It’s time to talk about desirability politics at Cambridge

Are we in control of what we deem desirable?

At the Downing College Matriculation Formal in October, the college Master Alan Bookbinder alerted the new matriculates that we joined the ranks of this hallowed institution at the dawn of a new era. He said that “it is no longer enough to simply be non-racist, we must strive to be anti-racist as well.”

The irony of a white man, whom I am told to refer to as Master, ushering in the new era of inclusion is not lost on me. However, I do appreciate the fact that he has made diversity and inclusion a stated priority of the college.

At Downing, one is hard-pressed to enter a common space, whether it be the MCR, the JCR, or the Porter’s Lodge, without noticing one of the following posters.

Downing College Anti-Racism Posters (Image Credit: Gabe Abdellatif)

These posters are designed to remind students of their obligation to not only quell their own racism but to disrupt the racism of others. The second poster features a slew of microaggressions–the casual verbal, behavioural, or environmental slights that reflect prejudice towards marginalized communities–in an attempt to reflect how ridiculous these sorts of comments truly are. 

The comment from this poster that gets the most airtime in my friend group is “you are pretty for a brown girl.” In addition to becoming a tongue-in-cheek affirmation for myself and my friends, it has led to some riveting discussions about an aspect of racial discrimination that proclamations from the Master can’t address: desirability politics.

What are desirability politics?

Put simply, the politics of desirability dictate that who we find attractive is largely influenced by culture and society. No matter how innate one’s preferences or tastes may feel, media and popular culture are major influences in determining what is desired. This is important because there is a body of research that suggests that beautiful people are given more opportunities, higher pay, and generally trusted more, while the inverse is true for people not considered conventionally attractive.

What then, goes into determining conventional attractiveness? Say it with me: systems of oppression! The norms of white supremacy set the terms under which beauty is defined, setting the stage for concepts like colourism and featurism which are the racist preferences for lighter skin, straighter hair, and other features associated with whiteness.

Fatphobia, the fear or hatred of fatness, also comes into play as the cultural tide has equated thinness with health and attractiveness when in actual fact people can be healthy and attractive at any size. Additionally, ableism plays a major role in the politics of desirability as those harbouring ableist beliefs accept that to be conventionally attractive is to be without any physical or intellectual disabilities.

There are of course many other factors that contribute to the politics of desirability, and these factors often fluctuate depending on cultural context. What is true across all contexts, however, is that desirability politics reinforce the cultural and social stratification that was already present–meaning that the most vulnerable sections of any given population are further marginalized.

How does this play out at Cambridge?

With a better understanding of what the politics of desirability are it may seem a bit perverse “you are pretty for a brown girl” has turned into an inside joke. The truth is, I find the context in which the college tried to broach this subject deeply funny. As a fat Black man, I’ve heard a lot worse than “you are attractive” followed by a qualifier, and I think the college’s attempt to spread awareness of this problem does not accurately characterize the difficulty of navigating the politics of desirability.

Cambridge student laments about desirability politics (Image: Camfess)

A Camfess posted in early November reflects just how difficult and often isolating it can be to feel undesired. “The system just feels so systemically biased to those with Euro-centric features,” the anonymous poster wrote. The response from the online community consisted of a handful of likes and a few “I Care” reacts. No comments. It was the lack of responses that motivated me to write this piece.

While this article alone is not capable of rectifying the systemic issues at play, let it serve as a primer for those who wish to take active steps to change their outlook on the world. Desirability politics are real and they can be very damaging because of how they often manifest in insidious ways. It won’t always be as easy to identify as hearing someone get called attractive despite their race.

There is a long road until we live in a world free from desirability politics, but recognizing they exist is the first step. Furthermore, I implore you to take stock of what you find attractive and what your preferences are. How are these determined by normative notions of desirability and systems of oppression? What can you do to disrupt the desirability politics you practice in your own life?

Overcoming the politics of desirability is only possible if we all divest from this school of thought.

Only then can we all be beautiful, pretty, or handsome, without qualification or exception, simply as we are.

Feature Image Credit: Gabe Abdellatif

Downing College and The University of Cambridge were contacted for comment.

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