The Value of Whiteness in Exeter
Zoë Wilkinson shares her experiences of fetishised race as well as questioning racialised beauty standards in Exeter.
Coming from a secondary school just outside of London I was used to seeing a handful of people who looked like me before starting university. Although I had experienced racism in my somewhat diverse community at home, I had yet to navigate the tricky terrain of consistently being the only brown person in the room. As a mixed-raced person who often passes as white, I was able to observe through an untempered lens how white privilege operated socially and academically in Exeter.
When I was younger, these incidences of privilege and racism were something I discussed with my friends who experienced and understood such things. However, in my first year at Exeter I did not have any friends who experienced racism and only a few who I could discuss it with. The feeling of isolation I felt regarding race meant I found it increasingly difficult to recognise and combat racism. Looking back at the past two years I am able to think more clearly and identify some of the problems with how white people view race in Exeter.
‘Do people find me less attractive because I’m not white?’
One clear example is the way race informs beauty in Exeter. The concept of an ideal skin tone was something I was previously familiar with. However, what had been an unspoken truth at school became an overt sentiment amongst my white peers at university. In my second year I overheard a male acquaintance describe a girl his friend had kissed as ‘very Indian’ implying she was ‘too dark’, explicitly identifying her race as the reason she was undesirable. My own experiences were also increasingly bizarre. For the first time in my life I had to ask myself questions like, ‘Do people find me less attractive because I’m not white?’. I also encountered the fetishization of mixed-raced people both personally and when white people discussed their ‘type’.
This uneasy feeling of otherness that I experienced peaked when a close friend’s ex-boyfriend told me he loved my skin so much that he wished he could cut it off and stick it to himself.
Around the spring in my first year I began to observe the familiar obsession with tanning. This phenomenon has always made me feel slightly uncomfortable, not because I particularly care what white people do with their bodies but because they often use me as a benchmark to do so. A clear incidence of this occurred in my first year when I had just arrived back for third term. I was greeting an acquaintance who informed me she had spent most of the Easter break in the cyclic process of burning and tanning. She then proceeded to hold her arm up to mine and exclaim,
‘Yes! I’m darker than you now!’
I wondered how long she had been considering doing this comparison and why it was such an achievement for her to finally be darker than me. I was constantly confronted with the notion that there is a specific time and place for dark skin. This year, I heard a friend’s white housemate rave about a tanning lotion that turned her ‘basically black’. This reaffirmed my constant question – why is it only okay to be dark in Exeter if you are actually white?