The Problem With Racial Fetishization

Attraction is, in many ways, both elusive and confounding. Everyone has different qualities that they're drawn to, and people often don't understand what others find appealing. How many times have you wondered what your friend saw in a partner—or felt like your friends were wondering the same about you?

There's also a point at which attraction becomes singularly focused on just one quality. When this happens, it turns into something else entirely: fetishization. And for women of color, this type of attraction is cause for concern.

The Power of Fetishization

Fetishizing is when people are attracted to the color of your skin and the racial stereotypes that have been assigned to women of your race. For Asian women, this can be submissiveness; for African-American women, it's often sass.

While interest in these qualities are expected to be taken as a compliment, it's actually the opposite. Because the attraction is based on skin color, not the person inside the skin, it's ultimately just another form of objectification.

It’s disheartening to hear women recount their stories of (less than) romantic interactions where their partners go from worthy to gross with one swift “show me that black ass” comment.

Ruth Tam, a Chinese American writer, wrote about her experiences engaging as an unwilling participant in a “game” which she calls “Guess My Race”:

My freshman year of college, I found myself dancing with a guy at a party. In an act of misguided foreplay, he touched my face and asked me softly, 'What are you?'...When I told him 'what I was,' he grinned lasciviously and said, 'I’ve never been with an Asian before.'

...To him and anyone else looking to put down a finger in the 'Asian Hook Up' round of Never Have I Ever, let me be clear: I am not interested in acting out a TV movie where you befriend a girl who is Asian. Also not too keen on acting out a porno where you hook up with one. I know; I’m no fun…

The media, not surprisingly, often feeds such fetishizing. Beauty campaigns and magazines about Lupita Nyong'o, for example, tend to glorify only her darkness. The abundance of compliments directed solely at her skin tone imply that her skin is what makes her beautiful, which is different from appreciating everything that makes her stunning. It’s the immediate leap from “dark” to “beautiful” that creates the suspicion of fetishization—with her color used as a bargaining chip to advocate for a post-racial world.

Moving Beyond the Fetish

Women should be viewed through the lens of attraction—that undeniable yet impossible-to-quantify pull that causes you to lock eyes with someone and feel a pang that some call lust, and others call love. Attraction involves initial sparks that can blossom into something deeper—not presumptions based on pigment.

If you want to get technical, anything can be fetishized: looks, intelligence, height. But if there is only one reason you’re into someone, you narrow their appeal and worth to a single attribute, and that’s not fair.

Of course, not all attraction for something qualifies as fetishism. For example, I don’t think my adoration for a select few redheaded dudes makes for what has (jokingly) been referred to as a “ginger fetish,” just like I don’t think being interested in me automatically means you have a black fetish. But if tunnel vision sets in, and one quality drastically overshadows all others, it's time to ponder if a line has been crossed.

Keep in mind that all women are more than just one thing. And they deserve to be appreciated for everything they have to offer.

Image: ThinkStock

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