Beyond preference vs. prejudice

At what point does preference become discrimination? This question was used to frame a recent video produced by Grindr exploring the increasingly prominent topic of “race” and so-called “racial preferences” on hook-up and dating apps. That increasing attention is being paid to the racialized aspects of our partner selections may be attributable in part to the particularity of the new technologies we are using to make connections, which seem to condense and distill our desires so that they become more visible and explicit. In the first instance however, the phenomenon of so-called “racial preference” requires a historical context, and we should be explicit that “race” has always had a rich erotic life, which is in fact foundational to its enduring potency.

It also needs to be said that drawing a line between preference and discrimination represents a false dichotomy; since preference always indicates a desire for one thing over another, it always-already implies discrimination. Framing preference as implicitly innocent and discrimination as aberrant is not therefore a useful starting point for understanding what is going on across hook-up apps and websites. We would do better instead to ask how, why and in what ways does desire become racialized?

To answer these questions, I would argue that we need a historicized and psychosocial formulation of subjectivity, which posits the psychic and the social as indissoluble, and takes into account the import of both dominant social discourses, and the subject’s psychic investments and self-construction in and through these discourses. Only then can we begin delineating what Judith Butler calls “the psychic life of power,” which works through desire and sexuality as pre-eminent sites of pleasure and regulation.

We are by now well used to thinking about desire as gendered, and in the West the gender(s) of our partners represent the primary anchor around which we construct our socially recognized sexual identities. Yet in societies — and under the weight of histories — saturated with race, discussion of the erotic life of race remains marginal and taboo. The anxiety circulating around discussion of this topic may well explain the popularity of “just a preference,” as a discursive defense against accusations of racial discrimination in sex and dating.

“Just a preference” suggests that our desires are incidental and without consequence, and implies a neoliberal subject “free to choose,” whilst the evidence from hook-up apps indicates that preferences reflect entrenched discourses about race, gender and class, which position individual subjects in particular ways. We might in fact see preference as a contemporary incarnation of what Pierre Bourdieu called “distinction” in his seminal work on the etiology of “taste,” which formulates seemingly innate cultural preferences as a function and performance of class identity. Our desires and partner selections are heavily imbricated with our identities and subjectivities, and tell us much about our gendered, raced, and classed subject positions in the world.

The enduring erotics of colonialism

In this case, racial tastes or preferences may be framed as a function of dominant discourses about race — often intersected with gender — which have their roots in colonialism. My own research with Grindr users in London indicated that amongst MSM (men-who-have-sex-with-men), black men are frequently positioned according to colonial-era narratives about black “hyper-masculinity,” which dictate that they have big dicks and adopt the “top” role. Black people have also historically endured projections of hyper-sexuality from the white colonial gaze, as Frantz Fanon noted in Black Skins, White Masks: “The women amongst the whites … invariably view the Negro as the keeper of the implacable gate that opens into the realm of orgies, of bacchanals, of delirious sexual sensations.” These colonial projections were forged within a European “Enlightenment” culture that emphasized its own rationality and learning, against the savage bestiality of “lower races”; the corporeal disavowed and projected in an attempt to colonize the cerebral.

In my research I also found that Arab men were positioned as “hyper-masculine,” whilst Asian men were often constructed as effeminate and more likely to be “bottom.” These tropes are repeated ad infinitum across the pornography many now consume freely across the Internet, and in turn inflect our desires as we negotiate our sex and dating lives. “Just a preference” for black or Asian men may well then indicate an investment in colonial-era discourses that have endured in the present, problematizing the notion that we are anywhere close to being “post-”colonial. These preferences also have the effect of delimiting the terrain on which non-white MSM are encouraged to explore and construct sexual and social identities. Subject positions that reproduce dominant ways of seeing and knowing are rewarded for their cultural intelligibility, whilst attempts to queer the picture are resisted by a refusal to recognize that which produces ambivalence and complexity.

Aside from the evident epistemic and material violence done by stereotyping entire categories of people in terms of such stock stories, these stereotypes are positioned in relation to, and authored by, a default white subject. This fact elucidates the import of grappling with “whiteness” as a frequently elusive and intangible ideology that pervades Western and global hegemonic culture. Black and Asian men are being positioned as more and less masculine in relation to a presumed default of white masculinity (in Sylvia Wynter’s terminology “Man”), which endures as the benchmark against which all others —­­­ non-white people, women, queers, the disabled, are defined.

Homi Bhaba draws our attention to some of the qualities of colonial stereotypes, including their emphasis on “fixity” and “ambivalence”; “the stereotype … is a form of knowledge and identification that vacillates between what is always “in place,” already known, and something that must always be repeated … as if the essential duplicity of the Asiatic or the bestial sexual license of the African that needs no proof, can never, in discourse, be proved.” By this formulation stereotypes are replete with anxiety, deriving from the need to establish the fixity of that which is always in flux —­­­ human beings, meaning and signification —­­­ and from the desire and disgust provoked by the disavowal of non-white peoples intrinsic to colonial discourse.

Bhaba’s emphasis on the desire to fix that which is always in flux is especially pertinent to race, which is a social construct, or in Stuart Hall’s (and Levi-Strauss’s) terminology, a “floating signifier ” (1997); that is, an object whose meaning is fluid, and established only in relation to the shifting meanings of other signifiers. As such race is always needing to be filled in and fleshed out, proven and demonstrated. Since race does not exist, the discourses that circulate around it and the subjects through which it becomes manifest are required to do lots of work across different terrains to keep this socially salient form of categorization alive. As Gail Lewis notes, “our imaginations, identities, and ways and visions of being in the world are structured through highly racialized and gendered identifications, discourses and positions,” such that race may be seen as a series of “acts of becoming,” or social scripts, echoing Butler’s formulation of gender as performance. Sex, intimate relationships and the apps across which these are increasingly played out represent pre-eminent sites at which this work of filling and fleshing out race occurs; that is, Grindr itself is a site at which race is made, produced and performed.

Making race on Grindr

Within Grindr, race is reified in a number of ways. It is present across the profile images and content, which are already locked into chains of signification that denote more and less explicit meanings, when for example, a headless black torso is presented with or without the accompanying headline, “top.” That the terminology of “racial preference” has become synonymous with app culture also speaks to the frequency with which racialized and ethnic descriptions of self and other pervade the discursive content of user profiles. The willingness to discuss the often taboo topics of race and sex in online spaces like Grindr has also been explained in terms of John Suler’s (2004) concept of the “ online disinhibition effect,” whereby Internet users unburdened by the inhibiting conventions of face-to-face interaction express sentiments they would feel less comfortable saying IRL. Before the Internet, anonymous personal ads had long testified to the prominence of racialized sexual desires, and Grindr may well have merely put these desires front-and-center, from the analogue back pages to the well-lit profile headlines of a smartphone app.

Yet there are ways in which Grindr reifies and sanctions racializing processes still further. Ethnicity is one of Grindr’s profile-sorting filters, which allows users to include and exclude users on this basis; a functionality that Robinson (2015) has argued amounts to “cleansing” certain racialised bodies from cyberspace. The app’s regulatory culture has also done little to challenge the normalization of race as an unexamined dimension of partner seeking; whilst references to drugs, sex work or an ass crack in your profile photo will see your profile censored, the now-infamous line, “no fats, no femmes, no Asians,” would not. The desire to frame such issues purely in terms of free speech must be offset against a consideration of the historic power dynamics of colonial discourses, which resonate through the ages.

Analysts of social media culture also speculate about the extent to which computer-mediated networks encourage patterns of superficial communication and objectification. Remarking on the emergence of social media networks alongside the increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence, psychoanalytic psychologist Sherry Turkle argues that we are entering, “a point of disturbing symmetry: we seem determined to give human qualities to objects and content to treat each other as things.” Surveying the rows of profiles lined up on Grindr, the user is positioned as consumer, a fact only heightened by Grindr’s increasing openness to advertising and attempts to sell us things whilst we cruise. We might then figure Grindr as a sexual marketplace, in which race and gender represent flows of cultural capital and primary commodities for exchange. Crucially, objectification has an especial resonance in relation to race and gender, which pivot on unequal relations of power that already imply a refusal to recognize the non-white and non-straight as fully human subjects. The new ways of looking and relating to each other facilitated by technology are thus inflected by dominant social discourses in particular ways. This fact underscores why we need to grapple with how capitalism and technology structure our social and sexual interactions always in relation to a historicized critique of race and gender.

Discussing the racialization of desire is not an easy thing to do; it is a topic shot-through with anxiety, and violent histories of Othering and oppression. Our desires are messy things, and we can feel both liberated and enslaved by them.

As Foucault theorized, our desires are also a pre-eminent site at which power becomes productive of pleasure, rendering its grip especially effective. At the present moment, it is nonetheless essential that we push forward with this endeavor (and past discussions of “personal” or “racial preference”) if we are to begin to understand the ways in which sex, race, capitalism, and technology intersect to regulate, marginalize and inflect our desires and subjectivities.

Dominic Reilly is a Bonnart Trust Scholar in the Psychosocial Studies department at Birkbeck, University of London. His research explores sexuality and desire as they intersect with new technologies and digital cultures, with a particular focus on ‘race’ and queer communities.