Monday, January 30, 2012

Is something ever 'just a preference'? (Pt. 1)

I was having a discussion about this earlier, and wanted to see if maybe writing down my thoughts would make them more understandable. I'm a little edgy about writing about this, since some people might take it as an attack. I'm not trying to condescend to anyone, or de-legitimize their feelings. After all, I'm not always right.

On to the actual subject:

A lot of people seem to act like saying that something is 'just a preference' completely safeguards them from any criticism. Sure, there are preferences that are not really an ethical issue. Take one's favorite color, for instance. but then there are preferences that a lot of people (myself included) think are kind of ethically questionable. The example that I'm going to use for this is sexual attraction based on race.

You see this everywhere, and you see criticisms of it less than that, but still frequent. Take for instance, the John Mayer fiasco where he said (in possibly the most stupid way) that he is not attracted to women who aren't white. More generally, you see it in personal ads, saying that people either dislike certain races, or like them more than other races. The language implies that the average person is white, of course. There are identities along these lines: "Rice queen" (someone who prefers asians), et cetera. Racialicious has a very good article on the coded racism-via-preference that goes on on Craigslist, particularly.

Now, most people who either don't like certain races, or like certain ones especially so, would say that they are not racist at all. These things are just a preference, and they are not under their control in any way. There are two arguments (in fact, two contradictory arguments) going on in this statement, so let's break them down:

1) Not being sexually attracted to (or especially to) a certain race is not racist.

2) If it is racist, then since it is not under my control, it is not unethical (/I'm not racist).

As for the first of these, I would say that this might be true in a world where there is no such thing as racism, or history. As it is, we see that the preferences just happen to generally be for white people, and they just happen to not like certain people of color. It seems very convenient that these preferences would just seem to line up with historical racism like that. And before you say 'well, some of them are specifically into black/asian/other PoC', when you look at a majority of these, we find that they prefer stereotypes of them. The reason why one can say 'I prefer asian women' is because you think that asian women are somehow different than white women, and this difference almost always reflects stereotypes. If you don't believe me, try looking for a person who wants to find a feminine black man or a decisive, energetic asian woman.

So saying that having these preferences doesn't line up with racist legacies is an excuse, and a wrong one at that. But what about argument 2? This one is something that you find when people are feeling defensive because you may have noted that their 'preference' seems a lot like prejudice.

I would say that there are a few assumptions going on in that statement. The first is that you cannot ever change your preferences at all, ever. The second is that if something is not under your control, you have no ethical responsibility for it. I'm interested in how many people think that either of those is true. Can we change or control who we desire? And if we can't, are those desires completely outside of the realm of criticism?

While I don't know whether you can change who you desire, or if you desire, I do think that we can change the categories that we see people in. Most of the people talking about race in these examples have a very simplistic notion of it, which allows them to separate people into very clear boxes. Not only are these boxes themselves pretty unhelpful (since people can be biracial, or all different sorts of 'asian'), but the labels that people place them into come with historical baggage of stereotypes. After all, one might ask for a black woman, thinking all sorts of stereotypes of 'bossy/sassy/whatever', and get the exact opposite. Even physically, there is not one type of 'asian man', et cetera. So dividing it into groups like that seems to be a problem, more than desiring certain qualities themselves.

Even if you can't change that preference, does it suddenly make it sacrosanct and unable to be criticized? Not completely, I don't think.

If we accept that preferences like this are a function of oppression, it isn't hard to see why: we are constantly bombarded with stereotypes and other racist (in this example) imagery. Does it make it fine to believe other racist things? Not really. We can admit that while it isn't completely the fault of the person for being raised in a racist society, that doesn't make the preferences or ideas any less of a problem. Of course, will this only function to make people more ashamed of their desire object choices? I'm not sure. But maybe they can take the way their desire functions as their unfortunate legacy in racist society, while trying to create a world where that legacy is minimized.

So that was basically the groundwork to argue that preferences are able to be criticized. In Part II I want to look at whether an analogy can be made between race and gender, and whether that makes identities like 'straight' or 'gay' themselves oppressive.


  1. One point worth mentioning, though, is that someone's "racial" preference may not be entirely "race-based", but rather a person might prefer someone with shaped a certain way, or lips of a certain size, or dark, pale, olive skin tones, etc. Those preferences may usually occur in a particular race more often than in another, so they may just in short hand say I prefer people of race X. Of course, people vary so there are people of certain traits in every race, so if the person NEVER is admitting to being attracted to a particular race, the evidence of racism may be more substantial.

    Just a thought :)

  2. shoot, typo, that sentence should have said "eyes shaped a certain way"

  3. I was thinking about that too, but I guess I would say that physical traits are so varied within any group as to make being into certain races (or disqualifying them) not a helpful way of thinking. I personally think that the 'shorthand' that you're talking about can be pretty damaging, even if done with the awareness that it isn't universal.