For a Brown Girl
This is the second of a three-part series by Litia Tuiburelevu exploring romantic absence, the politics of desirability, and trying to navigate dating in Tāmaki Makaurau.
“It’s fine if she sees you, she knows you’re not my type anyway.”
He says this to me from the passenger seat of my Toyota Vitz, with his casual, swaggering egotism that turns cruelty into flippancy, like a Jedi mind trick. We’re 21, sitting outside his flat after an evening study session. The ‘he’ is a gangly boy whose charismatic demeanour and absence of any physically intimidating features obscures a very complicated affliction. The conversation, which is so far so good, has just been punctured by the ‘she’ – his actual romantic interest – blazing into his flat with a Country Road bag slung over her shoulder.
She’s the type of girl a screenwriter might describe as [22, girl next door, easy to fall for, pretty like a summer-camp crush] – all gentle descriptors women of colour are rarely afforded. I clocked her a few seconds earlier through the rear-vision mirror and my hand impulsively stirred the ignition despite nothing untoward happening. I like this boy, and, despite my best efforts, I think he knows that, too. He grins with an expectant gaze as his comment hangs in the air.
I momentarily think to grab it but instead smile, say “See you tomorrow”, and let it writhe silently in my insides. His comment doesn’t need any elaboration. He’s always making offhand quips about his Māori father telling him to “come home with a nice white girl”, making me acutely aware that, even in all my romantic naiveté, Brown boys sometimes squash girls like me under their pedestals for white women. His comment will lurk in my psyche like a dormant virus, metastasising with every other communication of a similar flavour.
Summer ‘16, a friend and I are on a twilight bike ride around Kapanga town when I start to feel that germ wriggle up my throat. “No,” I tell it, “stay in the DMs and parked-car conversations with friends”, fearing its escape might expose me as a ‘bad feminist’. But the heat has me a little impish and I’m curious to hear what a 24-year-old Sāmoan male has to say. Our talanoa meanders through various topics absent of definitive boundaries until a comment about dating pours into why it seems so many Brown boys, at least in my orbit, have a penchant for white girls.
He gives a deep, knowing laugh that’s oddly reassuring, as though confirming it’s not a solitary thorn in my psyche. We ping-pong the various shitty remarks we’ve heard: “Brown girls are too loud/too bossy/too like their mothers/too intimidating/too difficult/too like a sister/too many sharp edges poking out” et al., and the overplayed “not my type” until we exhaust our mental archives.
He then snatches them all like cartoon birds circling above my head and bottles them into a theory he loosely titles The Reverse Oedipus Complex, a colonially inflicted condition where Brown men (consciously or subconsciously) desire women unlike their mothers. He’s half-joking, although I can imagine Sigmund Freud is 3-inch punching in his grave at this moment. “Interesting, I hadn’t thought of it like that,” I ponder. “One day I’ll do a post-colonial reading of Sione’s Wedding,” he replies.
What’s in a ‘type’? Idk. I think mine’s ‘hot but in a slightly odd way’, which leaves a lot to be desired. The enduring point is that the initial site of romantic relations is often based on who we find visually attractive. Humans are relational beings. Companionship isn’t built in a vacuum. Sure, that’s all subjective and, like, date who you want, but it’s undeniable that the language of ‘types’, ‘preferences’ and ‘attractiveness’ are also deeply entangled within all the awful ists and isms, too.
This is why I tend to linger on the sidelines while Team ‘just shoot your shot’ plays the court. Sometimes rejection isn’t just rejection; it can also be emblematic of your identities, as though they’re some kind of character flaw. Yet I also warm the bench knowing many of those same ists and isms afford me a suite of unearned protections they routinely deny others.
I can’t propose any ‘answer’ to this (aside from, maybe, doing some serious self-directed forensics), I'm just wading through the contradiction of trying to simultaneously divest from external validation whilst not wanting a silly little life where romance exists largely in the imaginary.
My social-media algorithms have recently inundated me with a deluge of couples content, I suspect as a result of my ongoing investigation into Zoë Kravitz and Channing Tatum’s recent canoodling. While most PDA in the digital hall of mirrors makes me vomit in my mouth, when it’s women of colour (both the regular and celebrity kind) being loved up, loved on and (finally!) LOVED OUT LOUD, I’m momentarily convinced that love isn’t in its flop era.
But microdosing romance from the content excreted through the digital funnel gives you mental whiplash when the 2D doesn’t materialise in one’s 3D, because to exist in predominantly Pākehā spaces is to be mentally porous to all the ways white supremacy is so flexible in its cruelty.
I grew up on a diet of Mary-Kate and Ashley reruns, and productions cultured in the Hollywood petri dish that made plain the ‘type’ of girl who got to enjoy a romantic narrative arc.
White girls got to dance on the infinite continuum of girl next door, athletic girl, manic pixie dream girl, chill girl, grunge girl, goth girl, gossip girl, beach girl, Victoria’s Secret angel girl, cute girl, gamer girl, indie girl, mean girl, artsy girl, theatre girl, preppy girl, shy girl, down-to-earth girl, rock girl, surfer girl, weird girl, edgy girl, quirky girl, strawberry-blonde girl, nerdy girl, cool girl, bad girl, hot girl, ditsy girl, pretty-but-in-a-kinda-odd-way girl, party girl, pretty-enough girl, glamour girl, all-American girl, no-sharp-edges-poking-out girl, witchy girl, fun girl, and on and on and on.
Consuming film and television became an existential exercise in searching for the self in the celluloid., discovering that girls like me were allotted a limited square metrage on the infinite continuum and always with clearly delineated barriers. My friends and I sometimes prod at them through the DMs, musing over who/what is the ‘type’ of Brown girl deemed ‘dateable’ in Aotearoa.
Which is not to suggest nobody’s dating women of colour, that’d be absurd. It’s just a knowingness that the invisible hand of the system affords a certain romantic ‘worthiness’ to those whose genetic lottery is more proximate to the elusive ‘beauty standard’. It’s bullshit, but also a complex knot to detangle.
I remember endless afternoons from Years 9–13 in the girls’ bathroom at the first shrill of the 3pm bell, flattening my frizzy hair with hand soap and warm water, and lining my eyes with a blunt Maybelline kohl liner. I followed the ‘white lines’1 of schoolgirls into the maelstrom at the exit gate, rolling my skirt waistband twice over, freeing a button or two on my blouse, quickly smothering my lips in that obscenely scented Thin Lizzy gloss.
I approached romance with an Odyssean logic, believing I could Trojan-horse my personality to someone if only I remodelled my appearance. It didn’t work then, barely works now, and yet the belief looms like ambient anxiety. I’d be lying to say I’ve fully exorcised it at a cellular level. Those ‘white lines’ left a lingering residue, smuggling themselves into every Google search for “best straightener 4 thick curly hair + nz'' or whenever I ask, “Yeah, but does he even like Brown girls?” like a jaded bouncer before allowing any close encounter of the romantic kind.
“Yeah, but does he even like Brown girls?”
It triggers a certain psychological mind-fuck, like it’s some kind of ‘accomplishment’ when a boy (especially a white boy!?!) shows me a crumb of interest, or the unnecessary pathologising that someone could only be interested in me to satiate a fetish. It’s lifelong work to rewire the circuit of your upbringing.
My musing on ‘types’ has gained fresh attention having inhaled 57 hours of UK Love Island Season 7, a show that I can only describe as Tinder in praxis. I started watching as I was low on electrolytes and in dire need of a (new) vehicle of romantic escapism (I’ve since moved on to recklessly recycling that clip of Oscar Isaac caressing Jessica Chastain’s arm). Two episodes in I was hooked, compromising my internet security with bung streaming links just to indulge myself hours from its UK screening.
I was initially satisfied with watching hot people caramelise in the Mallorca sun, but soon became pathologically incapable of enjoying things without my brain trying to exercise a critical muscle. It spasmed when the male contestants rattled off their ‘types’ with such chutzpah it was as though they forgot an audience with Twitter accounts watched from the other side. All the men shared a near unanimous preference for “a petite girl, blonde hair, blue eyes, light features” (read: white), or the curiously worded “fit, brunette, with dark features'' (read: white, but tanned).
All the men shared a near unanimous preference for “a petite girl, blonde hair, blue eyes, light features” (read: white)
The unsaid was so transparent when observing how the few Black women and women of colour were often relegated to second fiddle, strategically used as ‘friendship’ placeholders to warm the bed for an incoming ‘bombshell’. While searching for sense in a reality TV show is like hoping for therapy in a fortune cookie, the show is nonetheless a hyperreal menagerie for the desirability dynamics operating outside the villa walls.2
It’s the autumn of 2020 and this flat party is in its very drunken stage. A hundred or so bodies stretch this wilting villa to its infrastructural limits, its hallways twinkling from crushed Pals cans discarded by boys with pupils wide as saucers. I’m lingering with a friend in the corridor when I overhear a woman declare how good it feels to walk into a party able to pick any guy she wants.
Her comment filters in my direction and I spin around to notice that she’s glancing at me with an air of expectancy as though I, too, might bond with her affirmation, absorbing it like osmosis to move through the night under the assumption of desirability. I can’t give flesh to the simmering dissonance between her and I, so I just reply with “You go girl” and shuffle off to the bathroom to apply some Fenty lip gloss and remind myself I look nice even if I’m not affirmed by another pair of eyes.
I animate the psychiatric silence between me and my reflection with Carmen Machado’s words, which loop through my brain:
You wondered, when she came along, if this was what most people got to experience in their lives: a straight line from want to satisfaction; desire manifested and satisfied in reasonable succession. This had never been the case before; it had always been fraught. How many times had you said, “If I just looked a little different, I'd be drowning in love”? Now you have to drown without needing to change a single cell. Lucky you.3
This ‘straight line’ had always proved illusory, a steady plank over the infinite chasm I’d only observed from below. While I’m not one to fuck with linearity, it’d be nice to be loved all the way through, not as a nicely decorated gate lounge for someone to pass time, a brief addendum to their pursuit of girls with holiday homes and Volkswagen Polos with Les Mills stickers on the back.
The other day I found a thought relic immortalised deep in my notes app. It’s a ‘poem’ I must’ve penned to assist in my romantic meanderings on those god-awful dating apps. Maybe it’ll help you straighten things out.
If it's a group photo,
He is not.
– 10.47pm, 16 June 2018
1Mitski, ‘Strawberry Blond’.
2 I want to acknowledge I’m speaking in a largely cis-het context.
3 Carmen Machado, In the Dream House (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2019), 47.
Feature image: Pounamu Wharekawa-Farrell