An “Interracial” Epic


I have always been intrigued by the concept of “interracial” as a sexual fetish like, say, a thing for feet and shoes. How does “interracial sex” differ from the more vanilla versions? And how could “interracial sex” be kinkier than an “interracial” social and working life? How many people in an increasingly interconnected world never rub shoulders with those who are defined as racially different from themselves?

The term “missionary position” (presumably describing a Victorian-era white male Christian mounting a “pagan” indigenous woman between sermons) seems relevant here. Yet “interracial sex” is sometimes presented as a revolutionary alternative to conventional, monogamous heterosexuality, as implied by “missionary position.” When “interracial” is added to such terms as “erotic romance,” what reader demographic is being wooed?

In the aftermath of controversy over the blockbuster movie Avatar (which could be described as an interracial or even interspecies romance), at least certain concepts are being discussed, again. Nothing in the debate sounds new to me, though a free forum for discussion seems healthier than an embarrassed silence about “race,” a controversial topic in itself.

If you have been living in a cave and have not seen Avatar, I should probably summarize it briefly. (Warning: spoiler alert.) At the center of the story is a disabled (but otherwise average) white American guy named Jake who is less intellectual than his late twin brother, whom he is meant to replace. Jake is sent to the planet Pandora, where the U.S. military is trying to get access to a rare resource, unobtainium, by encouraging (or if necessary, forcing) the local humanoid population off the land they have lived on forever. By modern American standards, the native Na’vi are “primitive” (not technologically advanced), but they have a deep understanding of and respect for their natural habitat. Sent to live among them in a remote-controlled hybrid body, Jake feels strangely at home. He falls in love with the Na’vi woman who rescues him from local predators, and he comes to reject his mission as an agent for the military. Eventually he is able to become an able-bodied Na’vi man. This involves marrying his girlfriend for life. Apparently this is the only kind of sexual relationship that the Na’vi (attuned as they are to natural law) can conceive of.

Part of the charm of this movie, of course, is that the Na’vi aren’t real, even if they can be read as stand-ins for various human communities that have been romanticized and exploited in the past few centuries. If the movie gives rise to sexual fantasies about slim, athletic blue people who stand twelve feet tall (on average), these scenarios seem more likely to drive the sales of video games than to encourage “interracial sex” among actual humans.

Critiques of the movie have focused on the simple association of “noble savages” with an unspoiled natural environment, which looks especially awesome in 3D. (On this point, the critics seem unanimous.) As far as I know, no one has pointed out that Jake is the least intellectual and most sympathetic of the Americans; not being burdened with an advanced degree (like his late brother), he is most in tune with the Na’vi. Like earthlings defined as “ethnic,” they have tribal lore, useful skills, good instincts and conservationist values, but not the kind of formal knowledge that is taught in schools on earth. And no one seems to see the rigid heterosexuality of the Na’vi as anything but “natural.”

None of the reviews I’ve read have acknowledged that a central love story about a white male from the earth’s dominant culture and a “primitive,” “ethnic” female (tall, strong and agile as she is) suggests a kind of “missionary position,” even though the intended missionary joins the tribe.

In all fairness, mutual curiosity seems universal whenever humans who look different see each other for the first time. Children have to be taught by their self-conscious parents not to stare, point or ask questions in public about the physical characteristics of strangers. Children who aren’t prevented from doing this are likely to touch the exotic Other, and it is easy to see “interracial sex” between near-strangers as an extension of this impulse. This kind of curiosity is taken for granted when virgin boys and girls want to see what members of “the opposite sex” look like under their clothes. If male curiosity about female plumbing and vice versa isn’t considered sexist in itself, it is hard to see how “interracial” curiosity could be considered racist by definition.

In real life, of course, it’s more complicated than that. “Interracial sex” in a colonial (or “post-colonial”) situation tends to be too much like irresponsible strip-mining. When white businessmen go slumming in the “‘hood” of the town where I live to check out the native teenagers (of various genders) working the streets, even the most clueless observer couldn’t pretend that these hookups are part of a cultural dialogue that could give rise to a great rainbow orgy resulting in post-orgasmic world peace.

“Missionary position” has an especially poignant meaning in a region where the old residential school system, supposedly intended to “civilize (i.e. Christianize) the savages,” enabled a high percentage of white adults to abuse the children under their control in a variety of ways, with little likelihood of being stopped. Some of these adults (such as pedophile priests) had undoubtedly been sent to residential schools in isolated areas to get them out of more urban environments where they were already under a cloud of complaints and suspicions. The residential schools have been closed for over a generation now, but they left a legacy of under-education, under-employment (in the “straight” job market), addictions and sexual exploitation which is still with us.

Notice the centrality of an education system in perpetuating social inequality between people defined as racially different.

While the history of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the U.S. is in some ways parallel to the history of First Nations peoples, formal education (literacy) was forbidden fruit to people with the legal status of livestock, who were not supposed to be taught to read and write. Their lack of a literate culture was similar to that of the white “lower orders” (e.g. my English ancestors) in a time before a free, compulsory school system was established.

The abolition of slavery in the U.S. in 1865 gave rise to a long debate about which kinds of education would further the “advancement” of “colored people.” After generations of inferior education in segregated public schools, African-Americans achieved integration and then equality in the school system (at least on paper), and are now as likely to go to university as their white counterparts. And since 1865, there have been waves of immigration from the rural southern states to the urban, industrial north.

If the Na’vi in Avatar are considered sexy because they have instinctive knowledge of the animals and even the plants in their natural environment, they must be based on a stereotype of “primitive” peoples which no longer has any relevance in North America. Where are the “noble savages” of today?

In a time when many people of all “races” are terrified of the evident damage that humans have done to the natural world, even those still defined as “ethnic” (not white) might well feel nostalgic for an apparently eternal, mutually supportive relationship with Mother Nature, personified by the Na’vi as their Goddess. Those who are not “primitive” or not female might well hope that a carnal hookup with someone in either or both of those categories might be the way back to Her, the natural environment we came from, and on which we depend.

Wanting a joyful reunion with the Source of all life might actually be anti-colonial at its root. And even if such an “interracial” fantasy contains as much dehumanizing stereotyping as there is mercury in the fish we eat, some of the poison is clearly sexist, heterosexist and anti-intellectual, not only racist.

But then, I’m still not sure what is and isn’t “racial.” The human gene pool is a kaleidoscope, and racially-specific physical characteristics are all relative. (If “race” was ever a black-or-white concept, it isn’t now.) When two urban professionals who are both fluent in English (or some other European language) hook up, is this a sign that “opposites attract” if their skin color and hair texture (and possibly their genders) are not exactly the same?

I suspect the irony of “interracial sex” is that the more it happens, the less it is likely to be described that way. Novelty tends to wear off, but getting to know another person well is more than adequate compensation for losing the thrill of sex with someone (or something) “exotic.” Of course, if this is your chosen kink, preaching against it might just make it seem more exciting. So all I ask is that 1) whatever your preference, please stick to consenting adults, and 2) if you find a missionary hypocrite in your bed, kick him out.

Jean Roberta
March 2010

“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2010 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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