The transformation of transgender women into goddesses for an annual Hindu festival takes place in an atmosphere of reverent, somber concentration. Laugh lines vanish, replaced by an impassive mask. Skin becomes stone. As they prepared to perform in the Mayana Kollai festival in a fishing village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, some of the dancers slipped into trances so deep it appeared they might have fainted.
A recent article published in UCT’s Varsity newspaper (and especially the mini-survey accompanying the article) created a furore because it “found” that a majority of those surveyed believed “quite unsurprisingly”, according to the author, that “Caucasians” (another name, apparently, for people who used to be classified as “white” during Apartheid) were viewed as the “most attractive” race by those surveyed. It is unclear whether people were angry because the survey was conducted at all or because the results seem to confirm that the ideology of white superiority is still so firmly entrenched among at least some students of all races in South Africa. Whatever the reasons, it is clear in a divided and unequal society like South Africa, notions of beauty and sexual attraction are highly politicised.
The results of Varsity’s mini-survey – although entirely unscientific – did not come as a surprise to me. Yes, it is somewhat shocking to be confronted with the fact that the ideology of white superiority still permeates our culture and that so called born frees are also infected with this illness. But you only have to look around you to know that the completely bizarre and unfounded message that “white” is somehow better, more desirable, more worthy of adoration and respect, continues to dominate.
Socially, culturally and economically, post-Apartheid South Africa is still largely structured in a way that perpetuates the notion of white superiority (the very notion which was used to justify colonialism, Apartheid and white minority rule in general). To some extent this serves as a testimony to the invidious and destructive effects of colonialism. But it also suggests that since 1994 successive governments have not really been able or willing to attack this problem head-on.
English remains the dominant language in our country, the language of academic discourse, the language whose mastery is still widely perceived to be an indication of your intelligence and wisdom. Boy, you better not speak English with “an accent” – as if the Queen or George W Bush does not speak English with an accent. If you happen to speak English with an “African” or even “Afrikaans” accent, you will have to work a little bit harder to prove to those with power that you are hard-working and diligent and intelligent. The other day an African acquaintance, while expressing a yearning for the return of Thabo Mbeki, even suggested to me that she revered Mbeki as a great leader because of his command of the English language.
The best schools, those schools most parents aspire to send their children to, are seldom found in Khayelitsha, Soweto or KwaMashu. No, they are almost always found in the former (still predominantly “white”) suburbs and they largely still work tirelessly to instil in pupils those values and cultures brought to South Africa by the colonisers. Maybe I am wrong, but I have not heard of many sought after “quality” schools whose institutional culture rejects colonial English or Afrikaans ideas about knowledge and discipline and instead embody values that dominate in traditional isiZulu or isiXhosa cultures.
No wonder, then, that many of the students surveyed – both black and white – have bought into this idea that white people are more beautiful and also more sexually desirable. These views are to some extent imposed by the dominant culture to which middle-class children are exposed every day and many children – both black and white – internalise this nonsense. It reflects – to some degree, at least – the prejudices, assumptions and world view of those who dominate the world.
This is not that different from the many gay men who internalise the idea that “macho” or “butch” men are more handsome and are therefore more sexually desirable, than so called “effeminate” men. We live in a sexist world in which many gay men would equate “effeminacy” in other men with weakness, inferiority, and a lower status. It is only when we change the way in which our world is structured that these ideas that permeate our culture will begin to fade.
This is the broader context in which surveys about which racial group is the “most attractive” will always be highly problematic and will inevitably offend many people. Perhaps this is so because the results of such surveys will invariably reflect the unequal power relations between white and black in society and will almost certainly affirm the deeply embedded racial prejudices and the dominance of the ideology of white superiority. And those who are insulted by such surveys will also feel that by reporting on such phenomena, newspapers run the risk of perpetuating, instead of undermining, the power hierarchy.
Having said that, uncomfortable questions remain. Surely, some would say, sexual attraction is a complex thing and it would be dangerous to even try to censure people for being attracted to a certain category of person. After all, while some men are sexually mostly attracted to women, some of us are mostly attracted to other men. Surely this does not mean that all gay men are sexist pigs who despise women? Maybe some people just really adore that pinkish or reddish skin that most “white” people have – just as some people are attracted to people with big feet or small ears.
Some gay men just do not find other men attractive unless they look like Cristiano Renaldo, Hennie Bekker or David Beckham. While I might find Burton Francis or David Tlale more beautiful and more sexually attractive than Hennie Bekker or David Beckham, does that necessarily mean that I am less oppressed by sexist notions of masculinity and racist notions of white superiority than somebody who simply does not get that Burton Francis is the most handsome rugby player in the world?
I would suggest that it is important to acknowledge that notions of beauty and sexual attractiveness are both highly political and highly personal. But that does not let us off the hook. I suspect that it would be impossible for most people to determine whether they are more attracted to a white person because of a witting or unwitting internalisation of the notion of white superiority or because of other, less problematic reasons. If this is true, we all have to ask ourselves difficult questions about our own notions of beauty and who we find sexually attractive.
This would be especially true if you realise that your notions of beauty or sexual attractiveness reflect the views of those who are culturally, politically and economically dominant. In other words, if you find white people more attractive than black people; if you find somebody of a different sex more attractive than somebody of the same sex; if you find rich people more attractive than poor people; if you find “butch” men more attractive than “effeminate” men or “effeminate” women more attractive than “butch” women; then maybe you need to ask yourself difficult questions about your own internalised prejudices.
Because our notions of beauty and sexual attractiveness are both deeply political (because it is influenced by the world we live in and the messages we receive from the culture we are steeped in) and utterly personal (because it is to some degree determined by childhood and other personal experiences that are difficult to identify), we cannot escape responsibility for the choices we make. At the very least, we owe it to ourselves and our fellow human beings to subject our beliefs about the beauty of individuals and the sexual desirability of others to critical scrutiny. After all, if we want to live ethical lives, the last thing we would want to do is to perpetuate deeply ingrained stereotypes and prejudices through the choices we make about who we find beautiful and who we find sexually desirable.