Race, Desire, and Mirror-as-Beloved

Megan Fernandes

In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 169.

Do I love my beloved, or do I want to be my beloved?

Do I love my beloved, or do I love the way my beloved sees me?

Do I love my beloved, or do I want what my beloved has?

These are dark, important questions. They are also formal, craft questions.

When I wrote a sonnet crown entitled “Sonnets of the False Beloveds With One Exception OR Repetition Compulsion,” in my new book, I Do Everything I’m Told (Tin House, June 2023), I was, in some ways, trying to understand the dynamics of desire within interracial intimacy. The poems make few direct references to race, yet race engines the whole crown: the unruliness of the “dark child,” a speaker who is an “actress” both to her beloved and to a police officer who pulls her over, a final “Diaspora Sonnet” that enacts the frenetic shifting energies of a body that is constantly transforming and responding to the projections of her family, the state, and a series of lovers. No matter where she travels, she sees the mutability of desire and the constancy of power.

A few years ago, walking around a student neighborhood in Berlin, I saw posters hanging with propaganda from Alternative for Germany, or AfD, the nation’s right-wing, white-supremacist party. One poster had an image of a white woman’s pregnant belly and the words “‘Neue Deutsche?’ Machen wir selber,” which is loosely translated as “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves.”

Creepy, I thought, the way reproduction and nationalism go hand in hand. The poster’s not-so-subtle subtext being something about immigrants threatening white German children and white German children representing the future of the nation-state. The racism was too obvious to be interesting, but it did have me thinking: not about the political threat that nonreproductive interracial sex poses to the white nation-state, nor of the utopian vision of a post-racial future that interracial relationships—as they are often presented in the media, particularly when one party is white and the other party is not (a friend once called the first season of Bridgerton part of the “Shondaland interracial-industry complex”)—but about what happens in narratives of interracial intimacy when the relationship is nonreproductive and same-sex.

My therapist once told me that the first time two people “in love” have sex, it’s all projection. How cinematic. When she said this, a vision came to mind of two holographic ghosts, fucking. Not quite achieving a mirror effect, both parties try to fulfill idealizations of themselves in the eye of the “beloved.” Person A falls in love not with Person B but with how Person B reflects back to Person A a glorified (and ultimately harmfully unattainable) image of themselves (perhaps Person A loves the way Person B sees them as a successful, confident person, for example). Person B’s gaze tethers together the fragile self-perception of Person A like a wobbly scaffold. But what does mirroring mean, even metaphorically, in interracial sex—where difference is not abstract but embodied? Where the “oneness” that mirroring promises would be shattered by a “crack” in the mirror? And what might we be working out about power and race in our representations of intimacy between two differently racialized bodies?  

One of the most seminal theories in queer studies is Lee Edelman’s concept of “no future” from No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Duke University Press, 2004). Edelman argues that the figure of the “Child” is used by the dominant culture to enact and endorse violent policies against LGBTQ folks and punish those engaged in nonreproductive sex. Think of that meme and GIF of a scene from The Simpsons in which a cartoon woman screams “WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?”

Edelman argues that, if you politicize and stir hysteria around the innocence and future of the Child, you can punish queer behaviors by framing them as deviant or harmful to the Child. This has a “hetero-norming effect,” with the consequence being a society built on unquestioned ideas about the sanctity of the nuclear family and blood kinship, both of which are imagined to reproduce the nation-state. So powerful are these ideas of heternormativity that its rituals largely go unquestioned, and massive amounts of money and labor go into perpetuating narrow understandings of romance, marriage, children, and the division of labor along gendered lines. Edelman’s theory of the Child offers a lens for understanding the AfD advertisements, in which the promise of sustaining the German race is directly linked to the preservation of white-race citizenship, only made possible through—you guessed it—the child.

A few years ago in Montreal, I saw the scholar Bobby Benedicto give a talk about “boyfriend twinning,” a social-media trend of same-sex couples who dress alike and synchronize their facial hair and wardrobes so much that they look like twins. Bobby scrolled through images of couples in the same beanie hats, same “wife-beater” tank tops, same bleached hair, and—for some—the same neo-Nazi youth haircuts disturbingly popular in Brooklyn at the time. While in heterosexual relationships, racial homogeneity and sameness are produced through the promise of reproduction—or the Child—and blood kinship, Benedicto argued that in many homosexual relationships, taking those pictured on the website Boyfriendtwin as an example, racial homogeneity is preserved through the figure of the twin.

The point is that figures of the Child and the twin are familial and blood-oriented and that they might both be implicated in the project of white supremacy: “By definition, twinning cannot accommodate racial difference; its narcissism necessarily colludes with another prohibition: the prohibition against interracial desire,” Benedicto writes in “Agents and Objects of Death: Gay Murder, Boyfriend Twins, and Queer of Color Negativity,” an article that appeared in 2019 in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Any failure to look alike is a failure of the wholeness that mirroring promises, what he calls “a closed circuit between the self and its reflection, the ego and its projection.”

What does this have to with language? With poetry?

I want us to think deeply about what we mean when we say “beloved,” when we write lyric poetry, when we talk about desire and projection, when we like what we see in the beloved’s mirror held up to us. And how race matters for that mirror. How part of desire is how we see ourselves and see ourselves in each other (which has a homogenizing effect), and how race matters for that as well. Our bodies are assigned signifying codes handed to us by the culture: We have been told that certain looks, people, bodily features are “ideal.” Through these codes’ repetition—in literature and other media—they are granted the status of social consensus. This consensus is formalized or put more simply, becomes a form.

If you are a person of color in bed with whiteness, one might think about how desire and idealization operate. If you are a woman of color in bed with a white woman, one might think about how you are in bed with the idealization of Western beauty in the dominant culture. All of this is to say that, when I saw Bobby give his talk in Montreal, I felt my chest swell. I have never reacted so strongly to an academic talk before. It articulated something I had struggled to define in my own real-life experience and in literary representations of same-sex desire where whiteness was present. That my body was a “crack” in the mirror of similitude.

What is the mirror of the other person you are endlessly holding up, like Sisyphus with his rock? What is your body in relation?   

In one of the ending sonnets of the crown, I write, “In love, there are no rules to begin with,” and I’m a poet, so I’d like believe that love can undo and destabilize harmful structural realities, that those realities bend in eros. And it’s true that there might be no rules, but there are forms. With forms, there are ideals. With ideals, there are politics.

Desire is no exception. 


Megan Fernandes is a writer living in New York City. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, the American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, among many other outlets. Her third book of poetry, I Do Everything I’m Told, was published this month by Tin House. She is an associate professor of English and the writer-in-residence at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

Art: Zane Persaud