Alison Reiheld, SIUE Associate Professor of Philosophy and Director of SIUE Women’s Studies Program, brings us PART 4 in our series on gender, sexualization, and the media.
Every once in awhile, Wikipedia has a surprisingly well fleshed-out entry. One of these is the description of racial fetishism. This:
…involves fetishizing a person or culture belonging to a race or ethnic group that is not one’s own—therefore it involves racial/ethnic stereotyping and objectifying those bodies who are stereotyped, and at times their cultural practices. This can include having strong racial preferences in dating…
Do you know someone who tends to only date people of their own race? What about someone who tends to date people of another particular race? What is the line between preference and fetish, between finding certain particular kinds of people beautiful and treating them particularly, out of all other groups, as sex objects?
The African-American online magazine, The Root, has an article called “5 signs you’re about to be racially fetishized.” It begins “So… What’s your type? Admit it. You probably have one. Most of us do.” The author goes on to describe her experiences with on-line dating and the dating app Tinder:
As a member of what is purportedly the least-pursued demographic online (smart, sexy and successful, yet single, black women), I was understandably leery about what—and whom—I’d encounter on an app best known for “hookups.” But in the interest of adventure, I braced myself for potential encounters with predators, grade-A creepers and flat-out racists.
I wasn’t prepared for the fetishists… my experiences dating “across the aisle” were no preparation for the highly racialized world of online dating.
Such fetishization of African-American women relies on stereotypes about black women’s sexuality such as those described by sociologist Patricia Hill Collins in her book Black Feminist Thought.
Collins argues that several “controlling images” of black women set them up as always in a double bind, falling into one or another constraining or insulting stereotype. Several of these involve sexual behavior, including the jezebel/hoochie. According to this controlling image, black women are sexually aggressive, enjoying sex no matter the circumstances. Historically, these represent what Collins refers to as “deviant Black female sexuality” with roots going back to the times of American slavery: “Jezebel’s function was to relegate all Black women to the category of sexually aggressive women, thus providing a powerful rationale for the widespread sexual assault of White men typically reported by Black slave women. Jezebel served yet another function. If Black slave women could be portrayed as having excessive sexual appetites, then increased fertility should be the expected outcome.” (Collins, 81) Collins goes on to note the growing influence of media (television, radio, movies, CDs, and the internet) as new ways of circulating controlling images (85).
But the media isn’t only about disseminating these stereotypes. It’s also about apps and online systems which help people to find potential partners. In the modern setting, controlling images of black women’s sexuality can also set them up for racial fetishization on the dating market, especially on apps like Tinder where they are chosen by potential dates based on their image rather than on knowledge of their personality.
Since black women aren’t the only people about whom there are sexual stereotypes, we can expect to see more of this. There are certainly sexual stereotypes about black men, and about latinas, but we can find a really useful consideration of racialized sexualization in discussions of fetishization of Asian women. Indeed, he author of The Root piece, Malysha Kal, would no doubt recognize the kinds of patterns described by Robin Zheng, author of “Why Yellow Fever Isn’t Flattering: A Case Against Racial Fetishes.” Zheng discusses the concept of yellow fever, which relies on stereotypes about Asian women: that they are submissive, cooperative, need the wisdom of white men, and seek to sexually please men.
As with black women, these stereotypes render Asian-American women vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence by men who target them (Zheng, 405) on the assumption that they will not fight back, or that no must by default mean yes. And as with the role of media in disseminating sexual stereotypes about black women, media-distributed stereotypes like this reinforce “yellow fever.” This is particularly targeted at Asian-American women:
Historians, sociologists, psychologists, and literary and film scholars have long documented how White America has viewed Asian-American women in an almost
entirely sexual light. The literature demonstrates the mutually reinforcing relationship between material practices, such as federal immigration law, military occupation of East and southeast Asia, war brides, sex tourism, pornography, and mail-order brides, on the one hand, and cultural portrayals of Asian women as the docile, domestic ‘Lotus Blossom’ or the seductive, treacherous ‘Dragon Lady… the emergence of the Asian ‘model minority’ stereotype… has combined with prevailing sexual stereotypes to generate a representation of Asian women as the ‘sexual model minority’: ideal in their union of sex appeal with family-centered values and a strong work ethic. (Zheng, 405)
This stereotype–which perhaps rises to the level of controlling images–has a serious impact on Asian-American women and their relationships with men, whether strangers on the street or first dates or significant others.
Zheng describes the results of a study of Asian-American women in interracial relationships, including the case of a woman named Irene who tries to make sense of her boyfriend having only dated Asian girls, and being primarily attracted to Asians. She, like many other women in the study, doesn’t know how to explain to herself why such patterns are troubling (Zheng, 404). Yet an explanation exists: “it would be utterly unrealistic to deny that lengthy exposure to a culture historically saturated with sexualized stereotypes of Asian women contributes to an individual’s sexually preferring them, even if that contribution is not obvious or accessible to introspection.” (Zheng, 406) I fully expect that “yellow fever” and these widely disseminated stereotypes, as well as the controlling images of black women, affect not only heterosexual relationships but also same-sex relationships. The harm in this is treating women, whether Asian-American or African-American as particular kinds of sexual objects rather than as persons.
What does this mean for us, whether we are women or men or gender non-conforming? Whether we are attracted to people who are racialized into the same groups we are, or racialized into other groups? I can’t say for sure, but the claims I’ve summarized should make us leery of assuming that our “types” are innocent, or separable from the media and culture within which we live.
I am quite certain that not all interracial relationships are motivated by racial fetishes. I am also quite certain that it must be difficult to tell. Let’s all take care to see each other fully as people, and to have second thoughts about why our attractions are what they are, why our patterns of attraction are what they are.
Or as Root author Malysha Kal says, in closing, “Fetishism is real, y’all… and especially rampant online… Want to be down for the cause? Treat me like a human being entitled to the same rights and protections as anyone else.”