Fetishization and tokenization are issues of racism and sexism. Issues that people dismiss because they can be construed in a positive light. “How is it offensive if I like black chicks? I love black girls!”
“I don’t have a fetish, I am appreciating your culture!”
But the reality is so much more complicated than that. By ‘worshipping’ women, men often fail to respect women. By ‘fantasizing’ about Asian women, men (subconsciously or otherwise) seek them out based on harmful stereotypes and further perpetuate those labels.
But fetishization is a big, abstract, third wave feminism word. What the heck does it mean?
Fetishization of something can be defined as the sexual fascination with things that are not inherently sexual. Most fetishes are a harmless and a personal preference - not our place to judge. But the fetishization of people is problematic. Fetishizing someone simply based on their gender, race, or sexual orientation can be a means of oppression and dehumanization.
Fetishization disproportionately affects people of colour. Those who fetishize people of colour don’t see them as romantic partners, or even whole people, but simply as sexual objects. They strip them of all the characteristics that make them complete and unique, reducing them to the colour of their skin.
This racial fetishization commonly manifests by solely focusing on certain stereotypes associated with a race. This can run the gamut from ‘big butts’ of black women to the ‘submissiveness’ of Asian women.
While many who express interest in these qualities expect it to be taken as a compliment, it isn’t. Declaring that you are attracted to someone because of the colour of one’s skin or a racial stereotype is not flattering - it’s just another form of objectification.
Fetishization dehumanizes and objectifies those individuals who are its subjects. It permits oppressors to maintain power over oppressed groups by denying them their humanity and operating as though their sexuality is for the pleasure of others.
Anything can be fetishized: looks, intelligence, or even height. The main issue with fetishization is the narrowing of a person’s worth to an immutable characteristic or stereotype. Oppressed groups all have their own stereotypes intersecting race and gender. For example, Latino men are said to be full of ‘machismo,’ Asian men are considered to be overly feminine and African-American men are often solely described by the size of their penis.
A fetish is racist because the subject is not treated as an equal. They are diminished when someone believes they are supposed to look or act a certain way just because of their race. A fetish is not a healthy attraction; it is a fixture on an individual based on their race. To fetishize someone is to strip away their own individuality and reduce them to a racial stereotype.
For example, take the expression “jungle fever,” also known as the phenomenon of men having ‘a sexual preference’ for black women. Also know as fetishizing black women. The key word in this term is jungle. When someone says they have ‘jungle fever,’ the language itself insinuates that black women are comparable to animals, thus preserving a paradigm of dehumanization and oppression.
Men also fetishize Asian women often. Of course there’s nothing wrong with a non-Asian man dating an Asian woman, but it's important to acknowledge that many (predominantly white) men date Asian women because they see them as docile and submissive. This perpetuates yet another racial stereotype, consciously or not. The practice of white men having sexual relationships with Asian women has a deep history of colonialism and subjugation of native peoples.
Decolonizing our mind is a lifelong effort. No matter how hard we work to check our privilege, inevitably racial conditioning rears its ugly head and we are faced with problems, perceptions and biases we thought we had tackled twenty or forty years ago.
While people of colour see the world with races, white people often ignore race because their whiteness has been constructed as neutral and they don't confront systemic racial barriers or persecution on a daily basis. White people have the privilege of willful ignorance.
Fetishizing someone because of their race is not a compliment. It assumes a monolithic identity. It shows that what you actually want is not an equal relationship, but rather a delivery of the caricature you understand as seeped in their race/gender/sexual orientation.
If you love someone because of a singular immutable trait, you don’t really love them.