I feel like this should be obvious, but I’ve seen this coming up a few times recently so apparently it needs to be discussed again: racial fetishes are not like other fetishes. In fact, any fetish rooted in someone’s identity (like disability fetishes) is not like other fetishes, and cannot be treated as such. It makes me extremely uncomfortable to see this kind of behaviour defended, especially when that defense comes from members of the fetish community who claim to be socially aware and concerned about social justice issues.
Here’s the thing: If you’re objectifying people on the basis of their race, you are being racist. And you’re contributing to an extremely long, gross, and complex tradition surrounding race, sexuality, and disempowerment. This is not a ‘preference’ in the sense that gay women prefer to date other women, or in the sense that a short individual might prefer dating other short individuals. This is a fetish.
Fetishes, on their own, aren’t harmful, wrong, or shameful things. Whatever floats your boat is fine—as long as it harms no one. The important element to fetishes that don’t harm people, though, is that they all involve a degree of performance and the ability to move in and out of fetish space. If you have a thing for people wearing ostrich-feather tails, your partner is free to prance around the house in hot pants and a tail as often as she likes; and when she’s not into it, she can put the tail away.
If you’re into leather, you can go to leather clubs and bars. And you can take it off when you feel like it. Even if you’re in a hardcore, long-term, 24/7 relationship, you are still choosing to bring elements of fetishes into your life, and you have the ability to safeword out (if you are in a consensual, safe, and respectful relationship, which is a right everyone is entitled to). These are fetishes by consent, which may take place between two or more individuals, may occur totally in private or in shared playspaces, may be negotiated as everyone involves sees fit.
Fetishes like upskirt photos or peeping, though? Those, I think we can agree, harm people, unless the target of the fetish is an exhibitionist and is a mutual participant. If a couple wants to chase each other through the city taking upskirt photos, have at it. If people consensually agree to voyeuristic scenes and establish the ground rules, with the ability to stop at any time, they’re exercising choice and autonomy. Everyone gets to control the direction of the scene and the larger fetish in an environment that is safe, comfortable, and, hopefully, fun.
Racial fetishes, however, are based on objectifying someone because of her race, which isn’t something she can control. An Asian woman can’t choose to take her Asianness off for the day, a Black woman can’t decide to not be Black while she walks down the street. These are lived, inhabited identities that cannot be turned on and off; there is no safeword for race. You live these identities throughout your life, experiencing the good and bad things associated with them, interacting with your community through and around this identity.
Someone who says he (and it is usually a he) ‘prefers’ women of a specific race isn’t exercising a preference based on orientation or experience. He’s viewing certain kinds of women as dateable material on the basis of racial discrimination; and it’s telling that most men with racial ‘preferences’—which are really racial fetishes—use very racist, stereotypical descriptions when talking about why they ‘prefer’ women of specific races. Asian women are meek, say, or Latinas are fiery, or Black women are exotic and know how to deliver in bed.
Let’s talk about the long history of white men exerting control over the bodies of women of colour. The men who enslaved women and used them as their personal sex toys, loaning them out to their friends and associates as they pleased. The men who displayed the bodies of women of colour as property and invited people to comment on their sexuality. Let’s talk about the abuse of sex workers of colour, and the fact that society continues to sexualise the bodies of women of colour. Black women, for example, are burdened with the Jezebel stereotype and all the assumptions that come with it.
Because that history plays an important contextual role in racial fetishes. White men grow up believing that they are in charge and that anything they want belongs to them. They also grow up absorbing the idea that they are racially and culturally superior to people of colour, and to women—this may not necessarily be explicit in their upbringing, but it is heavily implied. And when men express that upbringing through things like racial fetishes, they reinforce the fact that this is still a deeply racist society.
A woman has the right to walk down the street without being a sex object, without being arousing just because she’s a Black woman strolling down the block and a white guy with a fetish happens to see her. A woman has a right to seek independence and autonomy in her relationships, and shouldn’t have to second-guess mixed-race relationships, wondering if her partner only sought her out because she’s Asian.
Fetishes are only ethical when they involve mutual consent and when everyone has the ability to step back. That’s not possible with racial fetishes, which is why they shouldn’t be tolerated in the fetish community or anywhere else. This isn’t about ‘preference’ or things that are out of your control. This is about race, history, culture, and a refusal to acknowledge your role in the complex systems used to maintain our social structure. As long as it’s okay to objectify women on the basis of their race, women of colour will never be equal.