Honoring every experience as an opportunity for learning and growth.
Everyone has preferences. We all like certain foods, activities, personalities, and body types. Comparing ‘favorites’ remains one of the most popular first date conversations for this very reason. We strongly identify with our preferences, but many of us fail to consider where they come from. This would be fine if it were simply things like a soft spot for a particular smell, or a weakness for a certain food. When it comes to how we interact with other people, however, preferences can become very damaging if not fully explored.
A perfect example is a debate that has raged within the gay community for ages, but in reality exists within the larger culture as well, and that is where the realm of preference ends, and racism/homophobia/sexism/prejudice begins. Looking through online personals can be very telling when trying to get a general idea of how a group thinks. As a gay man myself, I have seen countless profiles that seem to have no problem listing a series of preferences that are often very direct: Looking for masculine, straight acting, fit, white guys under 30. When challenged about their choice of mate, they’ll simply respond with the blame deflecting statement “these are just my preferences.”
The truth, if it can be called that, is far more complex than simple preference. It may be true that these individuals harbor no ill-will toward other guys who don’t fit into their rather rigid system of preferences. However, prejudice is not always conscious. Through a process called socialization, we absorb the beliefs of the culture in which we live. These beliefs become so deeply ingrained that we are often not even aware that we hold them. However, they can have profound (and subtle) impacts on our behaviors. What we believe to be a preference is often a product of cultural conditioning. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that masculine, straight-acting, muscular, white guys are considered the most desirable. It also happens to be what our culture, via the media, considers to be the most attractive. There are thousands of different ways this message is conveyed, and those messages are everywhere.
As we deconstruct this conditioning, we can begin to see where the prejudices of our culture influence our preferences in ways we may have difficulty accepting. I personally don’t enjoy the fact that my community is preoccupied with serious internalized homophobia, manifested as a preoccupation with the “masculine/feminine” construct, nor the racist (or prejudiced) undertones of not finding people of color attractive. No person likes to admit that they’re participating, however unconsciously, in a system that systematically oppresses and devalues people to the benefit of others. The sad truth is we are participating, and by refusing to admit our participation we ensure its continuation.
There comes a point when we, as a society, have to face our demons, starting with ourselves. Only by looking our internalized prejudice and oppressive beliefs in the face can we work to undo the damage they cause. By focusing on ourselves we avoid the systems of blame and defensiveness that often prevent individuals from being honestly self-reflective, while maximizing the potential for creating real change. With each person who takes that courageous step of self-discovery, we have one less participant in a system that works only to dehumanize and devalue others. Eventually, the system will collapse, and we can build a new way of interacting that focuses less on arbitrary, socially constructed characteristics and more on who we are as individuals. It’s all possible, if we have the courage to face ourselves first.