

I have shamelessly
attempted to seduce you
to co-opt you into this project
so you can tell me
that I am sexy
and desirable
after all.

Thank you
for listening.