This piece originally appeared at Love InshAllah on September 2, 2015.
“I have some questions about things you’ve written about,” John asked last week. We were chatting during happy hour at the annual conference where we meet and catch up. He is one of few white folks in my circle of friends.
“It was an article in which you talk about how difficult it is to date,” he continued. “I don’t understand. You’re smart, attractive, and confident. Do you feel like its Los Angeles? Do you only date Muslim men?”
“Dating in Los Angeles is harder than other cities I’ve lived in. And no, I haven’t dated Muslim men exclusively. Though, when it comes to choice, which is what online dating is all about — that’s what I would prefer. But I am open.”
“What about dating white guys?”
“I don’t date white men,” I state frankly.
“Why don’t you date white men? Is it a political decision? Or is it about attraction?” he asked.
I shift uncomfortably, choosing my words carefully. “Well, yes, it started out as a political decision but it has manifested into preference. I really find brown men incredibly attractive now. I just don’t find white men that attractive anymore.”
“Do you find that limiting?”“I don’t date white men,” I state frankly.I wonder if white men get asked the same question: do they find their choice in white women limiting?
“Numerically, maybe. If I happen to find a white guy who shares the same values and there’s chemistry, sure! But, right now? If I’m on a dating site where they ask you and I have to choose, I don’t pick white.”
“Have you ever tried to date a white guy?”
“Yes…” I trail off uncomfortably. “Actually, my longest relationship — two years — was with a white guy. It was back in my twenties. After that, I decided never again. At least, not for a while.”
He sighs in sympathy. “My wife and I have an open relationship. I have a girlfriend and she has a boyfriend. We figured out how to make it work. But your situation seems so difficult.”
I side-eye him. “Isn’t that hard to juggle?”
He responds jovially: “Not really. It’s actually pretty easy!”
Maybe I’ve been doing this dating thing all wrong.
My mom met my dad on their wedding day. She didn’t want to meet him beforehand. “What was the point? I was going to be looking at him the rest of my life.”
Whenever I asked her who was I supposed to marry, she’d always say it’d be an arranged marriage like hers — to a good Bangladeshi Muslim boy.
The thing was, as a child of immigrants in the ’80s, the good Bangladeshi Muslim boys in my age range were few and far between. The crushes I developed were the same crushes that all the girls in my grade school developed: on blond, blue-eyed, athletic, popular boys.
By the time I was in high school, this taste was fully developed. Of course, I never acted on my crush — dating was haram, and my parents would never allow it. But what did it matter anyway? As a brown girl, I wasn’t attractive to these boys either. They were drawn to the tall, blonde cheerleaders. I was always the sidekick to the pretty girls — the geeky, nerdy, student government, asexual, “other” Muslim brown girl. I was the girl that guys would talk to so that they could get closer to my pretty best friends.
By the time I graduated from high school, I did not find Bangladeshi men attractive — only white guys were cute. I would later learn about internalized racism and conditioning and how this shapes our preferences and self-worth. I would later learn how living in a society where As a brown girl, I wasn’t attractive to these boys either. They were drawn to the tall, blonde cheerleaders. positive or attractive images of brown men and women were marginalized or non-existent would affect who I thought was attractive. But as a teenager — all I knew was that I was rebelling against my parents’ traditional ideas. As far as I was concerned, I would only marry a white guy — if I was to get married at all. And, I’d get married when I was old, maybe when I was 28.
Weird how life works out.
One late night during Ramadan as I binge scrolled through my Facebook feed, I saw a picture of my ex. He’s in a suit with a flower on his lapel, standing happily next to his beautiful bride. Her white veil cascades over her off-shoulder wedding dress. They are holding champagne flutes and they look…in love. It all looks very Norman Rockwell, or like one of those white people fancy wedding scenes that you see at the end of a romantic comedy. He’s surrounded by folks holding beers or dancing, and behind that the Washington Monument is framed in a picture window. It looked nothing like the explosion of colors and madness of the Desi weddings I was used to.
When we broke up ten years ago, we made bets on who would get married first. He was convinced it would be me. He wanted to be the perpetual playboy. I was convinced that I would never find anyone to love after him. He reached out a couple of times a year to see how I was doing. We were good like that, at least.
He wasn’t the first guy I was in love with, but he was first in many other ways — first boyfriend, first Thanksgiving, first parental unit meeting, first living together. We met when were both in our early twenties working as community organizers in Washington, D.C. He grew up in a well-to-do family in an idyllic community just outside of D.C. They had oil paintings on the wall, candlesticks on the dining table, and ordered steak through the mail. In the petri dish of our relationship, I noticed how his white privilege compared to my lack thereof. To my family, he was a secret. But his family welcomed me with open arms. His grandmother made aloo gobi for me at Thanksgiving. I helped unwrap heirloom ornaments for their Christmas tree.
During those years, I was also learning about what it means to be a person of color and how white supremacy plays out in the U.S. In the petri dish of our relationship, I noticed how his white privilege compared to my lack thereof. I had overwhelming student loans, made much less money then him, and in those years right after September 11th, I stopped being able to fly and was harassed on those Washington, D.C. streets. Though it was comforting to be in a relationship, I still had to explain a lot of what it meant for me to feel exoticized, persecuted, and marginalized. Even I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening to my South Asian and Muslim communities — how could he could ever understand?
Around the 2004 election season cycle, our relationship started getting tense. We had both founded organizations to get out the vote for young voters — except mine was to get out the vote for young South Asians and his was to get out the vote for “the youth”. I saw how easily he navigated it all. How he gained access to power, funding, resources. How I had to struggle twice as hard to raise a quarter of the funding. How his funders didn’t want me to support a joint conference for fear that I would rally the people of color attendees. How they were scared of communities of color gaining power, even in a progressive organizing space. I hated the feeling of constantly being reminded of how little power I had as a woman of color.
Our relationship came to an explosive end near election day 2004. I promised myself that I would never actively date a white man again. I needed to get on solid ground on what it meant to be a Desi, an American, and a racial justice activist. I hated the feeling of constantly being reminded of how little power I had as a woman of color. It felt hypocritical to my political beliefs to be dating white.
Most importantly, my career was about training and educating people on social justice issues. The last thing I wanted to do was come home to a space where I had to continue to educate. I wanted to be in a relationship where I could be my full self, no explanation or education needed. He embodied privilege: white privilege, class privilege, gender privilege, education privilege. How could I be in a relationship with a person who constantly reminded me of how much I was lacking?
But, I didn’t break up with him because he was white. We broke up because he cheated on me.
I haven’t dated a white man ever since.
A few years later, at the age of 27, I was at my parents’ house talking to my Mom about an article I had been working on where I used Census data to figure out how many eligible single Bangladeshi males existed in Los Angeles County.
“So you see, Mother,” I said, “there are only 21 potential Bangladeshi males that I might be able to date in the entire L.A. County. And the chances of them being not stupid is really slim.”
“Yes, there aren’t a lot of smart ones,” she agreed. “But you know, he doesn’t have to be Bangladeshi.”
“I know, Mom.”
“He could be…white.”
“Mooooom!” I exclaimed, exasperated. “I would never marry a white guy! I would marry anything but white. Person of color, only.”
“Ehhh!” Mom responded, frustrated. “Why not? He could convert!”
“It’s like being with the colonizer. Or an oppressor. I can’t do that.”
“But why? What if you are in loooove?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was Mom advocating for a love marriage with a white man? “No. It’ll become me teaching my culture and experience. It will be a constant reminder of his white privilege and the lack of mine. Anything but white. Preferably, some kind of brown.”
“Ok,” Mom sighed in defeat. “So there’s no one out there at all? Even potential prospects?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to get married,” I said. “I just want to find some who is smart, and political, and who is good. Someone who is good. I know they exist, because I see all these older women married to really good guys, but you know? I just don’t know where they are. All I find are the stupid ones.”
“Yeah, men are stupid anyways.” I could hear the hopelessness in her voice. “What does it matter in the end? You live your life you die, and people remember you for what, 6 months? A year? Even people like Gandhi. What is life really, anyways?”
“Uhh… Mom? People haven’t forgotten about Gandhi.”
When you are dating as a woman of color, it’s a struggle. But when you are “poor” and dating, the struggles are nuanced and different.
Passing becomes of the utmost importance. Pretending to have privilege is paramount.
You wonder what your significant other will say when they see the peeling paint on the walls of your parents’ house, or the roof that needs repair. How what you thought was a middle class home will be perceived as less than when viewed by privileged eyes. Passing becomes of the utmost importance. Pretending to have privilege is paramount. How they’ll see your immigrant parents as less intelligent because of their thick accents. How will they even communicate? Will he remember not to touch you or kiss you while they are watching?
You wonder if you pass enough. You weren’t raised to understand the importance of brands and labels, but as an adult have had to learn enough so that you can have conversations about his car, or her purse, or their baby stroller. You wonder if your first date outfit says attractive or exudes cheap. When he orders food for you, you pretend that you know what you are eating, that chewy calamari or slimy oysters. You tout your master’s degree, but you are careful to not talk about how you carry the weight of your school debt because you learned early on that not everyone carries debt the way you do. You avoid conversations about how you had to work as a teen or how your parents borrow money from you. You hope, after looking at the menu, that this is one of the dates where he picks up the bill.
You choose your words carefully. Never say the words that gave away your improper pedigree, avoid the words you never learned to say. Google big words before saying them just to make sure you are using them correctly. Be carefully vague. Say your Mom works “at the airport” instead of as a cashier in the airport parking lot. Say Dad was an engineer and is now semi-retired. There’s no need for them to hear your family’s survival stories. Talk about how your parents own their house, but don’t talk about how it was almost taken away, or how you the roof leaks now and there’s no money to fix it. When they ask, “Why don’t you put it on your credit card?” pretend you don’t have credit cards for ethical reasons, not because you wouldn’t be approved for one.
You are careful to highlight the “exotic” nature of being brown — how you eat fancy “Indian” dishes, when really you ate at home because it was the cheapest. How you do yoga at home, but fail to mention that it’s because Indophile yogis in Silverlake studios annoy you. Nod when they note the Third World poverty of your motherland. Pretend to know enough about South Asian foreign policy so you don’t look stupid when they mention something they learned in their private school education. Talk about the non-violence movement and smile when they say Gandhi is inspiring. Don’t talk about family vacations as a child — because your only family vacations involved seeing extended family in Bangladesh. Suppress your look of envy when you hear their stories about sleep-away camps, cruise ship family vacations, or family dinners at fancy restaurants.
You never really thought of yourself as poor, but in this relationship you suddenly notice how you were raised with less than. You get confused when you realize that he has a brown girl fetish. You don’t know if it’s a compliment or a microaggression when he calls you exotic. Was that white privilege, class privilege or gender privilege? You are not sure, but you are hyperaware of how you have none of the above.
You are careful about distinguishing “it’s not you, it’s me.” It’s how you feel less than when you’re around white people. It’s how you feel you don’t have the same access to things as they do, and you can’t imagine being in a marriage where you’re reminded of that daily. It’s how you don’t want to have to deal with having to educate someone about the nuances of what it means to be a person of color. You just want to figure out who you yourself are as a person of color, first.
You don’t date white guys anymore, but you find brown guys are no better. They don’t understand why your ambitions don’t include doctoring/engineering. When you are poor, falling in love is something a little different. You wonder how you will survive the rest of your life without a second person and a second income. They don’t understand why you don’t fit into or subscribe to their model minority myth. They don’t understand that working class South Asians in America exist.
To these brown men you are also exotic. The do-gooder. The strong willed. When you date Indian guys they are quick to share stories of their families’ Islamophobia and Hindu privilege. They’ll date you, maybe even fuck you, but they’ll always cite how you would never fit in with their family when they dump you. They’ll all inevitably say, “You are too good for me.”
When you are poor, falling in love is something a little different. You wonder how you will survive the rest of your life without a second person and a second income. You wonder if you would have picked a different career had you known you were going to have to be financially independent. You wonder at what age you’ll have to turn into the Golden Girls with your sisters because this world is too expensive to be fully on your own.
So you give up on dating. Because when it comes down to surviving and finding love, you can’t figure out how to do both sanely at the same time. You’d rather survive alone. And you wonder, how long you can pass until people discover you are a poser. Or if you’ll spend the rest of your life simply passing.
Tanzila Ahmed is an activist, storyteller, and politico based in Los Angeles. She can be heard and read monthly on the #GoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast and Radical Love column respectively. An avid writer, she was a long-time writer for Sepia Mutiny and is published in the Love, Inshallah anthology. Her personal projects include writing about Desi music at Mishthi Music where she co-produced Beats for Bangladesh, making #MuslimVDay Cards and curating images for Mutinous Mind State. Taz also organizes with Bay Area Solidarity Summer and South Asians for Justice – Los Angeles. You can find her rant at @tazzystar and at tazzystar.blogspot.com.