The Romanticization of Fetishization
Appropriation, oppressive stereotypes, systematic racism, and attracting white people. Being a person of color in this country comes at quite a cost. Racial fetishization has been a longstanding tradition here in the U.S. of A, but like nude beaches and the Black Plague, the fascination with anything exotic has European roots. The varying body types, skin colors, accents, and traditions of different cultures enraptured Europeans, particularly European men.
Images like the geisha, a female Japanese artist distinguished by her painted face and lavishly done-up hair, seemed like an enchanting escape from the rigidly structured Victorian social agenda. However, it often ran deeper than mere obsession and fascination. Take Sarah Baartman, for example, also known as the Hottentot Venus. As a young black woman from South Africa, she was already subject to standard othering, but her large buttocks and genitalia made her an overnight sensation. She was paraded throughout Europe, presented as a human oddity. European men found great voyeuristic pleasure in simply looking at her, stowing away the image as something bizarre, absurd, and intrinsically sexual.
It is this type of dehumanization, the stripping away of one’s agency over how they are perceived, that has trickled down and become increasingly normalized throughout the years. Even if you choose to dismiss the rich historical context surrounding racial fetishization, the fact remains: it is everywhere. Songs, books, movies, and TV shows have fetishized views carelessly thrown around all the time. And we’re fine with it because why would we not be? Is it not a compliment?
“Guys sort of pat themselves on the back and take pride in hooking up with me because I mix up their track record and check a certain diversity box,” says Hana Antrim, a junior VMA major.
And feeling valued in any regard is hard to simply dismiss, regardless of the context therein. Especially, when it’s all you’ve ever known.
Antrim says the most blatant case of fetishization she’s encountered was her dad toward her mom. “After they split he only dated Asian women for like a year,” she says, shaking her head softly. “My brother and I literally had to sit him down and be like ‘no’.”
It is this type of normalizing that feeds into how we often justify fetishization. I ask Antrim why she thinks that in such a progressive age, fetishization continues to be so pervasive. After a pause, she says, “Media? Media seems to be the answer to everything.”
She’s right. For a number of years, I relished in the idea of adopting the trope of a curvy, hot-tempered Latina, watching shows like Modern Family and Desperate Housewives. I projected these views onto my own mother, envying her accent and olive skin. I thought that if I didn’t subscribe to these pervasive ideals, then what was left was all of the equally pervasive, yet not nearly as flattering, Latin stereotypes: lazy, unintelligent, unmotivated. I fetishized my own culture.
Having always been the light-skinned, Midwestern-sounding, non-U.S citizen that I am, I’ve never fully understood what “kind” of attractive I’m meant to be. It wasn’t until I reached an age of sexual maturity that I realized I had my own target demographic: racist white men under the guise of being not as racist white men.
They would make jokes about my being Mexican and never even flinch. Why? My face and voice presented them with familiarity. White familiarity. It seemed to them that I could engage in this kind of thoughtless racism because I’d never experienced any of it first-hand. And, besides, they meant well. To them, it was harmless banter. To me, it was a reminder that I am unworthy of my culture.
It was through this un-branding that I found myself longing to be fetishized. My own feminine insecurities coupled with the fear that I simply wasn’t Mexican enough made me actively try to sexualize my heritage. Years of doing this desensitized me to the notion of fetishization entirely.
So, when asked to speak Spanish while a boyfriend of mine masturbates, I was confused at my own discomfort. I tried to shake it off, eager to please, resistant to conflict. It was as I coursed through all the words in the Spanish language to try and find the right ones that I realized the depth of its significance in my life. It is how I communicate with my grandma, my great-grandma, my aunts, my uncles. It is what I think of when I think of home. And I was about to waste it on a white man’s orgasm.
It was then that I realized what I’d been doing and why. Under the guise of a “compliment”, fetishization strips cultures of any depth, reducing them down to one-dimensional tokens at any white person’s disposal. I refuse to enable my own fetishization any longer. My culture is not here for your convenience. My culture is not here for your interpretation. My culture is not here for your orgasm.
Illustration by: Alyssa Geisseler