The Real Problem With Fetishization (And Why You Shouldn’t Fall In Love With Someone’s Identity)

Monster's Ball
Monster’s Ball

Yesterday, an article titled, 10 Reasons You Shouldn’t Date A Mexican Man was published. Like many people I’m sure, that title made me nervous. Reading it made me cringe. I know racism isn’t a word people like to use unless terrible acts of violence are being committed, and combined with unequivocally racist language, but in the social reality of the world, racism is everywhere. It is blatant and it is insidious. It is experienced in the obvious analysis of who gets stopped and frisked, and it is experienced in daily microaggressions of complimenting one’s vernacular of English.

As I always tell people when I make analyses whether in writing about cultural observations or experiences in the media world or in the academic world, I try not to make assumptions about people’s intentions. Why? Because I cannot measure intentions. Intentions belong only to the heart and mind of the individual of which I cannot rely nor verify. Based on tone, context, and historical experiences, however, I can make deductions. From the tone of the article, I deduce that Trisha meant no harm in her article. She might even have considered it a positive thing.

But of course that is exactly the insidiousness of racism – that it is present even in our positive attributions of individuals and communities. Using a personal example and one I have received since moving to the United States, telling me, “I speak well,” in a surprised tone, purportedly because of my Africanness or my Blackness is not a compliment. It is a function of limited White and Western ideologies and stereotypes of what a person in my body should speak like. That aside, ignorance is not an excuse for breaking the law, as they say. And as I would often tell my undergraduate student, “If you attempt for an A, but you give me D work. I am still giving you a D.” In the context of an article about attraction, this is of course more complex because racism becomes codified in particular fetishizations of particular bodies.

Now while it is usually female bodies that have historically been objectified and have come under the male gaze, people of color – both men and women – have since their contact with Europeans, come under a White, Western gaze. The abhorrent way in which men and women of color, are discussed in public global spaces are on one hand, othered and juxtaposed to Whiteness so as to subjugate rhetorically, but on the other hand, sexualized and fetishized, as almost a curiosity for the other. The reality however, is that Whiteness has been so prevalent in the world, that it prevails not only under European constructions, but non-European communities view themselves and each other under the same lens. History and how it assists us in understanding constructions of attraction – both physical and emotional and mental – is helpful. But history is also a warped place, especially when we realize we create it every day.

Academic jargon and analysis aside, it is problematic to see a person that one is attracted to and loved solely in the context of their cultural identity. I cannot know for sure but if the author is referring to one man from Mexico she was in love with, even without knowing him too, I do not think the traits and characteristics she listed are solely a function of his Mexicanness. I think that is what we would call “positive racism” – ascribing considerably positive ideas about a community as a part of the nature of that community. “Positive racism” however, is still racism. And in this case, fetishization. And altogether it is harmful. You can appreciate culture, and appreciate a lover’s culture without commodifying who they are and all they do within the confined space of (what is probably) a monolithic understanding of their culture.

As a Black, African woman, I have found myself in the most uncomfortable situations where those sorts of fetishizations are directed at me or about other Black and/or African women or men in my presence. Having been in White circles I know first-hand how particularly Whiteness but indeed not just Whiteness but all who unconsciously have bought into it, attempts to test out men and women of color almost as “flavors of the month.” Or sometimes, a life-long fascination with othered bodies that they believe one should be impressed by. But I have also been in situations where people feel the need to point out how they are not attracted to Black men or Black women but don’t have the courage to admit that their attraction is not just a personal preference, but one that has been pre-conceived by a global society that has preserved and promoted Whiteness for hundreds of years. Again, on the one hand fetishization, and on the other dehumanization.

I took the original article as an opportunity for education – about race, about attraction, about fetishization. Because many of us in our daily lives like to pretend that these things do not exist. We ignore the racist comments of people we call friends and acquaintances. Or we choose to only talk to people who think and talk and look like us. Or perhaps we go on faux rages online or in-person without ever really dialoguing about these issues. Which is such a shame because these are the issues that matter.

Having looked at the author’s bio, she is Filipino and travels a lot. Her being Filipino in particular is interesting to this dialogue because it should remind an American audience that we are all also lacking an intercultural communication language that is universal. How race and cultural identity is discussed throughout the world differs from place to place. While how that is perceived through the lens of attraction is a global phenomenon, it’s also culturally-specific, and requires an understanding of contexts from multiple perspectives. So even that context right there gives us a basis for how to better structure our dialogues. Knowing the context and cultural perspective someone is coming from, makes our understanding of their words better. And my hope is that dialoguing with the author and encouraging dialogue on these matters, will be fruitful for all concerned. TC mark


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